“Woody and Maggie” is a children’s book that features something unusual about each state I visited in my 12-month cross-country ride with my mule Woody and pony Maggie. I wrote half of it and Woody and Maggie handled the rest. If young readers don’t remember Arizona for the saguaro cactus, they’ll remember it for the naked green giants that can’t get their shoes back on.

Arizona: What Bernie saw (Left) and what Woody and Maggie saw (Right)

So it’s an entertaining read. But it’s a geography book at heart and meant to teach children about the United States. Exercises at the end of the book help young readers identify each state by shape, location and characteristic.

Pages of exercises help young readers navigate the United States

“Woody and Maggie” is big (8 1/2” X 11”), bold (lots of primary colors) and all the pictures and maps are hand-drawn. It’s engineered extra-tough for the young crowd. I had the book printed on heavy paper (100-lb stock), saddle-stitch-bound with an extra-thick cover (120 point board) and wrapped with a dust jacket. This is one expedition-grade piece of literature.

The 40-page, full color, hard-back would be perfect for any 5 to 10-year-old reader on your gift list. Remember, Christmas is only a few months away. Or you could buy it for yourself. Some evenings I just leaf through it and loose myself in the America of windmills and sand dunes.

“Woody and Maggie” Back Cover

Return to the General Store

Joining waters

After thirteen months on the road, mornings start like this.

I draw the needle from inside my hat band, thread it with dental floss (waxed) and suture the newest rip in my britches’ seat.Then I tuck my shirt in with greatest care, making sure the tail reaches well south of the repair in case of floss failure. I’ve long given up underwear. I’m down to an extra blue shirt, two bandanas and a pair of socks, none of which I fancy sacrificing for a last ditch patch job.

So this morning I did the obligatory three inches of suturing.

But this morning is different. It’s my last day on the road.

Woody and Maggie inspect what’s left of Bernie’s wardrobe (actually, they want a bite of that apple)

“Hurray!” I think as I take a bold stitch-ripper of a swing into the old McClellan saddle. But the dental floss holds and I set my sights on the Pacific Ocean.

Woody trails Maggie down the sidewalk into a blurred onslaught of car hoods and roaring Goodyears and pointing mothers. We’re in San Diego now. Drivers smile over outstretched fingers while their passengers unfold cell phones and stretch them my way for a windshield shot. I’m out of the desert now and I feel that warm love for strangers after months alone on the road.

I rein Woody toward the Taco Bell drive through, not so much for nutrition, but for one last jag of entertainment.

We cue up behind a blue Dodge 2500 pickup that’s just ordering breakfast. “Hello, may I take your order” the speaker blurts into his window. And then there’s the muffled “Yes, I’d like a …” coming from the cab. “Your total will be…” rattles from the metal box and the Dodge creeps forward.

Now it’s our turn. I lean down from the saddle, eager to speak to someone, even a canned voice in a box.

“Yeah. Hi. I’d like a bean burrito.”

Silence. Then some static from the speaker.

“Yeah! Hello!” I repeat, shouting louder, willing the metal box to respond. “I’d like a bean burrito please.”


“Oh well” I think, and ease Woody and Maggie up on the Dodge’s tailgate. The Dodge picks up his order and drives off.

I ride Woody and Maggie up to the window.

“Yes, hello, I’d like…” and before the bean burrito bit gets out all Hell breaks loose.

“Oh my God! Look at this!” cries a teen-age voice that’s never seen an Amish mule up close and certainly not one asking for a burrito. And that clears the kitchen because now every burrito roller and coffee pourer is stuffing himself into the cashier’s cubicle to see what just rocked up to the take-out window. On the other side of the counter, customers strain to see why their service just disappeared.

The side doors to Taco Bell fly open, spilling kids and secretaries and wait staff out into the drive-through lane. “Wow, they’re so big!” I hear followed by “Hey, can I pet your horse?” and “What are their names?” and then come the fingers.

For a few beautiful moments, an old mule and his pony brought a San Diego drivethrough to a complete equine gridlock. Cell phones were slipped back into pockets and breakfast burritos were put back into white bags so hands could run through manes and tails and forelocks.

