The Mark Baumer Story


John Chapman, a 19th century outdoorsman, was by many accounts an ascetic crackpot. He spent many years wandering the wilds of Pennsylvania, Ohio, and farther west as a preacher of the Swedenborgian faith, extemporizing passionate (some say wild-eyed) sermons to the whites and Native Americans he met on the way, preaching the efficacy of compassion and good deeds to make one happy in this life, and to store up good will with God for the next.

Chapman often went about—even in ice, snow, and all manner of rough weather—dressed in the thinnest and most inadequate of clothing. As a hat he wore a tin pot rattling on top of his head, and he preferred to walk the flinty Alleghanies and the deep forests of Indiana without shoes. He is said to have been acutely sensitive to the wellbeing of animals: dowsing his bonfire to save the insects that flew into its flame, sleeping in the farther end of a hollow log when he discovered a bear snugged away in the end he might have preferred, carrying an exquisite guilt for years for once having killed a rattlesnake when it struck out and surprised him. He was, too, a vegetarian, in later life.

But most of all, Chapman was known for his planting of many thousands of trees, a heroic apple arborist, his wide, flowered orchards that supplied the local citizenry with enough hard cider and brandy to keep them well-oiled for generations.

By now, you may have guessed that John Chapman and Johnny Appleseed are the same guy. Not the kids-book, Disney-film version—his funny sack of seeds and bluebirds aflutter about his head—but the guy an Ohio high school deemed too “eccentric” to have a statue adorn its grounds in his name. A delirious mendicant preacher who managed to sock away a small fortune in the liquor trade.

You might also recognize the uncanny parallels, if you know much about the subject of a new documentary concerning author and activist Mark Baumer, BAREFOOT: The Mark Baumer Story, between that author and Chapman. You might see how many of the same passions and habits that animated Chapman were integral to the life (and sad death) of Mark too.

Mark was an avid animal lover, such that he ate a strict plant-based diet, such that he was intimately aligned with ecology (an itinerant preacher of such you might say), he was an unrepentant eccentric, and, yes, he chose to walk barefoot—rain, snow, road salt and rough roads be dammed—across the breadths of America. Strikingly too, if you have seen the film or are about to, you might recognize how much and how well Mark nurtured a very American mythology of his life, and of life, much as Chapman did in his day.

Julie Sokolow’s tender, endearing, and, for some, controversial documentary, BAREFOOT: The Mark Baumer Story, recounts Mark’s attempt to walk the breadth of the United States entirely unencumbered by shoes to help raise awareness of climate change. In the telling, Sokolow includes many interviews with Mark’s family, his girlfriend, and his friends. She records their thoughts on Mark’s motivations for his barefoot trek in late 2016, laying out their hopes and fears as they followed Mark’s progress along the many dangerous roads he traveled on his way west from Rhode Island. They provide intimate details of Mark’s childhood and later life as a writer, social media fanatic, and teacher.

The larger half of the film, though, consists of footage Mark shot on his cellphone and posted to social media. Here, his scores of videos exhaustively chart the landscapes he passed through and the roads he trundled along, the people and animals he encountered on the way. Most poignantly, he displays his sometimes sweet, sometimes angry, and often sad and anxious musings he recorded self-interview style.

For fans of Mark, his encounters with animals are likely to be highlights. Upon meeting a dog near the start of his journey, Mark films the scrappy, irascible pooch while off camera we hear him breathlessly exclaim, “Oh, hey, it’s a…. What are you!? Are you a cow? What, are you a dog? Oh, it’s a dog!”

This scene is reminiscent of much of Mark’s prodigious, years-long output of videos in which he plays himself as a kind of gullible goof, an overexcited rube unknown to the ways of the world. In one video, Mark spends several minutes leaving a phone message with a literary agent he hopes to impress while standing in a Staples, recounting to her how incredulous he is that the store sells so many varieties of three-ring binders. He plays the part so straight, and so fearlessly, that the uninitiated might consider him something of a simpleton.

Of course, it’s a carefully crafted performance for this holder of an MFA from the prestigious Brown University writing program. That said, his excitement and enthusiasm is that genuine (when he meets the dog) and that hilarious (when he talks to the agent) that, if you aren’t annoyed by the performance, you are hooked. His is an Andy Kaufmanesque dedication to the kayfabe, blended with an almost childlike, almost saint-like, love for the world. And, like both those modern and ancient archetypes (calling all John Chapmans, all Shakespearean fools), Mark is all in, playing himself till the end.

Which, since we are on the subject, we might as well acknowledge here Mark’s end. It isn’t much of a spoiler to tell you that, on the 100th day of his barefoot walk, while traveling a busy road in the Florida panhandle, Mark was struck and killed by a passing SUV. He was walking against traffic along the shoulder when the driver swerved toward him, dragging him some distance before leaving him broken where he lay, as police reports in the documentary show.

Naturally, it’s this that gives the documentary much of its emotional gravitas. It touches every interview with the loved ones Mark left behind. As expected, their sorrow at losing their beloved son, partner, and friend is vivid in their voices. This sorrow is amplified in the film as we listen to his family and friends speak of the trepidation they felt as Mark made his reports from the traffic-choked highways he walked, even as they supported his cause and the typically eccentric fashion he went about it. And then there are Mark’s own eerily prophetic, fatalistic words spoken from the road.

