National Geographic Explorer John Francis is currently leading an undergraduate group on a “Planetwalk” through rural U.S. states. Meanwhile his longtime collaborator Jon Waterhouse is on a somewhat similar mission in Alaska. Follow them both here on Explorers Journal.
By Planetwalker Alexandra Branscombe
None of us ever believed that a movement would have started by one man taking a walk. But at some point, 11 strangers found ourselves on a cold, windy day at 8 am in Wapakoneta, Ohio, following a tall man with a crazy mission: to raise environmental awareness by simply walking.
Dr. John Francis’ renowned environmental journey began and ended before half of us were even born; and even longer before YouTube could make the silent pilgrim an Internet sensation. So what about his mission could resonate with people with such different backgrounds, to bring them together in one small town in the Midwest?
Even among the individuals from UW-Madison where Dr. Francis teaches, there are so many ways to answer this question. While many other college students on spring break are enjoying tropical sunshine on the beach, we have to have a good reason for choosing to take a week to walk miles through wind and snow. For some, this is an educational opportunity: to learn from a completely unique teacher. “When I saw John guest lecture several years ago,” said Carol Moy, an international student from Hong Kong. “I saw he had a lot of wisdom, and I wanted to learn from him.” She and Rachel Gerry, a shy but adventurous sophomore, were both followers of John’s work for several years before they discovered the opportunity to join him on a Planet Walk. When they saw the application appear on the Nelson Institute website, they knew their time had come to join in the journey.
Oppositely, three of us found ourselves on spring break in Ohio by complete accident. Fangfei Dun, Lauren Semanchik, and myself had never heard of John until days before the Planet Walk application was due. Lauren, a pre-veterinary student, put it simply; “I heard John speak for about 5 minutes in my environmental studies class one day. I thought, there should be some cool people going, and I am not doing anything for spring break, so I will go.”
The publicity for Planet Walk was almost absurdly minimal, but the pull was magnetic. Walking for the environment seemed crazy to friends and family, but a few of us felt an inner reflection to the meaning of the trip. “It is because this is a new experience,” explained Fangfei, a senior in sociology. “Just the act of acting: going to Ohio to walk, makes doing something that is ordinary seem more special.”
Returning Planet Walkers have had more time to understand what draws them to walking. Cammie Wiggins from Evansville, Indiana. She said, “I have just a deep love for humanity and the planet both. I am walking as a pilgrimage.” A mother of three, Cammie has a hard time leaving her children behind to do the five-day walk. But Cammie has found a personal peace during her walk that keeps her coming back. “It is about me, being me, without having to be something for someone else,” she explained. “My essence can be fully expressed on this walk.” Cammie’s essence can hardly be missed; her excited chatter and easy laugh announce her presence long before her small, spitfire frame comes into view.
Despite being away from her husband and children, she shares a special connection to the other walkers from Evansville. Her long-time best friends, Fred and Danielle Hillenbrand, who finally talked her in to joining last year. Now, Cammie wouldn’t dream of missing an opportunity to walk with them. Fred and Danielle are much more calm, seasoned Planet Walkers. They have been traveling with John every spring since 2008. “We met John in D.C. at Powershift 2007, and we happened to be reading his book at the time” said Danielle. “When we met him, and told him we were from Indiana, he said ‘I will be walking real close to there!’ Without missing a beat, Fred said, ‘Can we come?’”
“I love planet walking, I love it!” Fred loves to shout on the road. “I am just waiting for the time when we are walking and 500 people just jump in and start walking with us.” Their plan is to keep walking every spring until they have completed the trek back to its origins in California.
The Next Generation
With Fred and Danielle is the youngest Planet Walker: their 12-year old daughter, Taris. She participated in her first Planet Walk when she was only 9 years old, but she remembers it well. “I was really sore in my feet. I had to take a lot of breaks, but I still went farther than the other kids and some of the adults,” she said proudly. Taris is quiet, wide-eyed girl; but when she does open her mouth, words of an old spirit reveals its presence behind her watchful eyes. “I like that us walking is helping make a difference,” she said confidently. “Most people don’t understand the environment at all, so they don’t understand what it is like to do Planet Walk.”
Indeed, it is hard to understand how something so unremarkable could still be so difficult to understand. Humans are separated from other life forms by our ability to travel upright, on two feet. But instead of using the tools we are given, we choose to speed up our lives while we sit down and ignore the nature around us. Getting back to the basics of understanding our connection to the environment, rather than watching it out a window, is the foundation of Planet Walking; and the journey literally starts with a single step.
Together, we are walking, meditating, and learning. We are all here for different reasons, but amidst all of the diversity there are two things that resonate with all of us: John Francis, and the environment we walk for. We are following a prophet that is chasing a dream, and with each step, a tighter bond forms between us. Along the quiet countryside, or crossing a busy highway, we are finding out what it means to have our actions be our voices. “Everyone who comes on planet walk has their purpose; a different role,” said Danielle softly. “It is all a key part of the journey. Sometimes it is just as simple as being around people like you; to find your purpose.”