Completing the Appalachian Trail on her own in 1996 earned Gail Johnson the trail name that she’d given herself, Gutsy. I followed along on her journey, one of the first to be published online, and asked her if she’d accompany me on my first long-distance hike. We’ve been great friends ever since. She joined John and I for parts of our AT hike in 2012. Along with her husband Dan, she’s been section-hiking the Florida Trail for many years. She lives in South Carolina.
Back twenty years ago, when the kids left home, I became bored with life, but then I discovered the great outdoors. Not only did life become exciting again, I also found my inner child. Laughter accompanied scrambling up mountainsides, and splashing through wet bogs. I took backpacking to another level and hiked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in one shot…known as a “thru hike.” Life changed again for me as I went back to college and became a teacher, but I used my summers to complete the Pacific Crest Trail as a series of six section hikes. Now retired, I am currently hiking the Continental Divide Trail in bits and pieces.
What makes the outdoors a compelling place for you to be?
Years ago, a friend from Monson, Maine, told me about a man who went into local nursing homes and told the “inmates” there to get out and hike. The following year, fifty percent followed his advice, left the home, and were out and on their own. Thinking about how much the elderly exercise (none at all?) compared to the hiker who might put in 8 hours of exercise in a day hike, explains why there are many older hikers on the trail. When I feel less than 100%, I take off and spend a few days on the trail, and come back feeling happy and healthy. After a day on the trail, I become young, athletic, and beautiful! A young hiker on the PCT told me that as people grow older, their world becomes smaller. I like to think that my traveling to remote places to hike keeps that “bed in a room” at bay.
A place or interaction on the trail that made a major impression on you
When people find out that I backpack by myself, their biggest concern is for my safety. Do I carry a gun? Don’t I need to protect myself from dangerous people? The truth is: hikers are happy, interesting people to meet. Instead of being down on life, they embrace life. I saw the good in humanity: those who were willing to share food and rides with filthy, smelly hikers. So, although I enjoyed the beauty of the mountains, the beauty of people’s hearts along the trail was what I remembered the most.
A memorable challenge you dealt with on a hike
Beginning the Pacific Crest Trail was not anything like the beginning of the Appalachian Trail. There were no road signs or white blazes on the trees every 100 yards or so. I wasn’t working at the time, so I took the cheap bus to Inyokern. Actually, I didn’t actually make it to the town because the bus driver pointed out a small hotel (“otel,” because the H was missing) and asked if I’d like to be dropped off there – he either was familiar with hikers or homeless. Finding the trail the next morning was a challenge. I walked south on Highway 395 towards Los Angeles, deciding immediately that it was not a safe road for hitchhiking. I continued until I saw a sign for Road178, and stuck my thumb and was given a ride up the mountain by a man with the comment, “I don’t usually give rides to hitchhikers, but you don’t look like a hitchhiker.” When I got out I couldn’t find either a sign or a trail. My ride felt sorry for me and offered to help me look, and he did help me for a few minutes. I didn’t want to waste his time so I told him I would be fine and let him go. The trip that year made me familiar with the PCT. By year six, she was like an old friend. Over the years the trail became easier to navigate. Traveling across the United States to section hike the PCT continued to present its challenges, but never as much as that first year.
How you’ve helped other women to get outdoors
After completing the Appalachian Trail, I joined a hiking club, and eventually planned overnight backpacks. The hiking club was predominantly a day hiking club, so only a few came on overnights, but some came, mostly women. We always had a great time, but the most satisfying feeling I had was when I out on the trail, and met women I had earlier introduced to backpacking now out there showing other women the way.