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.
There may have been Robins in the yard, but snow was in the forecast. An early spring snowstorm was racing across the northern Midwest. Alexandra tells the rest.
By Planetwalker Alexandra Branscombe
Our first morning, we rose in resolved excitement. Despite the chill and threat of snowstorm, we were all on the road by 8:30 am. We began on last year’s ending point, along Cemetery road, which is aptly named for its many old cemeteries, several from before the civil war. We walked a quick five miles before a lunch break and despite the icy-wind, everyone is eager to continue on. The next couple miles take us through the center of Wapakaneta, Ohio. Planetwalkers are like children; the excitement of the little curiosities abounds and everyone skips and jumps around old buildings or funny signs. “I feel full of hope!” said Danielle excitedly. “I feel the energy behind what is going on right now with every step we take, and I am very inspired by it.”
But just as quickly as our first day excitement peaks, the weather takes a twist. Suddenly, we were in a white-out. Snow is blowing heavy, sticky flurries, and it piles on top of us like we are abominable snowmen. When we could only see about 50ft ahead, we stopped to take a break under a bridge. This is where the dangers of walking appear. Being hit by slipping cars, or accidentally stepping in front of a car we didn’t see, are not worth walking through a storm.
These are the reasons we do not walk on Monday. Despite finishing the previous day at a strong 15.3 miles, John wants to keep us out of risk. “If I were talking, I wouldn’t go out today,” he advised. “There are all kinds of things that could happen. This is where someone would say to me, ‘oh, stay here today.’” No one complains. Instead, we all sit in and stretch, swap stories, and play our instruments while we watch the snow fall, building up to almost 7inches.
Tuesday, in sunshine and snow, we are on the road. The day starts the same as Sunday: cold, snowy, and very windy. But as we reach St. Mary’s, Ohio, the sun comes out and begins to warm us. We get to enjoy the historical downtown, posing for city photos to email Jon Waterhouse, who is across the continent in St. Mary’s, Alaska.
This coincidence is not lost on John. He is thoroughly delighted behind the symbolism: that his good friend on a Healing Journey in the arctic, is reflected in our own healing journey on Planetwalk. Our nightly “fireside chat” with members of the First Nation via Skype, have given the two traveling groups glimpses into each expedition, delighting in both our struggles and triumphs.
“I like to think my community is global,” explained John. “It is about people and our relationships with each other. Because how we treat other people manifests itself in the land,” he said as he waved at a driver, who waved in return while giving a wide berth in order to share the road.
At every opportunity, John loves to share his story and mission. Whether it is just passing out his card to drivers who stop to say hello, or sitting down with local reporters. We too, are excited to share our journey; waving at truckers, or joking with construction workers. John told us, “I look at it as a ceremony to witness life. Not in a way that is carrying signs and yelling at people to ‘do this!’ But a way to witness, and when people ask, we say, ‘we are just walking.’”
On Wednesday, I woke up silent. My choice to have a day of silence surprised me a little, but it was something that I had been considering since I started reading John’s book, “Planet Walker.” I had announced my intention to my fellow Planetwalkers the night before; with the invitation to join me give them the opportunity to share their experience through National Geographic. I told them to think about it, and in the morning, we would see who chose silence.
At first, it seemed that I might be the only one giving the silent treatment, but then Fangfei came out and waved a silent “good morning” to me. We smiled, and went on, navigating our morning routine with the other Planetwalkers.
Despite my warning, everyone still reacted to us with some surprise. Some were mildly delighted; Carol, Danielle, Fred all talked and interacted with me with patience, smiling or laughing at my little skits and facial communication. “I knew that just because you are not speaking for a day does not mean you are not communicating for a day,” said Carol.
Others started amused, then got annoyed and quite trying very quickly; “I’m sorry, I am just not going to try to guess what you are saying,” said Lauren at a rest-stop, when I tried to point out something I saw in the countryside.
John was delighted. “What a great exercise!” he said, as he watched me mime “good coffee?” It left me wondering, exercise in what?
Since I didn’t have the ease of speech, I tried my hardest to push my thoughts through my eyes, or use my touch to communicate thanks or apologies. It made me incredibly shy around strangers, because I was so embarrassed to try my speechless theater with them. I cheated a little and used my notebook to write down some requests.
Fangfei figured out some unconventional ways to get others’ attention. At one point, she cooed like a dove to get Carol to share her orange. Not only was it successful, but she also received more orange wedges for her performance. I asked her to write her reflection during the day, which was this:
The experience was a guilty pleasure for me. Oftentimes, I take it as a responsibly to myself, and I am sure others feel this urge too, to share my opinions and ideas and have an exchange with other individuals. The opportunity for open dialogue has been one of my biggest values, but having an excuse not to speak was very relaxing. Today, I could just let go of that need and instead focus on other aspects of life: listening, looking, pondering.
Going through the day, I understood why John Francis continued to stay silent. In many ways it is actually enjoyable; it simplifies our lives. However, I think what Ali and did today was in a different context than what John did. He decided to stop talking because he tired of arguing and explaining himself to other people. We did not have this problem in this group, and in a few circumstances, I think that being silent hindered our interactions with people we met, and made us seem less friendly. In John’s context, I view what he did not only as a personal action for himself, but also a very symbolic act. His silence expressed the fact there are some ideas that cannot be explained in one conversation, there are some truths that one can only learn for themselves. I guess what I thought about today was that in many ways, speech is overrated, and words are limiting.
My day of silence helped me understand, just a little deeper, John’s speechless journey. I relied on the patience and creativity of others to communicate. Being silent kept me from complaining, even when my knees started to lock up and my ankles cracked. It also prevented me from openly celebrating when we officially reached the Ohio-Indiana border a day early. I had to choose when to communicate my thoughts, because it took so much time and energy to say even small things. Suddenly, my perspective changed when I no longer had a purpose to contribute to deep discussions. It really forced me to listen to the voices of my fellow Planetwalkers.
Besides walking, being a Planetwalker is fundamentally based on interacting with people: among our group, meeting townspeople, or talking to drivers on the road. “This is my vacation time,” said Fred, who is a busy father of four and a publicist for a local brewery in Evansville, besides being an environmental activist. “This is where I come to absorb everything and learn from other people.” According to John’s philosophy, people and the environment are not separated at all, but one and the same. He believes that learning how to treat people better will teach us all how to treat the environment better. He said, “Everything we do comes from engaging the environment in a natural way. In getting back to the land, and getting back to seeing the land as teaching us something.”Snowfall writing at our campsite. (Photo courtesy Danielle Hillenbrand)