Thursday afternoon I drove down Cypress Avenue and observed, as I have many times, the biggest seasonal sight in that part of town: the inflated King-Kong-sized filthy Santa on Hartnell Avenue.
There Big Dirty Santa stood, as he does each December, waving in a rather deflated way, as if he’s sick and tired of this same tree-lot location.
But yesterday my attention was diverted away from BD Santa toward the abrupt slow of traffic in the far right lane.
When I saw flashing lights ahead, I assumed the police had stopped someone, or maybe it was a tow truck at a crash scene.
No to both. Rather, the source of the slow-down was a wooden chuck-wagon-like structure that pulled a canvas-covered wagon, that pulled a little green cart, maybe to collect droppings.
All three wheeled structures were pulled by a team of mules and horses. The wood structure, where the driver sat, holding the reins, had a chimney that belched smoke that smelled, well, pretty smoky, like extremely strong hickory. A large American flag on a pole on the green wagon brought up the rear.
Wagon bells and chains jingled. Smoke billowed. The flag fluttered. Hooves clomped. Drivers gawked. Traffic stopped. Pedestrians snapped photos. Even BD Santa seemed to perk up a bit at the bizarre scene.
I needed to be in that right lane, so what the heck, I slowed way, way, down (to 3- to 4- miles per hour) and followed the wagon as we all crossed the Cypress Street Bridge together – cars, trucks, motorcycles, and a horse-and-mule-team pulling a wooden house and a covered wagon.
Both wagons were biblical message billboards that displayed words: Jesus Saves, Just Ask Him. Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and Thou Shalt Be Saved, And Thy House.
Instead of going home, I pulled over and shot some video. The mules and driver seemed completely unfazed as they crossed the bridge, stopped at the red light at Athens Avenue, turned right on Athens and kept on going onto Park Marina Drive.
As the team rolled by, and the driver waved, I hollered and asked where he was going. He said Sacramento.
A couple of idiot hot rod guys sped around the team, almost as if to scare them, but then mules plodded along, almost oblivious. Apparently, this was not their first greenhorn town to roll into.
Eventually, the mules pulled into the Shell Station on Park Marina Drive, where they caused a bit of excitement as people ran to take photos and drivers trying to pull in for gas navigated around the one-man, one-mule-team parade.
“Is that guy local?” Asked a man pulling out of the station. I said no. “Is he Amish or something?” I said I didn’t think so.
The team’s leader jumped down from his perch, a fire-plug of a guy with a large cowboy hat. He cautioned some women and children nearby to not pet his Belgian Draft Horses, before he went inside the mini-mart. The animals stood statue-still and waited for the man’s return with a brown paper bag and a sack of ice.
I tried to ask a few questions, and when he hesitated, I said I was a reporter. He interrupted me and pretty much scoffed – not in a WWJD kind of way, I might add.
“You got it, ma’am,” he said. “Everybody’s a reporter nowadays, all you need is a cell phone and I’m a reporter.”
But at my request, he did give me a photo copy he’d handed another woman in the parking lot. Turns out it was a 2008 article about him published in the Cannelton, Ind., Perry County News, by reporter Janet Robb.
In her story, Robb told of the man behind the mules, Randy Boehmer of Arizona, a retired taxidermist who’d been traveling around the country spreading the word of God via his mule team since September of 2007.
She told about how upset he was after his parents died in 1991, and his sister said that anything nobody wanted could go to the dump. That got him thinking about how hard his parents had worked for those possessions, and how meaningless our belongings are in the end. That’s when he said God put the desire in his heart to travel the country in a covered wagon. After his wife died of cancer in 1998, he started reading the Bible, and accepted Jesus as his savior.
Robb said that nearly everything Boehmer owns is within his covered wagons, and at the time the story was written, he received some monthly financial help from his church in Arizona, and sometimes offerings from people along the way. Also, there’s no telling if this information is still current, but the article said that people could write to Boehmer at P.O. Box 826, Ashfork, Ariz., 86320.
A handwritten note at the top of the copy said, “Google Randy Boehmer and Covered Wagon or Jesus or Mule or Traveler, etc., as of summer 2012 we have been through 21 states. GOD BLESS YOU. Randy.”
And that was that. It was time for Randy Boehmer to head out.
“We’re burnin’ daylight!'” he said, as the women yelled their good-byes.
As he started to pull out of the gas station driveway, he yelled to me to ask if I was from the newspaper. I said no, I was online. He literally waved it off, and seemed even more displeased when he asked if I’d seen his mules in that day’s local paper, and I said no, I hadn’t.
I told him I’d put it online, though.
He seemed unimpressed.
Oh well. Then he yelled to the gas station owner to ask if he’d seen a story about the man and the mules in the local paper that day. The man said no, he hadn’t.
And with that, he merged onto Park Marina Drive and headed west.
I followed him as he wound his way over Highway 44, and then along the road beside the Convention Center, where he was fan-mobbed by a bunch of Bethel students, who treated him like royalty, running along side him, snapping photos, waving and shouting.
He didn’t seem too impressed with them, either.
Instead, Boehmer and his team plodded methodically along, past the Convention Center, silhouetted by the Sundial Bridge, and through the Rodeo Ground gates,where, presumably, he and his team would bed down for the night.
Come Friday, he’ll probably resume his journey. From one city and town to another. Four miles per hour in the slow lane.
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as anewscafe.com in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Prior to 2007 Chamberlain was an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, CA.