California has long been a place where people hit the road on adventures. One man has spent 10 years traveling on foot – with three mules. Sixty-five year old John Sears is on a mission: he’s protesting the loss of open spaces by living outdoors with his mules. I caught up with the man nicknamed ‘Mule’ in Salinas to learn where he’s going next, and why.
When I first spot him, he’s standing in the parking lot of a realty company in Salinas, filling up buckets of water from a spigot. He says his three mules need to rehydrate. They all travel about 10 to 15 miles a day on foot. When they get tired, he says, they sleep outdoors.
“I’ve been homeless before they even had the word homeless,” says Mule. “That’s just how I like to live.”
When we met, he and his three mules were slowly making their way to San Diego, over 400 miles away, for a court hearing in January. Mule was arrested there last year and charged with ‘illegal camping’ at a state park.
“You get out here and walk, you find out fast enough that the laws are designed to keep you from using your rights to move freely unless you’re in an automobile,” he says. “And if you’re in an automobile, you’re really not moving very freely.”
Mule says he gets stopped by the police every few days, usually because he’s resting on private property. Which is exactly what happens here in Salinas – the parking lot is private property. Two police officers approach Mule and ask for his ID.
The police don’t give Mule a ticket, but they ask him to leave. So he packs up and we head south, along a very narrow, two-lane highway.
Less than a mile down the road, Mule finds a field to stop and rest for a bit. He explains he was born in Marin and raised in Palo Alto. He hated school; he says being confined indoors made him depressed. So after high school, he hitched a ride out of town.
“I’d travel around and hitchhike around the country and then wind up somewhere broke, and then I’d get a job maybe,” Mule says. “I worked in Detroit. I worked there for about three months, a Cadillac plant. In an assembly line of all places. Just bouncing around, getting enough money to live.”
And enough to buy three mules – Lady, Pepper and Little Girl.
“I bought my first mule when I was 36, and I never let go,” Mule says.
Eventually Mule stopped working altogether. He lives off social security and donations. Mule says he doesn’t need much: He eats two small meals of bread, rice and canned green beans each day. The mules just graze off the side of the road.
When it’s time to sleep, Mule says he has to be creative. Especially in big cities.
“You know the Hollywood sign? We were making our way through that area, and I don’t know, maybe it was a couple of hundred yards at the most below the Hollywood sign, that’s where we spent the night before we dropped down out of the hills into Los Angeles,” Mule says. “And in the morning we came down to Griffith Park, and down into downtown L.A., the heart of the city. We walked all through it. We walked down Sunset Boulevard, down Cesar Chavez.”
Mule says he misses the days when the outdoors were accessible to anyone. He says walking across California is his way of protesting the demise of open spaces.
“It’s so effective,” he says. “When you see these mules coming down the side of the road, with one human being, you know that they’re doing something different than what you’re doing, which is sitting in a car. And it gets people thinking.”
But Mule is breaking the law. He was fined in Redwood City and spent time in a Gilroy jail. Yet his mission is resonating with some. One fan built him a website – 3mules.com – and an L.A.-based filmmaker is making a documentary about Mule’s life. Mule also got a free cell phone and a tablet. He uses that to update his Facebook page, which has over 25,000 followers.
“All I do is walk,” Mule says. “I don’t plan this stuff. I don’t organize it. I just keep walking. I get up every morning, that’s my job.”
One of those followers, Brian Zittlow, pulls over on the side of the highway to come say hello.
“I’ve seen him on Facebook and I’ve been trying to find him for four days,” says Zittlow. “I finally found him down the road, took some pictures of him, and then decided to go home and get some apples.”
Zittlow — a local photographer — gives Mule a paper bag with some rice, bread and apples. He says Mule should be supported by the community — not arrested or harassed.
Mule and I say goodbye. He says he has to keep trekking to make his January court hearing in San Diego.
A few weeks later, I check Mule’s Facebook page. He’s now in the Los Padres National Forest near Santa Barbara, and the case against him in San Diego has been dropped – no reason was given. Still, Mule plans to keep heading south, making a surprise appearance at the Tournament of Roses Parade on New Year’s Day.