It’s early afternoon, and John Sears is done walking for the day.
As a younger man, he could cover 20 to 25 miles a day on his feet, but now, nearing 70 years old—with a graying beard and buzzed head, his sun-kissed forehead wrinkled like a cracked desert landscape—Sears tops out at about 15. Where he makes camp depends on a lot of variables: if it’s public land, if there’s water readily available, if there’s ample grass on which to graze. That last one’s not so much for himself but the trio of mules that compose the rest of his nomadic tribe.
Babe, an 11-year-old black mule, has been with the crew since last November. Little Girl, a 27-year-old white mule, has been part of the tribe for 24 years. Lady, the 37-year-old brown mule, has been traveling with Sears for the past 32 years. They each carry packs filled with necessary outdoor survival items: water, tools, a pressure cooker, gas, a small tent that’s not often used, medical supplies, horseshoes, plastic bags to cover up when it rains, whatever food he’s carrying. That’s enough to get him from point A to point B, wherever that may be.
On Leap Day 2016, when I call him up, point B is somewhere inside Wind Wolves Preserve, a 93,000-acre nature conservancy south of Bakersfield, California. This is where he’s spending the night after nearly two weeks wandering through Los Padres National Forest. Before getting on his phone, Sears untethered the mules to let them graze in the open field and began digging out that night’s meal from his packs.
And really, to ask about these packs is why I called him up. See, there’s something out of place in the rugged and rustic landscape where Sears settles down each night. As the sun sets and casts its purple hues over the California wilderness, it highlights 10 block-lettered markings scrawled in white on the packs. Each one says: 3MULES.COM.
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Born and raised in the Bay Area—first San Francisco, then the apricot orchards of Los Altos Hills, then Palo Alto—Sears has never been much of a people person. “I’ve never had any friends. I’ve always lived by myself,” he told me. “It’s been kind of a lonely existence.”
After leaving home, Sears worked for 30 years as a freelance tree-trimmer. During winters, he roamed through the American Southwest in his Dodge pickup, knocking on doors to pick up gigs wherever he could. During summers, he backpacked through the wilderness. “I wouldn’t work all year long because I didn’t need to,” he said. “I didn’t have kids, or a wife, any debt, or any of that.” And every now and then on the trails, he’d step aside to let a mule train pass by, the stout beasts carrying their owners’ supplies. “One day, the light went on.”
Sears bought his first mule in 1984. He stabled her during his working winters. When he turned 54, with enough money saved up to afford his meager lifestyle, he decided to make a change. “I decided I was getting to the age where you get cancer and all that kind of stuff,” he said, “so I might just go live with the mules steady.” That was in 2001.
“I decided I was getting the age where you get cancer and all that kind of stuff, so I might just go live with the mules steady.”
In 2011, after a decade of roaming, something clicked in Sears. He was traveling through a stretch of Nevada that, according to the Bureau of Land Management, should have remained untouched by human hands. But in that space, he saw power lines, the first brushstroke of infrastructure development that inevitably ruins the natural landscape. It made him angry.
“It was obvious the space to live the way we were living was disappearing,” he said. “It was being gobbled up by development. Every time you’d come back, there’d be a fence, a wall, a street, a building. It got sickening to see it. It made me angry. So, rather than get a gun and start shooting people, we did what we’re doing now.”
And that’s walking, miles and miles, up and down the state of California, spreading his message of conservation, attacking what he calls the Megatropolis, a “developing machine that’s only real purpose is to gobble the earth up until it’s been consumed.” During his journeys up and down the state—generally from San Diego in the winter to Sacramento during the summer, a variety of pathways each trip—Sears stops by the offices of mayors, members of Congress, city council members, or whoever’s around to deliver his “Declaration of Emergency,” a modern Martin Luther hammering the Castle Church door. This declaration combines conservation awareness with a warning about the whittling away of public rights by the legal muscle of private interests.
“We have a right to travel in this country freely and [to] choose how we do it,” Sears told me. “But if you don’t have the right to stop and rest, or the right to go to sleep at night, you can’t exercise that right [to travel].”
He’s speaking about the plentiful city ordinances that have systematically removed anyone’s ability to sleep outdoors in “public” space. (Now is a not-terrible time to Google your area’s outdoor rest laws.) “[The ordinances] go against any real law of common sense. They’re laws against life itself,” he said, his voice raised slightly, more matter-of-fact than exploding with rage. “It’s illegal. It’s not acceptable. If it’s acceptable, this country better quit celebrating the Fourth of July and stop uttering the word freedom, because there is none.”
