Modern nomad rides into San Luis Obispo

A man and three mules were spotted making their way along Broad Street just south of San Luis Obispo in September 2012.
A man and three mules were spotted making their way along Broad Street just south of San Luis Obispo in September 2012. jlamb@thetribunenews.com

A man with no name rode into San Luis Obispo on Monday afternoon.

He was at the head of a mule train making its way north along Highway 227, just beyond the airport. Amid the droning planes and roaring trucks, the man sat astride one of his three mules, as the troop munched on prickly weeds.

The weathered man, who would only say his name was “Mule,” wore no cowboy hat or boots. Rather his head was bare and sandaled feet filled his stirrups.

Aside from his attire, he looked like the kind of character once common in the West’s frontier towns, and his story was straight out of the Old West.

While it was impossible to fact check his tale, for nearly three decades, said this 64-year-old loner, he’s been riding around the West to escape the confines — physically, mentally, spiritually — of man’s world.

“My whole life has been about the pull of these two poles: the man-made world and the natural world.”

Reports of this modern nomad have trickled in. Last month he was spotted in Contra Costa County, according to a report on a regional news website. The San Luis Obispo CHP office said someone reported a man walking three pack animals down the Cuesta Grade on Sept. 6, and again in South County on Wednesday.

His routine is simple. For months at a time, mostly walking his mules, he sleeps out under the stars and moves at most 20 miles a day.

This Bay Area native started his journey in Spokane, Wash., 28 years ago with a $700 mule. Since then, he’s wandered as far east as Arkansas, he says.

Before he started his journeying, he used to take summers off from work — he would not say what kind — and hike for months in the backcountry. Then one day he saw a mule train and thought it would be easier to have an animal carry his things. With no wife, children or debt, he began setting off for months at a time with his mule. Along the way, he bought two more.

“It was a struggle,” he said of the first years. The mule is not an easy animal to get used to and he had little experience with animals. “Just getting them to do stuff, they don’t want to do anything,” he said.

His other struggle was resisting the pull of modern life. “It wants you to stay.”  One gets used to the comfort and the ease, he said. But none of that matters, he said, because when “you’re out here you have a purpose, you become who you really are.”

Despite the hardship, he finds peace every day in the saddle. “There’s meaning in my life. I feel like I’m connected to something worthwhile,” the man said.

He’s not totally cut off. About every month he goes into whatever town is close at hand, resupplies in the nearest grocery store (he eats mostly rice and oatmeal, he said), goes to a post office, and then heads out again. Now he pays his way with Social Security, he said.

While he wouldn’t say exactly from where he’d come or where he was headed, he did say he’d recently made his way from Carson City, Nev., over the Sierra Nevada and across the East Bay hills.

He crossed San Francisco Bay by walking the Dumbarton Bridge and then hung a left toward San Jose. “People were delighted to see these animals walking right by their houses,” he said of his walk through Santa Clara County.

“There’s just a magic, being out on the side of the road. I just enjoy every day.”

An hour after his sitting on Highway 227, he was gone. Maybe he rode into the hills, or maybe off into the sunset.