For the love of mules
Around 500 riders converged in southern Illinois during the week of April 3 from as far away as Germany and Thailand, and from as many as 26 states, all with one thing in common.
They were mule people.
“[In] nearly every state you can think of, there’s somebody there who’s one of us,” said Steve Dawson, who has owned a number of donkey-horse hybrids for 30 years. “We’re on the same wavelength. We might not agree on everything, but we all share our love for mules.”
Dawson was among hundreds of domestic and international mule enthusiasts who travelled to Shawnee National Forest for a week of camping and trail riding at the second annual McAllister and Friends Mule Ride.
The ride was the culmination of a year’s worth of planning by veteran mule owners Cathy and Anthony “Bull” McAllister, of Flora, and JoJo Moomey, owner of the 50-acre High Knob Campground nestled in the Shawnee Forest.
After camping and riding at High Knob for more than 30 years, the McAllisters said they wanted to create an opportunity to bring “the mule world” together across geographic borders to explore the scenic cliff faces and valleys of southern Illinois.
Inspired by Dean and Lynn Titsworth, who began the Shawnee mule gatherings in the 1980s, Anthony McAllister broadcasted last year’s gathering in a Facebook event that drew more than 300 mule riders from across the country. This year, the numbers grew.
“There’s nothing better [than these trips],” said Anthony McAllister, who has returned his family to raising mules after three generations. “I get enjoyment from teaching people about mules and learning from others. As long as it’s free and we’re all having fun, I’ll keep doing it.”
For Loree Brown, of Bear Lake, Michigan, the Shawnee Mule Ride has given her a chance to meet fellow mule riders in person after years of talking online.
“Some of my best friends I’ve never met until I get here,” Brown said. “A lot of people don’t understand us — either they say, ‘How can you go to someone’s house that you don’t even know?’ And I say, ‘I know these people.’ You get a feel for who they are when we talk every day online. We know each other before we ever see each other in person.”
Over the course of the week at High Knob, the riders managed to fundraise $10,000 for the medical expenses of 4-year-old Briar Phillips, who in March was diagnosed with a rare kidney cancer known as Wilms’ tumor.
“That’s just everybody’s heart,” Anthony McAllister said of the donations raised. “Nobody knows him. That’s just who we are — mule people.”