My Walking Pilgrimage
How the simple act of walking can open us up to confront and heal our toughest problems.
My Walking Pilgrimage
After witnessing a catastrophic oil spill in San Francisco Bay in 1971, John Francis got out of his car, took a vow of silence, and walked for the next 22 years. Photo by Gabriela Urda.
By John Francis / yesmagazine.org

I clearly remember learning to walk. I remember falling and the frustration of trying to stand on my feet unsupported, without the help of parents. Finally, there was the euphoria of one day rising by myself. Like a young bird flying, my hands flapped, and my feet lifted to make the first wobbly steps to the other side of the playpen. No one was around, no aunties or uncles urging me to walk. I was alone in my joy, not knowing that this moment would color the life that stretched out before me. Not until I had grown and left my inner-city Philadelphia home for the hills of Marin County, California, did my walking truly blossom. Living adjacent to the Point Reyes National Seashore, I was drawn to explore the nearly 150 miles of trails that led through bishop pines, firs, and redwoods to the ocean.

It was an idyllic life until January 1971, when two Standard Oil tankers collided in San Francisco Bay, spilling more than 800,000 gallons of oil. This is paltry when compared to the Exxon Valdez, which spilled 11 million gallons in 1989, or the more than 100 million gallons that spewed into the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon in 2010. But the Standard Oil spill happened during a cultural revolution, my failed attempts at higher education, and after my consuming enough alcohol and other substances to earn the designation of being lost.

When the oil washed up onto the Northern California shore, I reached back as far as I could remember, to the freedom and joy of taking my first steps. I got out of my car and walked away. I vowed in protest not to ride in any motorized vehicles again. I did so half expecting that I would be joined by throngs of people who had, along with me, cried salty tears at the dying fish and birds, and the oil washing ashore. I thought it would be the beginning of a movement of walkers, masses of people giving up their gas-powered vehicles to save the environment. I was more than a little disappointed when it seemed the movement consisted of only me.

Later I found out that the spill had affected people in different ways: For some it was enough to clean oil from the beaches and birds; some went to school and became wildlife biologists; others became political activists; and some were so frustrated that they just continued doing what they had been. But I was angry, and I carried that anger with me. Then I realized that if I was going to continue walking it was going to have to be for something and not against something. So I dedicated my walk as a pilgrimage, and I became a pilgrim, to walk as part of my education, in the spirit and hope that I could be of benefit to us all. I had no idea what that meant, but I figured I would learn along the way.

In Dan Rubinstein’s book, Born to Walk, the author lays out his personal tribute to the transformative power of walking. From the rambles of Words­worth and Thoreau to the on-the-job beat walks of Philadelphia police, Rubinstein interweaves his walk experiences with interesting statistics, theories, studies, and anecdotes. I enjoyed Born to Walk, though it is an almost impossible task to include every peripatetic hue and color and satisfy everyone. However, what Rubinstein does tell us is that more and more people are leaving their jobs and the security of their homes and taking off on long journeys of thousands of miles. For some, it is the spiritual quest of a pilgrimage, or it is attached to some cause, or both. 

Rubinstein uses headings in his book that include both “Mind” and “Spirit,” delving into what the real world crisis looks like and how the simple act of walking can address even some of our gnarliest problems. Under his heading of “Society,” homicide in Philadelphia skyrockets until the city takes its police officers out of their patrol cars where they are isolated from what’s really going on and puts them on the street, making them walk a beat. With the officers on a first-name basis with the neighborhood, the number of murders plummets.

There are, of course, transfor­mations ­that result from introspection. As I began my pilgrimage decades ago, I turned to Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and contemplative who wrote Seeds of Contemplation. Merton saw pilgrimage as transformative, a metaphor for life’s journey. He wrote, “The geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out of an inner journey. The inner journey is the interpolation of the meanings and signs of the outer pilgrimage. One can have one without the other. It is best to have both.” I devoured Merton and the writings of Colin Fletcher, author of The Man Who Walked Through Time, a memoir of his solo trek through Grand Canyon National Park. Along with Fletcher’s The Complete Walker, I was inspired. Both books gave me some idea as to what the “geographical pilgrimage,” with its camping and walking long distances, might physically entail.

In recent years, I have offered a class on Planetwalking for graduates and undergrads at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, modeled after my walking experience. Specifically, Planetwalking is meant to be a sensuous experience of our environment that embraces journey and serendipitous community service. Each year the class joins me and other Planetwalkers on a five-day trip across the United States, following my original route. We pick up the journey where we left off the year before. What I have learned from my students is that for many young people, Planetwalking is a way to find out who they are and how they fit in the world while sharing their journeys through blogs and social media.

When I began walking, there were no smartphones or social media platforms, and the “environment” was about pollution and loss of habitat and endangered species. During my journey I discovered that “environment” is much more. People are a part of the environment, and how we treat each other is fundamental in approaching sustainability. I learned this viscerally during my walking pilgrimage. The environment, actually, is about human rights, civil rights, economic equity, gender equality, and all the ways that humans interact with not only the physical environment but also with one another. This was what Lynton K. Caldwell shared with Merton and others when he wrote about the “crisis of mind and spirit.”

