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Justin Johnson reached the summit of Mt. Katahdin, Maine on August 26, 2008, ending the final leg of his amazing 97 day journey through the Appalachian Trail.

(Reprint from GreenvilleOnline.com, September 29, 2008)

Marine Makes it to the Top

Submitted by Dawn Mitchell

Justin Johnson, of Greenville, SC has achieved several milestones in his adult life, but his most recent achievements have truly been mountainous. Justin graduated this May with a Bachelors of Science degree in Mechanical Engineering from Clemson University. Justin followed his Clemson graduation with a commencement ceremony held in his honor when he achieved rank of 2nd Lieutenant with the United States Marine Corps.

How did this Marine decide to celebrate his summer? Not with a beach trip or a senior cruise, but with a goal that his friends and family followed closely all summer. Justin is one of the few, and the proud that can say they hiked the 2,175 mile Appalachian Trail. This strenuous hike from Springer Mountain, Georgia all the way up the eastern coast to Mount Katahdin, Maine is one few hikers accomplish in a year, much less in one season. Justin, earning his trail name "Superman", was able to set an astonishing pace, averaging between 20 and 30 miles a day. From May to August, Justin completed the hike of a lifetime, totaling over 2,175 miles in only 97 days.

Here's his amazing story, in his own words.

What motivated you to undertake hiking the Appalachian Trail?

"I was always amazed that a footpath existed that stretched all the way from Georgia to Maine. The fact that I could get on this one path and go all the way from Georgia to Maine was an enticing idea; one I had entertained since high school. The unique challenge was the timeline I had for myself. To be able to hike the trail in three months was a motivating factor as well."

How did you prepare for the hike?

"My best friend and I went on what is known as a shake-down hike. Basically, I just needed to take out all my shiny new equipment and make sure it was going to work like I hoped it would. I needed to pack it all up and then try it all out to make sure that I could use it. We planned this hike for a section of the Foothills trail that was similar to the terrain I would be hiking in the first section of the Appalachian Trail. We did about fifty miles of it just to get a feel for the gear and to get used to some different aspects of that terrain. Outside of this shake-down trail, I didn't do anything extra to prepare for the Appalachian Trail other than my normal Marine fitness routine of running and weight lifting.

What was your overall experience?

"It is just an amazing experience. Really, there are no words to adequately describe the physical, mental, and emotional experience it was for me. I was able to see some of the most beautiful landscape anywhere in America. From the Blue Ridge, Smoky Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley all the way up to the White Mountains of New Hampshire and the mountain ranges in Maine, it was unbelievable. It was amazing not only for the aesthetic aspect of it, but in the personal ways that you challenge yourself- your body, your mind, and your spirit. What you go through personally makes you learn a lot about yourself. Some of the challenges you face, not just with the physical hiking, but how you handle the weather and other obstacles and circumstances the nature of the trail brings really grows you as a person.

One particular obstacle a lot of hikers, me included, face is the problem of not packing enough food to make it to the next town; of hiking when you are hungry. You really have to hone your people skills to borrow any food from the day campers who have extra in their packs. On the trail we call this "Yogi'ing". You have to be able to make the best of a tough situation.

All in all, it was a truly incredible experience. I said at the time I finished I would never do it again but looking back on it I think I would. At times, I even miss the freedom of my time on the trail."

Tell me what was your favorite spot on the trail head?

"I think it was the day I hiked Mount Washington in New Hampshire. That was one of the most scenic, most beautiful days. I kept looking off the side of the mountain at the view all around me and I almost slipped a few times I was so enamored with the landscape. Any other day I would be trucking along, trying to keep up the pace I had set, but that day I couldn't help myself, I kept pausing and looking around at the breath-taking scenery that was all around me."

What types of wildlife did you encounter?

"As far as wildlife, I probably saw every animal that inhabited the eastern woods in which we live. I saw lots of rabbits, especially in the southern Appalachians. There were tons of white tailed deer in Virginia. I saw at least one coyote in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. I saw several black bears over the course of the trail, some in the Smoky Mountains and some in the Shenandoahs. I saw timber rattlers and copperheads. Those were my only two close encounters with the wildlife. If I hadn't really been looking hard at the trail, I would have stepped on them. The wildlife was definitely an authentic aspect hiking the trail offered."

What was an average day on the trail like?

"I would get up early in the morning, sometime between 4:30 and 5:00 a.m., well before sun up, and I would pack up all my gear and my tent. Next, I would get some breakfast food out of my pack and eat it on the go. I would usually leave camp eating my food while walking and would hike without stopping until 12:00 p.m. for lunch. I would stop at a stream or a brook and get a drink, eat my lunch, and just take a much needed 45 minute break. Sometimes I would take my shoes off and soak my feet in the water and just relax. After that, I started back on the trail, hiking again. There really wasn't much in between. If you don't take a rest, get your pack off, and get a good meal in, you will have a hard time making good time and getting in your mile goals.

