Chris Johnson is an artist who has been through many amazing journeys. One of his latest adventures had him completing a long time goal that many could barely even fathom. His determination to complete the Appalachian Trail was part of a labor of love. And during that labor of love, he found love. He found even more strength than he had before, inspiration, courage, and drive. He found inner peace and joy, and discovered the true meaning of life. Chris shares many of his experiences and how they have impacted his life and his creativity.
“The Appalachian Trail (AT) is a continuous hiking path extending between Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mount Katahdin in Maine. It is approximately 2,184 miles, encompasses 14 states and on average takes approximately 6 months to complete,” notes Chris.
Q: Please start by describing the amazing journey that you started when you made the decision to go on the AT again for the second time. What made you decide to go back and do it from start to finish?
A: I was at a stagnant point with my personal life and creatively with my art career, and felt a need for an infusion of new experiences, new surroundings, and new people. There's something that happens to a person when you spend long periods of time in the wilderness, as I did on my first AT hike in 1999, disconnected from the relentless distractions and fingertip conveniences of our hyper-consumer, fast paced culture. Away from all this, biped-ally locomoting (walking) while burdened only by the four basic human needs (food, water, shelter, clothing) your senses heighten and you become acutely in-tune with the unhurried rhythms of nature. It's an experience so enriching that long after you've hung up your hiking boots and returned to life as usual amid society, it beckons. It was this ever present whispering of the woods and my need for a jolt that I decided to return to the Appalachians.
Q: What kinds of reaction did you get from friends and family members when you told them you wanted to do this? How did you stay positive in the face of naysayers?
A: Those who know me weren't all that surprised, knowing my love for the trail. I was met by everyone, then and throughout, with nothing less than overwhelming support, which I believe, was one of the biggest factors in my successful thru-hike.
Q: I know a little bit about this, but please tell me again some of the things that you did in preparation. How did you go about getting ready for something so huge? What were your biggest challenges and some of the hardest moments before your trip?
A: Prior to my '99 hike, I had spent less than 24 hours backpacking, and this was in the rolling bumps of Indiana's woods, which are nothing like the forbidding muscular peaks of the Appalachian range. Suffice it to say; I learned a hard lesson on gear weight, clothing, nutrition and what not to pack for extended backpacking trips. This time around I wouldn't be bringing a two-pound chair, five sets of clothing, a full tube of toothpaste, or anything made of cotton. Over the years I made it my business to know as much as possible about light weight, then ultra light weight methods of backpacking and managed to refine my gear down from a hefty 65 pounds to just 9.5 pounds. Some of the things I did to achieve this included dehydrating toothpaste into single use sized dots, making my own .5 ounce mini stove out of an aluminum pop can versus my old 3 pound store bought camping stove, and carrying a tiny headlamp instead of a full on heavy duty handheld flashlight with three sets of large replacement batteries. The biggest difference, however, was last time I left straight from couch potato mode, whereas this time when I left for the trail I was running up to seven miles a day. All this refining, then re-refining was the fun and easy part of the goals and preparations I set for myself. By far the most difficult item on my list to accomplish before setting off was to say goodbye to my two dogs. They would be missed.
Q: This is going to be hard, but try your best to describe the highlights of your journey. I'm sure that there were things that stood out to you every day, but what are some of the most poignant moments from the trip?
A: As you can imagine, every single day was a pinnacle highlight regardless of in-climate weather, aches and pains, or any number of daily challenges. Two things marked the first 1000 miles: 1. A chip I had on my shoulder about utilizing the lessons learned from '99 through the knowledge, new gear and fitness to prove by going smarter and lighter I could now go much, much faster. In doing so, I racked up consistent 20 and sometimes 30+ mile days, unlike my previous best of 15. I can't tell you how much I enjoyed going well beyond what I believed to be my physical limits on a daily basis. I felt truly untouchable. And 2. Somewhere along those first 1000 miles I acquired a resilience and inner stillness that I had not thought possible. No other experience has ever done so much to positively effect or change who I am as a person. This really set the tone for the last 1000 miles as they were marked by the realization that I was, quite literally, running right by golden opportunities to make each moment count. I slowed my pace way down, started seeing everything through new child-like eyes, took long breaks at every vista, traveled with people for whom I had more meaningful interactions and friendships with than ever before, and also stumbled upon the meaning of life.
