The Mule at Your Window
Mule Polly has it sussed. While I’m inside sampling some of Newfoundland’s finest home cooked meals, say a skillet of caplin fried in fatback on an oil range, someone will say, “Look! There’s a horse looking in the window.” At which point I look up from my plate of fried fish and say, “yeah, that’s just mule Polly. I think she’d like some molasses bread.”
Chalk it up as a peril of Newfie hospitality.
There’s a saying here in Newfoundland that only a fool would starve on the Rock. I’m living proof it’s true. While I may be foolish, I’m definitely not starving. Chalk it up to that famous Newfie hospitality.
Often as not, I can’t get through the morning without being offered a cup of tea. And since I’m a polite traveler, try to be make people comfortable by accepting their gifts, I stop. Call it a case of of “yes ma’am. I’d just love to drop in for a cup of tea. Oh, and some cake? Lovely! Thank you. Oh, it’s lunch time already? Oh really, I shouldn’t stay. Okay, if you already have that left over jig’s dinner heated up. Well, sure, I’d be happy to join you…”
And so another day is marvelously shot to hell with a salvo of Tetley and teacakes followed by cod britches and rutabaga. Cod britches are the sacks of roe that, when fried, can detour even the most blinkered traveler.
But what about Polly?
For the first two months of our Newfoundland journey, she was content to stay outside while I was bellying up to the brine cod and potatoes. Or a lovely dish of cod livers and tongues. Ah yes, with a dish of mustard pickles. Polly? I’d picket her out by a 50-foot tether and she settled for clover and dandelions.
Then, during one of my invitations to tea, there came a bump at the kitchen window. There was Polly, staring in through the glass. Her nostrils flared so wide, she fogged up two hand sized sections of glass. And my hosts said, “aaaaahhhhhhhh, how cute”. And I thought, “damn it Polly, don’t you horn in on my feed”. But before I could scare her off my host slathered some molasses on a slice of bread and passed it through the window.
Polly obliged. And a habit was born. As soon as I walked into someone’s home, if her tether was long enough, she’d look for the nearest window. And peep in. Funny how that mule soon learned to tell the difference between a bathroom and a kitchen window.
Initially grumpy over her behavior, I took to photographing the intrusions. Looking over them now, I see they paint a marvelous picture of Newfoundland hospitality. Look at the photo of her in Red Cliff and you can see an old oil range in use. In other photos you see cod liver being cooked over an open fire. Or fir clap board siding being replaced on a salt box cottage. In a small way, Polly’s snacking was playing out in front of the larger scene of traditional Newfoundland life.
In the villages like Red Cliff, Keels and Open Hall, that is. It’s in these enclaves that the traditional ways and diets still reign.
Funny thing happens when I look at the photos of her in bigger cities. There, she’s looking into homes that look like the new ones back home in Carolina. All the encoutrements of the three-bedroom-three-bath-bonus-room-air-freshner-in-the-lightsocket lifestyle. Vinyl siding. Double pane windows. Parked in the driveway, instead of a giant Newfoundland boulder, is a brand new Ford F150 purchased on credit. Or maybe a shiny 30-foot travel trailer fresh from the dealer’s lot. On the table, instead of homemade bread and salt beef, likely as not, are boxes of processed meat, cheese and store bought bread. Then there are the jam jars.
Sure there are exceptions either way. But in the larger centers jam jars are labeled in factories by computers. In the villages, they’re labeled on the lid with a magic marker. By Linda, or Diane, or Shirley, Louise or Grace. Yes, those are real names of real folks who’ve share their preserves with Polly and me. If you’re reading this, Grace, that bake apple jam worked a treat on your loaf of home made bread. (Oh, and by the way, where should I mail you the fishing rod I ran off with? Contact me here.
Yes, I understand. As a traveler, it’s easy to romanticize the outports. It’s easy to look at the hardscrabble ways and label the struggle “authentic” or “the spirit of the place”. But face it, hauling cod or working a long liner is back breaking work.And it doesn’t pay as much as some people feel they need to get by. I understand why young folks leave the villages for St John’s, Gander, Toronto and the better paying tar sands of Alberta. Places where meat, jam and bread come from the store.
But in my traveling heart I belong in the outports. Where cod gets salted and berries get picked and if you stand on the shore on a calm day you may seen a whale spout or an iceberg drift past.
So I pass through the larger centers when I must and return to the small villages when I can. Tickle Cove, Birchy Cove, Amherst Cove and Lethbridge. The places where, when I stop for tea, a mule can still look through a window set in to rough cut clapboard. And expect a slice of molasses bread to appear.
Here are a few photos of what I call The Mule at Your Window.
(Afterword: as ever, I want to thank everyone who’s helped mule Polly on our voyage across Newfoundland. Apples, carrots, a place to stay, a hug, a wave, a word of encouragement. All have become a part of our cross-island trek and for that we’re grateful. And now Polly would like a slice of toast. Thanks. Bernie and Polly.)
Glad to see you’re still sending your mule out with a tin cup! What you need now is a whiskey drinking mule that shares her take. You’ve just about run out of land on the rock. Did you bring a set of water wings for polly?
Howdy Bob. Water wings? Water wings! No me son. Having come to the briny edge of Newfoundland I’m going to string together a whiskey bottle raft and set sail on that for Iceland. Polly, voice of female reason, has voiced her concerns. She’s muttering something about running away out West. Something about looking for a Biscuit Wagon…? Could be a another solo sea voyage in the making. Hope all’s well with your outfit. Regards to the Hollywood and the Boys. Bernie.
hey guess you will be stopin by soon ,we need a road trip .
I have followed The Wagon Teamster for all his travels, and you on this trip. What really stands out, besides the personality of the Mule and Bob’s horses, are the people you meet. They always seem to be outstandingly friendly and warm. The way it should be. Well as I always say to the Teamster, I hope the sun keeps you warm and the wind is to our back.
Hi Bernie: I was wondering how you are doing and if you are enjoying your trip. I was down Bonavista on Sunday Sept 16 around lunch time. Saw Polly but didn’t connect with you. Hope to see you later. Roland Port Blandford.
Howdy everyone! This will be one of those broadcast messages as my internet connection is shakey.
Bob: I think I have enough water wings for the trip now. Oh, and thanks for the stock tank water flavoring…
Mule man: won’t be long ‘til I fire up the old diesel Dodge and head your way. I’m just burning the last of the fatwood we gathered. Did you get my card?
Larry: you’re right. Folks are just plain super friendly out here. Seems to be the way it works in life. Hang out with friendly equines and humans and you’re surrounded by good juju.
Roland: damn. Hate I missed you in Bonavista. Must have been out promenading with mule Polly. Yes, I still aim to pick up my truck. See note to mule man above.
Cheers to all. Gotta run before mule Polly destroys my unattended wagon. She’s bellowing like she’s already started…. And I’m two blocks away.
You’re a lucky man! What a fun way to see the world..if I ever see a mule with a tin cup, I’ll know its Polly.