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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 began with a disaster. In 1971, as a hippie living near Point Reyes Station, California, Francis drove down the Pacific coastline and beheld a slick horror: Two Standard Oil tankers had collided and spilled nearly a million gallons of crude into San Francisco Bay. “And if you don’t like the news,” Francis heard a radio announcer say as he looked on, horrorstruck, “Go out and make some of your own.”

Soon, Francis vowed to stop riding in cars, buses, taxis, and planes. Then, for 22 years, he didn’t–literally–not once. He moved about solely on foot or (occasionally) on a bicycle. Indeed, when a car clipped him on the streets of Washington, D.C., seriously injuring his shoulder, he refused an ambulance ride and walked to the hospital.

Francis hiked across the U.S.–from California to New Jersey–taking 18 years to do it and earning his bachelor’s degree, master’s, and PhD in land resources along the way. He crossed the Paysaten Wilderness, in Washington’s Cascade mountain range, on foot, and braved the Arco Desert in Idaho in triple-digit heat. Four separate times, he walked 500 miles from his home in Point Reyes with a 75-pound pack, along the Sacramento River and north past Mt. Shasta to the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in Oregon. There, he spent three summers and two winters amid the evergreens.

In 1990, in the wake of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, Francis settled in Washington, D.C., to work for the Coast Guard measuring the financial damage to natural resources caused by oil spills. But a desk job was not his fate. He left Washington after a year, and in 1992 he sailed to Venezuela and eventually hiked 4,000 miles across South America. In Bolivia, he almost died of malaria, languishing, alone and feverish, for two days in the bush before a U.S. narcotics surveillance crew rescued him. In Brazil, the Waimiri Indians escorted him through the Amazon.

For most of his journey–for 17 straight years–Francis never spoke a word. Even when he taught environmental studies at the University of Montana, he pantomimed and communicated through a thespian’s array of facial gestures, forcing his students to guess: “Is he cutting a tree? Is he talking about selective forestry?”

The 6’2″ Francis carried a banjo and won strangers over with sprightly tunes. Once, when a bigot held a .44 revolver to Francis’s head and called him a nigger, Francis simply smiled and the man let him walk away. Other times, cops let no-pedestrians laws slide as Francis hiked on the freeway.

By the time I met him, Francis seemed, almost, an avatar of all things good. Here was a gentle giant with no shadow of racial resentment and a message of peace. Here was a genial ex-hippie who could endear himself to Republicans, and an activist who most certainly had done more walking than talking. Scores of newspapers feted him. When The New York Daily News profiled him, the piece was a paean entitled “Been Down the Side of Twelve Misty Mountains” and the photos depicted Francis throwing his head back and strumming his banjo. He looked blissed-out, as Indian swamis often do in promotional photos. He looked Messianic.

You don’t need to be a cynical journalist to find trouble with the Francis mystique. A friend of mine, once a student at the University of Wisconsin with Francis, shrugged when I asked if he and Francis were friends. “Not really,” he said, vaguely dismissive. “It’s not much fun hanging out with a guy who can talk but decides he doesn’t want to.” There was something hugely self-indulgent about Francis asking everyone around him to be patient, to play along. Ostensibly, he was being humble, not staining the air with his speech, but his asceticism was so public that it made him a spectacle. Francis’s autobiography, Planetwalker, delivers a medley of fans giving loud shout-outs. “More people wave than I would have thought,” he writes, describing his ceremonious exit from Madison after a two-year stay. “Some sign ‘I love you,’ applaud, and encourage me from their cars.”

Then there’s the way Francis currently gets around. In recent years, he’s abandoned both his boycott of motor vehicles and his vow of silence. The man who once contented himself by pitching his tent alongside the hissing freeway has been staying in hotels and flying 100,000 miles a year. He’s now an eco-éminence grise who travels the world as a sort of green motivational speaker. He advises the Sierra Club on how to lure minorities. He serves as a U.N. Goodwill Ambassador, and recently he lectured at the Global Travel and Tourism Summit in Portugal, arguing that hotels can only be sustainable if they are humane to their workers.

Between trips, Francis runs a small nonprofit, Planetwalk, based in Point Reyes Station, California, where he lives with his wife and two sons–Luke, a toddler, and seven-year-old Sam, who can already knock off 10 trail miles in a day and name nearly every tree in Point Reyes National Seashore. He publishes a small newsletter and is developing a K-12 Planetlines curriculum.

Francis is busy, and his lifestyle befits a man who’s met success in the world. He flies business class these days, and when he recently visited Beverly Hills he was treated like royalty. “The room tab at the hotel is open,” Francis recalls Shady Acres jefe Tom Shadyac telling him. “You can get a massage, you can get detailing done on your car–anything you want.”

But if Francis is now indulging himself a bit, he isn’t just resting on his laurels. In July, he’ll travel to the Yukon to canoe 250 miles down the Porcupine River with the Yukon Intertribal Watershed Council, which aims to promote Indian solidarity and river health. This summer, he’ll do some overnight hikes in the coastal wilderness of Point Reyes with Sam. Meanwhile, Francis is walking west across the country, in stages, making a multiyear trip that might rankle purists: He has a website (planetwalk.org) and a publicist, and he taps volunteers to transport his baggage.

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