While I was hiking in between the lunch break, I ate on the trail whenever I got hungry. I kept food in the front of my pack and would just reach in and get it while I was walking. Usually it was something quick and easy to pack like trail mix, king size snicker bars, and protein bars. When I was thirsty, I would have to drink filtered water. Most of the time my filtered water came from my camel back (picture a plastic bladder) that I stored in my pack that had a plastic tube I could drink from. After lunch, I would hike all afternoon, around to 7:00- 7:30 at night which gave me about an hour and a half before dark. At this time, I would find a campsite and when I could, I would try to stop at a shelter. Normally, I would pitch my tent and hammock outside of the shelter so I could sleep outside. At the shelter, I would get filtered water for the next day and that night so I wouldn't have to do it in the morning. Then, I would start boiling my food and while that was boiling I would set up my campsite and get my gear squared away. Sometimes I would take a shower using either my camel back that I could pressurize water in or sometimes I would use some eco-friendly soap that was biodegradable and would sponge bathe in the creek. Believe me you can only go so long in the summer without taking a shower! Sometimes I would talk to some fellow hikers after setting up my hammock and tent, but usually after dinner I was in bed by 9:30 in my hammock so I could get up and be on the trail by daylight."

What was the hardest leg of the hike?

The trail gets really hard when you hit the White Mountains of New Hampshire and it really doesn't ease up all the way through Maine. This section is known to be the hardest part of the Appalachian Trail. For me the Grafton Notch / Mahoosuc area was the hardest actual leg of the hike, but all in all New Hampshire and southern Maine were the two hardest sections of the trail and they are both grouped together in the same stretch. The beautiful mountain scenery made this leg of the trip worth it, though."

What motivated you to maintain the grueling pace of 30 miles per day?

"My driving goal was to finish in three months. This timeline was my initial motivation for setting a fast pace. Then once I began putting in bigger and bigger miles each day as I got used to the trail, I began to challenge myself to see how far I could go. The days I could make thirty miles before dark were rewarding on the trail."

What did you learn from this experience?

"I definitely learned a lot about conservation from my experience hiking the trail. There are a lot of issues I became educated about along the way like erosion, overuse, and the introduction of non-native species of plants and animals that are destroying the trail. All of these issues are threatening the sustainability of the trail and the surrounding wildlife and environment. Several times throughout my time spent on the trail, it has occurred to me how fragile our current ecosystem is. With environmental issues like encroaching urban sprawl and its resulting erosion, the trail is constantly changing and adapting to keep its place in our ever-populating society. I know that the Appalachian Trail will not be the same experience, fifteen or twenty years from now. I feel fortunate to have hiked it while it is still in its present state. One of the draws of hiking the Appalachian Trail is the ability to return to nature, to a wilderness that can take you back in time away from current society. The section of the trail everyone calls "The Hundred Mile Wilderness" that stretches through Maine is so popular among hikers because it has been kept as close to pure wilderness as possible. That is what makes it both enticing and dangerous.

I've also learned a lot about myself as an individual, having faced a lot of different challenges on the trails. I learned what I was capable of doing on my own when it was pelting rain and the trail was flooded and there was absolutely no one around who could put me in a minivan and take me to a Motel 6. I learned how to rely on myself and to believe in myself. I learned how to think through situations and to remain calm and clear headed in order to make it to the next campsite and secure shelter and supplies.

The first time on the trail when I hit bad weather, it started pouring down rain and I found myself in the middle of a lightening storm, climbing on a ridge line on a mountain summit without a lot of cover. I learned through that experience how to be confident in my abilities and to keep on going. I weighed my options and realized that I had to keep hiking until I got to some lower ground and could set up my tent where it wouldn't be as much of a lightning risk. A good sense of humor always helps too when you are slipping and sliding across a flooded trail trying to get a foot hold. You can just imagine how ridiculous you look and laughing helps you pick yourself up out of the mud and push through with a positive attitude. I learned that a positive attitude and determination are essential."

What advice do you have for hikers considering the trail?

"I just can't stress how much of an amazing experience hiking the trail has been. People who may not be in great shape or who may be older should not be intimidated by it. It is definitely doable. You can move at your own pace. That is the beauty of it. Out there you have complete freedom. You don't have any responsibilities or anyone dictating how fast you should go. You can set your own pace and your own agenda. Don't let anyone discourage you. It is possible to hike the whole thing no matter how slow you go. From my experience I can tell you that it is worth it. It is an incredibly rewarding trip. I would encourage anyone considering hiking the Appalachian Trail to do it, no matter their age or physical condition."

So what is next for this Marine? What goal could follow graduating with honors and hiking the Appalachian Trail all in one summer? For Justin Johnson, Quantico, Virginia is the next destination on his travel log. Once there, Justin will enter the prestigious officer training, TBS, known as The Basic School. Once he graduates from TBS, Justin plans to go into the field of Marine aviation. What tops his list of achievements is not degrees or scaling mountain tops, but serving his country with honor. We are all very proud of him.

 


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