In 1972, at the age of 26, John Francis gave up driving. He also stopped riding in cars and trucks, on motorcycles and buses, trains and planes. No motorized vehicles at all. He would walk instead.
His decision roused strong reactions in the small community north of San Francisco where he was living.
“I like getting around too much to give it up,” his live-in girlfriend said of driving.
“This is only a phase you’re going through,” said his mom.
“We are getting ready to have a baby so it’s nothing we could do,” said a female friend.
“You think you’re better than me. Isn’t that right?” asked a hostile neighbor.
“You are just crazy. One person walking is not going to make any difference in reducing air pollution or oil spills,” chimed onlookers.
“Hell no, that ain’t crazy. If you don’t want to drive cars then you shouldn’t,” said a male friend.
Francis became a quirky local character, someone who would set out a day early to meet friends for a movie in a town 25 miles away.
Then he decided to stop speaking.
This was seen as even weirder than giving up fuel-powered transportation.
While some, including his parents, questioned his sanity, others started calling him a saint and a hero: his walking wasn’t just tramping around, it was a pilgrimage. He began carrying a banjo and a journal to paint and write in. “Walking is in me to do,” Francis writes. “Birds are born with wings. I was born with feet.”
This book details his eleven years living and walking in California and Oregon and his seven years walking silently across the country, stopping in Montana to earn a master’s degree in environmental studies, stopping again in Wisconsin to take doctoral classes in land resources. It is a picturesque depiction of a cross-country trek in the days before e-mail and GPS. It’s not altogether clear how he paid for things and foot surgery, a huge event for a walker, is mentioned only briefly. He does bike ride at times, usually when he’s settled in a place, waiting out the winter or attending school, but it’s not his first choice: “It is not the same as walking, moving slowly on the ground, feeling every rock and stone.”
My favorite moment in the book comes when the Coast Guard offers him a job (he had started speaking again). He is in New England at the time and tells them he can start the job in two months after he has biked all the way to Washington D.C. and they say okay. Once there, he tells them he can take business trips of no more than 300 miles (the distance he can bike in three days) and they agree to that too. Imagine a world where all employers support and adapt to vehicle-free lifestyles!
In the final chapter, Francis devotes only two paragraphs to his decision to start using cars again. (His wife and kids get a mere two sentences.) As he tells it, he realized that his “decision not to use motorized vehicles had become a prison.” It’d be better for his family and his work, he thought, to use fuel-powered transportation again. So after 22 years of walking, he started traveling in cars and planes.
As someone who has lived carfree for ten years, I wanted to hear more about this decision and how his life changed once it became motorized. And I wouldn’t have minded hearing about how he met his wife and how they set up a life together.
This book, illustrated with more than ninety drawings by the author, resounds with the message that there are things you see and experience when walking that you miss when traveling by car.
Tempe, Arizona USA
By John Francis
National Geographic, 2008, 288 pp.
Planetwalk, the non-profit organization Francis founded, aims to promote “earth stewardship and peace through pilgrimage.” On the website you can read about his yearly week-long walks as he retraces his cross-country trek this time with GPS, vehicle support, an Internet technician and a plane ticket back to California where he lives.