Taking to the Open Road Walking to Find the Truth

by Matt O’Connell
It is cold and rainy as we get into our rental car at the airport in Columbus, Ohio. As we understand, the drive is northwest about an hour and 30 minutes. We put that address into the iPhone. The area is western Ohio around Indian Lake, which outflows into the Miami River. It occurs to me that travel is significantly easier today than in the 1970s, when the man we are meeting today began his travels. And he’s well-known for traveling. Walking, actually.
I make ends meet working in a bar in South Florida. In the recent weeks leading up to this trip I’d tell people where I was going and why. Then I’d have to tell them why again. Usually I’d get a clipped, mildly curious “Oh, cool” reply or “Hey, can you tell so-and-so what you’re doing? She’s into that shit.” I also got a few “Reminds me of that Forrest Gump guy.” Then I’d have to remind them that Forrest was a fictional character. Then they’d say, “But he did the same thing.” Not really. And I’d think for a second. Well, if the bully kids throwing rocks at Forrest were a metaphor for how the oil companies dump on our shores indiscriminately … maybe it’d fly. What can I say? I work in a bar. People pass time talking about a whole lot of nothing.
We need to get to a point where we know how to treat each other or technology is of no help to us.

I’d first learned of John Francis when I read his memoir, “Planetwalker.” As a young man witnessing a devastating oil spill in the San Francisco Bay in 1971, he vowed to stop using all forms of motorized transportation. Soon after embarking on this quest that would span two decades and two continents, he took a vow of silence that endured for 17 years. It began as a silent environmental protest, but as a young African-American man, walking across the country in the early 1970s, his idea of “the environment” expanded beyond concern about pollution and loss of habitat to include how we humans treat each other and how we can better communicate and work together to benefit the earth. It was this idea of environment that struck me as incredibly significant.

Matt O'Connell, John Francis and Jeramy Pritchett / Photo by Jeramy Pritchett for Blindfold Magazine

Matt O’Connell, John Francis and Jeramy Pritchett / Photo by Jeramy Pritchett for Blindfold Magazine

“We need to get to a point where we know how to treat each other or technology is of no help to us.” John Francis Through his silent travels on foot, he learned the importance of critical listening, and along the way, earned undergraduate and master’s degrees in science and environmental studies and a Ph.D. in land resources. He founded “Planetwalk,” a non-profit educational organization dedicated to raising environmental consciousness and promoting earth stewardship. The United Nations appointed him goodwill ambassador to the world’s grassroots communities and the U.S. government recruited him to help address the Exxon Valdez disaster. In 2010, Francis became the first National Geographic Education Fellow.

Photo by Jeramy Pritchett for Blindfold Magazine

Photo by Jeramy Pritchett for Blindfold Magazine

We meet John and some of the other Planetwalkers, arriving from different places at various times throughout the day. The man himself stands more than six feet and has a soft-spoken but commanding presence. All at once I imagine his travels and quiet determination. I wonder what it is like for any young man to be solitary in his movement and ideas … the strength it must take, especially for a black man in America. I flinch at my own shortcomings and am quickly reminded of a hundred great ideas that have flared within me only to be extinguished with time. He embraces us as a welcome and immediately sets me at ease. Where so many meetings are characterized by awkwardness and armor, to meet John is all openness and warmth. Our plan is to pick up where he left off last time as he retraces his steps back across America.

“I leave them there still talking and continue on to Point Reyes Station. My head is full, replaying real and imagined conversations, attempting to prove to myself that I am right. I do not like the anger I feel; it eats into my gut. I realize now that I have taken a stand that challenges a way of life, a way of seeing things. It is no wonder that people challenge me. I am challenging myself. I feel frustrated because though it is clear to me, I am unable to articulate beyond a simple phrase about why I walk. Even more difficult for me to understand is the burgeoning feeling of something spiritual and sacred in the ordinary act of walking. I start to feel that each step taken is part of an invisible journey for which there is no map and few road signs. I am not sure I am prepared, and the discomfort both frightens and excites me.”

