Mules on a mission

Wandering muleteer warns Californians about overdevelopment, road safety

John Sears and his mules left San Diego bound for Northern California three months ago.

John Sears and his mules left San Diego bound for Northern California three months ago.

Photo by ken smith

Mule man:
Keep up on the adventures of John Sears and his three mules, Little Girl, Lady and Who-dee-doo, on Facebook or at

Considering the Wild West beginnings and ongoing agricultural character of Chico, there was an age when a man leading three mules through the streets of downtown wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. But when a mysterious muleteer and his trio of four-legged companions wandered into town this past Fourth of July weekend, it caused a substantial stir, with questions about the mule-train’s origins and pictures of sightings around Butte County posted to social media.

The Web address emblazoned across a set of saddlebags——reveals there’s a mission behind the man and mules’ meanderings. He hopes to spread several messages, both through his chosen lifestyle and documents he hand-delivers to city halls across the state: share the road, live close to nature, and fear the “megatropolis,” his name for the ever-expanding industrial world.

Following a cooling trail of rumors and mule droppings, the CN&R struck west Monday and caught up with the caravan in a vacant lot alongside Highway 32 in Orland.

“I like to call myself a mule, because I live with these mules,” the man said by way of introduction, nodding toward the animals grazing in the shade of a nearby olive tree. “It’s our way of life, it’s everything to us, so ‘mule’ is a good identifier for myself. But my regular-type name is John.”

John Sears, to be exact, though nowadays his proper name is rarely spoken outside of courtrooms; he’s been cited for illegal camping, having “animals at large” and other charges related to his nomadic ways in various locales. Sears is rail-thin, weather-beaten and caked in road dirt, but astonishingly spry for his 66 years. The mules appear well-kept.

In his younger days, Sears worked most of the year so he could hike long distances during the summers. He had trouble carrying a heavy pack with his slight frame, and decided to acquire his first mule 31 years ago. The time he spent working grew shorter until he retired at age 54 and committed to full-time life on the road. For years, he followed a regular circuit through sections of Nevada, Utah and Arizona he characterized as “the most desolate areas of the United States,” over time witnessing dramatic changes to the landscape.

“As we made this loop every year, we could see development encroaching, and it came to the point we felt we had to do something,” he said. “The obvious thing we could do was come here and live, be what we are right in the heart of the megatropolis, and challenge it and its desire to cover every square inch of ground on this earth with concrete, plastic and steel.”

Sears said he was inspired to spread his message by walking west to California (he rarely rides the mules), and explained “walking, through the history of mankind, has always been an important spiritual connection to man’s surroundings and his connection to this earth.”

In his travels, he met people who encouraged him to start a website, and eventually a Facebook page, to help spread his message. In Pasadena, he met filmmaker John McDonald, who supplied him with the necessary technology to post regular updates from the road in return for permission to film Sears for an upcoming documentary. An Internet blast last summer asking where to get horseshoes in San Francisco led to his meeting a woman who not only provided the shoes, but also started administering the websites. When his longtime mule companion Pepper developed tendonitis four months ago in Southern California, some followers invited her to retire on their Malibu ranch where, as Sears said, “she’s well taken care of and enjoying the company of several horses and a donkey.”

Sears lives meagerly, posting monthly expense ledgers online for greater insight into his way of life. He admits he and the mules benefit greatly from the kindness of strangers; passing through Oroville, a woman invited the travelers to take a break from the heat, and they spent a few idyllic days resting under a tree next to a creek. Between Chico and Orland, a veterinarian stopped to inquire about the mules’ health, giving them a quick checkup before sending the pack along with his blessing.

Another of Sears’ concerns is the lack of safety for conveyances other than cars on the nation’s roads. “Anyone in this country has a right to use [the roads], whether you’re riding a bicycle or moving around in a wheelchair or riding in a high-speed machine called an automobile. But they’re inadequate for anything, really, but the high-speed machine.

“The high-speed motorist is going way too fast for the conditions which they’re driving,” he continued. “It’s a suicide sort of thing. We take pictures of all the memorials we see along the road … there’s tons of them.”

Sears’ messages are found in a pair of documents he’s delivered to leaders in municipalities across California called the Declaration of Emergency and the Massive Catastrophic Lawsuit. He hopes they will lead to the development of a better interstate trail system, stronger road safety laws and a greater awareness about the dangers of overdevelopment. Since he entered and left Chico on a holiday weekend, he wasn’t able to present the papers to local leaders.

Though he’s experienced frequent legal troubles and leads a life far outside the norms of society, Sears sees himself as more of a modern-day monk than an Old West-style outlaw.

“[As a monk], you travel by yourself, you live in a state of contemplation, and you’re not involved in the man-made world, or seeking the wealth it offers,” he explained. “Our wealth is in the natural world and our connection to it. Grizzly bears, clean water, salmon … for us, that’s wealth.

“So, we offer a contrast to the man-made world. We walk shoulder-to-shoulder with it all day, every day. We go through one city after the next, but we carry that energy of the other side, and offer everybody a glimpse of that other world … and that’s the job of a monk.”

Sears said his course is determined by a road map of state highways, an aversion to cold weather and however he and the mules feel any given morning.

“Maybe we want to go up into the Sierras or to the coast; that’s what I’m contemplating right now, sort of.”