Then the novelty wore off and we all rode off to where ever we were going before hunger and curiosity struck.

My small troupe rode to Fiesta Island.

Maggie, Bernie, Woody, and two bottles of water at the Pacific

At precisely 6:42 PM, Woody, Magnolia and I waded into the mighty Pacific Ocean.

I reached into my saddle bag, drew out a small bottle of water and began pouring. It was a bottle of Atlantic water from the town dock in Oriental, North Carolina.

As the arc of water splattered into the ocean, I remembered how it started.

It was just going to be Woody and I alone. We were going to walk four hundred miles across North Carolina… in two months. But then Maggie showed up, things spiraled out of control, and thirteen months and thousands of miles later, here we were wet to our knees on America’s far shore.

Now Woody and Maggie’s journey was through. After a year of winding through snowy mountain passes, shimmering deserts and Taco Bell drive-throughs, we’d reached the other side.

Then I drew out another, empty bottle. I unscrewed the cap and held it under water.“Glue, glue, glue” burped the air from the mouth and as the bottle filled a peace washed over me.

And a plan too. Now I have to get this bottle home.

How is this bottle going home?

(Post Script: Lest you think Woody, Maggie and I just waltzed effortlessly to the beach, well, it wasn’t like that. Like the whole journey before, lots of folks lent us a hand.

So thanks Bill, Dina, Don and Regina for putting us up. And thanks, too, Jess and Erin for riding out (and photographing) our Pacific arrival.

And finally a tip of my battered stockman’s hat to Lisa, for guiding us in from the other side.)

The potato truck roared toward us and left Maggie with one decision, leap into the irrigation canal or plunge down the road bank.

Maggie chose dust over drowning, took her buggy airborne and belly skidded to halt in the date palm grove.

The truck billowed by a flattened Maggie and Woody just stared. She lay there in the dirt and palm fronds, wrapped in tugs and breaching like a poorly tied hay bale. Then out shot her front legs and up rose her tail and she was standing again.

But the buggy ignored her lead. It just lay there on its axles, the port-side wheel busted to the heaven-side of repair.

We must be in California now…

Oh and now the cursing really started. It made the sailor in me feel better but had no effect on the wreckage before me. Eighteen of the wheel’s thirty-six spokes had been wrenched loose from the rim. I cursed and fumed and then counted again. Not a single lousy spoke had jumped back into its ragged hole.

It was over. Maggie’s faithful buggy, the one she’d sledded through the Rocky Mountain snow, bounced over the Butterfield Stage route and drug to the Center of the World, was ruined.

The sailor in me decided this called for immediate salvage before the tide rose. This, after all, was an irrigated Medjoohl date palm grove. At any moment, some one could cut a floodgate open and the canal across the street would start flooding the date grove. If I abandoned my ship in its current state, I risked loosing everything from photos to journals to food.

When ships run aground, one school of thought says drag them higher up the reef so their contents will stay dry. So I dragged the buggy to the nearest regal palm and began the ship-stripping business.

The plan? Ditch the buggy, pack what I needed onto Maggie’s saddlebags and complete the trip as I’d started, by hoof.

I fed off the fresh produce I’d been saving for the Anza Borrego desert ahead. Woody and Maggie wolfed down oranges and bananas and grapefruit with the glee of Customs inspectors eating contraband fruit for lunch. Maggie suggested they move on to oatmeal but that’s where I drew the line.

Then I set about salvaging my gear.

What did I really need?

I stuffed a few things into Maggie’s saddlebag; the camera, my photos, my notebook, a clean shirt, a bit of rice and olive oil. Not much more.

Then, to make sure the load was even, I weighed the saddlebags. The left one weighed nine pounds. The right one weighed ten.

The stuff that mattered in this journey had been reduced to under twenty pounds.

I tied the tipi and sleeping bag behind Woody’s saddle along with some rope. Then I lashed a tarp over the wreckage and set off toward the Laguna Mountains.

Pacific Coast Trail – Shelter Valley, CA

We’re headed for the Pacific Ocean now.

