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.