Inside the Planetwalker’s Backpack

John Francis, Visiting Professor at the Nelson Institute of Environmental Studies, began a journey in January 1971 when he witnessed the devastating aftermath of two oil tankers crashing into each other in the San Francisco Bay.  He stopped using motorized vehicles as a means of transportation and began walking. He traveled extensively on foot for 22 years—across the continental United States and to South America—earning the nickname the Planetwalker. During this time, he also spent 17 years in voluntary silence.

We asked Francis some fun questions to learn some quirks about the remarkable man and environmentalist. What does he carry in that backpack his during long walks? What does he love to snack on? (Hint: It’s not trailmix.) The answers we received were incredibly humanizing and reflective of the Francis’ relatable nature.


What pair of shoes have you found are most comfortable for walking?  “Timberland boots (1).”

What are the five essentials that you always carry with you when you travel? “My journal (2), water color paints (3), an extra pair of socks (4), pens—my favorite is a dipping quill fountain (5), and always plenty of water (6).”

If you could pack any snack for a hike, what would it be? “French fries and a vanilla milkshake.”

What is your favorite book? Oh god that’s really difficult, that’s usually the last book I read.  I just read 11-22-63 by Stephen King, the brand new one. But I did really like the Time Traveler’s Wife, The Lost City of Z, as well as the River of No Return, which is about FDR going down the Amazon.” 

Do you have a favorite podcast and/or radio show? “I listen to ‘All Things Considered’ [NPR] and ‘To the Best of Our Knowledge’ [Wisconsin Public Radio].”

Take a pilgrimage of your own with John Francis at his public lecture on Thursday, January 26 at the UW-Madison Memorial Union Play Circle Theater from 7-9pm. Sponsored by the Institute for Justice Education and Transformation (IJET), the MSC and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, the event will feature storytelling, music, artwork, discussion and interactive practice with silence to engage participants in thinking about the connections between silence and listening, humanity and sustainability, and faith and justice.

The lecture, Ragged Edge of Silence, is named after his second book, which documents his transformational experiences and new awareness toward the world and people surrounding him. He discusses the importance of listening as a practice for “just and sustainable relations…to truly recognize each other, the world around us and its urgent needs, and our selves.” Cynthia Lin, Social Justice Educator at the Multicultural Student Center, reviews the book in our Winter edition of Tapestry (releasing this Wednesday, January 25). The Nelson Institute will also be giving away two signed copies of the book in anticipation of  his lecture. See their website for details on how to win. 

2 thoughts on “Inside the Planetwalker’s Backpack

  1. Pingback: What’s on tonight: IJET Spring Semester Kick-off | Threads

  2. Pingback: Live Video: John Francis, Ragged Edge of Silence | Threads

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