The first two sentences of Of Mule and Man (Akashic) begin in a way that compels this reviewer to start his review with the same: “ Do you know about serendipity? Well, you’re holding it in your hands.”
Any half-decent tale of travels across the United States should proclaim serendipity immediately, as happy coincidence is almost always the only stable form of currency when making such a journey. I’ve made the trip myself three times in the last six years and these first two sentences let me know Mike Farrell understands; I’m in honest and knowing hands. He soon makes mention of Woody Guthrie, another necessity when engaging our nation’s wide open space. With Guthrie and good fortune, he has laid before us his apt credentials.
It is the promotion of Farrell’s last book that is the cause of his crosscountry trip. Just Call Me Mike: A Journey to Actor and Activist promised plenty of politics, but as I dove into this, his latest, I found both Farrell and I utterly and enjoyably consumed by the humanity of his journey. The journal entry style works well to deliver anecdotes about his son’s large wedding a week before his departure, the befriending of a Prius named Mule, and the reacquisition of friends and family lost or forgotten along the way. These humanizing moments are at the core of his politics and at the core of this book.
By the end of Farrell’s journey, we’ve traveled 8,882 miles, through twenty-nine states. Farrell sums it up well:
Along the way the occasional slopes to each side are dotted with a huge population of what to the casual observer might look like strange, tall beings waving hello. The saguaro cactus is said to appear nowhere else on earth but in this south-western desert.
I figure the least one can do is wave back.
I spoke with Farrell over the phone in late August, 2009.
How you doing today?
I’m doing okay. How about you?
I’m doing very well.
Well first and foremost I wanted to thank you for your time chatting with us today.
Let’s just get right into it then. Let’s talk about the book. How would you pitch it to our readers?
Well which book are we talking about?
Of Mule and Man.
Oh, Of Mule and Man. Well Mule and Man is fun. Mule and Man is the story of a number of things. It’s a book tour I did, where I drove nine thousand miles in five weeks time around the country promoting my first book, which was called, Just Call Me Mike. And the trip was necessitated because the publishing company was a small one and couldn’t afford to fly me around. So they asked me if they could rent me a car if I’d be willing to drive. And I said I’d be thrilled to. I had done a couple of earlier trips for them that way. However, this was a much more extensive trip because the mileage and the time involved. And when I started to do the trip it was at a time when gasoline was costing four bucks a gallon and I said, “You know, if you really want to rent me a car, it really ought to be a hybrid.” So they did. They rented a Toyota Prius, which was a new experience for me. I’d never driven a hybrid and the experience of driving it was part of fun of the book. They asked me if I would write a journal of my trip, and I wrote a journal of every day on the trip. And at the end of it, the publisher liked it so much he said he wanted to print the book. And that resulted in Mule and Man, Mule being this stubborn, hybrid beast that I learned to love.
Very cool. This book is a digression from your typical stance which has been a lot more overtly political. Could we talk about the evolution of the process like digressing from your usual? Was that an easy transition for you to make?
Well, I’m not so sure I was digressing. There’s a lot of politics in the book and I was talking about the countryside I was seeing. I was talking about the circumstances of the country in the day. I was talking about the people I was meeting on the tour itself, which was co-sponsored at every stop by a social justice organization I worked with. So we were able to talk about the issues at each event and I most certainly talk about them in the book. And I also, as I just indicated, described my growing relationship with this cantankerous animal that I was driving. And that led to some of the lighter moments in the book. But for me the process of writing is the process of writing, whether you are talking about the political events of the day, or my life as an activist, or my trip as an activist promoting a book about activism.
So if readers who maybe started with Of Mule and Man and then picked up your other books later, do you think they are going to see the same Mike Farrell? I mean what stays the same? What changes in this? I guess the book does touch on the politics but I feel like we’re getting perhaps a more human side, a bit of a stream of consciousness.
