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Walking His Talk
Published Nov. 2002 issue of Hope Magazine

LISTENING to John Francis recount his fifty-six years, you might not guess that he was silent for seventeen of them. Looking at his dreadlocks and gold earring, you wouldn’t imagine that he once had a desk job with the U.S. Coast Guard. Idling next to Francis on the Golden Gate Bridge in his wife’s Saturn, you’d certainly never know he eschewed cars, trains, and planes for twenty-two years. Watching the stay-at-home dad playing with his young son, you wouldn’t think he was a pilgrim who had walked 20,000 miles of the Americas.

Make that 20,000 miles and counting. Francis has a dream, and he calls it Planetwalk: one man walking and sailing around the world to promote peace and environmental stewardship. That dream, however, has changed over the years. Francis broke a seventeen-year vow of silence to tell others about his journey. After two decades on foot, he hopped on a plane, believing he could do more good if he could get his message to more people.

Hypocritical? Some might think so. Paradoxical? Perhaps. Unusual? Definitely. Yet these are all facets of Francis’s continuing journey, which began in the simple, ordinary actions of walking and silence. “First it has to be a journey of self-discovery—and by self, I mean the larger self, not just the person John,” Francis says. “The self includes all of us, as we are the life of the planet.”

In his travels, Francis has inspired thousands of people to slow down, listen, and think about the choices they make in their own lives. Along the way, he also has helped revise federal environmental regulations. As stories of Francis spread, the United Nations named him a Goodwill Ambassador. But his journey doesn’t end here, in the cozy home he shares in Point Reyes Station, California, with his wife and son. In fact, they’re joining him for the next leg of his journey: a 1,200-mile walk across Cuba.

IT TOOK TWO tragedies to propel Francis’s dream into reality. The first happened on foggy morning in 1971, when two tankers crashed beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, spilling hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil into San Francisco Bay. Francis sat by the shore watching a young woman’s futile attempts to rescue an oil-soaked seagull. His head swam: he knew the oil his car used made him an accomplice to the spill.

He wanted to stop driving then and there, but felt his life and identity, not to mention his job managing an avant garde band, depended on his car. Francis felt haunted by standards he was raised with back in Philadelphia in the mid-1950s—how much money he made, what kind of career he had, how fast his car could go.

Shortly after the spill, one of Francis’s close friends drowned in the bay when a storm capsized his boat. Francis decided to walk to a concert twenty miles from his home in Inverness to give himself time to contemplate his friend’s life. On the long walk home, life’s fragile, finite reality struck Francis hard. “It was the end of the sixties; we all had dreams. I came to California from Philadelphia thinking I’d get a piece of land and have a farm,” he says. “But after my friend died, I realized if there was something worth doing, I’d better do it now, because there was no guarantee there would be a tomorrow and a million dollars at my door. That’s when it hit me that I needed to keep walking.” He gave up cars—and buses, trains, and planes altogether.

To his surprise, Francis found himself constantly arguing with people who thought he was crazy or trying to guilt-trip them for riding in cars. On his twenty-seventh birthday, he decided to give himself a one-day ceasefire by not talking. During his day of silence, Francis realized how little he’d been listening to people, and how he’d used words to spin a web of facades. “I would make up lies to make myself look better—like I had been asked to star in a movie, or I was going to medical school,” he says.

“I was very unhappy just being who I was, being black in America. I grew up at a time when school counselors told me I should think about being a garbage man, when African Americans were always portrayed as buffoons in the media. Even if your family is supportive, you’re not going to grow up liking yourself.”

The day of silence turned into a week, the week into a month, the month into a lifestyle. Giving up cars and then the spoken word, Francis no longer had to worry about driving the right car or saying the right thing. He gained a rush of freedom, a quieted mind, a reminder of the kid he really was. Francis walked to Oregon, where he did odd jobs, built wooden boats, completed his B.A., and finally named his dream. He would walk and sail around the world as a self-employed goodwill ambassador. Francis started a nonprofit called Planetwalk, and gave himself eighteen years to complete his mission.

ON NEW YEAR’S DAY, 1983, Francis left Abbott’s Lagoon, his favorite hiking spot on the Point Reyes Peninsula, equipped with a backpack, banjo, and watercolors. A type-written note introduced Francis and his mission to the schoolchildren, waitresses, professors, priests, activists, and truck drivers that he met on his way north and east. He says most people were eager to help him, ironically, often offering him rides. Some nights he slept outdoors, others in the spare bedroom of one of his countless benefactors.

