John Sears believes that in America a man traveling with three mules should be able to move about freely day after day and, come night, find at least a patch of nature on which to rest.
"The space is continually shrinking," said Sears, who prefers being known as Mule, as his pack animals munched grass and weeds Friday along Santa Rosa's Fourth Street.
Bronzed by the sun while roaming and sleeping outdoors full-time for a decade, and on-and-off for 20 years before that, Sears regards himself a voice of caution that Americans are losing open spaces and freedom of movement to the sprawl of what he calls "Megatropolis."
"We have to bring the man-made world into balance," he said after a treat of blackberries that grow wild alongside Santa Rosa Creek.
His entourage makes for a quite a sight along a city street or rural highway. Dressed in leather sandals and a filthy T-shirt and shorts, Sears, 65, walks with a dustpan in one hand — for picking up after the mules — and a lead rope to the laden animals in the other.
One is saddled for Sears; the others are strapped with freight containers emblazoned with 3MULES.COM. The website is the work of John McDonald, a filmmaker from South Pasadena who is creating a full-length documentary on The Mules.
"I'm really happy with the way it's working out," McDonald said by phone from Southern California. "Obviously, it will be a character-driven documentary."
He said he met Sears after a neighbor phoned him last Dec. 23 and exclaimed, "You've got to come see what is coming down the street."
McDonald went and met Sears, and a short time later hooked up with him again and talked. Fascinated to learn that the mules and Sears, who draws Social Security for past work that includes tree-trimming, have roamed 16 western states and have lived every day outdoors for a decade, McDonald decided to make a movie.
But how could he keep in touch with the peripatetic mule man? McDonald found that he carries a cellphone but doesn't like to make or receive calls because he's on a cheap, basic plan.
"I asked him if he knew how to text-message and he said no, but he'd heard about it," McDonald said.
McDonald taught Sears to text and now the two of them stay loosely in contact that way, and McDonald on occasion travels for a face-to-face.
McDonald hurried to Napa last week after California Highway Patrol officers arrested Sears following a confrontation on the highway bridge over the Napa River. A CHP spokesman said Sears first ignored the officers who told him pedestrians and animals are not allowed on the bridge, then he became "verbally combative."
He was arrested and the mules were taken to the Napa County Animal Shelter. Sears said Friday he didn't mind — "It's a good-run jail" — but he was satisfied that it posed no danger to anyone for him and his mules to cross that bridge.
Sears, who grew up in a rural area of Mill Valley and lived later in Los Altos, walked with the mules for hours in Santa Rosa on Friday. He said he is bound for the Golden Gate Bridge, which he's aware is off-limits to such animals.