Sometime in the late 1800s, my Grandma Porter walked behind a covered wagon from the Florida panhandle to Nacogdoches, Texas—a journey of more than six hundred miles. According to Google Maps, I could drive that trip in just under ten hours. My grandma’s walk, at about three miles an hour, would have taken several months.
I often think about her journey as I drive my mule wagon at a quail hunting lodge near Albany, Georgia. It is similar to an old-fashioned covered wagon with its heavy wooden body and tall, spoked (albeit rubber-tired) wheels. Behind my driver’s seat is another bench seat that will accommodate two or three guests. Behind the guest seat is a large box or kennel that holds several pairs of hunting dogs. If my wagon did not have the guest seat and the dog box, it would hold a considerable amount of cargo. It is like a pickup truck that is powered by two mules instead of 400 horses.
I wonder what it would be like for me to drive to work in the mornings on the wagon instead of in my car. I would not need to worry about running into deer or hogs. I wouldn’t be checking my speedometer or gas gauge. Of course the drive would last about three hours instead of fifteen minutes—a three hour commute with only mules for company and no iTunes or satellite radio. With all of that time, I could solve a lot of the world’s problems.
In their heyday, mules were as common as trucks are today. As a young boy, my dad plowed his family farm behind a mule. Twenty-mule-teams hauled tons of Borax out of Death Valley, California. Mules dragged cannons across the Western Front in WW I and served as pack animals in the WW II Burma Campaign. On the home front, mules were used to pull wagons and farm implements until the 1930s, when they were replaced by motorized tractors and trucks.
Today, mules are more of a novelty. Everyone has heard the expression ‘stubborn as a mule’ but few people have spent time with them. In my time driving the mule wagon I have come to appreciate them for their strength, their patience, and their intelligence. As to their stubbornness, perhaps there is another way to view that trait.
When I am grooming the mules in the morning and one of the eight or ten horses at the hitching post wanders too near, I can easily push the horse out of my way. If my mules, on the other hand, are out of position and I want to move them, I not only can’t push them, they will push back. I get the impression they are not so much stubborn as they are opinionated. They just don’t like being told what to do. My wife is like that—but that is a discussion for another book.
For a wagon driver, the workday begins before sunrise after the horses and mules have been brought into the barn from the pasture. My first order of business is to grab the bridles from the tack room and see which stall my mules have wandered into—usually the last stall on the right (mules must be creatures of habit, too).
Since entering the fifteen foot by fifteen foot stall with a couple of one-thousand-pound animals can be challenging in the dim light of a pre-dawn morning, I carry a few mule treats in my pocket. That will usually lure them to the front of the stall where I can slip the bit into their mouths and tug their considerable ears through the headpieces. Once I buckle the chin straps and grab the leads, they will follow me out to the hitching post like a couple of dogs on their morning walk.
The amount of time spent brushing and grooming depends on which mules I am driving. Thelma and Louise have longer coats and required more effort to brush the dried mud, small twigs, and oak leaves out of their fur. Bert and Ernie, on the other hand, are a couple of short-haired grays and nothing seems to stick to them.
The harness for the mules comes in two parts. First, I fasten the padded leather collar around their necks. Then I toss the rest of the apparatus—fifty pounds of leather straps, metal buckles, and chains—over their backs. It takes a good ten minutes to stretch out the harness on the mule’s back; sort out the chains and straps; and get it buckled, strapped, and hooked into place. When hitched to the wagon, the mules are pulling from a hook under their collar fastened to the front tongue of the wagon and two chain traces running down each of their sides and fastened to the wagon at their rears.
My grandparents must have gone through a similar process every time they wanted to go somewhere. As for me, I’ve grown so lazy and so accustomed to my car’s keyless ignition that I get annoyed when I have to dig a key out of my pocket to drive a car. Patience, it seems is something of a lost art.
When they are in-harness and ready to pull, and I give the command to “gitty up”, Louise jerks forward to get the wagon started. That’s about the only work she does all day. The rest of the time, it is Thelma’s harness that is taut from pulling and it is Thelma that arrives back at the barn at the end of the day covered in sweat. Louise is as fresh as a vine-ripened tomato—no sweat, no heavy breathing, and eager to get out to the pasture for her evening graze.
Thelma and Louise are about seventeen years old, which puts them in their prime in mule years. The mules on the other wagon are each twenty-seven and, with a life expectancy of around thirty years, are nearing the end of their wagon-pulling days. That is why we needed to break in some new mules—a couple of light gray, short-haired, seven-year-old males I call Bert and Ernie.
Bert works on my left and is the steady one—much like Thelma. Ernie, on the other hand, is skittish. When I first attempted to drive through the open wagon shed so I could park the wagon at the end of the day, he suspiciously eyed the coiled hose, the garbage can, and the pallet of supplies on our right side and eased to his left, pushing Bert out of line. I had to stop the wagon and have someone pull the mules forward and into position. One evening as we were driving in at the end of the day, we encountered a basketball-sized pile of Spanish moss lying in the middle of the road. The horses stepped over it without hesitation but Ernie saw it before I did and cocked his head, looking at it nervously. The nearer we got, the higher he raised his head until he began to push Bert to the left into the tall grass at the edge of the road. No amount of pressure on the reins could pull them back in line. Thankfully there were no trees or ditches in our new path and I was able to wrangle them back into the road when the “danger” was safely passed.
Bert and Ernie came in at different times so they are not a true pair of pulling mules that can work together—at least not yet. This is most evident when I ask them to “gitty up” and they pull sideways in different directions. If I am not careful, they will even begin to back up. Eventually, after a lot of persuasion on my part, one of them will jerk forward and another uncertain journey will begin.
There are times when I wonder if Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. had me in mind when he quipped, You will never appreciate the potentialities of the English language until you have heard a southern mule driver search the soul of a mule.
There is a time near the end every hunt as we are ambling down some rutted dirt road following the dogs as they search for quail when one of the mules decides she needs to relieve herself. Mules can pee and poop while in harness and without breaking stride. Anyone who works around horses and mules knows that familiar and comforting aroma of fresh manure. It is not offensive like that of dogs and cats. It is sweet and earthy like fermented grass or freshly turned compost. It is the smell of life. According to English poet D. H. Lawrence, the fairest thing in nature, a flower, has its roots in earth and manure. Without manure, there would be no flowers to smell.
That aroma is usually fresh in my nostrils as the evening sun slants through the pine trees and we begin our twenty-minute ride back to the house. It is that end-of-day wagon ride that sets the tone of our entire hunt and makes the challenge of working with mules worthwhile. Cell phones are tucked in their pockets as our guests talk quietly behind me. The retriever is asleep with her head on my lap. And the squeaks of the wagon synchronize with the jingle of the mule harnesses to lull me into a stupor. I imagine that the blood pressure of everyone on the wagon goes down. This is when I have come to appreciate the laid-back lifestyle of an earlier era. This is what it means to slow down and smell the manure.