One last creek to ford


LOVE” rose huge and pink from the airborne desert sands. Above it in red the words “GOD IS” and crowning the three worlds, like a s sabre stabbing a cake, a telephone pole cross.

I rode closer.

I’d been in the desert four days. I was down to five pounds and four gallons of desert currency; grain and water. But this I had to investigate.

I reined Woody to the base of the mountainous explosion of wind and scripture and weeping Olympic paint cans. He stopped alongside a sky-burned couch and the Jeep Wagoneer with “SALVATION” on the door.


Then “Hellooooo!” from the base of the mountain and out walked Leonard Knight.

“I’d like to show you around” he said so I jumped off and tied Woody and Maggie to the Jeep’s roof rack. When the mountain speaks, you don’t look for a proper hitching post. You tie up quick and go toward the voice.

Leonard’s wispy hair blows across his sand-blasted features. We walk toward the mountain of scripture and flowers and paint rivers.

He tells me how he came here twenty years ago with grand plans to launch his balloon. Things didn’t pan out. His home made “GOD IS LOVE” balloon, the one he’d spent three years sewing up in a drafty Nebraska shed, suffered from chronic rotten seams and underinflation. It never lifted his divine message heaven-ward as planned.

So he revised his plans.

Only Leonard was broke. He was in his mid-fifties now. Stuck out here in the desert with a pile of failed balloon cloth and busted dreams.

“I was going to spend a week here and make a smaller balloon.” he tells me. “An eighty footer”.

But his plans changed and he decided to spread his message on earth.

He started small. “Somebody told me “Hey, I’ve got an old bag of cement. If you hit it with a hammer maybe you can use it”. And that’s how Leonard’s mountain got started.

The first mountain that is.

For three years, Leonard trawled the Niland dump for building materials; old paint, boards, cement. Whatever he could find to get the “God is Love” message back into the sky.

After the three years of toil the whole lot collapsed. It seems Leonard mixed too much sand with his concrete. “I was trying to save on cement so I mixed it one to six with sand”.

Then he discovered adobe and built the present “God is Love” mountain. He shows me what happened next.

We walk through an arch and into a forest of gargantuan trees.

We walk to the closest one which sports telephone pole limbs holding up straw bales at impossible angles. “This is a car tire tree. I made it with a wheel barrow and tires I found in the desert.”

Among the branches of a car tire tree

“When I build fourteen more car tires trees and cover this area, this will be my museum”.

All I can think is “Holy smoke!”. Here’s what a man can do with twenty years and faith and God and old paint. And then I get sucked in and the words leap from my mouth. “Hey, Leonard. How can I help?”

“Do you know how to mix adobe?” he asks and I say “No.” but he doesn’t hear. “Good!” he cries and fifteen minutes later my shirt is muddy to the shoulder.

“The mountain gives me the adobe” he says as we shovel crumbly shovel fulls of grey earth into a wheel barrow. “Mix in some chunks. They add strength.”

At the end of the day, 150 pounds of grain show up for Woody and Maggie. It’s a gift from Kerry and Jacqueline, a couple I’d met earlier from Burbank. My feed problem is over.

“Right” I thought “‘reckon I’ll just sit out here with Leonard until I feed all this grain off.”

Some days we work on a salt cedar arch that we’ve towed to the site behind the Salvation Jeep. Other days we make adobe flowers. There’s nothing to it. “I just throw a half gallon of wet adobe on a branch and hit it with my fist” Leonard tells me.

Punching up an adobe flower

On the days we feel particularly burly, we haul straw bales up a spindly ladder and cement them ever-higher up the dome’s inner wall.

Adobeing a straw bale into place

Every morning though, before dawn, we rise and bounce the Salvation Jeep to the hot spring for a morning bath. “I want the mountain to speak for me so that one day I can step out of the way” he tells me as the mist swirls up toward the Big Dipper. “You know, in Daniel 2, God talks of the invisible hand that comes down and smashes the image with clay feet…” and we discuss what it’s like to let go and let God do the talking.

