During an interview one Saturday in May, an old drifting cowboy and missionary named Doc Mishler told me he planned to ride his horses out of Marysville on Monday or Tuesday. We said our goodbyes. But then, on Tuesday, I stumbled upon a strange piece of information that potentially called his integrity into question. So I grabbed my pencil and notebook and sped out to Marysville, hoping I wasn’t too late to catch him.
By the time I arrived, Mishler had already left, heading for the Sieben Ranch. So I hopped back in the truck and sped toward Canyon Creek. When I arrived, I asked after him at the store. The woman behind the counter gave me a suspicious look, but said yes, they’d seen him. One of his horses had thrown a shoe and they’d sent him down the road to a nice little camping spot, a small grove by a bend in the creek on Chevalier Road.
The truth is, I didn’t really want to chase after the man. I’d wanted to write a feel-good story about an interesting old cowboy, not start a small controversy. But this information was worth checking on. After all, one thing I knew from our interview was that, everywhere Mishler goes, kind people trust him and give him money.
So I jumped back in the truck and trundled down the dirt road.
If you go online and search the name Doc Mishler, you’ll find a long trail of flattering articles and news footage about an old itinerant cowboy who has been crisscrossing the country on horseback for years, never knowing where his next meal will come from, all in an attempt to raise awareness about the plight of starving children.
He had ridden into Marysville during the middle of May and, while in town, had turned 76. I’d be lying if I said the years didn’t show, but he still had a sharp and rakish look about him, with engaged blue eyes and a mustache that was still nearly black, as if parts of him refused to age. During our interview, he wore a felt cowboy hat with feathers in the band, a black leather vest, and a blue bandana knotted at his neck. Curls of white hair hid his ears. He was very photogenic, and didn’t shy away from the photographer’s camera.
Though some of what I repeat below will later come into question, here’s the basic storyline he shared with me—and any number of other reporters—over the years.
Born Tod Mishler in Indiana in 1936, Mishler grew up around horses, could ride and jump bareback by age five. He said you could trace the seed of his present life back to those days: “As a child I remember my daddy saying, ‘Eat your broccoli, eat your peas. There are starving children in the world.’ And I’d go outside and play cowboys and indians.”
However, his divergence from the cowboy-missionary path veered wide.
From 1956 to 1960, he was a bombardier navigator on a Navy plane that might very well have dropped a nuclear weapon given the right provocation and that the crew would have had to drop the bomb from low altitude and fly out quickly. None of them was certain they would have escaped in time, but they were young and pretended not to care.
“We were gung-ho,” he said, shaking his head. “Better dead than red. That kind of thing.”
After that he spent years as a bail-bondsman and pursuing nothing but “money and toys.” He had boats and even an airplane at one point.
He said he earned a PhD from Michigan State University, and that he was a philosophy professor at Western Michigan University during the mid nineties. Here he taught logic and critical-thinking classes and thereby acquired his nickname: Doc. He said he respected Jean-Paul Sartre, citing the writer’s line that Hell is other people.
But then something happened that dramatically changed Doc’s perspective: in 1996, doctors diagnosed him with colon cancer. It had metastasized and one doctor told him he was going to die without invasive treatment.
“I think I’ll pass,” Doc said.
“We all choose our own poison,” his doctor said.
Doc’s poison was the Bible.
“I’d read the Bible before,” he told me, “but I never read it like I did when I had cancer.”
The message that most seemed to resonate with him was the Sermon on the Mount. The self-abnegating view of charity was something he thought people needed to hear, including other Christians and church leaders, many of whom he believed simply overlooked it in their own pursuit of “mammon.”
Well past his prime and riddled with tumors, he moved to Choteau in 1998 to be near the mountains and the kind of cowboy life that still spoke to his inner child. He said during this period doctors declared him cancer free, which he attributes to the change of lifestyle and religion.
His first forays into the missionary life came shortly after. He joined a group called Bread for the Journey, a Christian nonprofit that raises money to feed hungry children. He would set out on long rides and people would pledge a certain number of cents or dollars per mile ridden.
He left Choteau for California in the summer of 2002 and reached Washington D.C. in the summer of 2004. The trip included a foray into Texas, where he attempted to meet then-president Bush. The meeting didn’t take place, but he intended to deliver a message: we can gain security through generosity better than with bombs.
Everywhere he went, people’s generosity overwhelmed him.
