John Cohn was driving near his Richmond home on Friday afternoon when he saw a guy walking along the side of the road pushing a jogging stroller loaded with camping gear. The walker wore a bright yellow reflective vest and a sign on his back that said, "Walking America, go greater good . com."
Cohn, an IBM fellow, reality-TV star and self-described mad scientist, says he thought the guy might be "a nutcase," but he pulled over anyway to hear what the website was all about.
Thomas Francine, the roadside hiker, quickly dispelled Cohn's wariness. "He's just got this very good vibe going on," says Cohn. His message is "very peaceful and compelling."
What's this 26-year-old New Jersey resident selling? The idea that, despite media reports about violent crime and abductions, the world is actually a pretty safe place; that strangers still help each other; that the good out there in the world is greater than the bad.
Francine is currently on a cross-country trek to demonstrate his "greater good" theory. He took a break from his jobs as a caregiver and a substitute teacher for the journey. He started in Portland, Maine, on July 8, and hopes to finish in San Diego, Calif., by December. Along the way, he hopes to inspire people to be more trusting, and "to take small risks in their own lives."
In Cohn's case, Francine's theory turned out to be true — the engineer and his wife invited Francine to spend the night in a spare bedroom in their Richmond home. "Our youngest son is traveling right now," Cohn explains. "We just pretended [Francine] was a kid."
The three had dinner together, and Cohn and his wife quizzed the younger man about his plans — Cohn recaps their exchange on his blog. In the morning, they fed Francine breakfast before he departed on his walk to Burlington.
I caught up with Francine on Sunday morning at the Burlington Waterfront — he camped out nearby on Saturday night. By 7:30 a.m., he had pulled his long, wavy brown hair into a ponytail and strapped on his reflective vest and signs. Ironically, his touchy-feely message is printed on the backs of metal road signs he bought at Home Depot that say, "Private Property: Tresspassers Will Be Prosecuted."
Francine's jogging stroller was secured and ready to roll; it carried his backpack, some water and a white hyacinth in a water-filled jar — he likes to give away flowers to strangers.
I asked Francine about the stroller; he told me he bought it online two days before he left. "I realized it was just going to be very unenjoyable if I had to carry that [pack] all those miles," he said.
He explained that he formulated his theory about humanity by hitchhiking — according to his website, he's hitched more than 26,000 miles in the last four years. He's never had a bad experience, he said.
When pressed, Francine admitted that that could be in part because he's white; walking around in an unfamiliar place wasn't so safe for Trayvon Martin, after all.
And it helps that he's a dude. "Definitely I would say it's more dangerous, in general, for women," Francine conceded. Though he added that he knows many women hitchhikers who have had experiences similar to his. And he pointed out that people may have an outsize fear of violent attacks on women because reporters often fixate on crimes against "pretty young females."
Francine said he expects his biggest challenge on this trip will not be staying safe but staying upbeat — "It's tough to go for months on end without seeing any people you're familiar with or know," he said.
He seemed cheerful enough this morning, though. He's been in Vermont for a few days now, traveling west through Barre to the Richmond area, then to Burlington on Saturday. Today he's headed south on Route 7 to Route 22A, which will take him to New York State. With his loaded baby stroller and signs, Francine drew several stares from passersby as he started out on the Burlington bike path.
He said he's met many talkative and generous strangers here so far, such as Cohn and his wife. "I've been to most states," Francine said, "and this is one of my favorites. I love Vermonters."
Here's a video of Francine describing his hitchhiking experiences: