A horse-drawn trek toward a "do-over" in life

Bob Skelding and his 17-year-old poodle Clementine left New Hampshire in a wagon two years ago to see America

Published February 19, 2011 4:45PM (EST)

Bob Skelding talks to Cary Ellis, who interviewed the wagon driver for her <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4uam321s4H4">YouTube channel</a>.
Bob Skelding talks to Cary Ellis, who interviewed the wagon driver for her YouTube channel.

Bridles jingle and heavy hooves tap a metronomic clip-clop as the ungainly wagon claims yet another mile.

It glides past a row of Main Street houses, past roadsigns touting this business, that fraternal group, the local team who were champions. Vehicles, horseless ones, slow to take in the outlandish muscles of the four giant draft horses, two white, one dark, and one dapple gray.

And up ahead, always, there's someone on the shoulder or on a porch, or a family in a yard or driveway, stopping everything to shade eyes and squint, or just to listen to the clip-clop, steady as a heartbeat.

Bob Skelding, holding the draft team's reins, has rolled through thousands of these towns, around uncounted bends like this -- uncounted except that he has tallied them most evenings, after getting the horses bedded, jotting a few sentences in his online "Where's Bob" log about, oh, whom he'd run across this day, what he'd gained or lost or learned.

And where was Bob now exactly? What particular stretch of road was this one? What little town? It hardly matters. The team has pulled onward: clip-clop, in sunshine or sleet, early or late.

From the start, he said he didn't care exactly where he went from day to day, did not have an end point, or any special point at all.

As his saga has unfolded, something has happened. It has come to feel like a fable, at times like the tale of Johnny Appleseed or another children's story beginning, "Once upon a time ..." It has a hero who can seem not quite real but who has confronted reality each day, sometimes bliss, sometimes danger -- and, along one stretch, pain and death.

"Shakespeare never wrote a play that more completely delved into the comedy and tragedy of human existence" than he had on this long, long trip, Skelding has written.

What kind of wanderer is this? What are we, secure in the 21st century, to make of his return to the rigors and risks of the 19th? Settled in our houses along the way, what are we to make of his redefining of home? Where are we going if we hitch a ride on Bob Skelding's journey?


The trip began, in a sense, in his boyhood in Michigan, where his grandfather had a farm and became famous for raising and selling draft horses. The Skelding kids always rode. When they were little, the grandfather would sometimes buy an unbroken Shetland pony for them to train, a sister recalls. Bob himself talks of "laughing my head off" after his first gallop on a full-size horse, at age 4 or 5.

"Massive muscle in motion, it's the poetry of motion," he says of the draft horses, which stand taller than common ones and can weigh close to a ton.

In time, he'd become part of the community that raises and uses them. He'd marry, get a job, raise kids, live life. Horses were always part of that. When other children trick-or-treated on foot, his went house-to-house by horse-drawn wagon, his daughter says.

And by the time those kids were almost through college, an idea that had been in Skelding's mind for a while nudged forward and wouldn't go away. He was approaching 50. His job at a nuclear power plant didn't really hold him. His second marriage was breaking down; the divorce became the final push.

"You come out of a divorce grasping for something. ... It forced me into this do-over position," he'd explain later. "When you elect to do your life over, it's fully, partially, or not at all."

For him, it was fully.

"He just all of a sudden told me, 'Hey, I'm going to take this trip,'" says his daughter, Lisa Skelding.

It would be a trip by horse and wagon, at 3 miles an hour, with no certain destination. He'd later say it was to "rebuild my life." Family members didn't second-guess him, remembering how as a teenager he saved his money and took off one day for Alaska, where he knew no one, and stayed for months. When, at 19, Lisa announced a similar plan for herself, but to California, she remembers her father's reaction: "OK, I'll teach you how to read a map."

Skelding, a wiry man with a direct eye and a plain cap over his salt-and-pepper hair, offers an explanation for his journey that sounds, at first, too simple: just to use his beloved horses, meet people and see the country.

"I'm not supporting any cause, trying to achieve a goal, nor am I sponsored by anyone," he explained. "The reason I'm traveling in this fashion is because it combines all the things I like best and eliminates those I like least. Also, I can't think of a cooler thing to do."

And so he got started.

Deerfield, N.H., where Skelding was living when his plan dawned, is a charming colonial village -- its claim to fame that a native son, Major John Simpson, defied orders and fired the first shot at Bunker Hill, early in the Revolution. ("Although reprimanded for this disobedience," a marker notes, "he afterward served his country with honor.")

Skelding's white house, circa 1760, with its adjacent white barn became his center of operations -- though selling the house and parting with most of his belongings was part of his preparation.

By hand, using a wagon bed and plywood, he built a rolling house, 7 1/2-by-16 feet. It had a bed, tiny kitchen, commode and shower and storage for himself and his horses. He attached a solar panel to the front for power and an old Volvo seat for rudimentary comfort.

