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Walk and Roll in Amish Country

National Geographic Explorer John Francis has been leading groups of undergraduates on a “Planetwalk” through rural U.S. states every spring break for the past several years. Mile by mile, year after year, they are recreating his original cross-country walk from decades earlier, focused on humans, the environment, and listening to both of them.

March 16, 2014

Thirteen Planetwalkers gathered where we ended a year ago, to begin again. Geneva, Indiana is a farming community that supports a significant Amish population. The temperature hovered just below freezing with a wind chill of 19 degrees. The bitter cold and wind kept the Amish folk from walking on the road. Last year their dark-colored clothing flowed as they walked determined to live upon the land, in contrast to our bright-variegated coverings of polypropylene. Only a few buggies passed quickly. Inside women huddled, looking down to protect themselves from the wind, umbrellas opened sideways like shields on the oar stations of a Viking ship.

This year Jennifer McKinney is one of our new Evansville, Indiana Planetwalkers. Having suffered a severe spinal cord injury in 2012 that left her paralyzed, Jennifer is our “Planetroller” and hopes to inspire others with similar disabilities not to stay inside, but to discover–rediscover–themselves.

Jennifer McKinny rolls along on her first trek with John Francis. Others on the journey this year are veterans of up to three years of Planet Walking. (Photo courtesy John Francis)
Jennifer McKinny rolls along on her first trek with John Francis. Others on the journey this year are veterans of up to three years of Planetwalking. (Photo courtesy John Francis)

On our first day we moved slowly testing tender feet. Still we made 10 miles, with the chilly wind at our back. We lingered in the town’s general store and the heated foyer of the post office. With this winter being so severe there were not as many chances for practice walks and we were still adjusting to the cold. Of course to my colleague Jon Waterhouse and Mary Marshall, who were joining us from Alaska, it was just another balmy day in paradise. Our base camp was the Shiloh Park Retreat in Marion, Indiana.

March 17

The forecast was for a high of 39 degrees by the afternoon. There were still strong winds out of the North East, so we waited until the afternoon to get on the road. We walked 12 miles through the brown fields of broken cornstalks. The warmer weather brings out the people. One farmer welcomes us and invites some of the students to walk on the frozen ponds.

Further on a runner joins us at the cross roads where our day’s walk ends. James Schwarzkopf is a local elementary school principal. He tells us that over the last 30 years he has run every road in Adams County and all the counties around, including every Big Ten university campus.

Before long students are talking to the farmer that owns the fields surrounding us. It is not a factory farm like so many that we have passed.

The team captures their last moment of standing still together for the next few days. (Photo courtesy John Francis)
The team captures their last moment of standing or sitting still together for the next few days. (Photo courtesy John Francis)

March 19

After a 14-mile day on the road, and after dinner, we Skyped students at the Chinese International School in Hangzhou, China, to share with them some of the experiences we were having in Indiana. This group of high-school students got in touch with us because after reading “Planetwalker: 22-Years of Walking, 17 Years of Silence,” they were inspired to do their own Planetwalk.

Next week, in China, I will accompany a team of 11 students and four faculty from the Chinese International School, Hangzhou (CIS Hangzhou), traveling on foot for 150km in the city of Hangzhou and across Zhejiang Province along roads, trails, canals, and rivers. Every day for 6 days the team will walk an average of 25 kilometers, or 7-8 hours. On Planetwalk: Hangzhou, students will collect data on air and water quality as well as observe surroundings and interview people in the local communities.

From the beginning of his walking and his period of silence, John Francis has captures scenes, moods, and ideas in drawings and paintings in his notebooks. (Image by John Francis)
From the beginning of his walking and his period of silence, John Francis has captures scenes, moods, and ideas in drawings and paintings in his notebooks. (Image by John Francis)

March 20
Our last day on the road. Each day the weather gets better and the trend is warmer. We walked through Marion, following the Mississinewa River, a tributary of the Wabash. Today I felt as if I could walk another 10 miles, but it was nice to end this year’s Planetwalk where we did, at a nature preserve along the river. Some county workers were repairing Highway 15. We thought back and looked ahead, to the morning when we would drive back past this stopping point, on the way to Chicago for me to catch a flight the next day to Shanghai and Planetwalk: Hangzhou.

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