Planetwalker: Dr. John Francis

Planetwalker: Dr. John Francis

John Francis, author, traveler, student, and teacher, has traveled from coast to coast across the United States, visited Antarctica, and sailed through the Caribbean. He has done this all without the use of motorized travel.


6 - 12+


Biology, Ecology, Geography, Human Geography, Physical Geography

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John became the National Geographic Society’s first Education Fellow in 2010.

He is also the program director for Planetwalk, a nonprofit environmental awareness organization. Through Planetwalk, John is working to create a curriculum for K-12 students on environmental literacy. He aims to educate people not only about the physical environment, but the human environment as well. Planetwalk believes our behavior toward one another can be a mechanism for how we treat the Earth.

John has traveled throughout much of the Americas on foot—hence his nickname, the “Planet Walker.” Currently, he is continuing a journey that backtracks his first walk, from Cape May, New Jersey, to Point Reyes, California. He has written a book about his journey, Planetwalker: 22 Years of Walking. 17 Years of Silence.


John was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and often spent summers at his aunt and uncle’s farm in Virginia. There, he helped them work the land so they could grow their own food. There was no electricity on the farm, so days were spent working by the rhythm of the sun. “That experience stayed with me,” John says.

Later, John moved to Marin County, California.

“I always had an interest in traveling,” John says.

Through travel, John developed an appreciation for geography and a love of the outdoors. Yet it was not until the early 1970s, when he read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, that he became environmentally aware.

In 1971, he witnessed an oil spill in San Francisco Bay, California. The experience profoundly affected him. He stopped using motorized transportation. He soon began his first trek across the United States. That first journey lasted seven years, with lengthy detours to earn a bachelor's degree (from Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon), a master’s degree (from the University of Montana in Missoula, Montana), and a Ph.D. in land resources (from the University of Wisconsin at Madison).


John finds excitement in meeting new people and going to new places.

John has walked across the United States, sailed the Caribbean, walked the length of South America, and made a “brief” one-month stop in Antarctica. But, he insists, he “doesn’t get too excited about it.” No matter where he is or what he's doing, John views each new day as an adventure in its own right.


John’s most demanding work comes during his walks. Besides getting caught in the elements, the commitment to walking requires tremendous tenacity. Each day you discover who you are, he says, and being that person “is challenging and exciting.”


“Geography is something that affects us, and we affect it; it is both an inner and outer experience. The outer experience is tangible—we can physically see and interact with the environment. The inner portion, however, is a journey that some of us go on, and one that we may go on without actually traveling very far. It is a journey of self-discovery.”


Planetwalk is dedicated to “Saving the planet, one step at a time.” Part of the program is a project called Planetlines, an “innovative, modular curriculum for K-12, college and university students that will also be suited for general participation, as well as seniors.” Planetlines encourages students of all ages to interact with the environment through walking.

“One of the goals of the Planetlines curriculum is to bring the student out of the classroom to experience the environment and the geography that is part of our daily lives,” John says. Planetlines encourages students to “discover our relationship [to the Earth] through the stories of others.”

“We use maps as a tool to explore and to display what we have discovered. For example, the qualitative and quantitative data that students gather during their walk is put in a GIS database and displayed on Google Maps.”


Not surprisingly, John has a simple suggestion for students interested in the environment. “I suggest walking through your neighborhood.”

More than formal education, John encourages students to listen to the opinions, advice, and humor of their family, friends, teachers, and peers. One of the most important things John learned during his walks was the value of listening.

In fact, John did not speak for 17 years! On his journeys, he used pen and ink drawing, written language, and water color to find his voice. He recommends keeping a journal as “a powerful tool to help us discover who we are and [to evaluate] the experience of exploring our world.”

John also communicated through music. (He plays the banjo.)


“Go out and find people you formally disagree with and engage them in conversation, not to defend what you believe, but to listen to someone intently. It makes [people] feel good [when they can talk about what they believe] and we ourselves might even learn something.”

Though John suggests being open-minded, he also emphasizes the balance required in talking with other people. It is important to not let “someone run over you with their ideas” while trying to learn and understand someone else’s perspective.

Media Credits

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Zachary Michel
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

April 23, 2024

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