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Mules of the Road: How Not to Cross a Bridge 

Wednesday, Jul 31 2013
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Shoulders hunched, John Sears leans forward into the hill he's climbing. His eyes are slits in his lined, sun-browned face as he glances ahead at the police car making its way toward him and the three pack mules walking in single file behind him.

It's what he expected, but he's not happy about it. He knows the law — mules are not allowed on the Golden Gate Bridge — but he's hoping to convince the authorities to make an exception.

"This is the way we live, and we're saying no to the public suburban model," Sears says. He goes by the name "Mule."

Almost a decade ago, Sears — then in his mid-50s — turned from what he calls the "suburban megatropolis" way of life and embraced the free-roaming spirit of the mules instead. For 20 years before that, he worked odd jobs during the year to save enough money to spend summers walking with the mules.

"I had a number of what I call shit jobs," Sears says.

The Golden Gate Bridge Authority officer who has stopped Sears gets out of the car, sidles up, and asks where he's going.

Sears bristles. He says it's their right to pass through public space and the only way he'll stop is if he's arrested. All day he's been calm, pausing for children to see the mules and quietly passing by the number of tourists in downtown Sausalito who gape at him while taking pictures and laughing, but his anger is visible now.

Sears waits for the officer's superior as more squad cars join the queue. John McDonald, a documentarian who met Sears last year and has been following him since, starts filming the scene and questioning the authorities on why they're stopping Sears.

His life now is traveling with the mules, heading south when it gets cold and north when it's hot. He usually stops for no more than a few days in any one place and lives off his Social Security check. The mules eat the grass and plants they pass.

During their travels, Sears has been cited and arrested numerous times. Ordinances on where equines are allowed vary by county, and in their restrictiveness.

The Golden Gate Bridge Authority offers to take him and the mules across in a trailer. At first Sears is opposed to the idea — this is exactly the problem he sees with the "suburban model."

Eventually he accepts the ride, but it's only when Sears and the mules are dropped off in Golden Gate Park that he realizes the situation is more complex. Turns out the trip was paid for, and provided, by the National Park Service, a body that had been keeping tabs on his attempt to cross the bridge. Sears says he feels cheated.

"If bicycles and pedestrians can cross then there's no reason why we can't cross," he says. "The whole point of what I'm doing now is claiming use of public space for the way we live. For us to exist we need a certain amount of space."

Sears was planning on heading out of the Bay Area after passing through San Francisco, but now he says he will appeal to the bridge authority board.

His sights are still set on walking across the Golden Gate Bridge.

About The Author

Jennifer Baires

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