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The Silent Type
Environmental activist John Francis, 

. . . spent 17 years in silence and eschewed cars for 22, prepares to walk across Cuba. 

Larry Gallagher / San Francisco Chronicle Magazine 6jan02

The slick bicycle people blow past me one by one on their two-county hill. For them, in their tight black pants and cartoon-colored shirts, this is probably just a morning's sprint, but to me it has the feel of a minor pilgrimage. This spirit that is inspiring my journey compensates for whatever cycle envy I may be experiencing as I creak along with my jury-rigged panniers on this ancient friction machine.

I left my home in the Mission District at 7 a.m. to make the 45-mile trip to Point Reyes Station to meet one Dr. John Francis, writer, artist, U.N. Goodwill Ambassador, and sometime legend in West Marin. Francis has spent most of his adult life traveling the hemisphere, picking up university degrees and promoting environmental awareness. For 22 years he demonstrated his conviction by eschewing all forms of motorized conveyance. And for 17 of those years he didn't speak a word, communicating with gestures and in writing. In the face of this kind of commitment it seemed only appropriate that I make a show of good faith by biking to the interview.

Francis started an organization called Planet Walk, and for all the support Planet Walk gets from friends and sponsors, it is at its core an organization of one; one man walking around the globe promoting environmental and social harmony in as grassroots a fashion as he can. He is currently preparing for the next leg of his journey, a 700-mile walk across Cuba. This is the ostensible point to this story, but what is really inspiring are the sacrifices this one man was willing to make for the sake of his principles, to make his life into a living question: "Are there other ways to live on this planet?" And in these troubled and troubling times I find myself increasingly gravitating toward people who are asking these kinds of questions.

Whatever wooziness I experience as I churn my way toward Tomales Bay is mild compared to the existential nausea I usually feel when I'm motoring north on 101 or idling at one of the many stoplights on Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. Don't worry. I won't trigger your own gag reflexes waxing poetic on my newfound communion with nature. Let's just say it's a damned fine day to be moving at 10 miles an hour through this beautiful corner of the earth. For all my years of San Francisco living, it's a trip it had never once occurred to me to make until I heard the story of John Francis.

To condense the odyssey of anybody's life into a few paragraphs seems mildly criminal, and in the case of Francis it seems positively felonious. A book would hardly catch the details. (Actually, we'll see about this: Francis has just signed a contract with Chelsea Green to write the story of his adventures.) Anything shorter runs the risk of begging more questions than it answers.

Caveats aside, here goes: The year was 1971. Two oil tankers collided in the waters off the Golden Gate, spilling 440,000 gallons of crude, catalyzing one man's troubled mind into a whirl of questions: What is my part in this? Why are we living our lives at 60 miles per hour? How can one person make a difference? Then a friend of his died shortly after the spill. Francis commemorated the man's life with a memorial walk from his home in Inverness to San Anselmo and back. In hindsight you could call it a spiritual crisis, some kind of grief that was pushing Francis to break out of the boundaries of his life.

He decided to see what would happen if he stopped traveling in cars. After a few months of walking, his world view was starting to polarize: the elation he felt at his newfound freedom, the despair he felt watching the world pass him by. He could see that if he continued his decision was going to transform his entire life.

And yet, so threatened were people by the statement he was making that he found himself embroiled in many a pointless argument. On his 27th birthday he decided to treat himself to a break from all the noise by spending the day in silence. And in the bizarre, inconceivable way that time accretes, that day turned into two, and those two into a week, a month, a year. Before it ended, Francis' birthday gift turned into 17 years of silence. "You have to experience it," he says, looking back on those years, "You can't explain silence by saying something." But for those of us who are more inclined to view such behavior as an aberration, he will point to its virtues: It quieted his mind, it gave him the opportunity to really listen to others, and it kept his intentions from getting diffused in chatter.

Compelling, and well precedented, is the narrative of the sadhu, the silent, wandering holy man who lives completely on the margins of society. Certainly Francis has been no stranger to the margins. Over the years of his pilgrimage he has spent plenty of time painting in the wilderness or strumming his banjo along the side of some blue highway. But what makes Francis' life so remarkable is the extent to which he continued to work within the mainstream. For in those years of silence he earned a B.A. in Oregon, an M.A. in Montana, and got his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin.

The chain of cause and effect started curving back around when Francis decided to make oil spills the focus of his doctoral studies. Hard though it is to believe, it came at a time when there were very few, if any, graduate students conducting this kind of research. Francis completed his course work around the spring of 1989, at the same time a certain tanker captained by a certain skipper ran aground on a certain stretch of Alaskan coastline, instantly embedding the concept of oil spill into the national consciousness. Copies of Francis' doctoral dissertation found their way to the Coast Guard, which was looking to rewrite regulations to satisfy the requirements of the Oil Spill Act of 1990.

He was visiting Vermont in the spring of 1991 when the Coast Guard offered him a job. On Earth Day the previous year he had decided to break his silence, but he still hadn't ended his abstinence from motorized transport. When he told them it would take him two months to bike to their headquarters in Washington, D.C., he figured that would be the last he would hear from them, but they called back to say there would be a job waiting for him when he arrived.

After a year spent sculpting the new regulations, he decided his usefulness was waning. "They wanted me to stay, but I felt that I would just be collecting a paycheck. I knew that year could turn into another and another and another."