For his team, he started with a pair of mares, Deedee and Joyce, half-sisters he'd gotten as weanling fillies from his grandfather, who'd named them after waitresses at a diner. He bought a third mare, Dolly, and then, when the wagon proved heavier than he'd expected, a fourth horse, a large gelding named Doc. All were Percherons, a breed of powerful, gentle draft horse whose lineage goes back to medieval France.

Skelding hadn't handled a four-up hitch before, and though an experienced teamster offered guidance, he felt less than ready as his departure date loomed.

Then, another setback: One day, his fingers started tingling and he grew lightheaded. Having taught CPR, he recognized what it meant: a heart attack, and more delay. This only made him more determined. Even as he lay in the hospital for a stent procedure, he told himself, "I've got to get moving." And following a brief rest, he knew what he had to do: "Close my eyes and charge."

He didn't literally shout "Charge," as he steered the clip-clopping team down his gravel drive and onto the gentle incline of a country road lined with birches. But he felt good.

Finally, the trip was under way, just him, his 17-year-old poodle Clementine, the horses and the open road, with nothing to hold them.

But it wasn't that simple. They got no farther than the first intersection -- Meetinghouse Hill, which rises to the old graveyard that holds Simpson, the Bunker Hill hotspur -- before Skelding glimpsed the magical effect of what he was up to here.

By a roadside granite wall stood a woman and her wide-eyed children -- neighbors, though he didn't know them well. He eased the team to a halt, the first of what would be thousands of spontaneous pauses just like this.

"Want to ride?" he called out. "Jump on."


It was August 2008 when he set out. Heading west, first into Vermont and then New York State, he followed backroads whenever possible, picking up skill and confidence as a teamster.

From the start, he knew he wanted to produce an online journal and had equipped his rig with a computer; a wireless connection was one of his few fixed costs. (That, plus food for himself and the horses and incidentals, ran to about $1,000 a month.)

Skelding liked to write and showed a varied and often pleasing style. He typically employed an engineer's exactitude and lack of adornment in his word choice, especially when describing the team or equipment. Occasionally, he offered a literary or historical allusion, and he freely dispensed homespun philosophy, sometimes deflected as coming from his reading of a horse's (or dog's) mind. Written almost daily, the posts were frequently just brief recitations of the day's mundane events and new acquaintances, "nice" a common adjective.

His photographs accompanied most posts, many simply showing the same horses in new settings but others reflecting a thoughtful eye.

As the posts went on, the cumulative effect was of heart, immediacy and progress, a trip unfolding before your eyes, a "nice" trip indeed -- and people started bookmarking Skelding's site.

"We drove seven miles and ended up at the American Legion post on the west side of Cicero," he wrote from upstate New York. Thanking the post commander, he added, "The complimentary steak dinner and all the drinks were fantastic. ... A lot of folks stopped by to wish me well and see the animals."

He didn't mention it, but one of those who stopped was a mentally disabled woman with impaired vision whose mother told Skelding her daughter was afraid of proposed surgery to improve her eyesight. He gently put a brush in the young woman's hand, encouraging her to stroke one of the big horses. She stayed at it, lovingly, for an hour. Down the road, Skelding heard from the mother that her daughter had agreed to the operation and had explained why: It would let her see a horse like that better.

Another brief post: "At lunch a guy named Paul stopped by and presented me with a dozen American Chestnut seeds. ... In my travels, Paul wants me to plant the nuts in isolated locations."

The majestic chestnut tree, Skelding knew, had spread across America before a blight virtually wiped out the species. The rare seeds carried the hope of revival.

"This is one of the most precious gifts I've ever gotten," he told his visitor. "I'll try to do right by 'em." And he started planting them in out-of-the-way spots.

Paul's visit happened to come on a day of autumn splendor: "The trees were all like a bowl of Froot Loops around us."

The wagon rolled on: along Lake Erie in Pennsylvania and Ohio ("Into the Midwest!" a post is headlined), then southward, to keep ahead of the colder weather starting to nip at the team. Some blog photos were now showing the horses in foul-weather gear, Skelding bundled up, and even little Clementine in a dog sweater. They moved into Indiana. Kentucky. Tennessee.

At Thanksgiving, passing through northern Ohio, and at Christmas, in south-central Indiana, families that Skelding had just met added him to their table.

By New Year's, he had traveled more than 1,200 miles.

Along the way, local TV and newspaper reporters regularly stopped the man making his antique way through their corner of modern times. In many places, local folks would introduce themselves by handing him an article just off the press, each story with a little different take.

In Ohio: "He has parked in people's yards, at diners, bars, American Legions and even a mansion. And everywhere, people bestow kindness upon him, offering him meals and supplies, opening their hearts to a fellow citizen."

