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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.

It was one of those divine, cloudless April afternoons on which the sun shines bright and warm, finally, and the jonquils are blooming and the whole world seems heavenly. It was, really, an excellent time to be thinking about John Francis, a towering and elegant man who has spent the last 37 years taking long, peaceful walks about the globe, for Francis is–like, say, Johnny Appleseed or Peter Pan–a character who seems to float above all clouds and darkness. The man exists, but he’s also shrouded in mythology. And now his friend, a Maryland homemaker named Pamela Ray, was articulating the Francis legend.

“John,” Ray mused as she sat on the porch of a café in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. “John is, well, a magical person. He’s very complex yet very basic.” Ray and her husband, Alan, and I were there to watch Francis, who’s 62, embark on a 10-day, 160-mile hike westward, mostly over busy US 30, to promote “peace and earth stewardship.” Ray continued: “He has such a devoted following. Everywhere he goes he draws people toward him. And he talks to animals, you know. My cats, who hate everybody–they like John. I’ve never seen them respond to anyone the way they do to John.”

What was Ray talking about? It was all a little ineffable, and her musings stirred an uneasiness in my stomach. As a journalist, I am in league with George Orwell, who once wrote, “Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.” I am leery of cheap mysticism.

Yet the facts cannot be ignored: Francis has lived a large and unconventional and, yes, inspirational life. He’s walked across the United States and then the length of South America, refused to ride in motorized vehicles for more than two decades, and maintained a strict vow of silence for most of that time. He inspires admirers like Ray everywhere he goes. And he has Hollywood interested in telling his story. A feature-length Francis biopic–Planetwalker–is slated to hit multiplexes nationwide next year. The production company, Shady Acres, which last year delivered Evan Almighty, is close to signing Will Smith to play Francis. Expect a strange and lovely tale, a classic underdog-hero-sticks-to-offbeat-ways-and-proves-the-importance-of-values-over-money parable. Think The Pursuit of Happyness II: Our Hero Hits the Trail.

When the final credits roll, it’s likely that many viewers will feel inspired to walk home from the multiplex–or begin wending the trails through their local woodlands and parks. Francis is now creating a social-networking website, planetlines.org, designed to get mainstream Americans excited about walking. Users will be able to post maps, GPS data, and narratives to tell about their respective journeys. “The idea,” Francis says, “is to put people back in the environment–to get them away from their cars and their air conditioners. And they don’t have to go to the Grand Canyon. I want them to explore the places where they live.”
But what if moviegoers walk no further than the parking lot? Will that matter to the man behind the myth? Will it mar the legend of John Francis?

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