A nomadic 66-year-old man who lives a life of adventure with his two mules by continually journeying up and down the state of California believes his lifestyle is being impinged upon by the San Luis Obispo Police Department.
But police say they can’t make exceptions if they believe someone is breaking the law, and that John C. Sears’ arrest on suspicion of illegal camping was justified and necessary.
Sears, who prefers to be called “Mule,” was cited for illegal lodging near Woodbridge Street around the railroad tracks May 29 — a misdemeanor.
Sears argued that he wasn’t using drugs or alcohol, or making a mess at the site, and said he’s responsible about cleaning up after his animals.
He said he has traveled with his mules for 30 years across the country, and has trekked full-time since retiring from a landscaping job at the age of 54.
“This is my way of life,” Sears said, as he allowed his mules to graze in a field near The Tribune building in San Luis Obispo last week.
San Luis Obispo police Capt. Chris Staley said police received a complaint asking officers to conduct a welfare check on Sears’ two mules, believing they were malnourished. Staley said police found the mules satisfactorily healthy, but they couldn’t allow Sears to camp at the site without permission.
Police have been proactive in citing people for illegal camping, Staley said, noting they’ve had to dispose of loads of refuse in public areas where homeless encampments have formed, including local creeks.
“We just can’t make exceptions for people,” he said. “We’re very concerned with some of these issues and people camping in the creeks and elsewhere around town. We have to address the problem fairly.”
Sears, who previously passed through San Luis Obispo in 2012 with three mules, was featured then in a Tribune article, and he maintains a Facebook page titled “3 Mules” using a tablet he carries to document his journeys. Since then, one of his three mules contracted a severe foot infection and had to be euthanized.
Sears has faced citations elsewhere, citing three pending cases against him from a national park in the Thousand Oaks area and another in San Juan Capistrano. Postings of some of his citations, including his San Luis Obispo arrest, appear on his Facebook page.
He has received an outpouring of support on Facebook, including messages from some who have vowed to help him with the San Luis Obispo charge. Some of the comments support his independent, roving lifestyle.
“I feel good knowing that the ‘Wide Open Wild West’ is still alive if only barely,” said commenter Nacho Gaitan. “Keep roaming and living the life you enjoy and best of luck always.”
Sears said he lives on Social Security and donations that people offer along his route.
Originally from the Bay Area, the thin man, who is weathered from sun exposure, wears dusty sandals, keeps his head bare and walks alongside his animals. His 35-year-old and 29-year-old animals don’t need much — mostly just water and grass to munch on — and he tries to stay out of the public eye when they sleep.
Sears posts his monthly budget on his Facebook page, including $174.82 spent in May for expenses such as tape, ointment, soap, peanut butter, bananas, ice, Q-tips, penicillin and a dust pan.
He addressed his arrest on his Facebook site in a note to San Luis Obispo police Chief Steve Gesell, using the “we” to include his mules.
“We believe this laws (sic) purpose is to address problems brought on by individuals setting up camps and engaging in drugs and alcoholic behavior and the violence and irresponsible type living that goes along with it, leaving behind huge amounts of trash…,” Sears wrote. “The above being said the Mules do not fit in that category.”
Sears said he expects to appear in San Luis Obispo Superior Court on Aug. 14 to face his charge.