SUBSCRIBE | NEWSLETTERS | MAPS | VIDEOS | BLOGS | MARKETPLACE | CONTESTS
TRY BACKPACKER FREE!
SUBSCRIBE NOW and get
2 Free Issues and 3 Free Gifts!
Full Name:
Address 1:
Address 2:
City:
State:
Zip Code:
Email: (required)
If I like it and decide to continue, I'll pay just $12.00, and receive a full one-year subscription (9 issues in all), a 73% savings off the newsstand price! If for any reason I decide not to continue, I'll write "cancel" on the invoice and owe nothing.
Your subscription includes 3 FREE downloadable booklets.
Or click here to pay now and get 2 extra issues
Offer valid in US only.

Also on Backpacker.com


Enter Zip Code

Backpacker Magazine – August 2008

Walking the Talk

First John Francis stopped riding in cars. Then he stopped talking. More than three decades, two continent-spanning hikes, and countless trail miles later, he's still following his remarkable path of protest–only now he's not alone.

by: Bill Donahue – Photography by Mark Compton

John Francis hasn't ridden in a car for three decades.
John Francis hasn't ridden in a car for three decades.
Francis walks up Mt. Vision, near his home in Point Reyes Station, Calif.
Francis walks up Mt. Vision, near his home in Point Reyes Station, Calif.
Francis near Marshall, Calif., in 1975.
Francis near Marshall, Calif., in 1975.
Francis with his wife, Martha Smith, and sons Sam and Luke.
Francis with his wife, Martha Smith, and sons Sam and Luke.
Francis lives near Point Reyes National Seashore.
Francis lives near Point Reyes National Seashore.

But was Francis's transformation so simple? The guy had meditative instincts early on: Even in high school, he'd contemplated becoming a Trappist monk. I read Francis's silent, walking pilgrimage not as a protest, but as a retreat into a deeper, more spiritual realm. Francis still lives in that realm. He's not a details guy. He doesn't fight for specific patches of wilderness. He doesn't pay attention to the nuances of Congressional bills. And when he flies business class, to stretch out his legs, I doubt he loses sleep over the effect on his carbon footprint. He's guided instead by a cosmic principle: He aims, always, to do what seems right.

When we strolled into the hamlet of McKnightstown, we came across five young Latino men gathered on a small lawn. They regarded us through squinted eyes, arms crossed, but Francis strode up onto the lawn while playing the banjo. Then, in melodious Spanish, he pronounced, "Hoy es el Dia de la Tierra." Today is Earth Day.

The men said nothing. Francis played again. He rolled his head back, reveling in the twangy splendor of a song he'd written, "El Caminante," and when he finished, one of the men smiled faintly beneath the bill of his cap. "Una canción muy buena," he said. A very good song.

About seven miles outside of Gettysburg, US 30 pitches steeply upward, climbing straight into the South Mountains. I chewed on the prospect of walking there, amid the litter by the roadside. Then I hitched a ride back into Gettysburg, leaving Francis and Rhodes to complete the day's 20 miles.

Rhodes, 38, is thin, with a boyish mien given the slightest hint of gravity by his trim, white-flecked beard. He had never walked 20 miles before, and he was wearing light, sneakerlike trail shoes–a mistake that he would regret hours later when his ravaged feet thrummed and burned like hot coals. Even so, Rhodes thrilled over how walking the highway exposed him to both the beauty and wreckage of a world he'd overlooked before, when driving. "We saw a dead owl," Rhodes told me, "and a small sparrow, and a cell phone shattered to pieces. We saw orchards–apple, and pear, and peach."

Rhodes and Francis walked together for two days and 38 miles, and when they stopped to rest, I joined them sometimes, bringing water and food. Once, when we lay on the green lawn of a convenience store munching peanuts, Rhodes delighted that there was wildlife even here, by the highway. "We can just leave the shells for the squirrels," he said, pleased with the neatness of this ecological scheme.

"No," Francis said in even tones. "Don't do that." He went on to argue for tidiness, but really there was no need. His authority was clear. He is a dignified older man, so handsome and poised and wise that people around him can feel small. Rhodes gathered the shells. And often I, too, found myself outclassed by Francis. Like, for instance, when I asked him about his controversial decision, back in 1993, to resume driving because he felt "imprisoned" living outside of cars.

