Human Journey

Planetwalk 2013: On Foot Through Indiana and Ohio

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.

When hundreds of robins had landed in the yard of our Cape May, New Jersey home, I knew spring was not far behind. Soon, it would be time for me to get back on the road to continue Planetwalk.

After my original, silent walk across the United States during the 1980’s, I chose Earth Day, April 22 of 2005 to begin retracing my steps over the same path I had taken those years ago. This time, I planned to walk each year for one to two weeks beginning on or near each Earth Day, covering about one hundred miles every year until I reached the Pacific coast. On the walk I worked at developing Planetlines, an environmental studies curriculum of my own. I began my return walking alone, but over the years more walkers have joined me.

In 2012 I became a visiting associate professor at The Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where for a year I taught an undergraduate capstone course titled “Planetwalking” (read about our graduate class as well). That year, instead of walking during the week of Earth Day, I decided to take my students to walk with me for 5 days through the Ohio countryside. While walking, we worked on developing the Planetlines curriculum on an open-source mobile-gaming platform as well as in a GIS format that could be used for learning and sharing interactive stories. The students expressed that they had not just bonded with each other, but they felt they’d had a real life experience that engendered a real understanding of many of the ideas conveyed in passages in the Planetwalker book.

Originally, the concepts and ideas outlined in the Planetwalker book had to just be accepted on faith, through the eyes of another’s experience. But by embarking on a Planetwalk of their own, the group discovered something profound: trusting and generous relationships experienced with complete strangers. One student commented, “I feel like I’m just starting to figure out exactly what Planetwalking means. Coming into it I wasn’t so sure what to expect. The experience exceeds my expectations.”

The success of the 2012 trip convinced me of the need to involve students every year, to continue teaching and spreading the experience beyond the classroom. This year, the Nelson Institute again provided the support to send more undergraduate students for Planetwalk During Spring Break 2013.

It is early morning on Saturday, March 23, and my friend and former student, Bob Cook, waits for me outside Union South in downtown Madison, WI. The last few days had been a flurry of guest lectures, meetings with students, and giving the last talk to a full auditorium for the Weston Roundtable lecture series: “Walking as if Engineering Mattered.” Together, Bob and I drove over to Science Hall where we met Dolores Liamba, our trip administrator, while the five UW students who had signed up for Planetwalk During Spring Break waited outside in the brisk morning chill.

We piled in two vans, and were on the road by 8:30 am, driving through Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. Finally, at 6:30pm, we arrived in Wapakoneta, Ohio. We met up with Fred Hillenbran, and his group from Evansville Indiana, at the KOA campground that would be our basecamp for the next 5 days, March 24-28.

Together, we are hoping our walk will end at the Ohio-Indiana border. But Planetwalking is not about the destination; it’s always the journey and the friendships formed on the way. Some are seasoned walkers, returning for their 5th Planetwalk, and others are brand new. Some plan on walking all five days; others are just joining for one or two, and others, such as my good friends John Waterhouse and Mary Marshal, are walking with us in spirit. Among us are students, teachers, children, mothers, and fathers. No matter what their role in life, we have all come together in this moment. We are all Planetwalkers.

The purpose of Planetwalk is to empower voices. For this purpose, I have encouraged the help of one of my UW students, Alexandra Branscombe, an aspiring environmental journalist, to guest write for our trip and bring you the Voices of Planetwalk. Stay tuned for more from her.

NEXT: On the Yukon With Jon Waterhouse’s Healing Journey


John Francis, a visiting associate professor at the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, known the world over as the Planetwalker began his environmental work in 1971, when he witnessed an oil spill in San Francisco Bay. Feeling partly responsible for the mess washing up on the shore, he stopped using of motorized vehicles and began to walk. Several months later, because of the arguments his decision caused, John took a vow of silence lasting 17 years. During that time, he founded Planetwalk a non-profit environmental awareness organization, received a B.S. degree from Southern Oregon University, a Masters in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana-Missoula, and a PhD in Land Resources from the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Ending his silence, John served as project manager for the United States Coast Guard Oil Pollution Act of 1990 Staff, in Washington, DC. and United Nations goodwill ambassador to the World’s grassroots communities He authored Planetwalker: 17-Years of Silence, 22-Years of Walking and “The Ragged Edge of Silence: Finding Peace in a Noisy World” both published by the National Geographic Society, where he is currently an education fellow.

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