While driving through the deserts of Southern California recently, we passed through the tiny town of Niland. There’s not much there — a gas station, a few homes, some very dusty streets — but just before we turned off the main road I saw something incredible: two mules, tethered outside a row of shops as though it were the old west.
Laura, who was driving, quickly pulled over and I jumped out to see what was going on. As I walked up, I met the man who is just barely visible in the shadows of the picture above (he’s standing behind the white mule).
The man, who never told me his name, was wearing only a faded green kilt. He had gray hair and a solid black line tattooed across his face, under his eyes. His skin was deeply creased and leathery, and his belongings lie in a pile in the shade. It was well over 100 degrees.
The man told me he had been riding around the U.S. with his two mules for many, many years. He arrived in the Niland and Slab City region about three years ago, and had more or less stayed put ever since. Apparently I was not the only person surprised to see his mules tethered up outside a laundromat, because he was thinking of starting a business in which he would charge tourists to sit in the saddle and take a picture.
He offered to let me be the first customer, but I declined.
I’ve mentioned this story a few times to people, and sometimes they’ve concluded the man is “homeless.” Technically that may be true, though that word and it’s urban connotations don’t quite capture his lifestyle. Like many of the people I met on this trip, this man’s reasons for where he was are complicated, but include a strong sense of free spiritedness and a disdain for more conventional life.
In any case, before this trip I had never met someone who spent years riding mules through American wild lands. Actually — and despite studying the American West for my master’s thesis — I didn’t even think that was still possible. But this man did it.
Earlier this year, Laura wrote about the weird serendipity of travel. When you get out on the road, unexpectedly enlightening things happen that you could never have anticipated. This was one of those experiences.
— Jim Dalrymple II