The old man seems to be barely moving down the highway. He’s as slow as a rebate check, but he’s going at his own speed. So maybe it’s not that he’s slow, maybe you’re in too big a hurry.
Sitting atop his wagon bench, staring at the rhythmic rear ends of Kitty and Kate, his three-quarter-ton mule mares, he looks every gray hair of his 78 years. You would be excused for staring at him clopping down the road.
If you call out and ask where he’s going, he’ll rein in and tell you San Diego, to complete a coast-to-coast-and-back-again trip that started 2½ years ago. He’ll tell you that, and you’ll drive on, shaking your head in amazement.
But if you ask him who he is — beyond just his name — well, that’s a story that will take more time. He’ll pull off to the side of the road, water the mules and await your questions.
First, you’ll ask about his trip, ready to disbelieve the incredible. He’ll tell you that he started out on Sept. 7, 2010, to take his mules and wagon 3,000 miles at roughly four miles per hour, all the way to the Georgia coast. He had a slight delay along the way to deal with West Nile virus, but he beat it, and on Jan. 6, 2012, looked out over the cold Atlantic.
He rested two days and then started back, stopping for a four-month layover in Tucson, Ariz., to have open-heart surgery. “They took my heart out of my chest, they held it in their hands and they cut the old valve out, and they put a new plastic aorta valve in. Sometimes, I can feel it going thump, thump, thump.”
Then he got out of his hospital bed, hitched up and went back to following the sun, but he was in no particular hurry. What’s the hurry?
“I stopped … for a couple of months to stay with a friend who was dying, and I stayed until he died. A couple of women I met told me how they were molested as children; they just wanted to unburden themselves. I hope it makes the world a better place that I go along and I have time to stop and listen.”
When he recently arrived in Ramona, he was only an inch on the map from becoming the only person to ever drive a team from ocean to ocean and then back again. (Name another, I invite you.)
But that’s nuthin’. Back in May ’84, he rode horseback, by himself, from the Arctic Circle in far-north Canada all the way down to Ecuador. It took him two days shy of two years.
He’s also ridden horseback to all the lower-48 state capitals, which also earns a shrug compared with the Ecuador jaunt.
You don’t do these things without a reason that makes sense to you. To Gene Glasscock, the answer is the horizon — and wondering why whatever is beyond is hidden.
Glasscock was born in Texas with his bags already packed. He first moved to Oregon, then to Alaska, working mainly in high-rise construction. He is the father of six children. This is not a one-child type of guy.
“One of the most joyous times I’ve ever had was taking my family on horseback from Canada to Oregon on the Pacific Crest Trail. That was 501 miles. My youngest was 3 years old.”
A family outing.
He attends “cowboy churches” whenever he can. These are evangelical congregations, often Baptist, mostly rural, that tap into the cowboy culture and mystique. “I’m very aware that God looks over me.”
His wagon is 14 feet long, with rubber tires and hydraulic brakes. It draws power from solar panels mounted on the back that charge two car batteries that, in turn, power his radio, CD player, cellphone and reading light. He cooks with propane, but his porta-potty is energy-free.
No TV, thank you very much.
The mules are fed alfalfa pellets and grain on the road, and when corralled, will eat about 25 pounds of hay apiece each day. He doesn’t blanket the mules because “I don’t believe they need ’em. You ever see a wild mustang wearing a blanket? My mules have learned to trust me so much that they don’t argue about anything.” Vehicles don’t bother them, he says, adding that he has had no close calls with traffic.
The mules cost about $500 per month to feed and shoe. Overall, he gets by on about $1,500 per month, which his Social Security and retirement savings cover. Often, passers-by will invite him for a meal or put him and the mules up for a night. However, he does not seek contributions.
“Of course, I couldn’t afford to live in San Diego,” he says. He doesn’t add that he wouldn’t want to, or in any big city.
I ask: What is the difference, generally speaking, between people in San Diego and people in rural or small-town America?
“Rural people are much more content. Rural America is the real America. In rural America, the people are more conservative. On this trip, I’ve only met three people who voted for Obama. Three people.”
Glasscock is deeply suspicious of present-day government, seeing it as a threat to our freedoms and recklessly driving America off the true path of constitutional restraint.
Naturally, I have to ask what he’s going to do next, or maybe look for a rocking chair.
“Oh, I’ve thought about it, but I’ve also thought of doing some other crazy things, like maybe riding the (Pacific) Crest Trail, the Continental Divide and maybe the Appalachian Trail, or maybe taking a buggy and riding the Cherokee Trail, the Trail of Tears.
“Wherever I go, I meet people, and you’d be surprised at the ways you can help them along the way. I’m an old blue-collar man and I don’t know another country where a man could do what I’ve done. It makes me kind of proud of my country.”
Asked whether he gets lonely on the road, he says, “No. I’m very aware of the presence of God. Having quite a bit of Cherokee blood in me, I’m quite spiritual.”
Glasscock is camping at a ranch in Ramona, and tomorrow he will depart for San Diego, camping several nights along the way, and reach the ocean at Friendship Park in Border Field State Park about noon on May 5. He will be accompanied, his host believes, by about 150 admirers on horseback.
That day is also Cinco de Mayo, which is a coincidence to Glasscock, since he has no idea what the Mexican holiday represents. A state of mind he holds in common with hordes of Americans who nevertheless will boisterously lift a glass to it, whatever it is.
Gene Glasscock, philosophically, is not a man out of his time. There are millions who share his creed — no, religion — of resourceful independence, a political belief as vague as most others. Obviously, few act out their independence with such grandiosity as he. Glasscock, by his values and love of a bygone way of life, provides a glimpse of the second of the two Americas.
He drives his mules toward an American horizon of his beliefs, not knowing whether the glow he sees is sunrise or sunset.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at [email protected]