Just as moving was watching sunsets as if it were nightly breaking news and sunrises with the dedication most give to their morning coffee; bathing in rivers, waterfalls and glacial ponds; having no idea whether it was Monday or Thursday; experiencing constant wildlife (some higher than me on the food chain) naturally, and being party to a Cicada emergence that happens only once every 14 years; knowing what time of day it was without a phone or watch by the position of the sun; being keenly aware of the number of miles achieved at any given moment simply by the 'feel' of it; the new-found gratification of how delicious even the most mundane food tastes when satisfying real hunger (and how many milkshakes and pizzas you can put away without effecting your waistline).
Q: What were some of your biggest challenges on the trip?
A: I had two bouts with hypothermia, one serious enough for hospitalization. Missing my dogs throughout wasn't pleasant. I had times in the beginning while outpacing everyone that were more solitary and sometimes lonely. Every thru-hiker experiences at least one time along their hike where they hit a low point whether it be consecutive days of rain, the relentless summer heat, loneliness, an injury, etc. It's difficult describing these low points other than to say they are more challenging than anything experienced back home which accounts for the 75% dropout rate among hikers intending to go all the way from GA. to ME. Despite perpetually feeling like a giant among men, I was no exception. My low point came in Virginia after a 9-day hiatus caused by pretty severe shin splints. I lost my momentum, my connection to a great group of people I thoroughly enjoyed traveling with, and due to the chip on my shoulder I discussed earlier; I also lost my trail identity. Once back on my feet, I had back to back run-ins with separate individuals who cared little for nature, for stewardship of the trail both on and off the path (thru-hikers rely on the generosity of individuals and continued access to services in these small mountain/valley communities. We see ourselves as trail ambassadors to keep this relationship positive, and them welcoming future travelers) nor did these individuals embody the most noticeable characteristics among 99% of the thru-hiking community: comradery, unconditional empathy and compassion for fellow travelers seldom seen in passing strangers anywhere else in our country. Happily, I was too resilient, too committed, and had too strong of a support system to let the "Virginia Blues," as they are known on the trail, deter me.
Q: What are some of your scariest moments on the trip? I remember you mentioning that you were robbed. Did that slow you down, or did it give you even more determination to continue and press on?
A: There were really only two incidences when I felt fear. Twice while in the Great Smokey Mountain National Park, only half a mile apart, I turned the same ankle so sharply that both times I collapsed like a dropped marionette. The second came in VA, when I could no longer put weight on the leg that developed shin splints. Unless you're being chased down by a crazed, marauding bear in an open field, which never happens, the only thing to fear is a medical condition described reverently by thru-hikers as a "trip-ending" injury.
Although not scary, I had an experience so frustrating that it unquestionably threw me off of the perpetual positivity I had been riding so high on the entire trip. Just before the halfway mark, I came to a point along the AT where the trail comes down from the mountain to cross a bridge spanning a large river, then back up into the mountain. Because the bridge is so close to a town, a lot of thru-hikers enjoy a delivered pizza and a dip in the river to beat back the summer heat. I bathed in the river then stashed all my gear in a conspicuous spot under the bridge to await the pizza deliveryman atop the bridge. I returned with pizza in hand to the spot where I stashed my gear to find it had been stolen. As I described previously, the gear I had amassed for this trip had taken me years, most from multiple sources and some that I custom made myself. So, to say the wind had been taken from my sails was an understatement. From that point I had a day and a half walk by trail to get to a place where I could acquire replacement gear, though nothing as light as before, and this being the height of summer and no longer having containers to hold enough water between clean water sources, I suffered from dehydration to the point I was physically ill and every movement felt like a colossal will of effort. I stumbled into to the Delaware Water Gap where I was met by my brother, nephew, and father, who had driven all the way from Indiana in order to run me around to procure replacement gear and to provide moral support which was greatly needed. In less than two days, I replaced everything and was back on the trail headed north. Though my gear now weighed 17 lbs instead of 9 1/2, I was in better spirits and more thankful than ever for my family. The hardest part to accept about all of this was the SD card in my camera that was stolen, along with the rest of my gear, contained all of the pictures I had taken of my journey up to that point; half of the total pictures taken along the entire trip. I allowed myself one day to sulk and process the loss because carrying negativity over something from the past and out of my control could in no way serve any positive purpose moving forward and would weight me down heavier than anything I could put in my pack. Never again would I allow my gear to be out of my sight, especially my camera.
