Profile: The Walking Man In silence and on foot, John Francis has worked to change the world
by Marilyn Berlin Snell
Inspired by John Muir as well as Mahatma Gandhi, Francis has folded respect for human rights into his environmental ethic. Environmentalism is "about how we walk in the world."
WHEN JOHN FRANCIS TURNED ON THE RADIO one chill January morning in 1971, he got the wake-up call of his life. At the time, though, he wasn't aware of its import. All he knew was that two tankers had smashed into each other near the Golden Gate Bridge, spilling more than 800,000 gallons of oil into the sea, and he felt sick about it.
Francis and his girlfriend drove a few minutes from their home, about 40 miles northwest of San Francisco, and watched residents wade into the black muck to save what they could. Mostly these efforts failed: More than 6,000 seabirds were killed by the spill. Businesses like Toby's Feed Barn, still an institution in the nearby town of Point Reyes Station where Francis lives, donated hay by the truckload to build a barrier that prevented the oil from glopping into Bolinas Bay.
Francis kept his distance while he watched the frenzied rescue work. "People were out on the beach trying to help," he remembers. "I felt guilty, but I didn't want to do that. I wanted to do something, but I wasn't sure what." He had been living what a friend has described as a "hippieish Marin County lifestyle." A college dropout, Francis was managing a band and enjoying a kind of bucolic bubble world free of racial strife, war protests, and ecological disasters. But now he started wondering about his role in a society powered by fossil fuels.
One day a few months later, Francis decided to walk the 20 miles to a dance rather than drive. He walked home. His behavior puzzled his friends. Without fanfare or much thought, foot travel became his sole mode of transportation. When motorists passed him on the road and offered rides, Francis declined, which often antagonized his would-be benefactors. "They're figuring that my choice is making them look bad," he says.
"I actually thought that if I did this, people would jump out of their cars in droves and walk with me," says Francis, now 60, shaking his head at his naivete. When he got tired of arguing about his decision, he stopped talking--a one-day vow he made on his 27th birthday that stretched to 17 years. His car abstention lasted for more than two decades.
We are sitting at a picnic table outside Toby's Feed Barn, where Francis's brand-new red Prius is parked in front. He's been driving since 1995. Below his cap, short salt-and-pepper dreadlocks protrude. Every few minutes, residents of Point Reyes stroll by and greet him or tell him they've just finished his book, Planetwalker: How to Change Your World One Step at a Time (Elephant Mountain Press). "I basically am the African American culture here," he jokes. In the 1970s, he was its eccentric, silent, and peripatetic son, who then quit his tolerant community and embarked on a cross-country pilgrimage with only a pack and a banjo on his back and a letter that read, in part: "This is to introduce John Francis, who left his home in California on January 1, 1983, on a pilgrimage to raise environmental consciousness and promote earth stewardship and world peace."
Along the way--on foot and in silence--Francis earned his undergraduate degree, a master's, a PhD, and the respect of government officials and the oil industry, not to mention the esteem of many of those he encountered on his circuitous route across the United States. His odyssey took him full circle, from coast to coast and back to the town he loves. And what an exceptional journey it was.
BY FRANCIS'S OWN ACCOUNT, as a young man he was an opinionated big mouth who cocked his ear toward others just long enough to determine he was wasting his time. "I had stopped listening, which is the end of communication," he says. "When I stopped speaking, I had time to reflect. The silence created a space for me to learn how to listen--not only to another person but to the environment around me and the voice within." Because Francis no longer traveled in cars, he had a lot of time on his hands for contemplation: A trip to San Francisco, which required several days rather than an hour, was undertaken only rarely.
One foray Francis did make was to the College of Environmental Design in Berkeley, across the bay from San Francisco. His friend and neighbor, environmental architect Sim Van der Ryn, was teaching a class on ecological design and low-energy lifestyles and had asked Francis to "speak" to his class, meaning pantomime and perform. The walk took six days, partly because Francis was temporarily turned away at the Carquinez Bridge north of Berkeley. "They accused him of being a 'nonmotorized unit,' which was prohibited on the bridge, and it took a lot of negotiating to get him across," Van der Ryn says.
Paradoxically, when Francis stopped going so many places, the world opened up. He began making a daily pen-and-ink drawing or watercolor of his surroundings, seeing things he'd never truly considered before: the sunrise reflected on Tomales Bay, the faces of his neighbors, even bamboo. "It's not that I hadn't noticed it growing," Francis writes in Planetwalker. "It's just that I hadn't noticed it enough to give it meaning. It makes me wonder how much of life goes by me that way." He also found himself becoming less and less judgmental--partly, he now says, because his community was so supportive of him.
"Maybe it was the times--we met in 1971--but I didn't think he was strange at all," Van der Ryn says. "He was simply taking civic initiative; he was practicing citizenship." To this day, the architect says, Francis has been unable or unwilling to intellectualize his decision to start walking and stop talking. "It was just a passion that overtook him."
Francis's first extended foray beyond Point Reyes was a 45-day, 500-mile walk north along the Pacific Coast, into Oregon's Kalmiopsis Wilderness, playing his banjo for tips and depending on the kindness of strangers. He had read John Muir and was moved by the Sierra Club founder's "lightness in wandering"--his ability to disappear into the woods for weeks, carrying little more than a blanket and a canteen.
While in the wild, Francis devoured works by Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs, and Ivan Illich.
The elements became proximate in the forest. Weather dictated Francis's movements. Temperatures dropped, storms swooped in; rain and thunder deafened him. In his tent, he listened and absorbed this new world. He bathed in the cold and rushing streams, cooked over an open fire. "The wilderness got inside me," he says. It also reoriented his goals. When Francis emerged from the experience after months of solitude--drawing, writing, reading, and reflecting--he was determined to go back to school to formally study the environment.
The road was not always welcoming--like when two men pulled up beside Francis on his walk back to California. "Boy, are you lost or something?" one asked. Not speaking, Francis shook his head and tried to keep going. That's when one of the men aimed a .44 revolver at his head and told him that they didn't like "niggers." Francis faced the man. The man pulled the trigger. Francis remembers having a crazy reaction: "Damn," he thought. "I didn't make a painting today!" There was no bullet in the chamber, and when that fact settled in, he used his fingers to make the universal sign of walking and motioned his intention to the men. Then he made the "OK" sign with his thumb and index finger and turned his back.
His parents, living in Philadelphia where Francis had been born and raised, agonized over their son. His father was sensitive to how a young black man might be viewed with derision--as a clown. "I was miming and acting things out. I had a banjo. He really worried about this, as well as that someone would hurt me," Francis says. "He always wanted me to change; he always questioned what I was doing, told me to start talking and riding in cars." Both parents kept close track of their son, however, and his father in particular--a lineman for the Philadelphia Electric Company--would visit Francis on his exploits whenever he could.
When Francis headed north again, it was through the sweltering summer heat of the Sacramento Valley, to Ashland, Oregon. He toured the campus of Southern Oregon State College, imagining how pleasant it would be to go to school there. Francis had not spoken in six years. He dropped in at the registrar's office with some of the news clips that had been written about him and scribbled notes of explanation in response to the perplexed staff's queries. He applied and was accepted.
Two years later, Francis received a general studies degree in science and mathematics, with a concentration in biology and a minor in creative writing, all while maintaining his vow of silence. His father, who never went to college, attended the graduation but still thought his son was a little lost and crazy.