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?"
But what struck me most when I came across Mule along the Canal Trail, an offshoot of the Iron Horse Trail, wasn't just the mules, or his simple, nomadic way of life. It was the large white lettering that was stenciled to the side of his packs, lettering that wrote out 3MULES.COM.
There is a man wandering through California with three mules, and a website.
When Mule first turned west from Ely, Nevada, he had his heart set on starting a website. "I needed a website so that when I got to California, I would have a voice," Mule explained to me. "I don't have the brain to deal with this technological stuff, but I knew that the website would be a voice. I'm nothing. I'm uneducated, I'm a weak little man, I'm the low man on the totem pole and I've been there my whole life. But a website would be my voice."
When John McDonald first met Mule over a year ago, Mule was carrying with him three cell phones, two voice recorders, a digital camera, and a Samsung tablet. He already had his website, 3mules.com, up and running -- set up as an act of kindness by a person he met on his way to California. But the website had very little information, and Mule didn't know how to update it. When Mule agreed to let McDonald film him, he asked for a favor in return: McDonald had to teach Mule how to use the tools that he carried with him.
Every time they meet, Mule takes scrupulous notes in a notebook on topics like how to post photos to Facebook, or edit captions, or leave comments. It's a slow process. As McDonald put it, "it takes a tremendous amount of patience to work with Mule, and he is slow to build trust. He has given me his passwords, but then he gets paranoid and changes his passwords, and then he'll call me and give me the new ones." The first time they met, McDonald taught Mule how to send text messages, so Mule didn't have to pay roaming charges for the extremely limited plan he had for his cell phone.
As of this writing, Mule has 2,802 likes on his Facebook page. McDonald encouraged him to set up the Facebook page as a tool to better reach an audience with his message, and it took a lot of convincing. Mule didn't like the ads on the site, because he doesn't want his message to be tainted by commercial interests. But Mule is now hooked on it. He told me about his Facebook page three separate times over the course of our interview, and McDonald says that when they meet, the first thing Mule wants to do is talk about how the Facebook page is doing, and study the analytics.
There is something deeply beautiful about how Mule is living. Just read through his Facebook page to see how much people admire his deliberate wanderings and his simple, poetic insights. Many of the things he says about development, the "Megatropolis," and balance sound almost prophetic. It's especially captivating to hear him talk about his way of life as a place in and of itself. "These mules and the way that we are living is a place. It's got its own magic, there's no doubt about it. We are protected and guided. I'm out there on the side of the road, with cars coming at us, and there is something protecting and guiding us. This place has got its rules. You only take what you need, and you give your hope and your faith to this place. It's a great place to be."
But there is also something deeply ironic about Mule's use of technology. He travels in a way that feels biblical, except that he's carrying a GPS tracker, cell phones, and a tablet. He goes to Starbucks to charge his devices and use their free WiFi, and it's hard to think of a more obvious symbol of suburban sprawl than Starbucks. In fact, the first time Mule and McDonald entered a Starbucks together to work on the website, Mule insisted that McDonald didn't film him inside, fearing it would look bad.
There are those who will say that you can't preach against the excesses of development while at the same time using the products of development. They will say that he's just freeloading off the work of others, and that his message is hollowed out by posting it on Facebook.
But I see it differently. Not everyone will be so lucky as to stumble into Mule like I did, to share a brief but powerful encounter with a man who is living his life in a way that makes you ask yourself big questions about public and private space, freedom, and balance. But they can easily stumble onto his website and his Facebook page through the power of Shares and Likes to sample his message.
While he was detained in the psychiatric facility, he handwrote a description of his arrest. When McDonald visited him, Mule gave the note to McDonald to photograph and post on Facebook, so that he could share what he had happened. The note, which is full of grammar mistakes, concludes: “We had the right to be on US101 therefore the order was unlawful we had the duty of a citizen in a free country to disobey an unlawful order and suffer the consequences JAIL.” Without making too grandiose of a comparison, it kind of makes you wonder if Thoreau would have posted portions of “Civil Disobedience” on Facebook, too.
Mule grew up in suburbia, just south of San Francisco, and spent his childhood exploring the orchard fields of Los Altos, orchard fields that were long ago replaced with homes and offices for technology giants. He's 65 years old. He's been wandering with his mules for 29 years, and doesn’t like what he has seen change in that time. He will eventually make his way down to San Diego in January for his court date, but he’s in no rush. He’ll make new friends along the way, and will probably butt heads with police along the way, too. As Mule likes to put it, “We live everywhere and aren’t going anywhere.”
There's a man wandering California with three mules, and a website, collecting Likes along the way.