Debbie O’Connell Peterson and Doug Peterson put him up during his recent stay in Marysville. Over the years, any number of other people had similarly given him food, a place to rest and even cash donations.
The interceding years between 2004 and the current leg of his trip included stays in Maryland, Florida and upstate New York, where he lived in a religious community known as Maple Ridge, a branch of the Bruderhof (a Christian group similar to Hutterites).
This connection with the Maple Ridge is where Mishler’s story took a turn.
During our interview, Mishler had said he urges people to think about the hungry children, but he doesn’t take money for that cause directly. For those inclined to give to that cause, he distributes a “letter of commitment to Jesus” that lists Maple Ridge contact information on both pages.
Most people would take this as a clear statement of affiliation.
During the interview, I’d asked Mishler if he knew how much money the Bruderhof had collected as a result of his mission and he said he didn’t know, that he was only concerned with his part, the riding and the talking. But I was curious to know the answer. Here was a man whose presence energized people. He had ridden through Pittsburg, Chicago. Everywhere he went on horseback, people turned to stare. So much about his random appearances must have seemed so unlikely, and for a lot of people, particularly those who tend to mythologize the wild west, he must have seemed like an embodiment of better times. I figured the donations were probably pretty significant.
I planned to call the Bruderhof to ask, but first I did a web search for “Mishler” and “Bruderhof,” thinking the information might be readily available. But in doing so, I came across an article I hadn’t yet seen. This one was from a 2011 issue of the Times Herald-Record of Middletown, N.Y. In it, Malcolm Johnson, one of two pastors named on Mishler’s letter of commitment, was quoted as saying, “Mishler is a con artist and is heading on the way to being a crackpot.”
It was a pretty strong statement coming from a pastor of an order that ardently preaches charity and forgiveness. So I contacted the Bruderhof for a statement.
The next morning, the Tuesday mentioned at the beginning of this article, I received a voicemail from a man named Ian Winter, a spokesman for the Maple Ridge community.
“I want you to know that he actually is not affiliated with the Bruderhof and the link … with the Bruderhof is not at all authorized. I had told him that a long time ago. And Doc’s mission that he is on is not supported by the Bruderhof,” Winter said.
I didn’t quite know what to make of this affiliation business. Yes, it was weird, but it was hard to imagine it being some kind of scam. If you enter the web address listed on the letter, it leads you to the Bruderhof’s website. If the church doesn’t support his mission, he probably doesn’t stand to benefit when he directs people to the organization.
However, Mishler had known I was working on a story during our interview. Why wouldn’t he have just mentioned this when I asked about the donations? It would have been a natural time to do so.
There was something unsettling about it. Frankly, I didn’t care if he’d ever had the backing of a church. My guess was that some people would still support him on his ride, even if it weren’t for a cause. But I also suspected at least some would think differently if they knew this information. Maybe they would still basically trust him. I just wasn’t willing to assume for them.
It also worried me to think that a bunch of writers might have ignored the possibility that he wasn’t 100-percent above board and, in repeating everything he said, had inadvertently created a record of support for an untrue narrative.
Another thing that often appears in stories about him is the bit I mentioned in the previous section about how he used to be a philosophy professor. So I called and left a voicemail for the Western Michigan University philosophy department, the school where he said he taught.
While waiting for a callback, that’s when I got in my truck, sped out to Marysville, then to Canyon Creek, then west on Chevalier Road until I came to a peaceful little grove at the bend of the creek.
There Mishler stood, in his cowboy hat and a fringed buckskin jacket, grazing his horses.
Mishler and I chatted for a few moments about his ride that day, about his strawberry roan, Charity, throwing a shoe. He said he’d considered staying here the night, but he was probably going to push on through to the Sieben Ranch, which he figured to be another 8 miles.
I told him I’d contacted the folks at Maple Ridge.
“If you contacted them, they probably told you I was crazy,” he said immediately.
“They said they don’t support your mission.”
He offered me another version of the letter of commitment, this one with some handwritten amendments. One amendment clarified that “we do this ride for Elder Christoph Arnold.”
Arnold is a grandson of Eberhard Arnold, who started the Bruderhof in Germany in 1920. Mishler says Arnold supported his mission and that he rode because Arnold wanted to but could not. He attributed the controversy to church politics and said the leadership no longer supported his mission because of his more Christ-like views about what percentage of oneself a Christian should give.
