October 2011 edition of Mule & More, By Donna Taylor
I left Colin in charge of my pony, three donkeys and my tortoise whilst I set off on my two week holiday to America. My itinerary was as follows: fly to North Carolina and catch up with my friends Joel and Nicole Robinson for one night. Then the following morning, Joel would drive me to Grayson Highlands State Park in Southwest Virginia to meet up with Shannon Hoffman and the Carolina Mule Association.
I was to camp in the mountains for four nights, then drive back with Shannon to her house in Zebulon, NC. The following day I would fly out of Raleigh Airport, NC to St Louis, Missouri where I was to meet Sue Cole, Editor of Mules and More and her family. I would stay with Sue for three nights and then finally fly to Las Vegas and then onto Tropic, Utah to meet up with Pete and Keela Mangum, who run the Red Rock Ride, for three days. I would then fly back to France via the United Kingdom.
It was going to be a crazy two weeks, taking nine flights altogether, but having the opportunity to see old and new friends was going to be a very exciting trip and one that I was looking forward to. I was also going to spend the majority of my time around mules which, as all you know, are so special for me.
My first night was very enjoyable. I got to see Joel’s horses and spend some time with him and Nicole which is always a great pleasure. The next day we drove to Grayson Highlands State Park, where Shannon was waiting for me with her two gorgeous mules, Seven and Sadie Mae. This was going to be my third consecutive year riding with Shannon and I was really pleased to have Sadie Mae to myself for the duration of my time at Grayson Highlands.
The Carolina Mule Association had organised this ride and I knew that I would get to see some of the members that I met last year at South Mountain State Park, NC.
Grayson Highlands State Park is located in the Blue Ridge Mountains and there are many horse trails. The elevation is around 5,000 feet so the weather can change very quickly from blue skies and sunshine to stormy rain clouds. At the campsite, there are 67 stalls for the equines, 38 covered and 29 uncovered. The Park is home to deer, wild ponies, bears and many other animals and birds.
My first day’s riding (Wednesday) was a gentle visit to the Park’s gift shop. It’s only about a 40 minute ride from the horse camp, so we tacked up our two mules and headed out with Tony and Brenda McMasters.
Shannon had told me to bring warm clothes as well as T-shirts due to the variable weather. Well, she was certainly right. Within 15 minutes of starting the ride, the blue sky disappeared, the heavens opened and it just poured with rain. Shannon is ready for any occasion and Sadie Mae had my raincoat securely fastened to my saddle ready for me to put on.
Luckily the rain had stopped once we reached the gift shop. We tied the mules up and bought ourselves an ice cream. Whilst looking around, two ladies walked in with their dog. They looked rather concerned and told us that they had just seen a mother bear with her cubs along a trail. They said they had abruptly turned around and headed in the opposite direction.
I have no idea why, but I have a huge fear of bears and I was starting to imagine that I would be coming across them on all the trails. I mentioned my fear to Shannon, but she said I probably wouldn’t see any.
This did not help me in the slightest on my first night in Shannon’s trailer. At 1:00am, we could feel the trailer gently swaying and something was scratching on the outside. Great I thought, there is going to be a bear outside, that’s just what I need. Shannon got out of bed, found her torch and opened the door. I was not even considering accompanying her and stayed firmly in my bed.
To her surprise, there was a raccoon trying to get into the back of the trailer where it could scent some food that we had left there. A huge look of relief came over my face and after Shannon scared it off, we went back to sleep, only for him to return at 04:00am to have another go at getting some breakfast. We didn’t enjoy the best night’s sleep, but at least it wasn’t a bear that woke us up.
The next day, we were up at 06:30 (Thursday) feeding the mules, cleaning the stalls and then getting ourselves our breakfast. Five of us headed out that morning. Tony and Brenda were with us and also another member of the Association called Barry Greene. The weather was perfect and we had a lovely ride along the Wilson Creek Trail.
Because Tony and Barry knew my fear of bears, they thought it highly amusing to tease me throughout the day about the bears in the park. We went through a gate that read “Bear Pen Trail”. Well, of course, you can guess what they said to me next. Did we see a bear? Not one I am pleased to say, although there were some beautiful deer.
After a good night’s sleep undisturbed by raccoons, we set off for another day’s riding in the mountains. This time there were about 20 riders, but after a few miles, we split into two groups. Shannon and I rode with Jay Lankford. He knows the area very well and took us on some fine trails.
After a while, I was starting to forget about the bears as I was more concerned about the Yellow Jacket Bees that live in the ground. Shannon said that this was one of the worst trips she had experienced with these ground bees. There were many mules and riders that got stung including poor Seven who was stung just above his eye. So, if someone shouted “BEES”, then we had to lope away as fast as we could to escape.
Saturday turned out to be a very long but enjoyable day’s riding, led by Teddy Royale. When we were at South Mountain last year, Teddy had to endure my moaning and groaning about how sore I was. Well, I hadn’t ridden for quite a few months before that trip, but now that I had Tina, I was riding regularly, so my muscles were stronger.
This time, there were nine of us and we rode on several trails heading towards Buzzard Rock Overlook. On the way, we met around 25 cows and their calves on the same path. These cows had extremely long and wide horns, and as some of them were directly on the path we had to be very careful how we approached them.
Some of the cows started to panic and went running along the trail. Great I thought, what do I do now? Shannon told me to keep Sadie as close as possible to the edge of the path to keep away from the cow horns. Sadie kept as calm as ever as they sped past. She is such an perfectly behaved mule.
When we finally got to the rock, we took a group photo, had our lunch and enjoyed the amazing views of the countryside and mountains.
We rode 18 miles that day and as we were heading back to the campsite, we decided to stop at the gift shop for an ice cream. It was also a chance for Shannon and I to do a bit of shopping and buy various gifts for our families.
I found it rather amusing that we had covered 18 miles on our mules, moved cows, dodged bees, looked out for bears and then went shopping and had an ice cream. What a great day!!
On the last day (Sunday) everyone packed up and headed home, except for Shannon and me. Even though we had a five hour drive ahead of us, we decided to go out for one more ride which was so enjoyable.
I was told before I got to Grayson Highlands that it was a beautiful park and I would love riding there. This was certainly true. I had such a great time and would like to thank Shannon for letting me ride Sadie Mae again and also for getting her in great shape for me to enjoy. I would also like to thank the Carolina Mule Association who are all so kind and friendly and have made me feel such a part of their family.
Donna and Barry Greene hit off a great friendship!
Sadie Mae trying to get more than her share of lunch!
Long Horn Cows that Seven and I had to herd down the trail!
Donna and Sadie Mae!