So Francis walked away from a $70,000 salary and on his way again around the globe. He caught a sailboat to the Caribbean, working his way from island to island for a year and a half, and eventually caught a boat down to Venezuela. It was while walking through the jungles of Venezuela that he had his next epiphany. Looking back on his courting with the Coast Guard, it occurred to him that if they hadn't been so flexible, he would have blown it. "I was so caught up in the act of the walk and silence that I would have completely forgotten the reason I was doing them." For while each year he would re-evaluate his decision not to speak, he had never questioned his avoidance of the fossil fuel conveyance. He arrived in Brazil during the Christmas of 1994 and climbed aboard a plane and flew home.

I made it up to Point Reyes Station in four hours, enough time to devour a giant scone from the Bovine Bakery before pedaling up the mesa to meet Francis at the house he rents with his wife and son. Francis appreciated my efforts, although he owns a car these days and even deigns to drive it. Over lunch he put my gesture into perspective. "It's not so much that you're gonna save enough oil to make a difference in any way. If you and I do it, it's a drop in the proverbial bucket. But we all are interconnected in such a way that we learn and we teach each other. So we can learn from your experience. And it gives us the opportunity to see things that we might never have seen before. That's the real power in what you're doing."

The sight of a 6-foot-2-inch black man walking down the back roads of Marin strumming a banjo would be no less distinctive today than it was 25 years ago. But given his history, what is most striking about Francis in person is how unaffected and non-eccentric he seems. With the addition of wife Martha (who he met while working for the Coast Guard) and 1-year old son Samuel, his life these days is more rooted than it has ever been. But behind these wild lifestyle changes, Francis remains committed to his own personal style of activism.

One thing becomes immediately clear - his years of silence stemmed not from any inability to chew the fat. This he demonstrates over the course of a lazy Saturday afternoon as he gives me the update on his life's adventure. When he got back from Brazil, he reconceived his planet walk to bring his message to a wider audience. "I said to myself, 'I still think walking is really the way to go. It's really good for understanding a country, to meet people, to slow down and to be at peace with yourself, so I think I'm gonna do it the rest of my life. But I've had experiences that are unique, and it is my responsibility to share them. So I'm going to start using automobiles, to get back to where I'm going, to go speak and do whatever other things I have to do. Then I'll come back to my journey and I'll keep walking.' "

When he got back to the States he started accepting speaking engagements around the country, such as the annual World Affairs Seminar at the University of Wisconsin in Whitewater, attended by some 1,200 high school juniors from around the world. He hooked up with GLOBE (Global Learning and Observation to Benefit the Environment), an international educational program started by Al Gore tying together 5,000 schools in 97 countries, and would beam them reports from the trail. He wrote articles for magazines and journals, sold paintings and raised money for the next segment of his walk. In this piecemeal fashion, walking for a spell, coming home for a spell, Francis made it down to Tierra del Fuego by January of 1999.

Since his return he has added "family man" to his list of responsibilities, and that has altered the time scheme of his walk, but it has also given him time to prepare for the next leg: Cuba. So close to our shores, and so colored by recent decades of tension, Cuba seemed ripe for a visit from an Ambassador of Goodwill, an honorific the U.N. Environmental Program bestowed on him in 1991. To give some form to his walk and abide by the terms of the Treasury Department, Francis has chosen to make a study of organic farming practices in Cuba. With the breakup of the Soviet Union, Cuba had lost most of its agricultural inputs, fertilizers and pesticides, and had to quickly revert to organic techniques. They did such a good job of it that in 1999 Cuba's organic growers' society was granted a Right Livelihood Award of $190,000 from a Swedish foundation.

The Cuba walk is an example of the serendipitous way that energy tends to coalesce around Francis. A local filmmaker heard about the walk and asked if he could shadow him. Someone else connected him to Schooltone Alliance, a consortium that promotes long-distance learning programs via satellite and the Internet. It so happened that one of the film's cameramen was in tight with the superintendent of schools in Oakland. As it turns out, Santiago, the ending point of the walk, is a sister city to Oakland. So Francis is putting together a curriculum that will use video and audio feeds to allow schoolchildren to follow him across the island. "So you see," he says, "all of this started with the idea of a simple walk."

Recent events seem to be conspiring to delay the walk. Francis had originally planned to start in November 2001. But in the uncertainty that followed Sept. 11 he put it off until January 2002. Then Hurricane Michelle so devastated the infrastructure of the island that Cuban authorities suggested it would be better to begin the walk next spring or fall.

Given these shifting circumstances, it's hard for Francis to say exactly what he will be doing when he hits the ground. Then again, he never knows exactly what he will be doing. He's figuring it will take him three months to work his way from Havana to Santiago. The plan is to move from farm to farm across the island, visiting the farmers themselves and observing their technique first-hand. He will carry his clothing and a few essentials - laptop,

watercolors, banjo - in a small trailer that he will pull behind him. At night he'll camp along the way, pay to stay with a family, or get himself a room in a rural hotel when he can. Despite his limited Spanish, the one thing of which he is absolutely certain is that he will gain access to people's lives. "People are so touched that you're willing to actually walk across their country. Not hitchhike, not drive across like a tourist. Once they see that you respect them enough that you will walk across their country, then they will do anything for you."

This time around he's hoping to make the walk a family affair. Martha, a social worker, will be conducting research of her own studying different attitudes toward treatment of the developmentally disabled in rural Cuba. Samuel will come along for the plantains.

Looking down the metaphorical road Francis sees Africa, Asia, Australia. When he first started he estimated that it would take him 18 years to make it around the globe and back. "The 18 years came and I realized while I was doing it that, at the rate I am going, it would take a lifetime," says Francis. "And whether I got around or not wasn't really the point, that it was my journey and it would take my whole life."

For information on Planet Walk, check out www.planetwalk.org.

Larry Gallagher's last Magazine piece was on Reed Organ Man.

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