“They’ve got to the point where they’re affluent,” he explained.
Another handwritten amendment beside two Bruderhof pastors names read, “They want to be Christ-like!”
(Later, I would leave three follow-up messages for Ian Winter, even going so far as to explain to the switchboard operators the subtleties of what I was trying to find out, and why I thought it was important. But Winter did not respond.)
However, my conversation with Mishler yielded another interesting bit of information.
“If you’ve done research,” he said with a laugh, “you probably read I have 10 kids with six different women.”
I had not read that, and said so. He said it was actually true.
Then I asked about his professorship, what he did, where and when.
I hadn’t yet heard from the people at the university, and didn’t know what to expect, but I wasn’t sure if I’d get another chance to ask Mishler’s side of things. He repeated what he’d said before, that he’d taught classes like logic and critical thinking at WMU. However, this time he said he’d only done it for two years to fill in for another professor who was sick.
The letter was still a sticking point for me. I asked him something about why he would continue directing people to a website if the people who owned the website didn’t support him. He said he didn’t tell people where to donate, that it was their decision. I asked if he thought it possible that the letter, even if not backed by the Bruderhof, made it easier for him to justify his presence in a community.
He knew where this was going.
“Yes,” he said, “I ride because I love to ride. I’ve become the man the child always wanted to be.”
This last bit I had heard before. He said it in our interview. And he’d said it in other articles I’d read. I wanted to get back to the stuff about the letter, and he seemed to want to speak to this question of misunderstanding, though obliquely.
He asked if I had read a piece of his writing titled “The Simile of the Wild Stallion” that read, in part, “A Christian who is under the Spirit is as different from the ordinary man as the wild stallion is from the gelding, and spiritual men are more able to endure isolation and misunderstanding.”
He told me some stories about time he spent in the South Pacific after his life almost fell apart when he was about 50. Then he said he had to get on the dusty trail and we parted company for good.
When I didn’t hear from the WMU philosophy department, I called again. This time someone answered, a woman named Tanya. When I explained why I was calling, she said she hadn’t worked there during the nineties. But she had heard about this wandering cowboy. (Apparently, another reporter had called to check on his story once—yes, she said once.)
She said the department chairperson told her Mishler had definitely not taught in that department.
After that call, I tracked down an article in the September 23, 2011 issue of North Dakota’s Grand Forks Herald and paid $2.95 for the privilege of reading it.
“As he has for years in the many news stories,” Stephen J. Lee wrote, “Mishler exaggerates his academic accomplishments.
“(Professors) remember Mishler not as a fellow professor or even a graduate student—WMU doesn’t offer a doctorate in philosophy, only a master’s degree—but as an older-than-average undergraduate student.
“Who, one professor said in an email to the Herald, ‘was very enthusiastic, lots of ideas, but not terribly organized.’”
That’s not to say definitively that Mishler was never a professor. I’ve been an adjunct professor at Carroll College since 2008 and I doubt in 20 years anyone will remember I taught there. Many professors working there today couldn’t vouch for me.
Still, this news doesn’t bode well.
Trust is a funny issue. Some people wouldn’t trust him ever again if they found out he’d exaggerated little bits of his story, while others might still trust him if they found out the only truly true part was that he was an old man riding his horses alone across the country. And judging by how much ground he covered the day I chased after him, I don’t doubt the man has ridden long and hard.
Personally, if he came back through I would probably let him bunk at my place. The only thing that would really kill my trust would be if I found out he was running a net profit. But that’s just me, and I didn’t actually give the man money.
On the other hand, O’Connell Peterson’s farrier did.
Gene Andal shoed her horses while Mishler was visiting and the two men talked for a long time. When O’Connell Peterson tried to pay for the work, Andal refused the money, told her to give it to Mishler for “riding cash.”
When I told Andal what I’d found, he said it surprised him because he had actually read some stories about Mishler online—the same positive stories I’d seen.
The problem is that those articles didn’t just make an interesting and likeable man seem interesting and likeable, but gave credence to his version of things.
Still, even knowing Mishler may not be exactly the way people perceive him, Andal said, “Well, if he’s doing what he says he’s doing, I’m tickled to help him.”
It’s exactly the kind of generosity Mishler told me restored his faith in humanity.
And it’s exactly the kind of thing that makes a drifting cowboy’s story worth checking.