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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.

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.

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