The metronomic pulse of the ventilator, breathing for him in the intensive care unit, sounded nothing like horses' hooves — but Bob Skelding heard little, anyway, numbed by a "whitewash" drug to help him recover.
A special collar immobilized his fractured neck vertebrae. Tubes drew blood from his chest cavity. IVs dripped to ease the healing of his lacerated spleen, his broken collarbone and ribs and other injuries he suffered when hurtled to the muddy shoulder of a Mississippi highway after a tanker truck smashed into his homemade wagon.
"Come as soon as you can!" a doctor at the Meridian hospital urged his far-flung family.
His sister, Cathy Fagan, arrived first — jumping into her motor home in North Carolina, phoning her boss to say she'd be taking emergency family leave, and speeding to Mississippi.
Looking now at her younger brother, swollen and sedated, she silently gave thanks: This was his latest of many near-misses — in the Army, on a long-ago Alaska sojourn, other times when, headlong, he'd chased a dream. As a boy, he'd been a bookworm, but she recalled what he loved: "Adventure stories, always adventure stories."
She retrieved the belongings someone had gathered together, remains of the life he'd carried aboard his portable home: his old military discharge papers and other records, a gun, tools, some clothes.
A few overlooked items — though not his father's Bible, which was lost — she collected along U.S. 45, where his wagon was rear-ended and two of his four draft horses were killed.
Though not really religious, she said to herself, "God had a plan."
Word of Skelding's accident spread online — on horse-related sites, between RV folks who'd followed his travels, at news sites that had reported his passing through. The Macon, Miss., paper, The Beacon, which had put out a story within hours of the crash, was deluged with get-well e-mails, calls, then cards. The latter, said editor Scott Boyd, came from every state, with several common messages:
"You're doing something we'd all like to do."
"My mama told me about you."
"I love horses."
Most enclosed a little cash — $2, $5, $10. A bank in Macon set up a fund to receive it.
At the hospital in Meridian, the calls became so frequent, with worried strangers asking Skelding's condition, that phone operators established a password for family members to get through.
"Miss Cathy, we've got your mail," a nurse said to Fagan one day, "but you're going to need a big bag." Emptied out on the floor of her motor home, the cards and letters made high mounds. Again, most included donations.
The mountain of correspondence reminded her niece, Lisa, who'd arrived from California, of the letters — "hundreds and hundreds" — that she'd opened months before while helping her father process requests for T-shirts he sold to help cover costs. Expecting just to fill orders, she could hardly believe the heartfelt words: "People saying how much he changed their lives. He took the time to meet people."
Skelding's near-daily blog posts had abruptly ceased, of course. Now regular readers clamored for news — and family members put up updates.
"Bob was taken off the ventilator on Monday," said one. "Tuesday, he took his first couple of steps from the bed to a chair."
Then, on Day 12 post-crash, there was a message from Skelding himself.
Like the mythological phoenix, he wrote, "we will be rising to continue the journey. ... The trip is by no means over."
His spirit was unbroken. While delighted, his family worried.
"You know you've got to heal," Lisa told him. Some friends thought his plan to continue the trip was ill-advised.
Online, vigorous debates kicked up over whether such a horse-and-wagon ride today was irresponsible, potentially endangering anyone on the road. Some suggested it was illegal, though others corrected that laws permit what Skelding did, given his safety lights, reflectors and other precautions.
Knowing she couldn't talk him out of it, his sister Cathy tried a different tack. He'd been blessed with another chance, she told him, but first he needed to get strong. She cajoled him into moving in for a while with her family in North Carolina.
About three weeks after arriving at the hospital, he was mended enough to go.
First, though, he had visitors: a delegation from Macon, with proceeds of the donation fund. Boyd, the editor who'd become a friend, began a speech, joking that Skelding was now a celebrity. But when his words turned serious, tears filled his eyes.
Breaking the tension, the old Skelding piped up. "Just give me the check!" he bellowed, to laughter all around.
A bank official handed it to him. It was for $10,000.
Recovering in North Carolina, Skelding stayed fixed on his plan. By strange coincidence, another adventurer who had just finished a wagon trek lived nearby. This was Bernie Harberts, and at a Bojangles restaurant, he made an offer: Skelding could buy his wagon — for a breakfast biscuit. It became "the Biscuit Wagon," and Skelding began getting it ready.