For ones unaccustomed to the outdoor life, we quickly realize that our gear is somewhat inadequate, at least in comparison to the others. We do have a tent and sleeping bags, which is good, as temperatures have dropped to freezing at night in an effort to welcome us to our first walk. The others unpack heavy socks, wind-resistant pants (why didn’t I think of that?), Jetboils for heating soup or coffee, Coleman SportCat catalytic heaters and tents you’d see on the side of Mount Everest. Man! I didn’t even remember the tequila (and will soon find out that this part of Ohio, a control state, does not have anything remotely like tequila). We meet at the campfire to cook and plan the start of our five-day walk beginning early tomorrow morning.

John Francis

John Francis / Photo by Jeramy Pritchett for Blindfold Magazine

But not too early. We quickly learn that John is not in a rush on this trip. He is having a good time with it. There are more Planetwalkers than any other year (it is usually himself and a couple of friends) and we are not rushing to hit the road. A winemaker, a matchmaker, a Vietnam veteran, a lawyer, a scientist and an Indian chief are just a few of the ensemble. We begin as a group but John mentions that we should go as we’d like … to converse with the others or walk alone … to stop and rest as you please. John often stops to paint watercolors, which are a visual history of his travels. And, of course, he always has his banjo: “Music is the language of the soul. You can play it anywhere.” We take off and file into place naturally.

There is so much to see and consider on the open road, even here at this time in Ohio when it is coming out of its winter shell. The expansive, dry fields and old farmhouses and silos are pure Americana. Red buds and peaches throw color on an otherwise drab monotone. Dandelions crowd the roadside in bundles. Gray dogs are double-tied to a peeling white shed and bark incessantly. Is everything abandoned? We see few cars and even fewer people until we come upon a small farm where a feed truck is being loaded at the end of a wide, dusty drive. Later, John sits against a tree that sprouts new buds, adding color to the ashen, brown landscape. He is the comfortable sage in front of enthusiastic idealists, young and old, students and friends. I borrow an army knife from Jesse, a junior who dreams of being an environmental photojournalist and later, a CEO of a non-profit. I cut summer sausage and cheese and we all share a snack and sun and rest.

Photo by Jeramy Pritchett for Blindfold Magazine

Photo by Jeramy Pritchett for Blindfold Magazine

The rest of the week settles into this type of routine. Everyone is enthusiastic. Fatigue and blisters are a reality but there is no pressure to move on at any pace besides your own. Stemble’s Quality Meats anchors on a dry crossroads. A herd of cows stand or graze, fenced in on the property in front. The irony of their day-to-day existence is not lost on us and we kid about it. We photograph inside an empty house and barn that resembles a slasher movie set. Stopping to hydrate with Wild Turkey at the only bar we’ve come upon, we receive a round of applause from ex-military local day-drinkers as we tell them our mission. Two older women walk with us for a mile. We’ve stumbled across their daily walk’s path and they are excited to have the company. As we say goodbye we end our day on Highway 26 in Logan County where it runs into a quaint, century-old Methodist church. The local caretaker sees our group resting and pulls over. He is proud of the church and unlocks it, giving us a tour and a history. Inside we photograph John in the warm, painted light of the stained glass.

Photo by Jeramy Pritchett for Blindfold Magazine

Photo by Jeramy Pritchett for Blindfold Magazine

Walking in itself is quite a solitary act. Even when you are walking with someone, or a group, there is an aloneness to it. It clears the mind while offering new, solid brainwork. Insights. I’d learn this over the next week and 70 some-odd miles. To walk is to be singular with your thoughts. For many, that in itself can be a scary thing. I’ve put aside so many important considerations for so long that I have forgotten their value: The true value of our own ideas. Displaced their trust. To confront your thoughts means action. Conviction. I’m reminded that John walked to prove his conviction. I’m walking and realizing that I have little in comparison.

John is stopped several times and he tells his story. I ask him if he ever gets tired of the telling … the way a singer might get tired of an old song. He laughs and says no, that the story is always changing because he’s still doing it. And it’s true. He is the story and he is still evolving and participating and shaping its outcome.