A few times, this point of view has led to angry confrontations with local authorities. “I lose my temper at the idea of not being able to stop just for the night and sleep,” he said. “We’re not trashing, we’re not a hazard to anybody. But [my anger] has gotten me in trouble a couple of times.” He’s gotten himself into legal trouble, and lists his citations on his website. In early May, an appeals court judge will hear oral arguments in United States v. John Sears, challenging his conviction for “camping outside of designated areas” in a national park. Sears had bedded down for the night and was awoken by a ranger telling him to leave the park. He refused to walk through the wilderness in the dark and was arrested.
Sears’s proposal to save our outdoor spaces is to build a massive trail system that connects all communities and states. “A massive effort passed by Congress, funded by the federal government, akin to the effort made to build the freeway system,” he said. “That’s what we need instead of throwing money and more money into freeways and subsidizing the manufacturing of automobiles.” But Sears knows deliveries of his declaration are more ritual than provocation. “We don’t worry about getting the mayor or city council to respond to it,” he said. “It takes people—the individual way of how they choose to live and spend their time—that will bring change. And that won’t happen until an awareness sweeps through the country.”
Which is why he walks.
“People come up and want to know what you’re doing. They’ll stop and ask a question. Because that’s why we are here, to answer those questions.”
For John Sears and the mules, it’s this act that’s spreading awareness. The journey, not the destination. “We meet people all day long,” he said. “People come up and want to know what you’re doing. They’ll stop and ask a question. Because that’s why we are here, to answer those questions.” His walks have taken him through countrysides and downtown city centers. And everywhere he goes, due to his traveling companions, Californians gather in awe. “The mules and the energy they carry with them engender a respect,” he said. “It strikes people in the heart, in the gut—down where things are not understood.”
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Sears is not the most tech-savvy individual. “I didn’t know anything about technology, I was out of technology completely,” said Sears. “But I did know that a website was something everybody could have, and it would be a voice.” And now, he’s a bona fide online presence.
One day back in 2012, he and his mules were traveling down U.S. Route 50, looking for water near Carson City, Nevada, when they passed a little house on the outskirts of town. Sears noticed a hydrant, so he tied the mules to a nearby telephone pole, knocked on the door, and asked if he could water his mules. “Mules!” said the woman who answered the door, and a connection was made. The two traded stories, and Sears mentioned he’d been thinking about getting a website. As luck would have it, the woman’s son was technologically adept, and the kid built the old man one: 3mules.com. He even signed Sears up for a Gmail address.
But even with that base, Sears still wasn’t quite sure what to do. That changed when, farther along his journey, he stopped near Vacaville—midway between Sacramento and San Francisco—to inquire about horseshoes for his mules. Another woman responded to his ad and, after another long chat, she began running his burgeoning social media presence. “She does it all for no cost, just volunteers,” said Sears. Besides the website proper (where you can track the mules and read his blog entries), 3mules.com can now be found on Twitter (a timeline of photos and videos showing Sears delivering his declarations), Facebook (where people list private spaces Sears and the mules can use), and YouTube (where viewers at home can watch Sears unpack the mules and encounter police patrols). The hashtag #3mules exists on Instagram, if you happen to snap a picture of the wandering crew.
I spotted the #3mules in Petaluma today. I follow them in Facebook and have followed their journey around the United States, it is a pretty incredible and interesting story. If you have the time, look his story up online and read about why he is doing what he is doing. Two of his mules have been with him for over 25 years. #threemules #petaluma #california #megatropolis
“This life I’m living now, the irony is—I guess the word is irony—is that I live outside,” he said, “but I use the technology the same as anybody.”
While Sears is, for all intents and purposes, the person behind 3mules.com, he’s mostly hands-off. He’ll check in with location updates and maybe snap photos or videos, making phone calls to curious journalists if necessary, but the phenomenon’s been driven by everyone else—regular tech assistants, random spotters noticing them passing through town—caught up in the energy of the mules.
Which is good because, frankly, the man has no time. “I’m busy sunup to sundown,” he said. Most days, he’s awoken by morning flies. “The bugs regulate your life a tremendous amount. That’s something that always intrigues me—if you read stories about pioneers in the olden days and their hardships, they never really talk about the bugs.” After he swats them away, he makes his breakfast, rises creakily to his feet to round up the mules from their roaming, fixes anything that needs a-fixin’, and gathers the gear into the pack boxes—the 3mules.com brand shining in the eastern sun for all to see. Then, when they’re perfectly balanced on the backs of his traveling companions, John Sears resumes his long walk.
Illustration via J. Longo