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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.

This is the message that Francis delivers when he speaks before groups. I couldn’t quite fathom why Francis had to go on a journey to arrive at such timeworn epiphanies about human kindness. Couldn’t he have just read the text on a box of Celestial Seasonings tea? Nevertheless, Carl Pope, the executive director of the Sierra Club, sees him as invaluable. “He’s got a story to tell,” Pope says, “and, well, a lot of people have John’s quiet passion, but they’re not as cheerful about it. John can inspire people, and he can put things very simply.”

In Gettysburg, Francis was trying to engender a new alliance between greens and mainstream Americans. Rotarians and Lions Club members, he’d told me, would shuttle his suitcases between towns and help set him up at hotels. They’d done this before, when Francis walked 150 miles across Pennsylvania in 2006, and so I kept looking around for old men in white sneakers and windbreakers.
They were nowhere in evidence, though. The only supporters on hand were Rhodes, Ray, and her husband. And as they all sidled off toward dinner at the Best Western, the evening bore a distinctly middle-class vibe. Francis ordered a Caesar salad and talked about the Toyota Prius that Shady Acres gave him, gratis, last year as a presigning bonus. “Every time I hop in and drive,” he said, “I have hope. I know somebody in Hollywood believes in me.”

The next morning, April 22, Francis stood on the green in Gettysburg, fiddling with a microphone as he delivered a podcast. “Happy Earth Day, everyone!” he intoned. Then he began walking east, past touristy shops, then right onto US 30. He was slow. He stopped and snapped photos. He played the banjo and told Rhodes, walking beside him, “Even if the drivers can’t hear it, the banjo communicates.”
We walked through the Gettysburg Battlefield, site of the bloodiest confrontation during the American Civil War, and soon we were outside of town, alone on a bland, grassy no-man’s land. There was broken glass at our feet, crushed soda cans, and discarded tires. The distances seemed vast, and the cars, whooshing by at 60 miles per hour, seemed hostile. Still, Francis encouraged us to wave at the cars. “You watch,” he said hopefully. “People will wave back.”

They did, but still I felt awkward out there. Francis was so coolly cheerful that I felt guilty about the annoyance that seized me every time a car cut too close. I wanted to locate some fallibility–some dark side–in Francis as well.

In Planetwalker, Francis writes that early on in his silent years he was plagued by “a cacophony of thoughts, conversations and arguments” persisting “inside my mind, begging to become words.” There was some tension between him and his father. The elder John Francis was an émigré from Antigua, and a man who toed the straight and narrow in his pursuit of the American dream. He worked for more than four decades as a telephone line repairman in Philadelphia, and slowly he banked enough cash to buy a second home, a cabin on the Jersey shore. He sent his teen son to Catholic school and bought him an MG sports car. When John enrolled in a college premed program, his dad happily called him “Dr. Francis.”

But then, as a freshman, Francis dropped out. He began traipsing around downtown Philly with no shoes on his feet. Then he ventured out to Point Reyes, a burgeoning hippie haven, to visit some friends. He scored a gig as a booking agent for rock bands and stayed on. Soon, he stopped driving. Still, discontent rumbled through him. His mind remained fixed, he writes, “on past conversations and arguments that drive me to near distraction.”

On his twenty-seventh birthday, Francis resolved to be silent for a few hours. When the quiet afforded him sanctuary from the quarrels ricocheting around in his mind, he just let his vow of silence linger on, and on. He saw his silence as a gift to others, granting them “permission to speak fully their idea or position without fear of rebuttal.” His dad was incensed, though. “How are you going to get anywhere,” he implored, “if you don’t even drive or talk?”

Francis, of course, did not respond, and as he dwelled deep in his quietude he reflected on what it meant to be black in America. Once, in high school, his guidance counselor advised Francis, an honor roll student, to look into working as a garbage man. In college, a dean suggested he stay away from a dance, reasoning, “There won’t be any colored girls there.”

“The message in consumer culture,” Francis told me, is, ‘If you really want to be happy, you have to be white.’ As a black man, you end up compromising yourself, pretending to be something you’re not.” Francis decided that previously he’d been a shallow, ungrounded person: “I told a lot of lies. Like to impress a girl, I’d say I was just about to get a million-dollar settlement. At some point, you have to ask yourself, ‘Who am I?’ And that’s what I did when I stopped talking and riding in cars. I became myself.”

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