Editor's Note: This is the first of a two-part column. Part 2 will appear next week.
“Life should be a series of adventures, all launched from a secure base,” pretty well describes the life of today’s subject, Bernie Harberts.
Although born in Seattle in 1968, Bernie moved with his family to Statesville when he was 5; he considers himself a Statesville fellow. He now lives near Lenoir in a house he and his father built. Recently, he and I met face to face for the first time at his place; Bernie and I had communicated after I found and purchased his book, "Too Proud to Ride a Cow: By Mule Across America," at a Goodwill store in Yadkinville. Honestly, how could you not buy and read a book with a title like that?
“I always lived next to the Quaker church on Walnut Street in Statesville with my father and mother, Arthur and Lislott Harberts, and my brother, Christian, who currently lives in France. Many people might remember my mother from her association with Allison Woods,” he says.
I asked him what he thought he might do when he grew up. “When I was in high school,” he stated, “I dreamt of becoming a jockey, getting rich and running away on a horse. I got 1 1/2 of those things. I rode as a jockey, didn’t get rich, but ran away on a mule which is 1/2 horse.”
Before graduating from Statesville High in 1986, he had attended Mulberry School and then D. Matt Thompson Junior High. I asked him if any particular teacher had inspired him to a life of wandering. He thought for a moment, scratched his chin, then said, “No one particular teacher stands out, but I’d say my experience at Mulberry stands out most. Or maybe it was just the era. There was less of everything in the 1970s. The mere fact that we covered the basics (reading, writing and math), instead of chasing the latest technologically optimized teaching methods, has stood me in good stead.”
What, then is the cause of his wanderlust? “I agree with the British travel writer and storyteller Bruce Chatwin, author of the book, "The Songlines", about the Aboriginal Australians. Certain people, like me, are just wired to move about this earth.”
Bernie worked for a year before going to college. After a less-than-stellar two years at St. John’s College in Maryland, Bernie was politely asked to pursue his academic interests elsewhere. He enrolled at N.C. State and majored in Wood and Paper Science, part of the College of Forest Resources and succeeded in graduating Summa Cum Laude in 1996.
I wondered what had changed in him to apply himself more at N.C. State. “Being 5 years older,” he replied. “The difference between 19 and 24 is the difference between being a steeplechase jockey and applying oneself to a degree you want to go out and make money with, as opposed to risking snapping your neck on the weekend for $100.”
Getting to know Bernie a little, I discovered that he had done more different things in his 50 years than most people accomplish in a lifetime of a century.
Adventure No. 1
Bernie’s first major adventure was sailing alone around the globe. It took him four-and-a-half years (1998-2003), but then he was in no particular hurry. As he has succinctly stated, “You need money to be in a hurry.” The vessel was a 34-foot sailboat which he found in the Doolie community, west of Mooresville on Highway 150. Named Sea Bird, it had previously plied the comparatively calm waters of Lake Norman.
Bernie and Sea Bird shoved off from Morehead City on November 21, 1998, and returned in 2003. The voyage totaled in excess of 25,000 miles. The Earth’s circumference at the equator is 24,901 miles.
Bernie’s odyssey was chronicled in the Record & Landmark and in the Mooresville Tribune, both of which, along with three or four other newspapers, paid him for his accounts and so helped him finance his voyage.
The first installment of his record of his journey ran in January, 1999, newspapers, in which he describes how he and his dad were “bound for the Virgin Islands from Morehead City (NC).” He goes on to tell how his sailboat managed daily runs of 50 to 120 miles with the assistance of the Gulf Stream and within 19 days of leaving the States, arrived in the harbor of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands.
“My dad, Dr. Arthur Harberts, spent 19 days with me sailing from Oriental, to St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Dad was 72 then, suffered from bad hips and high blood pressure. That old boat had water pipes for masts, a tractor seat on the bowsprit and not a single winch with which to pull in the sails. It was a hardcase boat bought for cheap. Did I mention it was a slow, wet passage?
Everything on the Atlantic Ocean seemed to pass us, right down to the Portuguese man o' war jelly fish that drifted past us on windless days.”
The voyage was not a race to be completed in a certain number of days. Bernie stopped frequently, worked at odd jobs, made repairs as needed, bought supplies and then sailed to his next port of call.