JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. -- As she hiked the ridgeline, beginning to see the next peak on the trail ahead of her, the clouds began to grow darker. Starting out the day she knew there might be rain, but she didn’t want to lose time waiting out a little rain. But this was an East Coast storm brewing. A thunderstorm to be exact. She had not realized how quickly it would go from dry to a complete downpour that day.
Staff Sergeant Bridgette Johnson, a loadmaster for the 313th Airlift Squadron, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, hiked the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, March 19 to June 30.
Still deciding to hike in the rain, determined to reach her goal for the day, Johnson began to hear thunder claps rumbling in the distance.
A flash and she started counting—one-one thousand, two-one thousand, and on she counted until—a distant boom. She was still ok, for now.
But as time went on the storm was drawing closer, the time between the flashes and booms now only a few seconds apart.
Flash—one-one thousand, two-one thousand—boom! The storm was closer. Flash! And another boom right away! This time on the peak next to the one Johnson was on, lightning struck a tree and shattered—BAM! BAM!
At that moment Johnson could only think one thing — get off the peak, get off the peak! Johnson found a safe place off the peak and pitched her tent as fast as possible in the pouring rain. There Johnson sat, drenched in her tent, with only her thoughts.
“I never thought I was going to quit on the trail, but sitting in the pouring rain made me question why I was really out there doing it,” said Johnson, when recounting her experience hiking the entire Appalachian Trail alone.
Then the thunderstorm ended as quickly as it appeared. The sun began to shine again. Johnson packed up her tent and finished eight more miles that day.
“I’ve always liked being outside, but I wanted to have a challenge about the long distance,” said Johnson about why she chose the Appalachian Trail to hike. “There’s different variations to think about which you don’t think about on a weekend hike, like how am I going to get food?”
Her husband hiked the trail in 2011, so she was familiar with the trail, and was competitive about finishing because of him, knowing that if her husband could do it, so could she.
“Proving it to myself, I’ve never had that intense of a challenge to hike that many miles in one trip,” said Johnson. “But really all hiking is just multiple days of getting up and saying ‘I can hike today.’”
Giving up wasn’t an option for Johnson. She felt there was too much going on in her life that would prevent her later from finishing if she quit now, so she had to continue.
“It is so easy to romanticize hiking the trail at certain times of the year, but I don’t know in my life when I’m going to have the time to take four months off and just go hiking,” she said. “So there wasn’t ever a time I wanted to go home.”
The Appalachian Trail is long and difficult to traverse. Approximately three million people visit the Trail every year, and more than 3,000 people attempt a thru-hike of the entire Trail each year. But only about a quarter of those complete the entire thru-hike.
Committing to finishing the entire hike in one attempt can be challenging for most people.
“Not a lot of people actually finish a thru-hike, but a lot of people start it,” Johnson said. “So being able to just know that I could finish it was a pretty big driver and motivation for me.”
A Solo Act
Johnson decided to hike the trail alone for the experience. Along the way, she discovered things about herself and humanity.
“I started out alone, but I never really was alone on the trail, because there are so many people that hike it,” she said. “In Georgia, which is where I started, I would say that there were probably over 500 to 800 people who were on the trail going the same direction.”
Johnson didn’t expect to have so many people to connect with and build relationships with along the trail, and she quickly learned to make connections to find the resources she needed.
“You meet so many people every day when you’re hiking, even if it’s a short relationship, you quickly learn how to try to build a rapport with somebody or find something in common,” Johnson said. “A lot of it is networking; you need other people and other resources on the trail.”
What surprised Johnson the most, she said, was how much she grew as a person and changed on the trail without realizing it.
“My husband says I’ve changed a lot since being on the trail. He said before I had that military structure where things have to go according to a set plan,” Johnson said. “But since coming back, he says I am more able to go with the flow and able to adapt on the fly, having faith that things will work out.”
Johnson learned she is a methodical planner but being out on the trail showed her that enjoying the moment and rolling with whatever came at her can provide her with the motivational drive to keep going.
“It’s so easy before you get on the trail or even in the beginning to psych yourself out because it seems like such a big task,” she said. “But just building that confidence of ‘oh yeah, I am doing this, I can do this!’ and then carrying that in who you are as a person.”
While hiking it is easy to self-reflect on life, past experiences, and goals, Johnson was no exception to this and found herself reflecting on her passions.
“I had a lot of time to think about who I was as a person and what I valued, I thought more about what I was passionate about and how I handle relationships,” Johnson said. “I did a lot of reflection on conflict management and what was important to me and what I am doing with my life.”
This trek for Johnson wasn’t without its disappointments and hard trials, among finding food and shelter she experienced pressure from other hikers to give up and go home.
There were people who told her directly that she shouldn’t be there, because it was not safe for a woman to hike alone. In response to them she said, “the only way to make the trail safer for women is by women being on the trail.”
As a solo woman on the trail Johnson decided to ignore that pressure and out hike the rain cloud personalities on the trail, she said. She ignored their doom and gloom and prevailed.
“I was just really grateful to be out there, a bad day on trail is still better than being stuck in the office,” Johnson said.
The entire hike took her 134 days, approximately 20 miles per day. Johnson crossed 14 states going south to north and covered 2,193 miles. She listened to 50 audiobooks and saw three bears.
Through hardship and adventure, Johnson said she overall enjoyed her experience hiking the Appalachian Trail on her own and felt it wasn’t a matter of finishing but a matter of experiencing.
“Halfway through, it was not ‘if I finish the trail’, but ‘when I finish the trail,'" she said. "It was just enjoying being outside.”
If given the chance, Johnson said she would 100% hike it again.
“In a heartbeat I would do it again," she said. "I’m already planning my next one!”
PHOTO: Staff Sgt. Bridgette Johnson, 313th Airlift Squadron loadmaster at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, hikes the Appalachian National Scenic Trail, March 19 to June 30, 2021. The entire hike took her 134 days, approximately 20 miles per day. Johnson crossed 14 states going south to north and covered 2,193 miles. (Courtesy photo) (Photo Credit: Senior Airman Chris Sommers)