Open road beckons woman on mule

June 01, 1994|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Sun Staff Writer

It's a slow, meandering journey from New Jersey to Georgia on a mule.

That's how Keri Martin likes it. She's a 40-year-old woman with no permanent home who travels the country on her mule, Samuel -- 3 miles per hour when she walks him, 2 1/2 miles per hour when she rides.

"I don't rush," says Miss Martin, visiting friends in Howard County. "It's the trip that matters."

She took three weeks to travel from her father's house in New Jersey to Glenelg in Howard County, where she stayed one week before departing for Georgia yesterday.

If you gauge a trip by the time it takes to get there, then Miss Martin ranks last. But if you measure the journey by peace of mind, then she finishes ahead of most of us.

Her father, a corporate executive, has come to realize that.

"I'm sure there are times you look at your job and your life and wonder: 'Is this all there is?' " says Frank Martin, 63, by telephone from New Jersey. "There's a little bit of Keri in all of us."

Plain-spoken with a grand smile, Miss Martin wears her usual outfit: Old hat, wire-rim glasses, scarf tied around her neck and overalls. Two pigtails hang down her back.

"I guess the old-time pioneer spirit is still left in a few people," she says.

She's not sure why it's left in her, but she remembers in the sixth grade having to write a composition about what she wanted to do when she grew up. She wanted to ride a horse across country.

That was admirable for a 12-year-old girl living in the suburbs of New Jersey. But when she got a job at a riding stable in high school, bought a mare for $250 and announced her intention of riding west after graduation, that was unsettling.

"She was very independent even then," her father says. "We finally came to the conclusion that this was probably the only chance she'd ever have to do something like this -- as long as it was just a summer thing and she got back for college in the fall."

She left with her mare, Lady David, after midnight to avoid the daytime traffic around Philadelphia. She crossed the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge over the Delaware River leading Lady David, blindfolded, next to a police escort with flashing lights.

"I didn't have any idea where I was going," Miss Martin says of that 1972 trip. "I was just heading out. I still do that sometimes, just head out."

The trip lasted two months, derailed a week by Hurricane Agnes and finally stalled in Western Maryland near Sugarloaf Mountain when Lady David bent a shoe.

Miss Martin went to college that fall, attended three years and dropped out. She worked at a riding stable, learned blacksmithing and then got the itch again -- and again, and again.

Eighth journaey

This is her eighth journey. She's ridden as far west as Texas. Working odd jobs, she settles down for short stretches -- at her father's, at friends' farms.

"When the grass starts growing in the spring," she says, "I've got to go somewhere."

Miss Martin was robbed once. She's been pestered by drunks, and once a driver accidentally sideswiped her mule but didn't hurt him. That's about all the bad things that have happened, she says.

"For hours you can think what you want to think," she says. "You can go all day and not say a word to anybody.

"I'm not the kind of person who gets lonely. I don't get bored either. I'm happy doing this. I don't see any reason to change."

! Shuns materialism

Materialism is not for her.

"The more possessions you have, the more you have to work to pay for them," she says. "If all you own is a mule and a few possessions, you don't have to work that much. . . . Life's supposed to be fun, at least that's the way I look at it."

She packs lightly -- a tent, some food and not much else. Traveling alongside the road, she rides Samuel up hills, walks him down hills and splits the rest of the time riding and walking.

"He's got over 8,000 miles on him," she says of Samuel, who is 16. "I'm going to have to retire him pretty soon."

Samuel is her second mule. She switched from horses because, she says, mules are sturdier, friendlier and better travelers.

The pair sleep at night in woods or fields. Attracting a lot of attention during the day, they're often invited to stay with strangers.

The town of Iva, S.C., population 1,300, has more or less adopted them. Miss Martin and Samuel passed through there twice.

"Oh sure, we all love her," says the mayor, Elmer Powell.

About eight years ago, he says, he and his wife drove past a woman leading a mule out of Iva. He turned the car around to investigate.

"I'm a country person myself," Mayor Powell says, "but seeing an attractive lady, a young lady, leading a mule with a pack on it was unusual."

The mayor invited Miss Martin to stay a while. Townspeople put her up in a motel and Samuel at a farm, and then took her out to dinner.

She told her stories of life on the road, and they contributed money for her trip. When Miss Martin and Samuel rode through two years later, the mayor let her stay in his house.

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