John Sears resembles a throwback to California’s Gold Rush Days. A slight, gaunt man, deeply browned from years of outdoor living, he slowly leads his two pack mules down back roads, stopping to appreciate nature’s “gold” discovered along the way.
Take the small blackberry bush growing along the hot, harsh pavement.
Drivers whiz by, apparently never taking notice, but Sears carefully picks a few berries, savoring the sweetness, face upturned towards the warm sun in gratitude.
He never married, has no children and is debt free. He’s a man of few possessions, and even fewer wants, and so his chosen way of life - that of a nomad - proves ideal.
For 30-plus years, Sears and his mules have trekked across the western United States, making it as far east as Arkansas. And at 68, Sears, who prefers to be called “Mule,” says he has no plans of stopping anytime soon.
Settling in one spot would be too confining, contradicts everything he believes in, and more importantly, goes against his inherent nature.
“The nomadic way of life, humans living with their pack animals, my ancestors lived this way ... it’s in my bones, it’s in my genes, and it’s the most natural way for me to live, it’s what makes most sense to me,” Sears said.
Even though Sears carries a cell phone, camera, has a website and Facebook page, he says he really doesn’t understand the modern ways of life. Everything he owns is packed by his two mules, Lady, 37, and Little Girl, 27. His third mule, Babe, died earlier this year.
He uses a camp stove to cook on, eating a diet consisting of mainly rice and beans. His clothing is minimal, and his mules enjoy a bountiful feast of grasses found along the way.
Sears rarely uses his tent unless the bugs are bad or when the rains pound non-stop. Otherwise, he sleeps under the stars, near his mules, who he calls his family, his kids.
It’s a close trio, so close that when he speaks, Sears typically uses “we” referring to himself and his mules.
For many, it may sound like a solitary way of life, but Sears insists he’s never alone.
“No one is really alone,” he explained. “Energy (God) surrounds us all day long, as we live and as we walk. I’ve got myself. I’ve got my mules, and I feel God every step I take, everywhere I go.”
Sears, who grew up in Mill Valley, bought his first mule in 1984. That first year, he rode his mule down the Pacific Crest Trail into California.
Back then, Sears worked winters as a tree trimmer, but when the summer months hit, he would store his tools, and take to traveling, living in the mountains and national forests - places he felt more comfortable and at home.
During one of his travels in 1986, he happened upon the Central Valley, where he ran across a “mules for sale” ad in the Fresno Bee. And so, Sears purchased his second mule, Lady, who was born on a 1,000 acre ranch in Coarsegold, owned by Allen Grant.
On the road full-time
Until his retirement in 2001, Sears and his mules were part-time travelers. Post retirement Sears made the decision to live the life he was born to live - that of a nomad - hitting the road 24/7, all-year-long to live outdoors with his mules. It’s a decision he’s never regretted.
“I may get angry, or sad at times, and I most definitely get tired and frustrated, but I’m never bored,” Sears said. “The outside continually challenges my imagination and thought process.”
While he calls his life spiritually uplifting, it’s also physically strenuous - walking all day and hunting for that suitable spot to rest at night.
“I really couldn’t do what I do without my mules,” Sears admitted. “I wouldn’t have the energy to get up every day, to keep on going. Right now, one step leads to the next, and that step is such an enjoyable experience, why not take another step ... it’s an endless flow of energy, a mystical, magical and rewarding way of life.”
Sears has a message, which he readily shares with those willing to listen, of what he calls the Megatropolis (man-made world) - that of too many people, too much urban sprawl, man’s lack of connection and appreciation for nature, and developers chewing up what little open land is left.
He advocates for healthy eating, plenty of exercise, less dependence on the medical profession, and living in harmony with nature. He further contends that he and his mules have the right to move about freely.
These beliefs have created challenges along his journey. Over the years, he has been fined, arrested and institutionalized. Just last week, while walking along Road 415 in Coarsegold in search of the ranch he purchased Lady from decades ago, he was questioned by a California Highway Patrol officer, who was responding to several concerned calls of Sears and his mules walking in the roadway.
Sears told the officer that, at times, when there was no where else to walk, they had no other option but to walk on the roadway, and then asked the obvious: aren’t drivers supposed to reduce speed when they see a pedestrian, bicyclist, or a pack of mules? The officer sent Sears on his way, with sound advice - “Be careful.”
“The energy pulled me to this area,” Sears said. “There is a connection between Lady, myself, and the man who sold her to me decades ago, and we really want to see him again.”
Even though Sears isn’t sure of the exact location of that ranch, he is determined to find it. But beforehand, he and his mules are temporarily resting on property owned by Sam Gonzales of Coarsegold.
“I saw John and his mules on 415. He looked tired and weary, and his mules were hungry,” said Gonzales, owner of Sam’s Organic Tomatoes. “I have lots of grass on the back of the property that needs eating, so I told John he could stay here as long he wants.”
While Sears feels a connection with Gonzales (who he likens to finding a gold coin), and both have enjoyed their brief companionship, he admits that wanderlust feeling is washing over him, and it will soon be time to continue the journey.
Once Sears and his mules locate Grant’s Coarsegold ranch, they will head north to San Francisco, to walk along Fisherman’s Wharf and Market Street.
“This is so natural for me,” he said. “I don’t feel comfortable in buildings. It’s such an artificial world, filled with man-made ideals and conditions. I will continue doing this as long as I can. It feels so good ... we enjoy each day... and there’s just no reason to stop.”
On his website, Sears writes: “We’re here, the outside, the web of life, the beautiful earth, a place like no other. We have come to this place, a place of golden sparkling light, a place for anybody and everybody. Give your faith, hope and energy to this place ... connect to it and receive the magic and endless possibility of infinity. As you walk in this place ... you spread the awareness that this beautiful earth, like no other, can only be protected by the way we live one day at a time.”
To follow John Sears and his mules, see 3mules.com.