Q: What dates did you begin the trail and finish? Did it take you longer than expected to finish?
A: I arrived at Springer Mtn. GA., the beginning point for northbound hikers, on March 25, 2012 and summited the final peak on October 13, 2012. Initially, the plan was to be back home inside of 4 months. However, thanks to a paradigm shift halfway through, my main goal shifted to smelling the roses rather than mowing them down. In the end, I spent 202 days, or 6 months 18 days, on the Appalachian Trail.
Q: I'm sure that it is nearly impossible to describe the feelings of accomplishment that you get from undertaking such a huge feat. Please try to describe every emotion that raced through you as you neared the end and finally reached it.
A: Once I made it into New Hampshire, slowly and by degrees, I became aware of a growing unease or foreboding. I assume, much like how a death row inmate might feel walking to their execution, every step I took further north was colored more and more by the pallor of reluctance. It’s such an odd and confusing experience to hold so tightly to a goal for so long, only to have it repel you so near its realization. Even so, I've never felt such a sense of accomplishment before or since.
Truth be told, winter comes early in Maine and warnings posted everywhere declare the last summit as a "very strenuous" 10.4 mile round trip taking 8-12 hours. The first half of the ascent was spent doing Bambi impressions as the trail shares a natural streambed until you reach treeline. Once there, you transition to deep snow drifts and escarpments requiring hand-holds, sure footing, and continual razor sharp wind gusts requiring more layers of cold climate gear than all of mine combined. It was less than ideal for the scenario I'd had in my mind for the last six months, but the adrenaline was pumping, and with more of a whimper than a bang, I reached the placard at the peak. I paused long enough to do a quick 360* glance, posed for the obligatory photo, then shot back down the mountain faster than a thru-hiker heading into an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Q: What was next for you after the trail?
A: Just before the reputed toughest final quarter of the trail, I was in need of food supplies and decided to come down from the mountain into a very small New Hampshire town, Warren, to a gas station which was the only supply option for backpackers. There, while out front on a bench enjoying a freshly made large sub sandwich, a beautiful young woman pulled up for gas. Her name was Jaclynn and she was from Seattle, Washington. She, too, was on a journey of sorts as she was in the middle of a road trip encompassing the entire lower 48 states. Her being a clinical psychologist and writer, and curiously inquisitive, a deep connected conversation ensued between us which lasted non-stop until long into the next morning.
Neither of us wanted our once-in-a-lifetime encounter to end despite the lack of sleep, though, we both had an equal conviction to see our goals/journeys to the end. We exchanged phone numbers and, like most passing encounters, promised to stay in contact. Subsequent texts and phone calls followed, whenever strong enough cell signals allowed for me since I was mostly in the back country away from cell towers. By the time I had made it to within days of completing my AT hike, she was more than 11 hours away by car somewhere in southern Virginia. The desire to spend more time together compelled us to the decision that she would backtrack all the way back up to central Maine in order to pick me up. She did so, which enabled us to experience not only Route 66, the great Northwest, Southwest, Midwest, all of our country's most heralded national parks, the Florida Keys, a rocket launch at Cape Canaveral (a boyhood and lifelong dream of mine), but also along the way enabled us to forge one of the most unbelievable beginnings to a loving, adventurous relationship we've ever experienced or heard of to date. She is my very best friend, the love of my life and the best co-pilot a guy could ever hope to have. For me, the best part of the story, which Jaclynn only recently revealed to me, was she had just filled up her car with gas a few miles before we met. She admitted to stopping for "gas" because the unusual outward mountain man appearance of myself and the buddy I had been hiking with seemed like an opportunity for interesting conversation to add to her road trip experiences and writings.
Q: Where are you now? How did you end up in the place that you are at?
A: After a combined 11+ months of foot and vehicle travel, I am now a permanent transplanted resident of the Seattle Washington area. I uprooted my life and art studio in order to make a life with Jaclynn and I am enjoying every aspect of this move, aside from the relentless rain I hope to grow accustomed to.