"I'd welcome anyone to show me how pure they can be," Francis said. "Honestly. When people write and say, 'Go back to silence and walking,' I want to say, 'Okay, and I think you should join me.' But they won't. There's not many people out there who will truly commit as I did."

Francis wasn't cocky or arrogant, but he was never fazed, either. One morning, I drove him east over US 30, to drop off his bags in Breezewood. Getting there, we previewed that day's walk: 25 miles, over the mountains. "This isn't a bad mountain," Francis remarked as we ground up one incline. "I don't know what it's called, but it's not a bad mountain."

Later, on his blog, he would write, "There were five summits. Trucks grumbled up and down the steep grades. The cars screamed by. I toiled. Sweat poured off me, but the breeze dried the salty moisture on my face and kept me cool. At the foot of each mountain someone always stopped to ask if I wanted a ride. I thanked each person who wanted to help me in this way, but I knew that I needed to walk each step. The walking was something like a prayer."

I had to respect his tenacity. What I didn't grasp was why he had to walk on such a god-awful highway. One morning on US 30, driving less than a mile through Chambersburg, I passed Popeye's, KFC, Meineke Mufflers, Elite Tattoos, Burger King, and McDonald's. There was no shoulder and no sidewalk, and when the road cut under a freeway overpass, Francis had to walk in the lane with the cars. Still, when I met him at a Waffle House for breakfast he seemed refreshed. "It's good for the planet to walk a road like that," he said. "The reason why there's a road right there is because it's the most direct way through the mountains. A long time ago, animals probably walked it–deer, bears, whatever. Then Native Americans walked it. Think of all these people walking the track throughout history–it's the way. It's the most direct route. And yet now we've gotten to the point where you almost can't do it on foot. That's a problem, I think–the planet wants us to be on it and feel it. Maybe we need to say, 'Hey, we need to reclaim this road. Someone needs to walk on it.'"

Okay, I said, but what do you get out of walking a highway? What's in it for you?

"I guess I get to be that person," he said.



Subscribe to Backpacker magazine
Sign up for our free weekly e-newsletter
Name:
Address 1:
Address 2:
City:
State:
Zip:
Email (req):
Reader Rating: -

READERS COMMENTS

Todd Sinclair
Sep 07, 2008

An amazing man. Even if he's not worried about the relatively new concept of his carbon footprint, I'm sure that he must realize that the harm his travel does to the environment is negated by the change he espouses in others. For my own part, I was nearly killed by a careless driver about 15 years ago, and was told that I might never walk again. Even if I beat the odds, I would not be able to ever walk in any appreciable way, and would never hike or carry loads. Many years later now, I am finally walking on the scale of miles, rather than feet. Walink does clear the mind, as long as the ipod stays home. I'm not a tree hugger, but this was a great story.

ADD A COMMENT

Your rating:
Your Name:

Comment:

My Profile Join Now

Most recent threads

Gear
What sleeping pad are you using?
Posted On: Aug 22, 2014
Submitted By: Blazer
Trailhead Register
Elephant Coffee, Anyone?
Posted On: Aug 22, 2014
Submitted By: big_load

Go
View all Gear
Find a retailer

Special sections - Expert handbooks for key trails, techniques and gear

Check out Montana in Warren Miller's Ticket to Ride
Warren Miller athletes charge hard and reflect on Big Sky country, their love for this space and the immense energy allotted to the people who reside in Montana.

Boost Your Apps
Add powerful tools and exclusive maps to your BACKPACKER apps through our partnership with Trimble Outdoors.

Carry the Best Maps
With BACKPACKER PRO Maps, get life-list destinations and local trips on adventure-ready waterproof myTopo paper.

FREE Rocky Mountain Trip Planner
Sign up for a free Rocky Mountain National Park trip planning kit from our sister site MyRockyMountainPark.com.

Follow BackpackerMag on Twitter Follow Backpacker on Facebook
Get 2 FREE Trial Issues and 3 FREE GIFTS
Survival Skills 101 • Eat Better
The Best Trails in America
YES! Please send me my FREE trial issues of Backpacker
and my 3 FREE downloadable booklets.
Full Name:
City:
Address 1:
Zip Code:
State:
Address 2:
Email (required):
Free trial offer valid for US subscribers only. Canadian subscriptions | International subscriptions