It was 22 years before I rode in motorized vehicles again, but during the years and miles of walking I experienced the most unexpected transformations and discoveries: I had taken a 17-year vow of silence while walking across the United States, and earned three degrees, including a doctorate in environmental studies from the Nelson Institute. After reaching the East Coast, I served as a federal environmental analyst and project manager to help write oil transportation and cleanup regulations following the Exxon Valdez oil spill. But perhaps even more important than the formal education and professional positions were the informal moments that came from walking in the natural environment that I was a part of, and the thousands of people that I met who became a part of me. Such moments provided many opportunities for learning, comprised of chance roadside meetings, being welcomed into the homes of strangers, being treated as a family friend, listening fully to different music and different points of view, and being on the receiving end of unanticipated kindness. There may be no better way to engage the environment than to walk in it and be among ourselves, letting nature shape us, to be fully human, in a more than human world.

In the end, if you don’t know this truth, if you don’t feel it in your bones, in the soles of your feet, Born to Walk, or any other book that I know of, might not convince you. The transformative power of walking is in the act, moving from where we are to where we want to be.


John Francis wrote this article for Gender Justice, the Summer 2016 issue of YES! Magazine. John is an environmental educator and the founder of Planetwalk. He lives in Cape May, New Jersey.

0.0 ·
0
What's Next
Trending Today
This Polish Ad Will Give You The Feels, For Reals
3 min · 14,088 views today · This is an ad for Allegro, a Polish company similar to eBay, and it's heartwarmingly lovely.
6 Toxic Relationship Habits Most People Think Are Normal
Mark Manson · 12,882 views today · There’s no class in high school on how to not be a shitty boyfriend or girlfriend. Sure, they teach us the biology of sex, the legality of marriage, and maybe read a few...
Time-Lapse Satellite Images Give a Startling Snapshot of Past 30 Years on Earth
2 min · 12,276 views today · Working with satellite images from NASA and the US Geological Survey, Google has created a searchable snapshot of the past 3 decades on Earth, creating startling time-lapses of...
Dr. Maya Angelou: Love Liberates
5 min · 5,455 views today · Words to live by from Dr. Maya Angelou. Love each other.
Ten Ways We Misunderstand Children
Jan Hunt · 5,126 views today · 1. We expect children to be able to do things before they are ready. We ask an infant to keep quiet. We ask a 2-year-old to sit still. We ask a 3-year-old to clean his room...
The Myth of Positivity: Why Your Pain Holds a Mighty Purpose
umair haque · 2,075 views today · Of all the great myths of contemporary life, one of the most toxic is positivity. It says: there are negative and positive emotions, and only the positive ones are worth...
The Problem with Hating Our Enemies
Charles Eisenstein · 1,953 views today · He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself; and if thou gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into thee. —Nietzsche
15 Easy Things You Can Do to Help When You Feel Like Shit
Maritsa Patrinos · 1,181 views today · You don’t have to tackle it all at once.
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 1,103 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
The Lid Is off, The Truth Is Coming Out
Charles Eisenstein · 1,056 views today · It is getting harder to keep a secret these days. The collective shadow of our society, once safely relegated to the dark basement of the unmentionable, is now exposed to...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,022 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Have You Heard of The Great Forgetting? It Happened 10,000 Years Ago & Completely Affects Your Life
Daniel Quinn · 964 views today · (Excerpted from the book, The Story of B) With every audience and every individual, I have to begin by making them see that the cultural self-awareness we inherit from our...
Sleaford Mods on Brexit Britain
4 min · 894 views today · In early 2014 the Guardian hailed duo Sleaford Mods as ‘the most uncompromising British protest music made in years’. Here, we go backstage at a Sleaford Mods gig in their...
How to Expose Trump's Dastardly Bait-And-Switch
Robert Borosage · 818 views today · Trump is not an economic populist, he’s just playing one on TV.
The White Man in That Photo
Riccardo Gazzaniga · 538 views today · Sometimes photographs deceive. Take this one, for example. It represents John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s rebellious gesture the day they won medals for the 200 meters at the...
A Hauntingly Beautiful Short Film About Life and Death
5 min · 461 views today · The Life of Death is a touching handdrawn animation about the day Death fell in love with Life.
Why You Should Stop Apologizing for Doing All That You Can
Kelly Hayes · 436 views today · I’ve noticed lately that a lot of allies and accomplices I talk to about NoDAPL and other struggles will name what they are trying to contribute to the cause, and then promptly...
The Top 100 Documentaries We Can Use to Change the World
Films For Action · 388 views today · A more beautiful, just and sustainable world is possible. Take this library and use it to inspire global change!
Black on Black Crime Isn't a Myth
Donyae Coles · 350 views today · Let’s talk about Black on Black crime. Maybe you’ve heard about it on the news, specifically likely in regards to Black people murdered by other Black people. Perhaps you’ve...
Schooling the World (2010)
66 min · 319 views today · If you wanted to change an ancient culture in a generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children. The U.S. Government knew this in the 19th...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
My Walking Pilgrimage