Woody and Maggie (198/9? – 2014)

I’ve written and read a lot of obituaries lately. In the span of eighteen months, my mother, dad, mule, pack pony and family dog have died. None of this comes as a surprise. The young are supposed to scatter the ashes of the old. Then they go on living. Potatoes are banked. Winesaps are pruned. Commutes are commuted. May be some ash slips in to the orchard.

Here’s a look back at two extraordinary equines that took me in to their lives.

Woody and Maggie – the mule and pony that walked across America with me – are dead. They were the first equines to set foot on the Official Center of the World. The story of their 13-month voyage was featured in two books, numerous magazines and a series of travel programs. They were in failing health. They were put down together so as not to be separated at the end of their lives.

woody maggie american sahara sand dune

Maggie and Woody in the American Sahara circa 2005. These sand dunes were just some of the obstacles the duo overcame on their walk across America.

Little is known about Woody and Maggie’s earliest years. They’d been bought, sold, traded and sale-barned so many times, by the time I got them, the slant and wear of their teeth was the only evidence of their birthday – never mind their birthplace. Here’s what I cobbled together about their early days.

Woody came from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He was an Amish mule but, being too small to plow, was sold at auction. He was in his late teens or early twenties when I bought him in 2004. I found him outside Roxboro, North Carolina. Man shy and leery, there was something in his past no one mentioned.

I bought Maggie the same year from my friend Mel Wyatt in Southern Pines, North Carolina. She was a reluctant lesson pony. Her claim to fame was throwing brown babies after black babies. Shortly before I bought her, her latest foal, Nova, had been weaned from her. She’d spent time in West Virginia.

Aside from that, details of their early life was scarce. Then our lives joined and their history became part of mine.

mule woody tipi

Introducing Woody to my tipi. It did not go well. In the end, Woody accepted it. I did, too. The six-pound home sheltered me for over a year on the road.

In spring 2004, I set off across North Carolina with Woody. Starting in Oriental, we walked to the Atlantic Ocean before turning west for the Blue Ridge Mountains. Woody became lonely. Outside Jacksonville, he chased me down in a portable toilet. He became possesive. In Pin Hook, he shouldered aside a kid to “protect” me. The introvert in me appreciated the company. The lawyer in me felt I needed representation.

In Southern Pines, 2 months after I began my cross-state ride, I bought Maggie. Woody fell in love with Maggie (okay, bonded if you’re an animal behaviorist). He left me alone. We kept on walking.

They would stay at each other’s side until their deaths, 10 years later.

woody maggie pack saddle trial

Maggie the day I tried her as a pack pony. I just slung my home-made saddle bags over an English saddle. I later replaced it with a pack saddle. A few days after this photo was taken we hit the road. The plan was to sell Maggie under way and purchase a larger pack animal. She ended up faithfully hauling my gear – and occasionally me – all the way to the Pacific Ocean. (Foxtrack Training Center, Southern Pines, NC)

Now a threesome, we trekked through August and Tennessee, crossing the southern Plains that fall. Winter caught us atop the southern New Mexican Rockies. Pony and mule were reduced to living off snow melt, thistles and handfuls of grain. Thirteen months after departing Oriental, Woody and Maggie reached San Diego and the Pacific Ocean.

The animals had weathered the voyage so well, folks wanted to buy Maggie’s foal, going as far as inquiring about the due date. I told them I could never sell off her foal – because she was just plump, not pregnant.

Woody and Maggie were – on paper at least – unlikely voyaging candidates. Both were small, old and gnarly at journey’s start.

Of pony height (he measured 57 inches at the shoulder), Woody was the exuberant explorer, as willing to ford a raging river as he was to shy at a white plastic bag. Of boundless energy, he threw me vigorously and often during my cross-continent ride. After carrying a McClellan cavalry saddle 3,500 miles across America, he celebrated by unseating me three more times. I quit riding him after that.

Maggie was the grinder. Only 13 hands tall (52 inches) she marched without cease – sometimes shouldering her pack saddle, other times pulling a small cart. She walked 32 miles across the wintry White Sands Missile range all in one go – starting and ending by moonlight. But she wasn’t a pushover. Once, while riding her, she balked. I hit her so hard with my stock hat it knocked the stitching out of the crown. She didn’t budge. I hit her again. This got her running. Fast. Very fast. Only it was backwards, right in to a clump of bushes.

