There is a man wandering around California with three mules.
He has a name, but he prefers to go by Mule. Police departments throughout the state know his name. They inevitably get calls from residents who wonder why a man with three mules is sleeping on the side of the road, and from time to time they have to go and investigate and decide whether or not to ticket him. He has had so many run-ins with the police that he has a lawyer. (The lawyer knows Mule's name.) The filmmaker John McDonald, who has spent hundreds of hours filming Mule on his journeys, and who helped Mule set up a Facebook page, knows Mule's name as well.
But Mule introduced himself to me as Mule, and so that's what I'm going to call him.
Mule is 65 years old and has slept outside with his three mules for the last 10 years, though he’s lived his nomadic lifestyle for much longer than that -- 29 years on and off. Early on, he split his time between summer wandering, and then enduring what he calls “shit jobs” during the winter to earn enough to live off for the next summer.
He got his first mule in Spokane, Washington, so that he could carry more supplies with him into the bush than his meager, rail-thin frame can handle; McDonald says of Mule, "He has the build of Ghandi, but he sure doesn't have the personality of Ghandi." With his first mule, and then a second, and a third, he could load up on supplies to last him for much longer in the undeveloped parts of the American West, so he’d only have to resurface in towns to resupply once every month or so before once again disappearing.
But the world he inhabited was changing. While he sought solitude, he kept bumping into development. Land he had passed through was no longer public, and was vanishing behind fences. Everywhere he looked, he saw ever more roads and cars.
Two years ago, he walked the 295 mile stretch of land between Las Vegas and Ely, Nevada, land that was supposed to stay undeveloped by the Bureau of Land Management, land that had been used by Shoshone Indians for hundreds of years. In that BLM land, he encountered powerlines, the earliest stages of development. He knew then that he wanted to speak up about what he was seeing. Most immediately, suburban sprawl was threatening his way of life, but as Mule sees it, it threatens the way we all are meant to live. On the road to Ely, he gave up on wandering in the wild by himself. He got to Ely, and turned west, so that he could talk to people about the disappearance of public space.
Which is why there is a man wandering through California with three mules.
He has walked the boardwalk in Venice Beach with his mules. They once slept under a BART station in Oakland. They walk at day, and stop at night to rest in public spaces, which are mostly parks and neglected patches of grass along the sides of roads. His mules graze and drink the water they come across along the way. "We claim our right to use public space in a way that is applicable to us," Mule told me.
But this does not always go well for Mule. As he walked through Sacramento, a police officer told him, "This is not okay. Maybe in the gold rush days. But now we have cars." Police stop him constantly, which is a nuisance for Mule. He's not doing anything wrong, at least as he sees it. "We don't attempt to stay anywhere for more than a few days to rest. We don't set up camp structures or anything permanent. We don't collect garbage. We’re not homeless. Our home is the Earth."
The police mostly let him stay for the night, since he’s only passing through. It’s rare to find places where mules are explicitly prohibited by law, so they often don’t have much to go on besides complaints from the community. Sometimes the police scare him off from where he intended to sleep for the night. Sometimes they ticket him, but they almost always drop the charges. But not always. He is currently facing a $485 charge for sleeping outside the entrance to the Torrey Pines State Reserve. He's fighting the ticket, which is why he has a lawyer, Sharon Sherman, who has taken on the case pro bono. The first thing she had to do was push the date of the trial back from August 2013 to January 2014, because Mule follows the sun and the seasons, and escapes the summer heat in the north, and was far from San Diego at the time of the original trial date.
Recently, he had a rather nasty, run-in with the police in Gilroy, south of San Jose. He was arrested on August 30 while walking along the side of 101. The police wanted Mule to leave the road, but he insisted that there were no signs prohibiting him from being there. They arrested him for failing to follow the orders of a police officer, and Mule was taken to jail, and then transferred to a psychiatric facility, where he stayed locked up for six days. The animals were sent to a nearby animal shelter. Mule was released through the aid of a patients-rights advocate, who told a friend of Mule that it was the most bogus case she had ever seen. Mule will be going to court on September 12 to defend his plea of not guilty so that he can get back to wandering.
The filmmaker John McDonald met Mule the same way that I did -- a happenstance bumping into him, and McDonald couldn't contain his curiosity. After a few interactions, Mule agreed to let McDonald make a documentary about him, and to follow him around and collect footage.
While McDonald was at first interested in Mule as a documentary subject, after a few months of filming, he confessed to Mule, "I really believe a lot in what you're doing. In spite of the documentary, I would probably want to support you and what you're doing, and I respect you."
Everyone has their own attraction to Mule. While I was interviewing him, roughly a dozen people stopped to say hi, wish him luck, or even give him gifts, like a man who gave Mule a length of high-quality nylon rope. "A cowboy can always use some rope," the stranger said with a smile, and walked off. Mule is very popular amongst equestrians -- while researching this article, I found out that a writer with Mules and More Magazine is also writing about Mule. He has support from advocates of multi-use trails that connect communities, trails like the Iron Horse Trail in Contra Costa County in San Francisco's East Bay, a trail that allows people to safely get from town to town without using cars.
Mule's lawyer, Sharon Sherman, took on his case because she is fascinated by the legal questions that Mule's way of life raise. "There is always a balance between people's freedoms, and the needs of a community," she explained to me. "To me, this is another example of that. I've been in practice for 35 years, but Mule really made me stop and think about issues that I've never considered before. We have a countervailing balance between public space, private space, and what access do we really have to public space. Sure, I can walk down a street, but which street? What's the difference in using a road in a car, than with mules? Why do you have more rights in a car, than if you are walking, and walking with animals?"