It certainly was a stream of consciousness kind of effort. And whether it’s the more human side, is I guess is not for me to say. I feel that the first book was an autobiography or a memoir depending on your choice. But it’s also very much a description of a guy growing up in a community with a certain kinds of dreams and hopes. And coming to an awakening about his place in the world, both politically and socially, and how his success in a motion picture in the television industry intersects with that. So, I guess it doesn’t qualify as stream of consciousness in terms of the first book. The second book is much more that because it is a recollection of daily events, thoughts, experiences, and people with whom I intersected. But interestingly many of them are the same folks and certainly the same issues, and the same organizations that I work with and talked about in the first book.
Well that’s a great, great segue to my next question. How did you become so involved in politics? Did your involvement in M*A*S*H contribute to that? Are your fellow costars now as politically active as you are?
Well my involvement with social justice work and what you call politics started long before I became associated with M*A*S*H. And certainly continued during the years and subsequent to my time with M*A*S*H. M*A*S*H contributed to it certainly because it made my name known. It lifted my existence above the line of visibility too, in a manner that had not been the case before despite the fact that I had done starring roles in television series and other things. So, what M*A*S*H did was make me a known quantity, at least in terms of my association with the show. And that opened doors and opportunities for me and that had not existed. So, if I was a political activist and a social justice activist prior to that time, it was limited pretty much by the borders of the country. Whereas after M*A*S*H, the world opened up and I was invited to get involved in things that were taking place in different parts of the world. And coming back to report on them and speak to audiences about them, to reflect on them, to try to affect them in some way. So M*A*S*H had a tremendous impact from that perspective and some of the members of the cast were politically active. They were all politically sensitive, some more active than others. But they were certainly supportive of what I did and we became and remained friends through all of the years, even though I’m probably the most outspoken and active of them in terms of the group in terms of political and social activity.
How did that start for you early in life? How did you become such a champion of these social causes?
Well I suppose every piece of our life is a contributing factor in our view of ourselves in the world. I was raised in a difficult situation, difficult in that my father was a very tough guy and very frustrated man, I think, who was prone to drinking and prone to acting out violently, though not against his children. He was a fighter and he was engaged in behaviors that sort of left a mark with us. I was terrified of the man and grew up wanting his approval as all kids do. But he died when I was a teenager and it left a big whole in my life in terms of a male father figure who could answer some questions and resolve some problems. Be the source of some challenges. So I kept looking for that I guess as I grew up. I joined the Marine Corp out of high school and ran into racial prejudice for the first time in my life. I struck up a friendship with a Marine who was black, and it turned out that in those days interracial relationships, friendships, were not looked kindly upon. So that kind of helped open my eyes to some things in the world and after I got out of the service, I got a job driving a car across the United States. The precursor to my trip with the Mule. And in that time—this was a year prior to the serious Civil Rights efforts, prior to the serious success of the Civil Rights efforts. I saw Jim Crow, in large, with white- and black-only fountains, and white- and black-only restaurants and came to the realization dramatically that my friend from the Marine Corp and I would not have been able to take this trip together. Would not have been able to eat in the same places or sleep in the same motels or hotels or what have you. And it was really a quite dramatic lesson for me and that developed into my involvement with the Civil Rights Movement and ultimately my involvement in the Black and Brown and Gay people’s revolutions, where they were trying to assert their own cause for dignity and recognition and their place in society. And along the way came the Viet Nam war, which I opposed and was active in opposition to. So in my experience at least, it’s a day to day process. You have an experience and it teaches you something and whatever you learn from it you hopefully put into action in your life. It’s been for me an ongoing educational process.
Awesome. I’ve made the cross-country trip on three or four occasions and as a reader, you definitely earned my trust by talking about serendipity and happy coincidences. Things like meeting the daughter of a recently deceased friend or taking a free ride on a cable car where you met your wife so many years ago.
I was wondering if you could share with us some of your thoughts about serendipity and coincidence in your travels or in your life experience.