Other mornings, Leonard lets his Yamaha guitar speak. He crouches in the desert sand between my tipi and the tractor with “BIBLE, JESUS LOVES YOU” written on the bucket in window putty. He sings “My Flower Tree” while black tea boils on my sooty gasoline stove.

Leonard’s mud flower bouquet

On the seventh day the grain ran out. I put my saddle back on Woody and fared Leonard well.

Thanks Leonard, for teaching me how to turn mud into flowers with a punch.



They once called it The American Sahara, that line of sand dunes that drifts from Yuma toward the Salton Sea.

Then some geographically correct person re-baptized them the Imperial Dunes. As in the Imperial Valley where they grow truck loads of lettuce and alfalfa. Suddenly the dunes sounded tamer. Smaller. It sissifies mountain of sand to re-name it after a garden, even if it’s one of the nation’s biggest carrot producers.

But just what is large? Does the name of a sand pile matter if it takes your mule three days to traverse?


I rode Woody and Maggie up into the dunes and turned them loose. Suddenly we all got smaller.

It got me to thinking. What if you’re a zebra-tailed lizard? What if you’re one of the mysterious desert dwellers that identify themselves more by tiny tracks than roaring or braying?

After I came down from the dunes, I just hand walked Woody and Maggie along the sky swept sand embankment.

Every day, from dawn until the sun was three handbreadths above the horizon (the hand is the relative measure of sun time out here) I studied tracks in the sand.

Sidewinder rattlesnake

Road runner

Maggie’s cart


At four-hand breadths above the horizon, the sun burned the shadows from the tracks and they melted from sight. Melted too, out of my brain, were thoughts of carrots and potatoes and turnips.

To men on foot and mules, these sands will always be the American Sahara.


“Now stand on the plaque and make a wish” Norma informed me as I approached the bronze circle. I stepped into the ring of raised lettering that read “Official Center of the World” and tread onto the dot at the center. This was it. I closed my eyes. I made my wish.

Then I asked Norma, sort of cowering, “Hey, Norma. Has a mule ever stood at the center of the world?”.

And my wish came true.

Magnolia first, and then Woody (because he cowers at affairs of state) were duly lead into the pyramid.

I placed Woody’s hoof on the plaque. “So Woody” I asked as Norma jotted down the time the momentous event took place “what ch’ya wishin’ for?”

“hay, hay, hay, hay…”

And I swear I heard it. “Hay, hay, hay, hay”. Maggie wished for the same.

Their dreams came true.

He and Maggie were tied up outside the pyramid and dined on irrigated grass.

Later came the proof.

“This certifies that Woody visited the Pyramid and stood at the Official Center of the World” read the parchment certificate.

There was magic here. This marked a year to the day on the road.

It was a year to the day that I set out from the town dock in Oriental, North Carolina. A 365 day journey by plow mule and pony to get from Croaker Town to the Official Center of North Carolina (behind Mountaire chicken houses three and four in Star, NC) to the Official Center of the World.

Oh and then the celebrations began. Jacques Istel, the mayor of Felicity, and his wife Felicia, broke out three very French things. Champagne, a piece of the Eiffel Tower, and Gustav Eiffel himself.

It seems Jacques had acquired the quintessential Section 12 of the grand tower a few years earlier. Gustav’s appearance, in cardboard, remained shrouded in mystery.

Gustav in tophat was duly propped up in front of his creation. Jacques, wearing the official red mayoral sash, made a short pronouncement which ended to the effect that we should retire to the “Brasserie” for a champagne toast.

And so we wrapped up our first year on the road.

So it just goes to show that there’s still magic in dreaming. There’s still plenty of room for slow mules and ponies that wish for hay. And if a man walks and talks and wishes carefully, he may still get to the center of it all.


(Dear Jacques, Felicia, Norma, Debbie and Gustav.

Thanks for capping our year on the road with such a magical spell! For anyone who wants a taste, drop by Felicity for a visit.

Aside from enjoyable whimsy, the main and successful activity of the Town of Felicity is the engraving of history in granite seen at www.historyingranite.org and felicityusa.com.

