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  Sierra Magazine
  March/April 2007
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Sierra Magazine
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Profile: The Walking Man
In silence and on foot, John Francis has worked to change the world
by Marilyn Berlin Snell
March/April 2007

(page 2 of 2)

Next Francis applied to the University of Montana's graduate environmental studies program, was accepted, and then deferred to continue on his zigzaggy way. He completed boat-building school in the San Francisco Bay Area, and on New Year's Day 1983, after saying goodbye to friends in Point Reyes, Francis headed out again--on what he calls his "pilgrimage." "I didn't have an agenda or a route. I was on a sacred journey, something from which I was looking for meaning."

Francis walked to Washington State and constructed a seaworthy dory--the accomplishment of a childhood dream. (He calls the process of building a boat an "almost perfect metaphor for life: You dream where it can take you, but the reality is that getting there is a lot of hard work.") When his mother visited, she sat on the porch reading Bible verses as Francis hammered and planed. He named his oar-powered boat Twana and studied the currents. He then set off from Port Townsend, navigating the treacherous Strait of Juan de Fuca in Puget Sound, and landed on Whidbey Island.

From Washington, Francis aimed east, toward Missoula, Montana, and graduate school. Reporters wrote stories. Curious boys pedaled next to him on their bikes, peppering him with questions to which he pantomimed responses. Strangers tracked his progress in the local papers and left water for him along hot, dry stretches of road. A cowboy who'd read an article about Francis drove around until he found him. "There had just been that bombing in Beirut, and a lot of our military guys had been killed," remembers Francis. "This cowboy really needed to talk to someone about it, and for some reason, he felt he could talk to me."

Rodeo champions, grandmas, farmers, and Vietnam vets read Francis's introductory slip of paper and then took him into their homes and told him secrets. They shared their own views on environmental and other issues. He listened, then kept on walking.

When Francis finally settled into the University of Montana's graduate program, he enjoyed its multidisciplinary approach, making connections. He now says that environmental problems "are a manifestation of our relationship with each other, how we live. Sure, the environmental crisis is about pollution, endangered species, human-made ugliness, loss of habitat. But it also reflects a crisis of mind and spirit. Environmentalism is also about human and civil rights. It's about how we walk in the world." (Francis refers to himself as an environmental practitioner rather than an environmentalist--because the former, to him, is less sclerotic and self-righteous. "I don't necessarily know the truth. I'm just practicing as much as I know. I worry that as environmentalists we get entrenched in our positions and stop questioning.")

Francis's mother, a teacher to whom his memoir is dedicated, could not take time away to attend his graduation, but his father came--taking the opportunity to both celebrate Francis's achievement and question his approach. How are you going to get a job with your fancy master's degree if you don't talk or ride in cars, he wondered. "That was his mantra," says Francis of his father. "I knew he loved me, but he always questioned me. He also always showed up."

One time, the elder Francis visited his son in Madison, Wisconsin--where in the late '80s Francis was ensconced in a doctoral program at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies (IES). His academic advisor was Barbara Borns, who is now on the board of directors of Francis's nonprofit, Planetwalk. "When I got his application, I remember thinking, 'Oh brother. What are we going to do with this kooky guy?'" Borns says. But he had a stellar academic record and had even won an award for distinguished teaching. "Even without talking, John was very communicative--with his eyes and hands and written notes. It's strange to say, but he was really easy to talk to. He was being a witness to what he believed important and made a great contribution to the program," she says.

After course work in remote sensing, policy analysis, political theory, and environmental economics, Francis focused his research on the costs and legal conventions of managing oil spills from ships. Though it was an oil spill that had ignited his pilgrimage, Francis says that with the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, his research took on a whole new dimension. In his memoir, he writes: "When reporters call IES to speak to 'an expert' about the environmental catastrophe in Alaska, they learn about my research and that I will not answer the phone." His advisor fielded calls so he could continue his work uninterrupted.

Francis finished his course work, filled his backpack and shouldered his banjo, and hit the road heading east again, toward his parents' home. He arrived on their doorstep in time for Thanksgiving.

On January 2, 1990, seven years and a day after leaving Point Reyes, Francis touched the Atlantic at the New Jersey shore, near where he holed up to write his thesis.

Every February on his birthday--the day he first took his vow--Francis made a point of asking himself whether silence was still appropriate. "In 1990, I reflected that I had walked across America and worked on a PhD, and I realized that the environment had been redefined for me, and I was ready to speak about that." On Earth Day, in Washington, D.C., in front of his parents and a few others who had gathered for the event, he started talking again. The next day, in a bizarre twist of fate, he was hit by a car as he crossed the street. He refused the ambulance and walked 15 blocks to the hospital.

IN 1991, FRANCIS DEFENDED HIS DISSERTATION, speaking to committee members who had never heard his voice. Then he got a call from the U.S. Coast Guard.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 had been passed by Congress, but the actual regulations still needed to be written. Officials at Coast Guard headquarters in D.C. wanted Francis to come to Washington right away to begin the work. He was in Vermont and told them he didn't drive or fly, or even travel by train. They still wanted him. He rode his bike.

"The first thing my new boss said to me when I arrived was that if I had any crazy ideas about how they could do things better, I should speak my mind," Francis says. "Then I asked why they hired a guy who doesn't ride in cars and didn't talk for 17 years. He just laughed and said that the last time he checked, they weren't giving away PhDs."

Oil companies, whose vessels needed to be inspected, didn't much like the fact that the person doing the inspection refused on principle to travel in motorized vehicles and would have to ride his bike to the port--sometimes days away. "I'd sit on these tankers with the oil company reps and tell them that I thought each of us has a responsibility [for oil spills]," says Francis, "so we shouldn't start throwing stones and saying it's only the oil companies' fault. After we talked, and I didn't seem like a nut or someone who wanted to blow up their tanker, that I would listen to them and I wanted to learn, we always developed a good relationship."

WE ARE NOW SITTING IN FRANCIS'S HOME OFFICE in Point Reyes, where he pulls the hardbound copy of the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, replete with regulations, off the shelf. On the wall is a commendation for notable service from the Coast Guard. There is also his PhD certificate; photos of his wedding to Martha Smith, whom he met the day he first arrived in D.C.; and drawings by their five-year-old son, Sam. Francis's car is in the driveway; it was a gift from a Hollywood producer who was moved by his life story. (Universal Studios has optioned his book.) Before leaving, I ask if I can hear him play banjo. He begins a song he composed and performed often on his pilgrimage across America. "Life Celebration" exudes a kind of bounce and goodwill; it also sounds like a traveling song.

"When I began, I wondered if I could make a difference. I'm just this guy with a banjo walking around," Francis says. "I'll always be on this kind of journey. I see it as my life's work." He still walks every year, a few hundred miles, spreading his singular message and making friends. This summer, he'll join folks from Native American cultures on a 2,000-mile canoeing, walking, and running trek through Alaska, listening as indigenous people along the way discuss how climate change is affecting them. Francis, the former big mouth who spent so many years in silence, says: "We want to hear from people who don't have a voice."

Marilyn Berlin Snell is the senior writer for Sierra.

ON THE WEB For more information on John Francis and his nonprofit, visit planetwalk.org.


Illustration courtesy of John Francis; used with permission.

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