The Good-Enough-to-Get-You-Out-the-Gate Saddle Bags

bernie harberts julia carpenter pack saddle bag

Mule Polly rockin’ her new (to us) pack saddle bags.

In starting mule trips, good enough gets you out the gate and perfection keeps you at home. This week I’m fitting mule Polly with bags for her pack saddle. They’re not new. They’re not perfect. But they’re good enough to get us out the gate. At least they don’t smell like vomit.

Julia and I are 2 weeks away from heading off on our mule ramble. I’m calling the caper “Ride Out the Front Gate”. The idea is simple. We ride out the farm gate on our mules, turn left and…… well, just ride in to the mountains of North Carolina. There, we’ll write down, record, sketch and post what we encounter here on and on Julia’s blog Saddle Under the Stars.

In the spirit of summer, there’s no pressure for perfection. We’re just grabbing gear, much of which we already have, and heading out.

One piece of gear we didn’t have, but just got, are pack saddle bags. These are bags that fit on to the pack saddle that mule Polly will carry. We’ll carry our clothes, cooking utensils, food, journals and camera in them.

Sure, you can buy a hand tooled leather set and look like you just stepped out of “Gunsmoke”. Thing is, those buttery soft, fringey suckers are expensive – think hundreds of dollars.

That’s just not the spirit of this trip. No, the spirit of this ramble is more along the lines of a trip I took a few years ago with mule Polly.

Before setting off on a similar spur of the moment saddle trip, I borrowed a set of duffel bags from my friend Ronald Hudson.

bernie harberts julia carpenter pack saddle bag horse mule packing trailride uwharrie

Long time friend, mule man and skin flint Ronald Hudson. I bought Polly from Ronald.

All went well until they got rained on and I was overcome by the urge to puke.Turns out, Ronald had gotten the bags cheap because they’d been used to carry vomit bags.

You can hear Ronald tell that story here.

bernie harberts julia carpenter pack saddle bag horse mule packing trailride uwharrie

It took me two days to prepare for what I now call the “Vomit Bag Uwharrie Ramble”. I’m riding Buddy, a mule I borrowed from Ronald. I’m packing Polly. Sunday, Day One was spent teaching Polly to haul salt blocks without killing me (or the 100 pounds of mineral salt on her back). The square shape in the duffel bag is a 50 pound trace mineral salt block. Day Two Ronald and I clobbered together enough gear for a week on the road. Tuesday noon I was gone.

Close-up of Polly’s improvised pack rig. You can see the profile of the salt block through the duffel bag.

Not figuring the gagging and nose holding, those bags got me through a wonderful pack trip through the Uwharrie Mountains. (“That account of setting out is, Pack Saddle Tempation. The story on the Vomit bags is here.)

Flash ahead to now. Instead of forking over a stack of notes for a “real” set of saddle bags, I spent $80 on 2 surplus Army rucksacks. They’re called “Mollee II 3-day assault packs” which brings to mind a secret mission that involves being dropped behind enemy lines for a very short time after which time you’ll wish you’d brought more underwear.

This week, we hung the packs from mule Polly’s pack saddle. The bags are light, only 4 pounds each. To get Polly used to carrying a heavier load, we added sand bags.

bernie harberts julia carpenter pack saddle bag

We fill shopping bags with sand that’s washed out of the mules’ dry lot. The scales are to make sure each bag weighs the same (16 pounds).

bernie harberts julia carpenter pack saddle bag

Closeup of our old brass scale. Each bag must weigh the same. If not, the load is unbalanced and it will pull the pack saddle to the heavier side.

bernie harberts julia carpenter pack saddle bag

The top of each bag is tied with bailing twine so the contents don’t spill. Then each…

bernie harberts julia carpenter pack saddle bag

is put in to one of the Army rucks.

bernie harberts julia carpenter pack saddle bag

Final weigh in. The load on each side of a pack saddle should be within one pound to keep the load balanced.

The only thing dis-agreeable about these packs is the smell. Unlike the $400 leather set that smells of Montana mornings, these smell like Army pits. Something between an Army Jeep with the emergency brake on and the inside of an Abrams tank.

bernie harberts julia carpenter pack saddle bag

Hanging out to dry: we washed and line hung the rucks to get the military smell out of them. Some smells are more powerful than detergent and sunshine.

No matter, our bags are good enough. They’re gonna get us out the gate. Even if, wafting out behind them, trails a slightly military scent.



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