Felicity lies about 8 miles West of Yuma, AZ just off Interstate 8.


Last night I heard spring arriving.

The sound of spring on the ground

All winter, it’s been a struggle to keep Woody and Maggie fed.

I can haul some grain on Maggie’s cart; sometimes a few flakes of hay. But as soon as I pitch camp, I tether Maggie by a front leg and turn Woody loose. That way they can browse a bit and add the odd wisps of dry Med grass or mesquite twigs to their meager rations.

Then, just before I turn in, I feed them a few handfuls of grain. As I drift off to sleep, the last thing I hear is the sound of horse muzzles nuzzling canvas.

If sleep comes slowly, I may hear “Clip”.

Then comes silence.

Then “Clip” again and more silence.

Finally there’s a stony “Chew, chew, chew” and the pattern repeats itself. “Clip”…….

The “Clip” is Woody snapping off a dead tuft of grass with his front teeth. The silence is when he looks for another bite. The “chew, chew, chew” is the morsel’s inevitable fate. They’re tough, these winter snacks, and take time for the old boy to crush.

I can hear it’s poor pickings. It’s the sound of a mule trying to make the best of a barren winter plate.

Slim pickings

Then last night I heard it.

“Clip, clip, clip” and immediately “chew, chew, chew”. Followed by “clip, clip, clip” and more chewing sounds. Listen! No silence in between!

I knew exactly what it was. I’d heard it last March at Miracle Meadows, North Carolina. It was the sound of new grass.

The next morning I discovered the splashes of green I’d overlooked the night before. Scattered like random splashes across the desert floor where tufts of green.

It was Med Grass, a fine-leafed grass that resembles Bermuda in the early stages.

The blades and days got longer. The rhythm of clip and chew changed.

Now it’s “Clip, clip” and then “chew, chew, chew, chew, chew”. It only takes a few bites to fill the old mule’s mouth for long moments of peaceful chewing.

Spring comes to our camp

It’s the sound of desert greening.


The joy of mulespeed is the ease of stopping. At 2 miles per hour, the mind slows to the speed of the scenery. From there, it ain’t much of a leap to standing still.

Standing still is where my mind sees the day’s last photos.

I always keep a camera handy and the photos usually just compose themselves. I just have to press the shutter. The following are just a few Arizona mulespeed scenes.

Barbed wire balls – North of Three Points, AZ

I stopped at Jay and Jerry Woehlck’s for some water. There were three large barbed-wire balls in their front yard. “I bought them from some Amish guy” Jerry explained. The Woehlck’s put me up for the night. The next morning, Woody and Maggie slowed to a stop alongside the barbed wire balls. Maybe they reminded Woody of where he came from.

Maggie’s fallen friend – Mobile, AZ

At the end of the day, I found myself at the Estrella Sailpark outside Mobile, AZ. It’s the largest sailport in the United States. Bruce Stephens, the owner, put me up in a cabin. After everyone went home, Woody and Maggie roamed the sailport grounds. Just on sun down, Maggie took particular interest in some Med grass growing next to an old sailplane. I snapped the photo.

(Thanks Bruce and Jason Stephens for putting us up overnight! For anyone interested in soaring visit azsoaring.com)

Day’s end – Gila Bend, AZ


John Henry was saying, “The last polymath was …” but the clanking gears in my brain drowned him out. They were too busy working down the names he’d threaded into the last five minutes’ conversation.

The Dalai Lama, Bronowski, the Kula Trail, L. Ron Hubbard, the three types of Pygmy death (dead, completely dead, forever dead).

Just when my brain got the mess untangled, the flash of silver caught my eye. It was John Henry’s skinning knife relieving a coyote of its jacket.

I’ve never skinned more than a knee but John Henry slipped gracefully from philosophy to the job at hand.

The coyote was stretched across an old wire spool, the wooden kind the phone company uses. “I like to skin mine out lying on their side. It takes me ten or fifteen minutes per hide”.

After the fur is separated from the carcass, John Henry puts it in to the washing machine outside his front door. As the fur is churning to clean, he invites me inside.