Q: How has it been, adjusting to life off of the trail? Has it been strange acclimating to your new environment and staying in one place? Does life seem more boring now? Or is it nice to be back with a new perspective?
A: Though the transition to life off the trail has certainly been cushioned by my wonderful new life with Jaclynn, it is still a very difficult one. Once in tune with the slow rhythms of nature and experiencing how much more wonderful life is without the din of a fast paced, consumer crazed society, it's easy to see the need for anti depressants in our culture. I still have a desire to walk everywhere, but life in cities amidst the thick veil of exhaust, the zip of vehicles and traffic signals doesn't lend itself to peaceful ambles. Also, along the trail you periodically encounter other foot travelers from both directions to which enthusiastic conversations invariably ensue as to trail conditions, personal experiences, and trail news. You'd be surprised how doing the same once back home in normal society elicits suspicious, reluctant responses, if any at all.
Q: What experiences on the trail have most inspired your art? Is the art that you are creating now different from your art before? Is there a new shape or structure to it? Does it come from a different perspective or a new vision? How has this entire journey impacted your creativity?
A: I'm certainly one who uses my creativity in order to process and share my experiences and interpretations of life through art. It is what I do. You can imagine how being without a creative outlet for almost a year has created a backlog. Since settling down and setting up shop in the Northwest, I have happily been able to release my pent up energy daily. Interestingly, the hike has provided me a more profound respect for the ecology of our planet and, consequently, I have since moved away from using new, raw materials, to using as many recycled materials as possible in my pieces. I've also noticed a softer, more organic change in the forms of my pieces.
Q: What would you say to anyone who is contemplating doing the trail, or any type of adventure like this? What would you tell them? Would you recommend it? Why should they go for it, or not go for it?
A: To anyone who is contemplating, or not, an adventure like the Appalachian Trail, I would unhesitatingly say DO IT! Regardless of the real or imagined obstacles keeping you from acquiring the time necessary to accomplish such an adventure, the rewards exponentially outweigh the hurdles. In fact, true love is the only experience one can have from birth to death that will ever so completely change or affect your life for the better. Talk to any successful thru-hiker and they will say the same: "DO IT!"
Q: What does one need to consider when deciding whether or not to leave the norm and venture out on a journey that will take them away from friends and family and put them alone with the elements? What is your best advice?
A: The trail is more of an inward psychological/emotional challenge than it is a physical challenge, so start by surrounding yourself with those who will support your journey. Make it a point to concentrate on hourly and daily goals while on the trail, rather than seeing the trail as a whole or making the end your main goal. Despite it mostly being an inner journey, the trail is physically challenging. Try to arrive at the trail in decent shape, take it slow and rest often until you hit your stride, and prior to leaving for the trail, research and acquire light weight gear. Remember that first time thru-hikers have a tendency to pack their "fears" of the wilderness and of the unknown. I did this for my '99 hike and every step I took was made very difficult due to the 65 lbs I carried because I was uneducated as to gear, and because I thought I needed a lot of extra heavy gear to keep me safe and comfortable.
Q: How do you see your life unfolding in the near future? What are your goals both personally and professionally? What do you hope to accomplish?
A: The experiences I had and lessons I learned along the AT have remained with me and continue to provide fodder for my personal and creative endeavors. I plan to continue creating works of art, which I'll happily share with galleries and individuals. Likewise, I look forward to many quality years shared with Jaclynn, wherever it is we decide to call home.
Q: What styles of art are you focusing on now? I saw that you are doing sculptures. Are you still painting, sketching, creating furniture, and working with metal?
A: I'm currently concentrating on sculpture— moving into the use of wood, which is a first for me— and my work has taken a decidedly more organic style. I do plan on returning back to a more balanced sculptures and paintings body of work before summer, it's just a matter of completing my studio setup to enable both in a shared space.
Q: What else would you like to talk about and add?
A: I've learned one incontrovertible fact about life throughout my time on the Appalachian Trail and subsequent vehicle travels around the United States:
The world is full of immense beauty and naturals wonders that are unmatched by anything humans could ever hope to create. However, all the beauty and experiences in the world mean very little if you don't have someone to share them with. And a life deferred for anything pales in comparison to a life lived.
If you want to see Chris Johnson in action, click here to see a video of him creating a sculpture. It is fascinating to watch the entire process.