When Hank Chalifoux drove a covered wagon and four mules through the middle of Leesburg this week, people figured he must have a gimmick, or at least a cause.
"He looked like some kind of Amish guy coming down from Pennsylvania," said Prescott Engle, an insurance broker who spotted Chalifoux on King Street, one of the town's main thoroughfares. "I thought maybe he was going to Washington to make a statement on taxes."
Others, including local historian Eugene Scheel, thought Chalifoux might just be taking advantage of the county's reputation as a haven for four-legged creatures.
Wrong. Chalifoux, 40, drove through Loudoun and Fauquier counties this week, stopping at a Leesburg feed store, because he's on his way to Florida. He started in Missouri in February, headed northeast to Vermont for his sister's Sept. 8 wedding and then picked up Route 15 in New York for the trip south.
"People don't like to pick up hitchhikers . . . . I've got my bed and I've got my kitchen and I've got my animals and I've got my wheels," he said of his method of transportation. "If I don't like my neighbors, I just get up and leave."
Besides, he said, his eyesight -- a mixture of extreme nearsightedness and astigmatism -- is so bad that he could never get a driver's license. He used to ride a motorcycle years ago, but fell off and nearly lost his arm. He has the scar to prove it.
Rolling along in a 19th-century wagon he has refurbished five times, the pony-tailed, bearded Chalifoux naturally attracts a lot of attention. Some of it is decidedly unfriendly, such as the tractor-trailer that drove within inches of the rear of the wagon on Route 15 on Wednesday.
"Yeah, the horn works," Chalifoux said as he nonchalantly waved the tractor-trailer around him.
Such incidents are nothing new to Chalifoux, even though he never travels on the interstates because they are off-limits to non-motorized vehicles. He said he tries to stay on the shoulder, but will move to a lane if he thinks the shoulder is too tough for the mules.
But often Chalifoux gets tangled in rush-hour traffic. As a result, irate drivers have tailed him for miles, tried to run him off the road and called him "unprintable" names. He said he doesn't mind, but thinks motorists are in too much of a hurry.
"Look at Los Angeles," he said. "They call it rush hour, and those people are doing 23 miles an hour -- that's only 20 miles faster than me."
Before he took to traveling across the country in a covered wagon five years ago, Chalifoux lived in a log cabin in the woods outside Sullivan, Mo., about 65 miles west of St. Louis. He was a self-described hermit, hunting and fishing and reading the works of his hero, Henry David Thoreau.
He traded the cabin for the life of a nomad after he heard of a man who took a team of mules from Ontario to Louisiana. Chalifoux decided he'd give it a try.
"I did 4,000 miles riding around Missouri before I decided to take off," and head for Florida in November 1988, he said. This will be his third trip between Missouri and Florida.
Chalifoux lives by selling crafts and mule rides at fairs, and "picking up an odd job now and then." He also has some savings from past jobs as a hospital orderly, carpet installer and painter.
Nothing, he said, has pleased him as much as his trips. He thinks the world might be a better place if more folks traveled by wagon, as they did long ago.
"They took time, and they talked to each other," he said. "Now they go along so quickly, there's no time to get to know anybody."
Chalifoux and the mules -- Kate, Kit, Rosie Marie and Hercules -- should be in Ocala, Fla., by the end of November, after nine months and more than 3,000 miles. He says this has been an unusual year because he has traveled about twice as much as he normally does.
Chalifoux, who was divorced years ago and has no children, stops occasionally for weeks at a time. But mostly, he likes to do 20 to 25 miles a day, or about 3 1/2 miles an hour. Near dusk each day, he finds a spot with enough grass for the mules to graze and sleeps by the side of the road. The next morning, they're off again.
It's a pace he has come to love.
"I have no concept of time," he said. "I live by the seasons."