This period, buzzing with activity, helped him heal. After a month in North Carolina, he moved himself and the wagon to a friend's place in Indiana. He arranged to buy two big Belgian geldings, Bill and Bob, for a new team.
His surviving horses, Joyce and Doc, were OK now, but it had been touch-and-go at first. Dr. Billy Calvert, the Mississippi vet who freed them from the wreckage, had woken through the night to check on them, fearing the worst, especially for Joyce.
"She almost died of a broken heart," Skelding said. One of the horses killed, Deedee, was her half-sister and "soulmate." Joyce needed a new home.
It happened that the friends Skelding was staying with in Indiana hosted a three-day equestrian event in what's called competitive mounted orienteering, a sort of horseback scavenger hunt through forests. He offered one participant, Denise Bingamon, a ride on Joyce. Instantly, she said, "I was in love" — and even imagined buying the dark mare, though she couldn't afford a registered Percheron.
"I don't want anything for her," Skelding said. "I just need to know that she's going to a good home." Later, he was among the first to learn that the orienteering team Joyce became part of won the sport's national championship.
"Special Edition! On the Road." That headline on Skelding's "Where's Bob" post, barely four months after the accident, conveyed his excitement when the Biscuit Wagon pulled onto a rural road in Indiana to renew his journey.
"It was incredibly easy to fall back into the wagon mode of operation," he wrote, not mentioning the ache of his still-mending shoulder when he tried to throw harnesses on his new team.
This time, his route went north, into Michigan, where he saw family, then backtracked south, aiming for Texas and beyond.
Early on, he met Denise Jacobs, who had been following his blog. They kept in touch, seemed to have a lot in common, and, a little after Labor Day, he made an invitation:
"Would you be interested in joining me?"
"Just quit my job and take off?"
At 45, she knew it was crazy. Say no, friends advised — all but one, "a horse person" like herself.
"I'm going to go for it," she resolved.
After that, Skelding's posts started referring to "Denise and I."
Of the hundreds who climbed aboard his two wagons, she would ride the farthest — not counting his dog Clementine — and her perspective was unique.
"It's a demanding physical job," said Jacobs, who took turns at the reins.
She hadn't traveled much before, and she was happy when they stopped to read roadside markers or to talk with farmers about their crops. "I learned more ... than I ever did in school," she said. Intelligence, common sense and a sense of humor made Skelding an ideal traveling companion, she said. "He just makes everything seem so easy."
Well, not quite everything. Traffic was stressful. "You swear they're going to hit you, and they barely miss you," she said. As for Skelding: "He'd get a little angry. But since that accident I don't think he really has much fear. He places it in God's hands."
Mornings, Bill the horse would appear at the wagon window to wake them. After that: "You never knew from day to day what people or situations you'd meet."
One night, they were settling in when "the three amigos," as Skelding called Bill, Bob and Doc, wandered out of the electrified fence enclosure he'd set up. Coyotes cried as he and Jacobs searched on foot, then finally called the sheriff. It was halfway toward dawn when searchers found the horses, all safe.
Riding them back with a flashing patrol car as escort, Skelding joked: "See, I promised you a moonlight ride."
Jacobs made a scrapbook of mementoes. One of her favorite times came in Missouri, where a family named Stortz who'd put them up took her to a bluegrass jam where their 11-year-old daughter Heather, a fiddler and budding songwriter, performed.
"Someday, honey," she told Heather afterward, "you're going to be a star and I'm going to say I used to know you."
When the Biscuit Wagon pulled out, the girl was already working on a new composition. She practiced it, recorded a CD, then hurried with her family down the road. "Hey," she called out when they overtook the slow-moving wagon, "we've got something for you." And she serenaded them with "The Journey," a song about themselves.
It was winter now, as they moved through Arkansas and into Texas. In February 2010, Skelding's blog marked the anniversary of the crash and thanked all who'd helped him "recover, rebuild, and travel 2,200 miles around America."
The plan from here was to strike west, toward New Mexico — but around Waco, Jacobs found herself wondering, "Do I get off here?"
There wasn't any single reason. Financial responsibilities pulled at her, and she was, as Skelding said, "a nester."
They said, "See you later," not goodbye, when she flew back to Michigan.
"I can always do this again," she thought.