Well I’m a great believer in magical events. I think that if we open ourselves to them we are allowed access to extraordinary things that some people simply don’t allow themselves to be aware of. And if you tried to live as openly as you can, things become available to you. Events have more meaning for you. Opportunities are presented to you simply because of your openness and in my experience part of it, of course, is due to the fact that I had become a known entity to a lot of people. At least part of me has become a known entity. And so I go out of the country and make myself available at places and speak to groups of people. Extraordinary things happen. The best part for me however is when those extraordinary things happen not because of the fact because I was associated with a television series that became very popular but just because of the fact that I was open to it.
Yeah. That’s a great, great response. Well let’s talk a little about Mule de Prius. Have you since bought a Prius for yourself?
Well, I have not. I’ve driving the same car I’ve been driving since 1992 and when I buy my next car it will certainly be a hybrid of some kind. And the Prius was an extraordinary creature that I grew to love. And to whom I talked and with whom I had great days in and great conversations. But so far the need for another car has not been a pressing one. So I’m waiting until that time comes before I make that purchase.
That’s definitely respectable. The personification of a machine at first it seems like a literary device. But I have a hunch—I’m sort of wondering has Mule as and essence made its way into your heart? Do you sort of talk to yourself now? Has Mule become like an invisible Jiminy Cricket on your shoulder?
Mule was a manifestation of the presence of life in everything and I believe very strongly in that. Talking to Mule was not different for me than talking to my motorcycle when I’m on a ride or talking to the wall in my house when I have the occasion to lean against or bump into it.
There is a lot of anthropomorphizing in my life. People call it whatever they will and sometimes in a way to denigrate it and sometimes in a way to recognize it. For me everything is alive and everything deserves my respect and I expect to be respected by everything in turn. And that’s—I don’t want to say religious, but it’s a kind of philosophy that I have chosen to live. But it’s one that serves me greatly. I never feel out of touch as a result of it.
Fantastic. I want to kind of dig a little deeper about your conversations with Mule. Like when I find that I’m talking to myself, talking to my car in traffic and I get a flat tire. Sometimes I reveal to myself that I’m a little more stressed than I realize by the things that the car says back to me. I wondered, did Mule ever pass judgment that Mike would not pass on the people he met? Did Mule ever say, “Oh my gosh, I’m so glad we’re out of that place?”
Well yes, but not in the sense that you suggested. Mule was very moved, as was I, by the moving truck driving through the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, seeing the devastation of Katrina. Mule was offended, as was I, by the way other people operated the machines around us sometimes very dangerously. Mule was angry. If Mule ever passed judgment, he/she passed judgment on me for some of the foolish things I did. Testing the limits of the ability to go past gas stations to the point that I ran out of gas and we were creeping along on battery to the point that the poor car almost died. It was a wonderful relationship and continues to be. I still think of Mule as you suggest and I still think of Mule a lot. And I’m very grateful to Mule for carting me safely around this country. But it/he/she never was judgmental about somebody else or something else.
You were never taken aback by Mule’s attitude or sass?
I was often taken aback, but only by its intelligence but not by its nastiness.
There was never any negativity attached to it.
You never wanted to wash Mule’s mouth out with soap?
No, but I did wash Mule’s head off after I caused it to be banged on the head with a railroad guard.
I remember that. I thoroughly enjoyed the tension of that moment. And more than the tension of that moment, it was when you came out of that with such an appreciation for your life. Mule says that that that was such a close call. But you just sit there in silence and awe. You turned what others might have turned into a stressful experience into a real positive, life-affirming moment.
Well thank you.
Very well done.
I’m also one of the film columnists from Molossus, our online broadside, and I’m wondering if there are any specific films that in your mind speak to this intimate experience that you had with our nation?
You put it in a way that makes me want to reach back, but the answer is none that remind me of the experience I had with our nation. I must say I just saw a film that really touched me because it very carefully, and I think very thoughtfully, allowed me to see an experience in the world through the eyes of a child. And it did it without anyway demeaning the child. It really dignified this perspective that this child, through which this child was learning about the horror around him. It’s a film called The Boy with the Striped Pajamas. It’s a British film about the Holocaust but it’s told from the point of view of the son of a Nazi officer who it turns out is in charge of one of the death camps. But from this boys perspective life was fun and full of joy and new developments and interesting things. And he only slowly came to understand that there was something wrong, but he wasn’t quite clear what it was. It was really I think a beautifully done film.
