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West Cape May 'Planetwalker' has new book, plan to trek across Africa

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Taking 10,000 steps a day is often touted as a good way to maintain fitness levels. Previously, researchers have reported that there is a lowered risk of dementia, heart disease, cancer, and death among those achieving 10,000 steps a day.

WEST CAPE MAY — “Planetwalker” John Francis, a former local official who ran unsuccessfully in the crowded Democratic 2nd Congressional District primary in 2020 with a message of love and understanding to overcome political gridlock, is embarking on a long-distance walk through Africa as he debuts a new book.

“Human Kindness: True Stories of Compassion and Generosity that Changed the World” was released Sept. 6 in the U.S. and Sept. 1 in the United Kingdom, where it was published.

Francis, 75, a former West Cape May commissioner, had already written two books that were published by National Geographic. They were about the 22 years he spent as a young man walking with his banjo across the U.S. — listening to others but not speaking for most of that time.

Francis stopped along the way to get a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and eventually a Ph.D.

The books are “Planetwalker: 17 Years of Silence, 22 Years of Walking,” and “The Ragged Edge of Silence: Finding Peace in a Noisy World.”

He was asked by Christopher Lloyd, a friend who is the publisher of What on Earth Books, to write a children’s book on kindness, and to include stories about the kindness Francis experienced during his long walks.

“I said, ‘Of course,’” Francis said. “It was a wonderful time for me to be able to get up in the morning and think about kindness.”

The book, like his earlier titles, is available through Amazon and other online booksellers as well as from bookstores.

Francis also has done a TED talk on his walking life.

Since he was writing during the COVID-19 pandemic, he used mostly online research sources and the library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is a professor emeritus.

“I could get library books I needed mailed to me. I mailed them back and more would come,” Francis said. “I just had a great time writing it.”

Francis and Lloyd met when they participated in a 2010 sea voyage on the Stad Amsterdam, a modern version of an early 19th century clipper ship. It was embarking on a reenactment of part of Charles Darwin’s voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle from 1831 to 1836.

“We sailed from the United Kingdom to the Grand Canary Islands,” Francis said. “Each day there were different scientists and artists aboard the ship. A television company from the Netherlands made a television show about it.”

Francis recently visited Africa for the first time and is heading back to Tanzania in February for the first of two fundraising walks Feb. 6 and March 10 for his nonprofit, Planetwalk, which promotes long-distance walks as a way for people of different cultures to learn about each other. People will pay to participate in 10-day walks with him.

“Tanzania is the birthplace of humanity,” he said of the East African country known for wilderness areas such as the plains of Serengeti National Park, where elephants, lions, leopards, buffalo and rhinos roam free; and Kilimanjaro National Park, home to Africa’s highest mountain.

“It’s where we humans took our first steps, walking on two legs,” Francis said.

“We are so privileged to be able to travel the way we do, to get into a flying machine and fly halfway around the world to a country (where) ... you can see people and communities living the way they lived thousands of years ago,” Francis said. “To understand how far we have come is just mind-boggling.”

Those who cannot walk will ride in a safari vehicle. Another group will walk part of the way and ride part. And the group he will lead will walk the route with the aid of donkey porters and guides.

“We will go to inaccessible places you only get to by walking — to Maasai communities,” Francis said. “They are just living the way they always have lived. Pastoral and hunter-gatherer tribes.”

At the start, after four to five days and at the end, all participants will meet at a central lodge to talk about their experiences, he said.

After those walks are over, he will embark on his longest walk ever, he said, a 4,000-mile continental trek from South Africa to Ethiopia.

That walk of the African continent is still being designed, he said, and will be one he does on his own in segments, so he can return home to visit his wife and two sons from time to time.

He hopes to finish it, but it will likely take years, and if not, he hopes another Planetwalker will take his place.

When he ran in the Democratic primary, he didn’t seek support from party leaders but took his message directly to the people in his usual way — on foot.

“This is probably the grassiest grassroots campaign you are going to find,” Francis said in 2020 of his walking tour of the district. He walked in 10-mile increments, stopping and talking to people as he went.

Had he won the Democratic primary two years ago, and had he been elected in the general election, of course, his life would have taken a very different path.

“I wouldn’t trade the experience of running for anything,” Francis said. “It’s up to all of us to do whatever we can and be whatever we can for all of us.”

In researching the book on kindness, he said he found evidence of it in the most unexpected places.

“There is kindness during war, in prehistoric times, during slavery,” Francis said. “Isn’t that funny how that can be? I think it is necessary for us to survive.”

He hopes teachers will use the book as a jumping off point for discussions about what it takes to be kind, he said.

“Children can see it’s something that is courageous, it’s not always something passive we do,” Francis said. “It takes practice and thoughtfulness, and it just doesn’t happen.”

REPORTER: Michelle Brunetti Post

609-841-2895

mpost@pressofac.com

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Staff Writer

In my first job after college got paid to read the New York Times and summarize articles for an early online data base. First reporting job was with The Daily Record in Parsippany. I have also worked in nonprofits, and have been with The Press since 1990.

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West Cape May Commissioner John Francis, 73, has a colorful and unusual biography, and he wrote about it in a book published by National Geogr…

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