Defeated, I dismounted and led her the rest of the way to camp. There I mended my hat.

woody maggie white sand missile range

You see all sorts of things on a missile range: rockets, missiles, smoke plumes and flashes. But a mule and pony? Here, Woody and Maggie prepare to enter the rocket zone.(Olamogordo, NM)

Yes, Woody and Maggie were imperfect. They were about as unlikely a traveling duo as you could cobble together and still succeed. No matter. They launched my improbable dream and ended up walking across America. They were with me through desert and storm and for hundreds of days they stood in for human company. In California, they set hooves on the bronze plaque marking the Official Center of the World. They were the first equines to make that journey.

wood maggie first mule and pony at official center of the world

Woody gives Jacques-André Istel and wife Felicia a sniff before proceeding to the Official Center of the world. Yes, you can really set foot – or hoof – on a plaque saying you arrived at the center of it all. Then you get a certificate – even if you’re a pony.(Felicity, CA)

Later, on their book tour, they endured thousands of miles in my horse trailer attending countless signings and programs.

They always came through.

When I first met them, I knew nothing about mules or pack animals. Woody was old, bronc-y and content not to change. Maggie had a twisted front foot and a blue eye that, later in life, caused no end of trouble. I didn’t know well enough to look for more suitable mounts. No, I was desperate to go mule voyaging so I bought them and took off.

In the years since that voyage, I’ve been exposed to many much better trained and built equines. Mules that roll back, spin and stop as asked. Obedient horses that have degrees by Roberts, Parelli and Cameron – all well respected natural horsemanship trainers. Animals that, according to their education, should be able to clip clop to the moon on light beams.

Thing is, if I’d waited to find and afford two of these beasts, I’d never have started my journey. Woody and Maggie sure as hell weren’t perfect – but they got me up the road.

woody mule cross bridge young rider

Woody takes a young rider up the road a stretch. Note the intense look on the young man’s face. I know that look well, having worn it often on my journey.(Chattanooga, TN)

Following their ride across America, Woody and Maggie joined me for the “Too Proud to Ride a Cow” and “Woody and Maggie Walk Across America” book tours. They later lived in Cameron with a lady named Liz who loved and cared for them like they were her children.

Their final seasons were spent with my friend Julia in Massachusetts. They passed their days within sight of schooners and a maritime museum. Maggie enjoyed having the inside of her back leg scratched. Woody’s stall faced a busy street. He loved ogling traffic accidents from the vantage of his barn door.

Thanks to Liz and Julia, they were able to spend their final years together.

In the end, they just got old. Weighed down with the maladies of advanced age, Julia and I put them down. Together. This late in their lives, it would have been cruel to euthanize one, leaving the other alone.

I traveled to Massachusetts for their final day.

Woody and Maggie were cremated. Their ashes are scattered on my farm. Some of it wound up in the garden patch.

I miss them sorely. I think of them when I eat the Swiss chard.

Larry Riddle
2014-05-04 12:08:16

Bernie, first you have my sympathy for your loss. Secondly you have my up most respect for knowing when ‘the time’ has arrived. Growing up on a livestock farm, we learn the hard way when it is time. No matter how ornery or stubborn these animals are, they still worm a way into our hearts and it does hurt to lose them.

As I tell the Wagon teamster, may the sun always warm your backside. ljr

Mary Anna
2014-05-04 23:25:55

This past winter sure seems like it has been a long row to hoe Bernie. Life is like that sometimes.

Woody and Maggie turned out to be stars in your life … characters, a little like you. It is wonderful you gave them such an amazing last ten years of their lives and kept them together to the end, Such a kindness.

I hope you hitch Polly up soon and get back on the road again. That urge to head out again surely would be good for you. Warm thoughts sent your way.

2014-05-06 09:58:55

This is a beautiful tribute. Woody and Maggie trusted you to do the right thing and it sounds like you did.

Connie Cassidy
2014-05-06 17:21:08

“A man of sorrow, and acquainted with grief.” Please accept my sympathy for your loss. Come back to us when you are ready. I am sending thoughts of peace and comfort.

