Local Businessman Hikes Appalachian Trail
By K.J. WEBB
Local businessman Brad Johnson, founder and owner of Lawn America, can now add “Thru-hiker,” “Compassionater” and “Author” to his resume. “Thru-hiker” is a name given to hikers who have trekked the entire Appalachian Trail, the 2,184 mile trail that extends between Springer Mountain, Ga. and Mount Katahdin, Maine.
He accomplished this feat during the summer and fall of 2010. Along the way, his trail nickname became “Compassionater,” as hikers he met along the way learned that his purpose for his journey was ground in compassion. He earned the title “Author” when he published a truly compelling book about his experience, “A Compassionate Journey” in 2012.
Johnson says he got the idea to hike the trail in 2009 when mulling over the decision of whether to sell his company to a much larger entity that wanted to buy his thriving business. “I had the chance to think about ‘What if? What if I just sold my business and got the financial freedom and the time to do what I wanted? What would I do, within reason?’”
Johnson says he thought about his younger years and his childhood passions. The outdoors and hiking were main passions and interests that started in childhood and remained with him. “I spent a lot of time in the Colorado mountains when I was young, backpacking and camping out. I really wanted to hike the Appalachian trail. I kept thinking about it. I read 12 or 13 books about the Trail because I knew little about it.”
Johnson kept researching the Appalachian Trail and gave serious consideration to the prospect and potential consequences of leaving his business for four months and the amount of time he planned to spend on the hike. “I asked myself if I was being selfish, if I was trying to prove something. I wanted to be sure of my reasons for the hike,” he says. Johnson discussed the idea at length with his family, who were very supportive.
Reflecting more on the idea, Johnson realized that he wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail not for himself, but to serve a larger purpose. A man of strong faith, he says, “I realized that I wanted this journey to be about compassion. I wanted it to result in something positive for people in need. For instance, Lawn America has supported The Little Lighthouse for years. Hiking the trail would raise even more awareness and the chance to donate more to charities.”
After Johnson settled on the purpose of his trip, he involved the community. It took about three months and lots of prayer. Johnson eventually secured the support needed, raising $106,000 in funds committed for charity. “Our goal was $100,000. We managed to raise over $50,000 in donations, even in a tough economy, and Lawn America matched the funds dollar for dollar,” he says.
Additional charities include Folds of Honor, The Salvation Army, YoungLife Tulsa and Habitat For Humanity.
Johnson wrapped up his preparations, confident his business would be in good hands, and with the support of his family he set off to hike the trail in May, 2010. “I was 56 at the time and had a bad hip and was walking 15-20 miles per day, carrying a 40-pound backpack in 95-degree weather, eating freeze-dried food, waking up morning after morning and doing the same routine over and over again.”
Johnson says that the physical challenges were tough, but it is the mental challenge that can really affect a person’s success or failure on the trail. “There are times when your feet are numb; you are enduring extreme hot or cold, depending on the month, you are bone tired, the trail is rocky and steep and you are all alone day after day. You really have to steel yourself mentally and focus on why you’re doing it,” he says.
At times during Johnson’s journey he had to take time off the trail. His mother passed away in July and Johnson immediately left the trail to fly home to take care of everything. On another occasion he suffered heat exhaustion; the springs on the trail were drying up and water was hard to find, so he took a couple of weeks off to rest up, then proceeded on his journey.
In addition to spending a few necessary breaks at home, Johnson’s wife, Becky, flew out to meet him at various points on the trail. Johnson took small breaks but always continued his arduous trip on the Trail undeterred, completing his journey at Harper’s Ferry in Dec., 2010, becoming one of the few hundred who hike the entire trail out of the thousands every year who try.
“I was one of only 20 or so ‘flip-floppers’ who end the trail at the midpoint,” says Johnson. ‘Flip-floppers’ hike to the halfway point from one end point, then travel to the other end point and hike to the halfway point again. Johnson travelled first from the southern end-point to midway then traveled north and began the second segment at the northern point, hiking south. Flip-flopping is a strategy used by people starting the trail later in the season to mitigate for bad weather.
All in all, during his journey Johnson was on the trail for 138 days, took eight days of rest, and spent seven weeks off the trail on four separate occasions. He averaged about 16 miles per day, lost nearly 30 pounds and gained a broader perspective on life. “I learned how important it is to finish strong,” he says. “I don’t want to cruise to retirement. I want to finish strong in life, not rest on my laurels, show compassion and sow compassion.” Johnson finished the trail strong and gives credit where it is due. Of one of the many Scripture verses he relied on for inspiration and strength is, “For this God is our God forever and ever; He will be our guide even to the end.” Psalm 48:14.
To read more about Johnson’s journey and his book, “A Compassionate Journey” visit www.ATJOURNEY.com.