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By Laura Enderson and Tyler Flynn
One of the first commercial ventures to be featured at Roanoke Valley's Explore Park in five years is getting its first hoof in the door.
Spiritrider Covered Wagon Rides is preparing for its opening on Memorial Day weekend.
The business, which consists of teamster Mikel Carmon, outrider Susan Hall and two mules, Lester and Festus, will be Explore Park's first public-private partnership since financial pressures forced the living history attraction to close its doors in 2007.
The idea for Spiritrider originated during a trip Carmon took from Wyoming to visit Hall last year. Hall, who has lived in Roanoke County since 2001 and frequented Explore Park when it was still operating, brought Carmon to the area to go hiking.
Carmon immediately saw the potential in the location.
"I just fell in love with the place. I [found it]... very sad. There were all these beautiful buildings of great historical value and they were all boarded up — no one was getting to enjoy [them]," Carmon said when describing her first trip to the site.
Motivated by this opportunity, Carmon contacted Debbie Pitts, the executive director for the Virginia Recreational Facilities Authority (VRFA), who had been researching ways to revive the location. With Pitts' encouragement, Carmon and Hall offered a proposal to the VRFA on Dec. 26 last year, which was accepted by the board unanimously.
Carmon then relocated her original business, Spiritrider Wagon Train, based out of Casper and Buffalo, Wyo, to Roanoke, and partnered with Hall to form Spiritrider Covered Wagon Rides.
Carmon has been working with wagons, horses and mules for 22 years. Carmon rode the 30-day journey on the Bridger Trail for Wyoming's Centennial Wagon Train in 1990, her first wagon experience.
After that Carmon was hooked. She was an outrider for 21 years, until deciding to start her own team. Being a teamster or an outrider isn't easy though.
“An [outrider] has to be knowledgeable and brave — they're the teamster's communication to the outside world: There has to be a lot of trust between an outrider and their teamster," Hall said.
She was first inspired start her business, Spiritriders, after participating in the Bridger Trail in June 2001.
“I just remember I was so exhausted,” Carmon said. “And I just decided that I was just going to start my own wagon team.”
Hall was happy to work with Carmon to start Spiritriders at Explore Park.
“I love animals and I already had the boots, so it just seemed like the thing to do,” Hall said laughing.
Carmon purchased Lester and Festus in South Carolina, and transported them to the area in January. She and Hall have spent the last few weeks getting the mules used to the trail and unfamiliar sounds, like the railroad and the Roanoke River. Lester and Festus are Carmon's fifth team, her second team with mules.
“It's amazing when you talk and communicate with these mules, what you can get them to do. It's all about the relationship and them trusting you,” Carmon said fondly while leading her team.
Carmon said each mule has its own personality: Lester is a 'let's go' kind of mule, while Festus would rather sit in the shade and eat a carrot.
“You just get so bonded,” Carmon said about her team. "The more you talk to your animals, the more they're willing to do for you."
Carmon said driving the wagon is unlike anything else. The 2,000 pound wagon can hold about 12 people per trip and Carmon plans to have as many trips as necessary to include all reservations for that day.
Pitts said the focus for the future of Explore Park at this point is creating public/private partnerships, such as the one with Spiritriders. “We felt like it was a good match,” she said of that partnership.
And VRFA is looking for more of those opportunities, such as an outfitters group that could offer rentals for kayaks and canoes along the park's access to the Roanoke River.
In addition, the park continues to offer access to its extensive bike and walking trails. The Blue Ridge Parkway Visitors Center, located at the entrance to Explore Park, is also open seasonally seven days a week from 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
“It's going to take all of the community's support,” Pitts said of Explore Park's future endeavors. “We're still here and gradually reopening as opportunities become available.”
And Spiritriders seems to be a perfect fit.
Spritriders will be running wagon rides by reservation from Memorial Day weekend until November 4. Each tour includes the wagon ride, a walking tour, 19th century narration by Hall, food and live music.
On Friday nights and Sunday afternoon, the tour is catered by Hillbilly Shack and takes about three hours. It costs $26 for adults, $18 for children 7-15, including food.
On Saturday evening, the tour takes about four hours, is fully catered by Wildwood Smokehouse and features the live three-piece musical Ladies of the Lake. It costs $55 for adults and $25 for children 7-15. Discounted rates are available for groups and seniors. Spirtriders also does private tours by reservations.
For more information call at 540-597-4931 or email Carmon at firstname.lastname@example.org.