And Skelding, the rolling stone, rolled west. But his blog leaving Waco reflected the change: "The trailer is full of supplies for the coming week, but somehow the wagon seems empty."
He was learning a new geography now, as the country opened before him, rangeland and tumbleweeds, then desert scrub and yuccas. What was he learning about himself? About his "gypsy spirit," as Denise called it, and his no-fixed-address outlook?
"The days of our lives unfold like the revolution of wagon wheels upon a peaceful road," he'd begun a post not long before. "Countless times in my travels I hear from good people who express how I'm living their dream ... I tell them that they could do it as well — you're never too old, this life is only a hitch away.
"They reply, 'I would, if I wasn't married ... or I wasn't encumbered by this or that, or if I had the guts.'
"In retrospect, I see that they are the cornerstone of what is good in our society" — people working, raising families, giving back. Singling out a couple he'd met, who travel each year to Guatemala to support a school, he wrote, "It seems to me that they have their own wagon."
Though legions of virtual followers rode with him now, it could be lonely with just the animals to talk with. Still, something would usually cheer him up.
Biting into a piece of tough meat one night near Clovis, N.M., he turned to his poodle.
"You know, Clem," he told her, "we have filet mignon taste and a chuck steak budget."
The next day, at another stop to let bystanders pet the horses, Skelding said a man stepped forward.
"What do you need?" he asked.
"We don't need much," Skelding answered.
"How about some meat?" And with that, the fellow took off, returning shortly with six shrink-wrapped filets for the wagon fridge. It was kind of spooky, but Skelding photographed them for the blog and they ate well for days.
He grew more spiritual on the road. "I've gained a lot," he said. "The big guy, he doesn't talk to me, but he sends me signals. I get the message that ... if you do good he's going to help you."
The horses managed the long incline as the wagon pushed on, finally entering Colorado.
But near Dove Creek, Colo., last May 13, Skelding's journal carried a mournful entry.
"Shortly after lunch today," he wrote, "My Little Clementine passed to a better place."
He said she'd left a parting message on his laptop, telling her story: "Most of my life I spent on a farm, where there were kids to play with, kittens to find in the hay loft, long walks in the woods ... I had four litters of puppies ...
"I was a little reluctant when the Teamster had the crazy idea to take off on these adventures, but I got to tell you, it has been a pretty good gig."
He buried her in a spot facing the mountains.
Now Colorado drew Skelding onward, and it held him. For months, his posts have praised the beauty of vistas and the goodness of the people. At one point, he wrote that he'd met a woman and they might "hang our caps together," but it didn't last.
He made his way to a settlement called La Garita, where friends offered a place to park and to pasture the horses. In a November post, he wrote of crossing a valley in snow squalls en route back to his new digs. Then:
"After dinner, I retired to a warm wagon, that is parked behind the trading post. As I sat in the warmth and comfort, with the ice crystals swirling outside, I thought of how this once bustling town received its name. The English translation of the name La Garita is 'The Shelter.' It must have been on a night like this, long ago, that settlers named the burg. As the early storms rolled down the mountainsides, they would have retreated to their adobe houses, warmed by a burning fire and the hearts of their loved ones."
And now Skelding's journey reaches yet another crossroads.
A few weeks ago, he was back in New Hampshire. With the horses in good hands in Colorado, he'd taken a temp job at his old nuclear plant, along the icy coast near Seabrook, a way to replenish his bank account. (He's also seeking damages in a lawsuit against the company whose truck struck him.)
At a seaside restaurant, wearing a cap emblazoned "La Garita, Colorado," he talked about what's next for a 51-year-old grown used to wandering.
"I'm looking at a place in Colorado," he said — a "base" from which he could keep making wagon trips, but not epic ones.
And so, after a sentimental visit to Deerfield, where he'd started, he finished up in New Hampshire and made his way back to those snowy mountains.
"Following the siege of Troy, in ancient times, Ulysses embarked on a 10-year journey to reach home ..." So Skelding began a summing up of his own travels.
And after 6,000 miles, where was he? Still far from his Ithaca? Or, as a wanderer who sold all to take his chances and make his world in a rolling box, who contented himself with Christmases taken in by strangers sharing their songs, who with each stop drew a circle of friends who became a kind of second family — had he already found that home along the way?
If he's not quite home, he's getting close.
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.