John Francis had a quest. Planetwalker is the story of what happened to him after he submitted to the strange calling of his inner voice. As he says at the end of the book, “If twenty years ago, after witnessing the oil spill in San Francisco Bay, someone had told me, “John, if you want to make a difference, I want you to stop driving in cars and start walking east, and you’ll make a difference,” and as I turned and walked away they shouted, “and shut up, too!” I would not have believed them. But as I sit here I realize that is exactly what has happened.” If it was a novel, it would have been hard to believe. As a memoir, it makes a pretty convincing case that long-range planning and defined goals are not always necessary at the start of a quest.
Take one hippie living in Northern California in 1971. Add epiphany. Stir in a decision to refuse all motorized transport, a vow of silence, a banjo, watercolor paintings, and haiku. How much do you suppose will be left six months later? A year later? Twenty years later? That’s the craziest part of the story, that all Francis’s commitments survived the zeitgeist. There were probably hundreds or thousands of people like him during that era, sitting around their living rooms, smoking bales of pot and talking about philosophy, which only their friends ever heard. His extended family definitely saw this as a phase, one they hoped he would outgrow soon, and his dad especially hassled him about it.
There are a few features of Francis’s quest that stand out for me. First is that he chose multiple goals around the same time, and successfully carried on with all of them. This takes serious discipline. He decides to learn to play an instrument, and evidently gets pretty good. He decides to do a watercolor painting every day. These paintings illustrate Planetwalker, and you can see that he’s reached a level of accomplishment. He succeeds in his original quest to walk across the United States. Along the way, he starts a foundation, produces a newsletter, earns a PhD, and becomes a United Nations goodwill ambassador. He finishes by being hired by the US Coast Guard. This has to be the most unconventional path to professional credentials ever taken.
As a questing sort of a person, I found it interesting that Francis revisited his vow of silence every year. He wanted to renew his commitment, to make sure it didn’t become automatic and that it was still a relevant practice in his life. He chose to speak at the ten-year mark, and then not again for another seven years. This is a unique approach. He chooses the boundaries for his decision, running it instead of letting it run him.
In many ways, Planetwalker is a textbook on What to Expect When You’re Questing. Dealing with skeptical questions from family, friends, and strangers. Running into bureaucratic red tape and officials who don’t know what to do with you. Being seen as a lunatic. Naysayers. Lectures on your selfishness and impracticality and foolhardiness. Predictions on how you’re ruining your job prospects for life. Figuring out where the money is going to come from. After a couple of decades, the tune starts to change a bit. Your position hasn’t changed, but it’s earned respectability with age and dedication and stubbornness.
It all goes to show that nothing interesting or unconventional will ever be received with perfect understanding or universal support. At first, anyway! John Francis has an entry in Wikipedia, he’s done a TED talk, he’s been profiled in National Geographic and The Atlantic and in a documentary, and his life story has been optioned by Universal Studios. There was no way he could have predicted these outcomes when he set out. He just started and kept going, one step at a time.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.