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Environmentalist John Francis, Walking the Walk

John Francis with his cousins, Dr. Ed Kirby and Dorothy Kirby.
Tracy Wahl, NPR /
John Francis with his cousins, Dr. Ed Kirby and Dorothy Kirby.

Environmental activist John Francis spent 22 years on a journey across America, mostly on foot and deliberately without the aid of motorized devices. For much of that time, he did not speak. He's written about those years in the book Planetwalker: How to Change Your World One Step at a Time.

Read an excerpt from the book:

From Chapter Two, "Living on the Road: Up in Smoke"

It's a fourteen-mile walk around the bay from Inverness to Marshall; four miles to Point Reyes Station and then ten miles north on Highway One. I had made the drive often to spend Saturday night drinking and dancing at the Marshall Tavern adjoining the hotel. After a few drinks the fourteen-mile trip back home can be deadly. It has claimed the lives of several friends. I have been lucky.

I still make the trip, but now on foot. It is a pleasant walk along the two-lane highway lined with cypress and pungent eucalyptus trees. The road rises, dips, twists, and turns along the eastern shore as it passes the occasional house, amid small herds of dairy and beef cattle behind barbed wire fences. Bright orange poppies crowd the shoulders of the road as it skirts a cluster of rustic fishing cottages and vacation homes. On weekends, especially in the summer, traffic is heavy and tiresome. When the tide is low I take the old railroad right-of-way close to the water. The tracks have long since been removed. Only the roadbed and the skeletons of the trestles that once crossed streams and mudflats remain. Sometimes, just a few yards from the highway, I feel like I'm in another world. Like sailing on the bay it is accessbile solitude -- a wilderness beside the road.

One stormy day I find myself rowing on a choppy Tomales Bay; having shunned motorized transportation I often spend many hours on the bay rowing a small dory or sailing our little Blue Jay. The tide has changed and a south wind forces me to land this particular day on the shore near the Tomales Bay Oyster Company, which sits across the water from Inverness. I make my way over a barbed wire fence and along the beach to a house set back beneath some cypress and knock.

Gordon Sanford opens the door. He is a rotund man, perhaps a bit overweight, who smiles from behind steamy glasses.

"We're closed," he says, removing his frames and wiping them across the front of his shirt.

"I know you're closed," I answer. "I just rowed up on your beach and I'm wondering if I can use your phone to call home. They might be worried with this storm coming up the way it has."

He looks surprised, peering past me into the gloom, then invites me in and shows me to the telephone.

"You been out rowing in this weather?" he asks.

I nod yes, and make my call. On the other end of the phone I have hardly been missed.

Gordon introduces me to his wife, Ruth, and insists that I stay for tea and something to eat. The conversation turns to oyster farming and I talk about spending my early summers in Virginia with my aunt, uncle, and cousin without electricity by the Chesapeake Bay, with hand-drawn water from a well and harvesting oysters from a small inlet. I haven't thought about that in such a long while, it is as if I am hearing it for the first time. For a moment I am a kid again, feeling the mud of the Chesapeake between my toes and chasing fiddler crabs down into their holes.

It turns out that they once lived on the Chesapeake, too. I am offered employment on the spot, and for the next several months I work there, harvesting and culling oysters. I learn about acquiring the seed, planting, rack construction, predation control, health standards for public consumption, and the importance of water quality, which after the oil spill in San Francisco Bay has special meaning for me. But even Gordon thinks it is odd when I refuse to use the motor launch to inspect the oyster beds. I row or pole instead. Then, one day, straining against a flooding tide, I have to acquiesce. Gordon comes smiling and tows me in.

We sit on the worn gray wooden bench in the sun in front of a concrete work shack and talk. I learn that Gordon is a retired physicist.

"Heart problems forced me to look for a less stressful occupation," he says as he lights a cigarette, inhales deeply, and coughs.

Immediately I see his chain smoking in a different light.

"Oyster farming seemed a natural."

We talk a little about that for a while and then he brings up my walking.

"You know, I really admire you for standing up for what you believe," he says. "But do you really think it's going to change anything?"

I shrug my shoulders and say, barely audibly, "Probably not."

A flock of seagulls rises on the wind from a mound of sunbleached shells and hovers in the sky, screaming.

"Take oil, for instance," he says. "When we run out of that we'll just find something else."

Anticipating what the something else is, I tell him that I do not think nuclear energy is a good idea. It isn't safe. But so far no nuclear accidents have occurred and Gordon is ready with all the figures that make my simple statement sound ignorant and uniformed.

"Besides," he continues, "you're talking fission. The new technology will be fusion. Pure and clean unlimited energy."

For the next few minutes he tries to explain. I try to understand, and for a while I live in his world where technology will save us. "It's just around the corner," he assures me. I have never met a physicist before, and I like Gordon a lot. When he talks about the Chesapeake he reminds me of home. Perhaps what he says is true. I don't know, and in a way it doesn't matter. I like the way I move over the land and water. I know I will continue just the same. For in the walking I discover a thread that runs through time, beyond the need of personal protest, connecting me to that life with Aunt Sadie and Uncle Luke on Chesapeake Bay. I never use the motor launch again.

Reprinted with permission of the author.

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