In Indiana: "It sounds like the plotline for a Western movie: A close-knit community welcomes a mysterious stranger who rolls into town by wagon. While feeding his horses, the stranger entertains curious locals with his philosophy of the road. ... Then one morning he suddenly departs, as if into thin air -- leaving everyone to hope and wonder."

When the team ambled into the town of Macon, Miss., the newsman who intercepted them was Scott Boyd, editor and publisher of The Beacon. Over the years, Boyd had written about lots of characters on odd treks who happened to pass through -- once, a man running across the country with his possessions in a three-wheeled baby stroller, another time two brothers traveling on riding mowers. Now, here was a wagon drawn by four enormous horses.

Boyd talked with the teamster, shot a collection of photos, including one of him shoeing a huge hoof, and then headed back to the Beacon office to write about the man, the beasts and what brought them this far. "Skelding is in search of something," Boyd wrote. "He's not exactly sure what it is, but he says he'll know it when he sees it." It was a wistful piece. With the good pictures and a happy headline, "Road Kings," Boyd knew he had a strong front-page anchor for his weekly's deadline the next day.

That day dawned overcast, and Skelding, who'd overnighted at a country store, had the horses ready and moving by around 8 a.m., heading along U.S. 45. It was a type of road that he didn't much like -- four-lane divided, but not an interstate, with quite a bit of traffic and a 65 mph speed limit. Just a week before, on another busy road in Mississippi, he'd had to pull over for a while before approaching a bridge, and even then, the horses had to contend with the roadway leavings of a scrap metal truck that had bounced along ahead of them.

Now, near Macon, a misty rain began to fall as they passed a mobile home where chained pit bulls snarled. Clementine the poodle, who wasn't feeling well, climbed up onto Skelding's mattress, where she rested as the wagon rolled on, aiming next for Meridian.

Also headed that way, not far behind them on U.S. 45, three trucks had fallen into a kind of impromptu convoy. In the first, driver Gene Bonner spotted the wagon up ahead in the right southbound lane, eased his 18-wheeler into the left lane, and passed.

Behind him, two tankers from T.K. Stanley trucking company were traveling together. The first made the same shift as Bonner had, moving left and whooshing past Skelding's team. But the second tanker, a Mack running close behind, did not pull out in time -- and it slammed at full speed into the rear of the wagon.

The crash was explosive.

Bonner, watching in his rearview mirror, saw what looked like a bomb go off and assumed everyone must be dead. He frantically braked, pulled to the shoulder and "called on the Lord."

Skelding never felt the impact, which shattered the wagon, strewing pieces of it along the road like the debris left by a tornado. The tanker jackknifed, skidding to a stop in a ditch, its cab bashed and one set of rear wheels tipping awkwardly off the ground.

At that moment, Boyd, the Beacon editor, was driving toward his regular Rotary Club meeting when his phone buzzed with a grim news tip. "An accident's happened," the caller blurted, "involving a bunch of horses!"

Racing to the scene, Boyd found one horse lying in the roadway, another on the shoulder, both dead. These were Deedee, one of two Skelding had gotten from his grandfather, and Dolly, the other white mare.

The two remaining horses, Joyce and Doc, were struggling in their tangled harnesses under the pile of wreckage that had been the wagon. They were suffering, but it wasn't clear how badly.

"We're going to have to shoot those horses," a sheriff's deputy declared, concerned but reluctant; he didn't draw his gun.

"No," Boyd answered, reminding him that a vet was on the way. "I believe those horses will be fine if we can get this debris off of them." And so they started.

And Skelding himself?

When Bonner, the first trucker, who'd safely passed the wagon, got his rig parked and ran back to the scene, he spotted the wagon driver, lying motionless in a ditch.

"He's dead," someone else who'd just arrived said. But rushing over, Bonner found a pulse.

And as they waited for paramedics, Skelding opened his eyes.

"What happened?" he whispered, then asked about his horses and about Clementine.

Clementine? Who was that? Bonner looked around. A small gray dog sat all alone amid the debris, shaking but not obviously hurt. Thrown clear, apparently with the mattress she'd been resting on, Clementine was brought over to her master, who teetered on the edge of unconsciousness.

As the whine of a siren approached, Bonner scooped up the little poodle.

"I'm going to take care of this dog," he later told Boyd. "I'll get ahold of the family."




EDITOR'S NOTE -- This story is based on interviews with Bob Skelding, police and medical authorities and many others, on a review of Mississippi State Patrol reports and other public records, news stories and entries on the website wagonteamster.com. Some quoted comments are as recalled by participants. Christopher Sullivan is a New York-based writer for The Associated Press. He can be reached at features(at)ap.org.

By Christopher Sullivan

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