Mon 2 Nov 2009
Most long-time residents of West Marin know his story. For 22 years beginning in 1971, John Francis of Point Reyes Station refused to ride in motorized vehicles (largely as a reaction to a humongous oil spill at the Golden Gate).
And for the first 17 of those years, he also maintained a vow of silence. His not talking caused him to listen more and kept him out of arguments over his not riding in motorized vehicles, he told listeners at the Dance Palace Sunday.
John received standing ovations Sunday after two farewell shows of storytelling, acting, and banjo playing.
Notwithstanding the audiences’ enthusiasm, there was a bittersweet quality to the shows. Although West Marin has been his home base for 40 years, John, his wife Mattie, and their sons Sam and Luke, will move to Cape May, New Jersey in a couple of weeks.
(The family will live in his parents’ old home and expect to benefit from New Jersey’s healthcare costs being much lower than California’s.)
Even when John was on the road from 1983 to 1995, a group he founded in 1982, Planetwalker, remained based in West Marin. On its website, Planetwalker describes itself as “a non-profit educational organization dedicated to raising environmental consciousness and promoting earth stewardship.”
While on the road, John walked to Missoula, Montana, where he earned a master’s degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Montana. He then walked east to Madison, Wisconsin, where he earned a doctorate in Land Resources with a focus on oil-spill damage.
In the wake of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill, John headed a Coast Guard team writing the congressionally mandated Oil Spill Act of 1989. Once done with that, he sailed to Antigua, stayed a year working as an environmental advisor to the island’s British governor, and then sailed further south to Venezuela.
Along with his many other talents, John is a first-rate artist. His book “Planetwalker: How to Change Your World One Step at a Time” is illustrated with his sketches.
After he had walked the length of Venezuela, John’s life changed significantly. At the Venezuela-Brazilian border, he resumed riding in motorized vehicles. “Walking had become a prison for me,” he later explained.
Nonetheless, he walked across the Amazon from Venezuela, through Brazil, to Bolivia, where he caught malaria and just about died. However thanks to Al Gore, the UN had designated John a “goodwill ambassador” and provided him with a transmitter so he could send daily messages to schoolchildren around the world. John used the transmitter to send out a distress signal.
However, the Bolivian government initially showed no interest in saving him, he said Sunday. John credited Mattie with getting the White House to bring about his rescue.
Throughout Sunday’s show, John kept returning to a skit in which he was weak and delirious from the malaria. In the final scene, he imagined seeing enormous mosquitoes, which turned out to be dragonflies, which ultimately turned out to be the helicopters that had come to save him.
It was a wonderful performance, and John’s impersonations of his mother and father were masterful and humorous while his candid stories about race were telling.
In one frightening incident on a back road north of Jenner, a white bigot stuck a gun to John’s head and in racist language told him blacks were not welcome in the area.
After the man had left, John realized he had recognized the face: “It was death.” John took the experience as a reminder of life’s fragility and the need to fully appreciate the present.
John also told of a droll observation at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington. A member of the staff told John his colleagues had been expecting a team leader who hadn’t ridden in motorized vehicles for 18 years and who had just resumed talking after 17 years of silence. What caught them by surprise, the staff member added, was John’s being black.
West Marin will definitely miss John, but he promises to return from time to time. For one thing, he’s now walking — a couple of states at a time — back across the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific. So far, he’s walked across New Jersey and into Ohio.
Also on Sunday, photographer Art Rogers of Point Reyes Station (left) and painter Thomas Wood of Nicasio concluded a month-long exhibition, Silver and Oil, at the Pelican Gallery in Point Reyes Station.
The exhibition of “landscape photography and paintings” repeatedly juxtaposed photos and paintings of the same scene, such as these two views of Black Mountain from the east. This was the second year in a row that the Rogers and Wood have mounted a joint exhibit.
Meanwhile, photographers Richard Blair and his wife Kathleen Goodwin held a party in their Inverness Park studio a week ago to celebrate publication of their new book, Visions of Marin.
The couple previously produced California Trip and the highly successful Point Reyes Visions coffee-table books.
Visions of Marin, as the book’s publicity notes, “includes local histories of Marin towns, beautiful images of Marin’s parks and natural wonders, as well as agriculture, outdoor sports from horse riding to bocce, Sausalito’s sailing community and ethereal landscapes.”