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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.

I expected Francis to comport himself like some excessively pious sage, but he did not. We drank beers every night, and whenever I met him he hailed me in silly, lilting tones: “Hey, sailor!” When we drove by a topless bar deep in the hills called Artistry in Motion, he was not above seeing the humor. “I like it,” he chuckled. “And look at that–they’ve even got those little cabins for rent out behind the bar. Nii-iice!”

The man had savoir faire. He had street. One evening at the Best Western in Chambersburg, two heavyset young African Americans–Johnny and Tommy Jackson, who are brothers–approached Francis in the lobby, ecstatic after learning of his coast-to-coast hike. “That’s some walking,” exclaimed Tommy. “That’s amazing!”

Francis just sat there, slumped low in a couch by the desk, meeting Tommy’s enthrallment with hip, paternal support. “Yeah,” he said, “walking puts you in a good state of mind.” He was not John Francis, PhD, now. Rather, he was channeling a different self–the Johnny Francis who grew up in working class Philly. A moment before, in fact, Francis had introduced himself as Johnny. It wasn’t lying. It was, rather, the work of a human relations maestro.

Tommy went on, growing confessional. “I only weigh 250 now,” he said. “I lost, like, 20 pounds last year, court walking–on tennis courts, you know. Walking, man, you get in the zone–you can do some serious thinking. I used to do a lot of things,” he continued, “drink, smoke, drugs. I just asked God to take all that out of my life, and He did.”

The Jacksons work as traveling laborers, installing lighting systems. And now they were stranded because Johnny had inadvertently put gasoline in the tank of their diesel van.

“Wait here,” Francis told Tommy. “I have something for you.” Limping a bit, his legs sore and stiff, he hobbled back to his room, where he had a single copy of his book in his suitcase; he’d brought it in hopes that he’d meet a stranger whose story moved him. Now, he came back with the book. Signing it, he told Jackson, “The bottom line–what it’s all about–is that we need to be good to each other.”

I met with Francis just one more time–at his home in Point Reyes Station, a one-time ranching community that has, in recent years, become such a bastion of Left Coast crunchiness that even the local feed barn has a yoga studio.
By now, the splendor of our rendezvous with the Jacksons had faded for me like a sugar high. Indeed, I’d called Tommy and learned that he’d yet to do much reading. As far as I could discern, Francis’s Pennsylvania walk had accomplished nothing concrete. It had warmed people’s hearts, but were there legions out there who’d felt moved, after Francis flew home, to actually lace up their boots and take to the road? I couldn’t find them.

And now Francis was ensconced in a difficult familial challenge. On the day I reached Point Reyes, his wife, Martha Smith, a social worker who is 42, was temporarily returning to work after a three-month maternity leave. She had never been away from her infant son, Luke, and now she was leaving Francis alone with the boy and a little chilled breast milk. She was a nervous wreck. “And if he starts crying,” she instructed, “what you do is you bounce him on your knee like this”–she bounced him–”and sing, ‘Luke, Duke, Duke of Earl.’”

Francis looked over at me, hombre a hombre, his eyes rolled skyward, as if to acknowledge that, yes, this was a cloying and embarrassing moment. Then he turned to his wife. “As soon as you go out that door,” he said in soothing tones, “the wet nurse is coming in through the other.” Smith laughed, comforted, and then left for work.

The next day, Francis and I slipped out for lunch at an organic restaurant, The Station House. We talked about the Travel and Tourism Summit he’d just been to in Portugal. “I had a very interesting conversation with this guy from Marriott Hotels,” he told me. “They’re really beginning to think about the environment.”

I asked Francis for details on Marriott’s record. His answer was hazy, so then I kind of jumped on him. Didn’t he know that some major corporations pretend that they’re eco-friendly just to placate the public? Did he really believe that a placid and genial person could effect change in the world?

Sitting there over his free-range bacon cheeseburger, Francis began, very patiently, to enunciate the tenets of Gandhism. But he did not get very far, for now there was an interruption–a sparrow fluttering madly, disoriented, over a table occupied by a few bewildered, elderly diners.

Francis rose. He took a couple of giant steps toward the small bird and swept his napkin up into the air, to gently guide the scared little thing out the window. And suddenly I was witnessing a splendid tableau: Here was Francis’s massive brown hand, here the white napkin, and here the black sparrow sputtering, stalled, and then, a second later, spiriting away, free, into the blue sky outside.

The tension on the faces of the elderly diners lifted. A soft laughter rippled through the restaurant, and it seemed as though, simply by being there, Francis had brought to the room a new sweetness and harmony.

Would that sweetness last in any quantifiable way? Would it halt global warming? It would not. But it was there and it was magical, and I knew that it would inspire people in ways that words could never quite capture.

So when Francis returned, grinning with infinite warmth, I asked no more questions. I simply sat there, amazed, and delighted to be in his presence.

Bill Donahue lives in Portland, Oregon. He’s still a George Orwell fan, but he plans to do a lot more walking.

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