DE SOTO, Iowa. -- Randy Tucker promised his granddaughter a mule, so now he's on a mission to keep his word, even if it means riding the animal hundreds of miles through the Midwest.
The trek from Paducah, Ky., to Dubois, Wyo., by mule requires avoiding major interstates and cities, adding dozens of miles to the 1,400-mile direct route. For Tucker, of Ocala, Fla., it also involves sleeping in roadside culverts or beneath bridges and thick trees in a sleeping bag.
But the journey is well worth it to deliver the special gift to his 9-year-old granddaughter, he said.
"You can't promise a kid something, then not do it," Tucker said Thursday evening while taking shelter with Jaguar in a feed barn in De Soto.
Jaguar, a 6-year-old mule, is the gift he promised Sierra, his only grandchild. She lives in Dubois with her family.
The 52-year-old Floridian says he is riding the mule to Wyoming because a truck broke down last month while transporting the animal. The driver, whom Tucker said he paid, left the animal at a shelter in Paducah.
A little more than three weeks ago, Tucker boarded a Greyhound bus from Florida, rescued Jaguar, and became a cowboy, which he now says looks much more romantic in the movies.
"I just got on a bus, saddled him up and started riding," he said. "It wasn't the brightest thing I ever did. Because it's really worn me out. It's been hard."
In some small towns, Tucker said he stopped for pictures and to give rides to young children. In other places, he moved on quickly, trying to avoid attention.
The man and mule have stuck together through rain, hail and heavy storms, averaging 20 to 25 miles a day and sleeping outside every night, Tucker said.
Hitchhiking with a mule turned out to be more difficult than he expected, said Tucker, noting how he hoped to find a generous traveler with a horse trailer who might lend a hand along the way.
That person showed up in West Des Moines on Thursday after police stations around the Des Moines area fielded calls reporting a "man with a donkey walking down the road."
"It sounds like the beginning to a joke," Clive Police Chief Michael Venema said, admitting he was uncertain of the legality of the situation. "It's not something I recall ever dealing with before, having to decide whether it's legal to ride a donkey on a city street."
His officers directed Tucker toward more rural roads outside the city. West Des Moines police said earlier on Thursday they spotted Tucker and Jaguar beside Interstate Highway 80; similar sightings were reported in Altoona two days prior.
By the time West Des Moines police fielded a second volley of calls Thursday afternoon about "a man with a donkey," police staff had found a generous caretaker in De Soto.
Dean Scott, owner of Right Turn Feed, came to the rescue with a horse trailer.
"I'll take them home to my house," the Iowa rancher said, noting how the situation hardly seemed out of the ordinary for his feeding operation that doubles as a ranch and turns into a Cowboy Church venue on Sundays.
"Stuff like this happens here all the time. People just show up in need. I can't explain it," he said, after offering Tucker his first shower in quite some time.
Scott said he and his wife had planned to travel to South Dakota for a family reunion this weekend, where they also will deliver a horse to a family member. They invited Tucker along and will make space for Jaguar.
Scott, who has raised several mules, said he can get Tucker and Jaguar to the Black Hills, which puts them in the middle of cowboy country for the remaining 400-mile stretch to Dubois.
Tucker said the timing is God-sent. He had spent the past two days walking along highways, trying to give Jaguar a break after the mule suffered a rope burn during a storm.
"It's been absolutely miserable," Tucker said. "Nothing scares him, and he'll do anything to protect me."
Tucker, who used to be a truck driver, said once he arrives in Dubois, he plans to stick around in hopes of finding work on a horse ranch.
"When I give Sierra the mule, I'm going to go find a job there," he said.