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March of the mules
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Pikeville resident Brian Stewart is pictured with his 19-year-old mules, Pete and Pat, during a stop Thursday at Rock Island Market. He says they’re starting to get tired in the midst of a 68.2-mile trip from Crossville to Woodbury. - photo by James Clark
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A mule-drawn wagon owned by Crossville resident Anthony Findley is parked outside Rock Island Market on Thursday on its way to Woodbury. - photo by James Clark

What’s the advantage of spending four days traveling from Crossville to Woodbury in a mule-drawn carriage?

“It’s amazing how friendly people are when you pull up in a covered wagon,” said Crossville resident Anthony Findley during a stop at Rock Island Market on Thursday. “You pull up to someone’s house in a car and they’ll look at you through the blinds and won’t hardly open the door. You pull up in a wagon and they’ll rush out with groceries and ask if you need any hay.”

Findley was among five riders passing through Warren County in three wagons on Thursday. They were making the 68.2-mile trip from Crossville to Woodbury, a trip that might take 90 minutes by car but was taking four days by mule. The group averaged 4.7 mph on Wednesday while fighting steady downpours.

“We also do a 168-mile trip to Mule Day in Columbia,” said Findley. “You can make it in six days if you hurry like crazy or seven days if you just work at it.”

The mules do most of the labor, hauling wagons that are loaded with luxuries. Crossville resident Cecil O’Daniel has heat in his wagon and a grill on the back. The men batten down the hatches so to speak and sleep in their wagons overnight.

“We stay in the parking lots of dollar stores most of the time,” said Pikeville resident Brian Stewart. “The best part about it is all the neat people we meet. There’s no telling how many people come up and make our picture. Cars pass us on the road, pull over, and then take our picture as we’re riding by.”

Facing the final stretch of the trip to Woodbury, the travelers said their mules are getting tired.

“I’m having to whip them more today because they’re tired,” said Stewart. “Yesterday was a fight. I was having to pull ’em back all day.”

Stewart said getting the mules trained for the road takes some effort. He said even a well-broken mule can still get spooked if a large vehicle like a cement mixer or tractor trailer blows past at high speeds.

Keeping the mules in shape to endure a 60-mile journey is also a challenge. Stewart says he works his mules once a week, but Findley admitted his mules aren’t in the best condition for the trip, not having been hooked to a wagon since April.

Miles traveled per day fluctuates and can reach as high as 36 miles in one day. A consistent average is around 20 miles per day, they say.

The destination for this trip is Woodbury where there is a gathering of mule enthusiasts looking to set a world record on Saturday for number of mules hooked to a plow at the same time. The men said they would be in attendance but likely won’t participate.

“I’m in it for the wagon ride, not the plowing,” said O’Daniel.

The men bring their food and supplies with them, but rely on help from a friend in a vehicle who brings feed for the mules and also has a contraption they call a “cowboy shower.” They have the shower designed so propane heats a water tank and allows for very brief, but hot, bathing.

As for refreshments, no days-long wagon ride would be complete without a little moonshine, which the men were quick to offer.

“You can drink it all night, no problem,” said Knoxville resident Bill York. “You just can’t leave.”

Added O’Daniel of the moonshine, “It will give you courage. It just won’t back you up.”

As for why they would spend four days traveling by mule in a trip that included heavy rain Wednesday and Thursday, the men agreed it’s something they love.

Said Crossville resident Tommy Waltman, “It’s the same as golfing or boating. It’s a hobby we enjoy.”

Findley said he is able to spend so much time on the road because he’s self-employed and can set his own work schedule. His friends are retired or used vacation days.

“The only person I have to get permission from is the little lady,” said Findley. “She’s probably glad to see me leave.”