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Adventures, appreciation, pledges: Wagon trek was trip of lifetime

Joe Dahlby and Earl Speckman, left to right, with the mules Rufus and Rowdy. The pair, and the mules, recently completed a 340-mile trip to Joice, Iowa, to raise money for hospice and palliative care. Molly Miron | Pioneer Photo

BEMIDJI — On April 22, a span of dark bay mules named Rufus and Rowdy clopped out of the Bemidji Homecare and Hospice lot pulling a covered wagon. Newly shod with their first set of iron shoes needed to protect hooves on paved roads, their destination was 340 miles south to Joice, Iowa.

Their mission — to raise awareness and financial support for hospice and palliative care.

Joe Dahlby and fellow muleteer Earl Speckman, spent 19 days on the road, camping most nights in the cold spring weather. Although the final tally isn’t in, as donors are still sending checks, the trek to Dahlby’s hometown raised more than $6,000 for the cause.

"We might even go seven ($7,000)," said Dahlby, 61, a former vice president of nursing at North Country Regional Hospital in Bemidji. "I wouldn’t doubt it," Speckman, 80, added.

Dahlby and Speckman had planned to travel 20 to 25 miles per day, but on the second day, Rufus and Rowdy were still hot to pull. The drivers thought they would stay in Lake George and were invited to use the senior center. They changed their minds when they discovered the building had just been fumigated to get rid of a mess of invasive ladybugs. Instead, they pressed on to Emmaville, population 4, near Park Rapids. The owners, Mike and Melinda Spry, gave them a room at the No Tell Motel and breakfast at the Emmaville Cafe.

"We put them up, fed them breakfast and sent them on their way. We’re glad they made it," Melinda Spry said.

They also stopped in Nevis where Dahlby’s son, Andrew, teaches. Andrew had asked his father to bring the mules and covered wagon to the school for the children to see. Dahlby said it seemed like a bad idea when they got there. They had to park on a slope, so the wagon tended to roll. And the mules were still fractious. But when the students came out to pet and hug them, Rufus and Rowdy calmed down and became gentle.

Each morning, when they hitched up the mules, Dahlby and Speckman had only a loose idea of where they would stop that night.

The mules, always eager to get going in the mornings, would signal when it was time to pull up for the night.

"You knew they were ready to quit because they’d try to turn into every driveway," Dahlby said.

Once, the pair rolled out their sleeping bags in a shack that included a dead raccoon as part of the decor. Another night, they stayed in a Rotary Pavilion. People along the way sometimes gave them garage space. Many folks invited them to supper and breakfast.

"We met really nice people," Speckman said.

"It really renewed my appreciation for the human condition," Dahlby said. "You get so easily distracted by the skullduggery. We didn’t meet a sourpuss the whole way."

A low point in the trip occurred May 3 near Hutchinson, Minn. When they set up camp for the night, Dahlby and Speckman let the mules graze dragging their lead ropes. About 6:30 p.m., Rufus decided to take off, and Rowdy followed him. Three McLeod County deputies and five or six neighbors eventually surrounded the mules, and Speckman was able to pick up their ropes. People arranged for a stock trailer to take the mules back to the camp, but one of them balked and pulled free during loading "They were off again," Speckman said.

Dahlby and Speckman took turns driving. Speckman, a veteran teamster, said he had never driven mules before and found them somewhat different from horses.

The wagon trip drew media attention in most towns, Speckman said. "Whenever the phone would ring, I’d take the lines so Joe could answer questions and take down names and addresses," he said.

Rufus and Rowdy also overcame many new, and possibly scary, experiences. For example, they went through some busy towns. And from Motley to St. Cloud, they took U.S. Highway 10, a four-lane, 65-mph road. "The cars didn’t slow down much," Dahlby said.

When they turned off Highway 10, they had to cross a triple set of railroad tracks. Dahlby said he was trying to remember when the last train had passed, fearful that one might come barreling along with Rufus and Rowdy stuck on the crossing. He said he talked to the mules through all the difficulties, and they performed admirably.

"They went over everything," Speckman said.

Just when they were close to Joice, Rufus developed a sore neck. When Dahlby tried to put the collar on him, "Rufus said, ‘No.’ We knew that he was hurting."

Many people had been following the trip on the blog The mule community rallied to save the expedition. Dahlby and Speckman were offered a replacement mule, also was named Rowdy. They hitched him with Rowdy One and finished the trek.

"They acted as they’d been driving together the whole way," Dahlby said.

As they neared Joice the afternoon of May 11, other wagons and outriders joined them, and a welcoming committee awaited them. Friends, family members and acquaintances gathered at the library for a reception. To Dahlby’s surprise, one of the well wishers was his second-grade teacher.

"She looked really good," he said.

At the end of the trip, a friend from Bemidji with a trailer drove the riders and the pullers back home, and they returned on Mayt 13, Dahlby said.

The hospice and palliative care account is still open. Those who wish their donations to support the Bemidji program should write "local" on their checks. Donors from farther south might label their checks for hospice care in their area. The travelingthetrailwithrufusandrowdy blog also continues to be updated. It now has more than 10,000 hits.

Article by Molly Miron for the Pioneer.