“Did you ever hear back from the tumbleweeds you launched?” I get that question a lot, especially from folks that have watched the “Lost Sea Expedition”, the Public TV series about my mule voyage across America (which you can stream here on Amazon).
Okay, let me set this up for you a bit.
The Lost Sea Expedition
The “Lost Sea Expedition” is the 4-part documentary I filmed about my 14-month wagon journey from Canada to the border with Mexico. The goal of my journey was to film a documentary about the ancient sea that covered what is now the Great Plains. I filmed the entire journey with only the gear I carried in my wagon: two movie cameras, an audio recorder, tripods, and a laptop. All powered by a 100-watt panel bolted to the wagon’s roof.
In the course of my journey, I wove in and out of the lives of hundreds of folks. I sat down with lots of them to record their thoughts on what it was like to live in a part of America that lots of people – including me – didn’t know much about. Then I piled my gear back into my wagon, hitched my mule Polly to the shafts and walked out of whoever’s life I’d entered the day before.
This went on month after month, season after season. I started my journey in Neptune, Saskatchewan in May and, half a year later, was halted by the coming winter snows in the Black Hills of South Dakota. I sat out the winter and set out again the following spring. I traveled south all that summer and fall, interviewing folks along the way. Winter overtook me in Oklahoma. I decided to push on so I could document what it was like to travel the southern Great Plains in winter.
The Second Wagon Winter
I soon learned that winters on the Oklahoma, Colorado and Texas plains were a lot like winter most everywhere else on the Great Plains. Lots of cold, snow, sleet and frozen rain which, if you’re traveling with a mule and wagon, that means lots of icy water buckets, numb fingers and waking up to a mule with frozen-shut eyelashes.
But the cold wasn’t the hardest part. I could wear a wool hat to bed. I could crawl into two sleeping bags. I could wriggle into a set of quilted coveralls and set out again the next day, consoling myself that giving mule Polly double rations would keep her warm. What I missed more than warmth was human contact.
The Oklahoma panhandle is one of the emptiest parts of America and that winter, mule Polly walked across it one mile at a time. Much of my route was along gravel and dinky country roads. The reason they’re that way is because there’s nobody out there. Sure, there’s ranch land and some farming. But in winter, the wind blows so cold and hard, most folks stay inside. The land, for the most part, is just a frozen gray expanse of wind-blown grass. A fair number of ranches we stayed at were abandoned.
On windy days, especially when the wind blew from the north, the only movement across the land was tumbling spheres bouncing and spinning across the land – tumbleweeds. At first, while they were still a novelty, I enjoyed watching them stream my way. They swished against the wagon, bounded into mule Polly and got stuck under the wagon, where they made a scratching sound until one of the wheels ran over them. A real treat was watching one get crushed against the cowcatcher of a tractor trailer barreling up the highway at 65 miles per hour.
And then the novelty wore off. You just can’t admire each and every one of the thousands of tumbleweeds that hurl by your wagon every day. And then I got sick of them. Mornings, after I camped in the wagon in some frozen field, I had to pull them out from under the wagon where they’d gotten jammed overnight. I drove past houses buried in tumbleweeds. I drove by fences pushed down by tumbleweeds. And through all this, I barely saw anyone. I felt more and more like a sailor voyaging alone across an ocean.
Message in a Tumbleweed
Surrounded by all these tumbleweeds, I got the idea to tie some notes to them and send them off across the empty expanse. The Great Plains equivalent of a sailor launching a message in a bottle. I snagged a few of the largest Kali tragus I encountered (also known as Russian thistles), spray painted them orange for visibility and taped a note inside each. Scrawled on each note was a plaintiff message to the tune of “Hi. I’m Bernie. I’m traveling across the land with my mule Polly. I’m lonely. Please write me back. Thanks. Bernie” To that, I added my mailing address and, so the finder wouldn’t have to spring for the postage, a stamp in the top right corner.
And then I launched the tumbleweeds from my wagon. The best place to do this was in an open field where the wind carried them off, jiggling and bouncing toward the frozen horizon. Some of the launches I filmed. Some I just savored. I launched a lot of tumbleweeds for I was mighty lonely. The night after every launch, hunkered down in my wagon, rocking back and forth by the winter winds, I wondered where the latest batch of tumbleweeds was bounding off to. Who might find them? A pretty woman? A crusty farmer? Or would they just splinter to bits as they rolled themselves to death?
This brings me back to the question folks often ask me. “Did you ever hear back from someone who found a note in your tumbleweed?
The answer is “No.” And then I think back to all those beautiful tumbleweeds bounding across the land, each carrying my lonely note to someone on the other side. Someone who might also be feeling shut out from others. Someone who was going through a tough time out there on the empty plain. And I think how excited they’d be to reach into a tumbleweed and unravel that note that had tumbled all those miles across the great wide open and into their life. They’d peel off the duct tape, read the note and find out it was from someone else looking to make a connection. Then they’d head to the post office to mail it back to me.
I don’t want that image to die, of a tumbleweed bridging the gap between two lonely people. I’m home now. I’m married. I’m not lonely anymore. And yet I cling to the memory. So I amend my answer about getting back one of my notes in a tumbleweed from “No.” to “Not yet”.
New Book Update
Work on the new book about my latest mule voyage from North Carolina to Idaho is going really well. This week I worked on passages on why you can’t jerk a mule across a bridge with a golf cart, the Frogman’s sandwich and deflating a Nebraska calf with a pocket knife. I hope to have the second draft completed early in the new year. If you want me to give you a shout when the book comes out, just sign up for my newsletter right here.