John Henry lives in an old adobe trapper’s cabin among a riot of books, hunting supplies, mules and Sterling MJ 600 traps. Containers of “Barnes Rifle and Handgun Bore Cleaning Solvent” and “Tetra Gun Lubricant” mingle freely with old friends like “The Milagro Bean Field War” and “The Fourth Hand”. There’s a soft whining coming from underneath his bed that says “puppies” and the crackle from his wood stove spells “mesquite”.

But where John Henry really excels is calling coyotes to decoy dogs.

He uses an electronic hunting call, usually the one that sounds like a wounded rabbit, to lure the coyotes toward his blind. When a coyote is sighted, he sends out one of his Airedale Terriers to greet it. The coyote, sensing competition from another carnivore, approaches the terrier.

The coyote begins playing with the dog.

The dog joins the game. It knows to bring the coyote closer to the blind. It slaps the ground with its front pays. It circles a bit closer to the blind. It teases again with the front legs.

Ever closer to the blind comes the coyote.

Then “Blamm!” barks the Remington 17 and the game is over.

“I like the Rem 17 because it doesn’t make a big hole but still vaporizes the coyote’s insides”. Not ruining the pelt matters to John Henry. A decent hide fetches twenty to twenty five bucks these days.

What began as an overnight invitation stretched to five days. I learned how to skin a coyote in under two minutes (tip: use a come-along and a doorknob). What you call the technique (“tube” or “case” skinning). And how not to set a Sterling MJ 600 trap (tip: don’t set it where it’ll get run over).

Sterling MJ 600 trap

I learned that education and career aren’t incompatible. I learned that the love of books and quotes shouldn’t interfere with the hands on lifestyle.

Which cheered me greatly as I bumped off toward Tombstone with my head full of new quotes and “The Milagro Beanfield War” in my saddle bag.

(Thanks John Henry and Matt for the bed and the books and the roof! For those who want to know more about John Henry’s innovative hunting techniques, visit his website coyotegods.com.)

When the driver asks you to get off and walk, do it without grumbling. He will not request it unless absolutely necessary.

—from “Hints for Plains Travelers” Omaha Herald, published 1877 .

No grumbling, Bernie

“My ancestors were on the way to California when they broke a wagon wheel in these mountains” Norman said as he handed me a photo copied map of the McGee family ranch.

“While the wheel was being fixed in Tucson, they discovered water and began looking for gold. That’s how we got into the ranching and mining business”.

I wondered if an errant Amish mule had destroyed their locomotion but refocused quickly on the map he thrust into my hand. “Just go back down the road, turn left and go until you get to the dirt tank. You can get to Three Points that way”.

In search of Norman’s dirt tank

Map in hand, I set off in search of the dirt tank, took a wrong turn and spent the rest of the day retracing Woody’s hoof prints.

If only I’d had a working compass.

In my original preparations, I’d bought a three-dollar Chinese compass for navigation. When I dug it from my saddle bag, I discovered it had developed a bubble. It was a really healthy, annoying burp that gurgled and bulged around the compass card. Now the needle just spun gaily in circles, pointing in all directions but Polaris and that dirt tank.

Swallowing my pride, I followed my hoof prints almost back to Norman’s office, keeping enough mesquite between me and embarrassment.

I set out a second time. This time I followed a tortured dirt road through the mesquite and prickly pear cactus, getting off to push Maggie’s cart uphill when the going got too steep.

Waiting for a push

Oh how the spokes squealed and screamed. I thought of Norman’s ancestors waiting for their busted wheel to get back from Tucson. How they found the water. How they started looking for gold. How they never left. How they formed such a strong identity with their land that they came to call the family that settled it “our people”.

But each time we crested a gully, I climbed back onto Woody for a few more dusty desert steps.

In the end, it took us two lovely days to travel the route that spanned six inches on Norman’s photocopied map.

I just kept the sun to my left.

(Thanks Norman, Gary, Heather and everyone else at Sierrita Mining and Ranching for helping us along the way. Boy we sure enjoyed our ride across McGee Ranch! And Ray, I hope you got lion number 39. Bernie )