A group of college students spent time in Wapakoneta this past week — hoping to visit a few local landmarks as they walked from Russell’s Point to the Indiana state line.
Their plans were interrupted Monday by a spring snowstorm which blanketed the area with more than half-foot of snow. With the day off, they walked from their cabins at the KOA to the Armstrong Air & Space Museum and a local restaurant before returning to their cabins.
On Tuesday, they would walk along Washington Pike, through the city of St. Marys and out toward Celina. Their goal is to walk to Indiana by the end of the week, each day picking up where they left and then walking to a new destination and driving back to the KOA.
This group of college students, adults and a 12-year-old girl are retracing the steps of a man, who walked from California to New Jersey in the 1970s and 1980s when he swore off using motorized vehicles. An oath he kept for 22 years.
During this same time, he also voluntarily did not talk — an oath he kept to himself for 17 years from 1973 to 1990. During this time, he earned a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree in environmental studies and his doctorate degree in land management. The man’s name is John Francis, and the Philadelphia born man is known as the “Planetwalker.”
On April 22, 1990, Francis decided to talk in Washington, D.C. It was the 20th anniversary of Earth Day.
“I started speaking because on that day I wanted to speak for the environment,” Francis, 67, said about finally breaking his silence in Washington, D.C. inn April 22, 1990, the 20th anniversary of Earth Day. “And the environment to me — while it was about trees, endangered species, pollution and all those things — what it had become during my walk across the United States listening to people and connecting with thousands of people — it had become about people, too, and our relationship with each other.
“Environment also became about how we treated each other and so it was about human rights and civil rights and gender equality and economic equity and all the ways we are related because how we treated each other really manifested into the physical environment around us and that was what causing a lot of the issues we were experiencing in the environment,” he said in a soft voice, his long fingers intertwined in prayer-like fashion sitting comfortably on a couch in a cabin at the Wapakoneta KOA Kampground. “We have to work on all the issues but the most fundamental issue is we are all part of the environment and since we are all part of the environment our first opportunity to treat the environment in a sustainable way or to even understand what sustainability means is through our relationships with each other.”
Retracing his steps
Francis decided eight years ago to retrace his initial steps from New Jersey back to California. This time, he began his trek with a different goal, too — to teach students as well as make a political statement.
“In 2005, I started walking back across the United States and trying to develop a curriculum for kindergarten through university called Planet Lines where we use walking as the vehicle to engage the environment and where we talk about people being the environment, as well, to engage with people and to learn — to learn about where we are, where we need to go if we are going to survive,” said Francis, who wears small John Lennon-type glasses, has short dreadlocks and grey speckling the beard on his chin.
He started retracing those steps from Cape May, N.J. alone and then people started joining him when he reached Philadelphia. The crowd grew when he reached the West Virginia border.
Today, students and Planetwalkers walk with him every spring break. Last year, they started in Prospect and ended on Ohio 219. They walked Ohio 219 and up Cemetery Road to Wapakoneta.
Francis, who is walking with 11 or 12 disciples of his principles depending on the day, is changing students lives.
“Everyone becomes comfortable with what their daily life is like and when we come into a town and make an appearance then we shake up their day and they think about their day as something different,” Alexandra Branschombe, a student at the University of Wisconsin, said. “I think about those little impacts, especially with teenagers. The older people wave and smile and teens they look at you weird.”
Cammie Wiggins, who is walking for her second time, said she has always felt a connection with the environment.
“I like to go sit in the woods and I like to look at all the small things,”Wiggins said. “I think we have so much to learn about ourselves from the environment. I don’t really see a separation with anything. I thought I was going to bring this idea that we and the environmental are one — a spiritual thing — then I read some things by John and realized he was already there.”
Danielle and Fred Hildebrand, of Indiana, brought their 12-year-old daughter, Taris, to walk with them. Their 17-year-old son, Kierre, spent a day walking with them before returning to school.
“I am here because he is one of my heroes,” Fred Hildrebrand said. “I just feel that everything he has done I agree with and there is a very special connection to the Earth, to the environment and to each other.”
Their daughter expressed her feelings about walking for several days in west-central Ohio.
“I think it is cool,” Taris said. “I think it is fun to walk and to know that I am helping the Earth.”
