By Katie Poe, Times-Journal
Fort Payne, AL (AP) – After quitting his job of seven years, Neil Johnson will pursue his dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail this month.
Johnson began his journey on April 10 at Springer Mountain in Georgia, which is located in Amicalola Falls State Park, and will trek a total of 2,189.2 miles to end up on Mount Catahdin in Baxter State Park, Maine.
He said his wife, Erica, will pick him up from there, but before that she will hike the last 5 miles with him.
Johnson has spent many months researching and planning out the journey. He estimates it will take him between 98 and 101 days to finish.
“My target is July 25, but I’m going to give myself a little bit of wiggle room,’’ he said.
The Appalachian Trail has been in Johnson’s mind ever since he was young and went rafting with his father, but it didn’t occur to him at that time that he would ever attempt to hike it.
“My dad would always take us rafting at the Nantahala River in North Carolina, and the Appalachian Trail goes across the river,’’ he said. “We would always go with some family friends, and I just remember them talking about the trail, but I didn’t know what it was. They just told me it went from Georgia to Maine and that’s all I knew.’’
He said a couple of years later when he started backpacking, he and his high school friends, Jarrod and Shaun Lawler, would go to places like Citadel Rock and DeSoto State Park to spend their summers.
“Jarrod would always talk about (the Appalachian Trail), and I got to researching it and it got my brain rolling,’’ Johnson said. “Six or seven years ago, I just decided it was something I wanted to do. It’s pretty much the only consistent dream I’ve ever really had.
“It’s just something I’ve always wanted to do. I love the atmosphere, and I’ve been on the trail several times to practice. I just love the atmosphere of the Appalachian Trail, it’s the country and just makes me feel good about living here in the South.’’
Two years ago, Johnson wanted to pursue this dream, but with his son, Harrison, only being 6 months old at the time, he decided to postpone it.
“I was going to do it two years ago, but it was bad timing,’’ he said. “Harrison would have been about 6 months old, so he wouldn’t have remembered it, but I would have missed a lot.’’
It was actually Johnson’s wife who proposed that he do the trail this year.
“My wife came to me at the beginning of this year and she knew I’d always wanted to do it, and I felt like it was a good time,’’ he said. “I’m not getting any younger. Harrison, my son, is at an age where he’ll miss me, but it’s not going to be horrible for him. It’s just the right time. It’s a good change in my life to turn things around a little bit.’’
He has gotten support from his family members and friends, but he said his wife has been the most supportive one throughout the process.
“Of course, my mom was thinking of the worst, because she’s my mom. But, overall I got positive reactions from it,’’ he said. “My sister was proud of me, my dad was proud of me. My mom was just being a worrisome mom. Once I showed her that I had everything organized, it made her feel better.’’
Johnson had been working at RTI for seven years and worked his way up to assistant manager over the Assembly Department. But, once he decided to go on the trail for four months, he had to step down.
“It’s not like I hated my job, I mean, I loved my job for the most part. It’s just that I’m ready for a change,’’ Johnson said. “I’m using this as a changing point for what I want to do going forward. I’ve been working at RTI for seven years. I’ve never known what I really wanted to do. A lot of my friends know what they want to do. I’ve got a friend that’s just graduated college and he knows what he wants to do and Shaun and Jarrod are in the military right now.’’
Johnson said he has been consistently hiking to prepare for this specific trail for about three months. He said he has been walking with more weight and attempting to hike for longer distances since his goal is to walk about 25 miles a day.
When he is on the trail, Johnson will sleep in a tent and pack about three to five days worth of food at a time.
“I’ll wake up and pack up all my stuff. I’ll be sleeping in my tent 99 percent of the time,’’ he said. “There are shelters spread out; they are more like primitive shelters. My goal is to hike anywhere from 20 to 25 miles a day and pretty much hike 12 hours a day. I’ll stop, eat, and I’ll camp out beside the trail.’’
Johnson said when hikers are on the trail, they are given a “trail name.’’ He said if something “crazy’’ happens, someone will give you a nickname, or you can choose one for yourself. Johnson said he wants to take his chances and let someone name him.
He said the thing he is going to miss the most is his family, but cravings for a hamburger might come into play.
“Probably my family will be the only thing I’ll miss pretty bad. I don’t watch a lot of TV or anything anyway,’’ he said. “I’m not going to lie, when I hiked in the Smokies portion of the Appalachian Trail about four years ago, I remember finishing it up and the first time I saw a truck after four days just tickled me, I don’t know how to explain. I just laughed. It was weird. I had a burger after that and it was the best burger I ever had in my life.’’
However, that feeling of serenity and disconnectedness he gets when he is alone in the wilderness allows Johnson to get away from the stress of living a busy life.
“It’s a pretty good feeling, you feel like you don’t have a whole lot of stress and unnecessary stuff,’’ he said. “When you’re at home you have the temptation to watch Netflix or get on your phone. There’s something constantly going, but when you’re out there, everything just shuts down.’’
A few weeks ago, Johnson went for a training hike at DeSoto State Park and he was listening to music on Pandora, but after a while he lost cell phone signal. When the music stopped, he stood still and tried to listen, but everything was silent.
“The world keeps going, but in your little bubble time is just irrelevant and you’ve got nothing better to do than keep walking,’’ he said.
During his journey, Johnson will vlog his experience through YouTube. He will film one or two days at a time and upload it when he gets a chance. To watch his “AT Thru Hike Announcement,’’ visit bit.ly/2oRqS7a.
The Appalachian Trail