Outside of film how do you see your book in relation to others that have tackled the cultural geography of our nation? Books like Travels with Charley or Blue Highways.
Travels with Charley is just a classic and I wouldn’t want to put my book in that category. Although obviously the Mule and Man title is sort of a tribute to Steinbeck and Blue Highways was the same. The idea that somebody’s travel experiences can be translated in a way that allows other people to enjoy not only the travel but the experience really makes me feel terrific.
Yeah. I definitely think that your book achieves that, it reminds the reader in a way that is relevant to today. That life is about the journey, not about the destination. And you did it in such a way that we don’t feel like we’re being hit over the head with a lesson about how to live. You give us your experience and you show us how you are interpreting these experiences and it inspires others, I think, to do just that.
Well that’s nice to hear. Thank you. Two things occur to me when you’re saying that. One is the realization I had when I was driving across Michigan, I think. I’ve forgotten exactly where I was. Seems to me I was still East of Michigan. What I realized was that Mule and I had started on the West Coast, touched the Southern border of the United States, touched the East Coast and now we’re in the very Northern part of this country headed back toward the West Coast. The idea that we had traveled the circumference of the country was really moving to me. And the other thing, in a very different way, was my experience in New York City, with the unfriendly mechanic.
The hurt. Yeah
That pushed me to the edge of unpleasantness, an experience I don’t want to get into. But if you read the book you know the experience I had with his superior, listening and realizing there was another way to approach this.
Right. His sleep apnea.
That was a really very meaningful for me.
That’s great. For any foodies—If you were to go back out on the road tomorrow, is there any kind of food, any specific stops along the way where you’d say, We got to go get a Chicago hotdog or we got to go get some gumbo on the bayou?
Well as you probably picked up from reading the book that I’m a health food junkie and a vegetarian—actually I’m an aspiring vegan. So for me the health food stores, the health food restaurants, and little natural food places around the country are the little Gardens of Eden I look for. But having said that, and I’m actually going to be back on the road in a couple of days. I’m going to take my motorcycle and head out for parts unknown for a few weeks. So the places I will stop are some I know and some I have yet to discover. There’s a pizza place in Cannon Beach, Oregon that I stopped at not long ago that I will go back to if I have the chance because they have a good vegetarian cheese-less pizza that is very, very appetizing for me. But I would love to find new places that—there’s a place in Eugene, Oregon I have stopped at a number of times because they have wonderful natural, clean food. And when I discover these places, I note them in my little mental log book and always try to find my way back there.
Great, thanks for the recommendations. Is there anything that you haven’t been asked about your book? Is there anything you’re afraid might get overlooked in the minutia of the novel.
Nothing leaps out at me. The extraordinary variety of life in this country was really rather large for me. And this touching all four parts of the circumference of the country, to go from the richness of the culture of New Orleans to the devastation from Katrina in the Lower Ninth to Michigan, where radio stations were giving away a tank of gasoline and a couple of bags of groceries, let me know that what they’re calling an economic downturn has struck across this country in ways that a lot of people don’t fully understand.
And it really brought me up short in a way but it also brought me a kind of greater appreciation of the circumstances of lives of the people in this country. People who, some of them, don’t have a chance and others that have more than what is enough in life. And I would love to find a way to bring those peoples’ awareness to each other.
Fantastic. I would love to tell that I have read the book and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
I didn’t put it down. I read it in one sitting and there were moments where my bowels suggested one sitting wasn’t the way to go, but I told them to be quiet. I’m very, very thankful that you took that journey and that you shared it with us. And I think it is definitely going to be fruitful for anyone who picks it up.
That’s very kind of you. Thank you.
Paul Prado is an actor and writer in Los Angeles. Formerly a star of MTV’s Call to Greatness, Prado holds numerous world records, including the record for eating the most donuts in a car doing donuts in a donut shop parking lot dressed as a cop. One dozen in ninety seconds. His latest film is Champion of Glory.