Start of the journey
Francis’ initial journey started after he witnessed the devastation when the Arizona Standard and the California Standard collided on Jan. 19, 1971, and dumped 800,000 gallons of oil in the bay.
Francis, who said he cried for days as a child when he watched a baby robin die after the tiny creature was hit by a car, struggled to deal with the carnage created by the oil on the bay’s wildlife, specifically the birds. He told a friend he would never ride in a car again.
When a deputy sheriff, Jerry Tanner, who was 26 with a wife and children, died in a boating accident, Francis vowed to himself he would to stop riding in motorizing vehicles.
“If we only had this moment right now and there is not going to be this promise of million dollars coming or the sun coming up the next day, I decided I was going to walk and to keep walking,” Francis said.
As he walked around the small town of Point Reyes Station, Calif., he lived in instead of driving, he found himself arguing with people about the benefits to the environment and if one person could make a difference.
On his birthday in 1973, Francis decided to stop speaking, which would keep him from arguing, for a day as a gift to the community.
“I stopped speaking for that one day and I realized that I really hadn’t been listening to people,” Francis said. “I listened just enough to think I knew what they were going to say and then I would stop listening because I knew what they were going to say and I would be thinking about what I was going to say to show them I knew more, or I knew the right answer, and even I thought they believed what I believed that I could say what wanted to better.
“That was a happy and sad day,” said Francis, who has a soft voice and slow cadence of speech. “It was a sad day because I had been missing all these opportunities to learn from everyone. The happy part I could keep quiet for another day and learn some more.”
At the end of the day, he decided to do it for one more day and after several days he decided to do it for one year. At his next birthday, he decided to continue his voluntary silence.’’ To communicate with others, he wrote things down or used hand signals.
After several months including living in the wilderness for a year and learning to play the banjo, Francis walked to Ashland, Oregon, where he decided to attend Southern Oregon University. He earned his bachelor’s degree in two years and started the non-profit organization, “Planetwalkers.”
He continued his travels and walked to the state of Washington, where he sold a boat he built and sailed. At this time, he contacted the University of Montana at Missoula
With little money, he said he audited classes but professors tracked his grades, and when funds became available to pay for the classes he had taken, they were put on his transcript for credit. He then earned his master’s degree in environmental studies.
He grabbed his backpack and banjo and kept on walking — first through Wyoming and then South Dakota, where he stayed the winter in Watertown, S.D., when a blizzard hit.
Francis continued his walk to Madison, Wis. where he started taking his classes in 1987 and finished his doctoral studies in March 1989, focusing on the effects of oil spills. He rose to prominence as an expert in oil spills when the Exxon Valdez spilled thousands of crude oil in Prince William Sound on March 24, 1989.
U.S. Coast Guard officials contacted Francis about the spills. He earned his doctorate degree.
First time in Wapak
He continued his walk to the East Coast and he walked through Illinois, Indiana and into Ohio, including Wapakoneta in the summer of 1989.
“When I got to Wapakoneta, I was sitting in a restaurant (Lucky Steer) and I remember a long street, lined with trees and banners talking about the astronauts who lived in Ohio — I just couldn’t believe Neil Armstrong grew up here,” Francis said sitting on the edge of his seat. “I have to go to the museum and there was still Skylab.”
Francis continued his walk and made it to his parent’s home in Philadelphia by Thanksgiving. The next stop was the nation’s capital for the Earth Day speech.
Today, Francis, who has walked across South America and Australia, is employed by the U.S. Coast Guard and works on legislation relating to the management of oil spills and serves as a visiting professor at the University of Wisconsin where he is a member of the board at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies.
Using his experiences during his walk across America, he penned his first book, “Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking. 17 Years of Silence.” He has since authored a second book, “The Ragged Edge of Silence: Finding Peace in a Noisy World.”
Walking from one place to another, Francis said, provided him a lot of time for reflection. He learned to experience each moment as they came and to enjoy people for who they are — and he learned everyone has something to offer.
“I don’t think I am all that special, we are all special, we all have a journey inside of us, we all have that ability inside us to make a difference,” Francis said in perfect English with no hint of an accent. “If there is anything I can give to somebody is discover who you are and be that person — because that is the best you can be for all of us. If you can be that person, you can change the world.”