Much of the time, when we watch Mark’s videos of the people he runs across, we see the cheery side of him. We watch as motorists stop, roll down their window, and offer him food or a pair of shoes. Invariably, he declines. He knows the food won’t meet his rigorous vegetarian standards. And naturally, given the nature of his walk, any gift of shoes must be waved away. All of these refusals are conducted with grace and humor, a “no thanks” and a smile.

His demeanor when we see him talk with people about his stated goal of the trip, climate change awareness, is easy too. Rolling into a gas station convenience store, he asks the clearly wary clerk, “Did you realize the earth’s temperatures are rising and that we’re all in trouble?” When the clerk answers “Yeah, baby, I know,” Mark responds, “Okay, I’m just spreading the word, thank you.” His sermons here are decidedly not of the fire and brimstone variety but rather gentle exhortations, temperate reminders of the intemperate apocalypse to come.

“People always say ‘you’re not wearing any shoes, you’re going to die.’ But if I die on this trip it’s not going to be because I didn’t wear shoes. It’s going to be because an automobile kills me.”

Mark Baumer

It’s when Mark is alone, walking or taking refuge from the cold weather in a motel, nursing his swollen feet made raw by the road salt, that his more vulnerable side comes through. In one video, we hear Mark’s anger about Trump’s appointees, men like Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil, who across the board were climate change deniers. “How can we possibly defeat such power?” Mark asks. “There’s so many days I just want to give up,” he admits. “But I just go out and I keep walking.”

A few days later, we watch as Mark sticks his head into a hotel microwave and says, “Hey, microwave, did you know there’s so much methane in the world that we’re all going to die? So you might as well kill yourself now.” Then, at another motel, he looks to the camera and says, “People always say ‘you’re not wearing any shoes, you’re going to die.’ But if I die on this trip it’s not going to be because I didn’t wear shoes. It’s going to be because an automobile kills me.” Here he is calm, clear-eyed, resigned.

One may ask, if Mark were so cognizant of the danger of his trip why he embarked upon it, or at least in the manner he did. And in one review I found, the reviewer asks just that. That reviewer questions, in a tone bordering on displeasure, why Mark chose to go barefoot when the hazards to his feet were so obvious. He asks why Mark chose to travel such treacherous highways when, with some careful planning, he could have hewed more closely to established footpaths and relatively quiet country roads. He wonders why Mark would put himself at such unnecessary risk, as a result stealing from us a continuation of Mark’s important work. I have no doubt there will be other viewers of BAREFOOT that will ask those questions, too, some with equal or even greater displeasure.

As much as I understand that exasperation and anger, I have to say it seems beside the point. Asking why Mark traveled barefoot is like asking why John Chapman wore a tin pot for a hat rather than a comfy cap that would have kept him warm and dry. The answer? Because then Chapman wouldn’t have been Chapman, not the Chapman he was. More to the point, Chapman wouldn’t have been Johnny Appleseed. Without the tin pot, the bare feet, without the exuberant, obsessive dedication to animals, much less the singular mania for planting apple trees, the myth of Johnny Appleseed would not have germinated.

Chapman was complicit in this mythologizing too. One does not make such eccentric choices, provided you are in possession of your faculties, and not understand the figure you cut, the stories people will tell of you. Yes, there were reasons of faith (love of God), of conviction (love of life), of character (love of self) that led him to such eccentricities, but the particular indulgence of these quirks is done with eyes open to their effect.

Mark, for all his own wide-eyed wonder, for all his childlike grace, was as aware of his own mythmaking as Chapman. He was prone to sometimes heroic, sometimes silly acts of endurance, in addition to his fateful barefoot journey. In 2010, Mark successfully completed a walk across America, this time with shoes. In 2012, he tried to raise $50,000 dollars on Kickstarter so that he could write 50 books. Although, as he said, “the internet didn’t give me any money,” he wrote the books anyway. Then there are the previously mentioned hundreds of videos he posted to YouTube, the many writings he left on Medium, his meme-like text and image works.

Mark knew what he was up to. One does not indulge the internet with so much of yourself without a notion of the outsized portrait you are crafting. Mark was creating a mythology of himself, a self-mythology on the order of artist Joseph Beuys. Mark’s myth though, like Johnny Appleseed, is a particularly American one. It’s a tall tale of singular prowess, the lone figure in the wilds of the world, the highway, and the web, performing great feats of strength—a Paul Bunyan of self-publishing—and of courage—a John Brown of ecological disaster.

Which is not to say that BAREFOOT doesn’t reveal the very human side of Mark, including his contradictions, misgivings, and vanities. It does, and that’s one of the doc’s great strengths. And though he acted sometimes in a saintly fashion, he wasn’t a saint, But the grand takeaway is of a man so taken by the world that he would give his feet for it. A person so in love with cows and dogs and people that he would forgo the usual pleasures of modern life—a car, a tasty burger, a pair of hiking boots—to save them. Living made him so happy, and so sad and angry, that he put his family, his career, his love life, his life itself, on hold to anguish and celebrate with it. He was just a guy. He was only an everyman. Still, he walked.

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