With a lot of help from his friends, Francis produced a quarterly newsletter about his walk-in-progress, plus news of other peace-keeping and environmental efforts. In pictures and words, he chronicled the kindnesses on which his journey depended and the observations of a man now more attuned to the pace and patter of squirrels than the speed and rumble of cars. Schools often invited Francis to be a guest “lecturer,” where he pantomimed stories from the road, showed slides of his watercolors, plucked his banjo, and passed the hat. The discovery that walking great distances was possible inspired kids to envision things that previously seemed impossible, he says. While his walk was a spiritual discipline more than a protest, at times it became an act of civil disobedience, as when his route crossed a freeway or bridge off-limits to pedestrians.

Other encounters not only tested his mettle but also demonstrated the power of his silence. Two years into his walk, a man put a .44 Magnum to Francis’s head and told him that his kind wasn’t welcome. Francis just smiled and walked his fingers through the air to indicate he was walking. The puzzled man told him to get lost. Francis kept walking. “I went and sat by the water and listened to a loon call, and thought about what happened. The situation made me understand that death is always with us, but not something to be feared. I decided I wasn’t going to stop because just someone scared me.”

WHILE IN MANY WAYS living on the fringe of society, Francis has often plunged into the heart of institutions, challenging their assumptions in his own quiet, eccentric way. “Avoiding institutions can be counterproductive. They are the entities that can maintain the change that we want to see, but they can only change slowly, and from within,” he says. In 1985, he reached the University of Montana-Missoula, where he earned a master’s degree in environmental studies—and became the school’s most controversial teaching assistant. When students and parents learned that the administration had hired a speechless TA, the phones rang off the hook. But within a week, Francis had a waiting list for his class, where he would act out parts of the lecture to spark discussion.

For his final thesis, Francis described and illustrated his pilgrimage, successfully defending it with sign language and pantomime. “It wasn’t easy for a lot of people to accept his methods, but there wasn’t anybody more dedicated to communicating with students,” says classmate Gary Roy, who has stayed close friends with Francis. “It was a high maintenance friendship, having to communicate slowly with pads of paper and pantomimes, but I stuck with it because I respected him so much. You can learn things through the news and course work, but it’s not going to affect your life unless you have real-life role models like John.”

The wayfarer walked on to Madison, Wisconsin, to enroll in a Ph.D. program in land resources. Barbara Borns, then graduate student coordinator for the University of Wisconsin’s Institute of Environmental Studies, recalls the faculty’s apprehension. “As John walked towards Madison, the staff was pretty nervous, wondering how we were going to communicate with him,” she says. “Once he arrived, it took about two minutes for us to relax and see he was okay. Some people still think he’s a ‘kook’ or a phony, but the majority respect John and his commitment immensely,” says Borns. “We all have a role in taking care of the earth. John lives that message; he doesn’t just write papers or give speeches about it.”

As far as he had come, Francis still felt unsure of himself. After he had completed his coursework and was “ABD, all but dissertationed,” he almost gave up. “I could see that was a pattern for me—I would try something and then say I couldn’t do it,” he says. But he persevered, and wrote his dissertation on the economic and environmental costs of oil spills. The research reaffirmed his decision take personal responsibility for the oil spill he had witnessed fifteen years before. Francis discovered that land-based sources, most notably automobile owners, cause more marine oil pollution than any other (a fact that hasn’t changed, according to a 2002 National Academy of Sciences report.)

On Earth Day 1990, Francis spoke his first words in seventeen years. “Thank you for being here,” he said to a gathering of extended family in Washington, D.C., not even recognizing his own voice. “If there wasn’t anybody here, there wouldn’t be any communication. Silence has taught me the value of listening.”

ON THE HEELS of the Exxon Valdez disaster, the U.S. Coast Guard hired the new Ph.D. in 1991 to help revamp federal oil spill regulations, giving Francis the chance to affect the outcome of spills like the one that had catalyzed his journey twenty years before. Because of his expertise, the Coast Guard agreed to wait the two months it would take him to bike from Vermont to Washington, and later allowed Francis and a colleague to bike to a tanker inspection in Philadelphia. “We wanted a balanced team, and John brought solid technical expertise and a good environmental perspective,” says Norm Lemley, director of the OPA 90 (Oil Pollution Act) staff.

But after a year, Francis felt more like he was collecting a paycheck than making any real contribution to environmental clean-ups. The United Nations Environmental Program had just appointed him as an international Goodwill Ambassador, so he returned to the road. Walking and sailing his way around the Caribbean and South America, Francis created environmental curricula for local schools, taught kids about marine ecology via sailboat rides, and produced a video on litter for Antigua’s government.

Passing Venezuela’s infamous El Dorado prison, Francis realized his decision to eschew cars had created a prison itself. While his commitment to silence had been a living one, revisited year after year, Francis had allowed no flexibility in his decision to stop driving. “When I first decided not to ride in cars, it was a very appropriate choice, but much had changed—I had written pollution regulations that actually allowed me to do something about oil spills,” he says. “But I hadn’t allowed myself to change along with the change I was creating.”

Over the next four years, he walked the length of South America and, with the help of cars and planes, spoke throughout the United States, focusing in both places on young people. Francis speaks every year at the World Affairs Seminar at the University of Wisconsin in Whitewater, which draws more than 1,000 high school juniors from around the globe. In South America, he visited schools affiliated with the GLOBE program, in which students help scientists worldwide by making environmental observations and entering them in an online database.
Francis finally concluded his bi-continental journey in Tierra del Fuego in 1999, and circled back to Point Reyes, where he had begun his Planetwalk nearly twenty years before.

Francis shares his home base in Point Reyes Station with his wife, Martha, and their year-old son Samuel. Life with the Planetwalker hasn’t always been easy, but it has been rewarding, says Martha Francis, who met John in D.C. during his Coast Guard days. She was then a senator’s press secretary, working on “the big policy issues, but feeling disillusioned. Watching how John did things at the grassroots level, one step at a time, I realized I could save one child at a time.” She quit her job and got her degree in social work. When her husband has been in remote places for extended periods, she says, “I just had to have faith that everything was okay. John has taught me to see the world as though everyone is connected, so even when he’s not around, I feel like there are people around me that contain parts of him.”

THE ENTIRE FRANCIS family is gearing up for John’s 1,200-mile walk across Cuba next June. Martha and Samuel will accompany him for part of the walk, as will a filmmaker and a satellite technician. Linking up with SchoolTone Alliance, a global organization combining education and technology, the Planetwalk team will zap live footage of the family walk to schools in Oakland, California, and throughout Cuba.

Francis will begin his walk at the close of an international conference next June in Havana, where Cuban and American scientists will address sustainable development issues and shared environmental problems. Working with the San Francisco-based nonprofit Global Exchange, Francis is organizing a student delegation to attend the event and join him on a three-day post-conference walk. He also will visit farms to begin studying the island’s organic agriculture. While Cuba has been widely touted as an agricultural model for the region, Francis hopes to gauge how well the nation’s farms are actually feeding its people.

Planetwalk is financed by a network of supporters, including most of the Point Reyes community. It’s typical for a third of the town’s 350 residents to show up for a Planetwalk fundraiser. Perhaps that’s because Francis never preaches—he isn’t looking to convert the motorized world to a pedestrian one, though he’d love to see communities evolve away from the automobile. It is precisely because he isn’t trying to convince anyone of anything that John Francis moves people. The owners of a restaurant he once visited instituted a silent working day each month. After attending Francis’ send-off in 1983, a man was inspired to walk across the U.S. carrying a UNICEF peace torch. Another man chose not to renew his driver’s license, figuring “if John can walk it, then I can try.”

Francis recently revisited silence, along with a few residents of Point Reyes, for ten days. As in the past, he didn’t intend to isolate himself, like the Trappist monks he once thought of joining, but rather to share the vibrant, silent space with the community, regardless of whether or not they spoke. “Hardly anyone ever listens anymore, and I think that’s his real message,” says Peter Barnes, author of Who Owns the Sky, and founder of the Mesa Refuge, a writers’ retreat in Point Reyes. “John shows us how it is possible to resist the lures of modern life, unplug from the noise, and live a satisfying existence.”


Want to Learn More?
John Francis
P.O. Box 626
Point Reyes Station, CA 94937
(415) 663-0838

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