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
Reaching the Ohio-Indiana border was like finishing a marathon, so naturally, Planetwalkers have to take a victory lap: an easy seven miles compared the 15-mile average the group was used to hiking in a day. Thursday, March 28, was the last day of Planetwalk 2013, a journey retracing the steps that took John Francis from California to Washington D.C. on foot.
The skies were clear, and the sun shone down on the little group walking the backcountry roads, and it almost seemed as if the snowstorms and icy winds had never happened. Walking through Amish country, it was surprising when everyone finally noticed the absence of electric and telephone lines. Curious farm animals came close to see what strange herd was walking past them: horses with their winter coats still on, and barnyard dogs who barked to protect their territories, then wagged their tales to show that they didn’t actually mean it.
Everyone was in a state of meditation, considering the journey taken together and the lessons John Francis gave. “I feel liberated,” said Lauren Semanchick, “I feel like I have the tools to take on a new perspective and re-evaluate my relationships with people.”
Fred Hillenbrand was excited coming to the end of his fifth Planetwalk. “I am happy my family can be here, I mean, look at this girl,” he said, proudly pointing at his 12-year old daughter Taris, “she walked all of these miles and she is still smiling!” Taris’ smile grew wider and she said, “Some days I wanted to give up because my feet hurt, but I had people beside me to walk with me.”
His wife, Danielle, was also joyful; “I am grateful to see that what we are doing really is making an impact on the world,” she said. “I see it happening right before my eyes, in our own personal lives, in the communities we walk through.” Carol Moy agreed, saying that she didn’t know what to expect coming to Planetwalk, but now, “we feel like a family.”
John Francis walked down the road plucking a walking song on his banjo. Those in the group who brought instruments joined in, so it became a group of traveling minstrels: ukulele, a wooden flute and harmonica playing a quirky mix of rhythm and melody.
When asked about how he felt that Planetwalk was over for another year, he laughed and said, “It’s not over for me!” Then John Francis grew serious, “I feel energized and hopeful for the future. I started walking back in the 70’s, never thinking this would be something other people would do with me.”
Now, with a group that grows every year, John Francis is excited to bring more people together and form a global community centered on human relationships and environmentalism. “The two are never separated for me,” he said.
As the group halted at the journey’s end, at the crossroads of 400 E and 1100 S country roads near Geneva, Indiana. The man who spent 17 years of his life without speaking asked for a moment of silence. Everyone gathered together; some bowed their heads in prayer, others looked around at the rolling fields and trees of the surrounding countryside. Spring birds chirped in the sunshine, and in the distance a car drove on a winding road, but besides that, all was silent. The wind blew across John Francis’ banjo, and a soft melody came from the strings. All stood still, forgetting for a moment their aching legs and blistered feet as they remembered the many miles they walked to reach their goal.
John Francis walked over to the stop sign at the edge of the road, and with a ceremonious gesture, hit the metal with his knuckles. The vibrating clang released the silence. Planetwalk 2013 was over, waiting to be picked up again next year at 400 E and 1100 S toward Geneva, Indiana.