2014-05-06 20:43:12

Just wanted to thank everyone for their thoughts regarding Woody and Maggie. Every year I get older I appreciate a little more what these critters did in their “senior” years. Hope I have half the grit they had when my teeth are long. See you up the valley! Bernie

Jay and Jerry and Kelly
2014-05-07 10:00:01

Bernie we so much meeting Maggie and Woodie and you when you stayed the night at our place and shared an evening and dinner..leaving early in the morning..and leaving a mango for Kelly.We lived on Sandario in Tucson. Sorry that your two traveling companions a have gone on.Horses that have had such heart and made memories with you are hard to say goodbye to..Glad you gave them jobs and enjoyment.Maybe they will be dolphins in their next lives and you will see them on another ocean adventure..be looking..God Bless you

Keith Bruno
2014-05-09 18:05:08

Bernie, you gave them purpose. The ability to do what one was born to do is a gift. to have purpose is satisfying to the soul. Some are born to protect, some to help carry , some to heard , or some even to beautify their surroundings.A lucky man meets a few such satisfied souls in his life. I am sure you are a lucky man. Keep on keeping on ,Brother Bernie

pat gabriel
2014-05-16 10:24:14

I am sorry for your loss, Bernie.
You are a wonderful man and I hope someday to meet you.

Mark Selby
2014-07-24 10:41:05

I have just now learned of the deaths of your loved ones. Please accept my condolences on your loss.
Best regards,
Mark Selby.

Roger Haldenby
2014-08-26 08:54:52

Saddened to read your account of Woody and Maggie’s end of days. I know you must miss them terribly.
They were happy days as you and they passed my way twice in Texas. Now I live a half a world away and a half a day ahead, in Vietnam.
very best regards and with fond memories

Jim Oldford
2014-09-02 19:10:17

meet you at Jessie peddle’s in lethbridge newfoundland. just wondering how you were doing. like to hear from you take care.

2014-09-05 12:51:17

So good to hear from you. Funny thing. Just last week I was editing film footage shot out your (Texas) way. Hope you are well in Vietnam my friend. Sure miss your crop duster adventure stories.
Regards, Bernie

2014-09-05 12:57:29

Dear Jim,
Great hearing from you up Newfoundland way. All’s well around here. Big excitement is the upcoming Benson Mule Days where Polly has to pull her head up from the pasture grass long enough to pull a wagon through the parade. Okay, I expect a week end long victory lap around Benson. Anything to celebrate mules and the sweet potato harvest. Hope I remember how to set up my tipi.
Sure hope all’s well with you up Lethbridge way. Man do I miss the boiled dinners. Polly says she hasn’t eaten carrots like those since she left.
Please give my regards to Jesse, Louise and the whole gang should you cross their paths.
Cheers. Bernie

Joanie Bowden
2015-06-26 08:19:42

Hi Bernie,
Just decided to catch up with you and saw your sad news. So sorry, but I know that you will travel on.
I have Bear and Panda out on Youngs Road now and am building a little barn. Will bring them home in the next spring. We will be 20,30,and 80. Can you believe that.
Best to you. Think of you often and remember the good times in S.P.
Love, Joanie

2015-07-04 11:47:37

Great hearing from you after all this time.
Wow, 130 years for you and the critters. That’s an average age of 43 years per critter. I hear that when the average goes over 40, you’re allowed to get another horse or dog!
All’s well on this end. I’m still mule traveling and growing some watercress on the side. Just need to get back to S.P. again…
Big pat to Bear and Panda. Bernie

Brenda Forbis
2015-08-26 16:16:46

You did well by your good and faithfuls servants. I followed your treks so many times I thought I was right there with you. I felt as if I knew Woody and Maggie personally, and I was in that wagon with you at least in my heart.

I still have my Gunner, although he officially belongs to my granddaughter now. I hope I will have your courage when his time comes.

My “book” is still sitting on the shelf. Maybe someday I’ll get it published.

Peace my Friend,


Lani Hester
2016-04-10 15:38:12

Often think of you and wondering how you’re doing. So many stories, but the best is the first time you hitched Woody and Maggie as a team and tried to drive around Foxtrack. Woody took off, Maggie had no choice but to go too…until THE TREE. As usual, in all sports, the tree won. I remember sitting on Mel’s porch laughing so hard we almost fell out of our chairs. Sorry to hear of their deaths but what a wonderful adventure the three of you had. Enjoy your continuing travels and keep us posted.

2016-04-11 11:02:57

Hi Lani,
Great hearing from you!
Yeah, that was one of those ripper incidents from Woody and Maggie’s lives. So that was YOU laughing. I also remember Mel not laughing when Woody reared up and cleared the hood of her Saturn moments before he crashed in to that tree…
This tree thing was a recurring theme in Woody’s career. There was, of course, the time he ran in to a Foundation Tree – with me on his back…. But that’s another post.
Hope all’s well with you.


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