Board Member’s Two Passions Combine

by Alex Fuller-Young on April 30, 2010

James and Eva, during a previous leg of the Pacific Crest Trail

RTL board member James M.S. Johnson and his wife Eva started backpacking in 1999,( the same year as Louise started School of Louise’s Dreams), walking away from pickup truck, camping and making day-hikes, wondering what might lie ahead over the next rise, across the next stream. They both had full time jobs back then, so such an introduction to backpacking was enjoyed for no more than an occasional week at a time, the most enjoyable time spent in the southern Appalachians and becoming familiar with the Appalachian Trail and the mystique that accompanies the storied footpath which runs through fourteen states from Georgia to Maine. A Thanksgiving hike in the northern Georgia mountains, through some sleet and snow, tested their resolve as to whether or not two middle-aged Floridians could endure, or enjoy, such elements; they made it through and then declared their intent to try to “thru-hike” the AT in 2005. They set off on April 2 and completed the distance of 2,175 miles from Georgia to Maine on October 3, 2005, accompanied by their yellow Labrador dog, Bella, who hiked every step with them, save 70 miles in the Great Smoky Park and the last five miles of Baxter State Park ascending Mt. Katahdin in Maine. It was truly a life-altering experience for all three; Bella is now 12 and realizes that she once again prefers car camping, but James and Eva, aka Muleskinner and Woodrose (their trail names) are still attempting to achieve long distance hiking goals. Of long-distance hiking, James says, “If you like it, there’s nothing like it.”

The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) runs from the Mexican border east of San Diego, to the Canadian border in British Columbia, a distance of 2,650 miles, among the crests of the highest mountains in the continental US, including the Sierra and Cascades in California, Oregon, and Washington. James and Eva set out to try a thru-hike of the PCT in ’07, but those hopes were dashed when James sustained a fracture of his left tibia and was helicoptered off the PCT after hiking 650 miles north of the Mexican border. After weeks recuperating in northern Washington, James and Eva were able to hike the last 70 miles from Rainy Pass in the northern Cascades up to and over the Canadian border, According to James, “We hiked from Mexico to Canada, but we left 1900 miles out of the middle of the hike.” In the summer of 2008, they hiked the Long Trail in Vermont from the Mass. border to the Canadian border “testing James’ leg” (Bella went along for about half of this hike aged 10, and that was when she decided she had had enough of the Green Mountains’ steep climbs and went down to Rhode Island to stay with a friend of the family.)

In January of 2008, however, James met Louise Brunberg and went to Nicaragua to help out at School of Louise’s Dreams, and his life underwent another dramatic change in perception and priority, and he spent almost three months in Nagarote helping with projects at the school; projects that he feels truly helped improve some aspects of organization, sanitation, and health for teachers and students at the school. Long-distance hiking is a shared experience for James and Eva for which there are no comparisons, “It is simply the best time that we spend together”, says James.

In 2009, the two returned to the PCT hoping to finish the 1900 + miles remaining in the rugged western mountains, but in the middle of July, they encountered snow 20 feet deep on forty-five degree angles in the central Oregon Cascades for which they were totally unprepared. They fell in the snow, and got lost in the snow. By the time that they reached Elk Lake just below Bend, Oregon, Woodrose had had it with the white stuff and announced that she would cross no more of it. It was a painful moment realizing that if they took any time off they could not finish the Trail, but they realized that they had to stay together and fortunately remembered that they had a friend from Florida who had a house on the Pacific coast of Oregon who invited them to come and pitch their tent on a bluff above the Pacific for two weeks whilst the snow melted down in the Cascades. they made it about 1100 miles up into the northern Cascades in Washington, including through an incredible encounter with a forest fire in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness before being turned back by the threats of more snow in the Glacier Peak Wilderness above Skykomish. They returned to California and hiked 220 miles more from Donner Pass to Old Station and completed 1341 miles for 2009, leaving about 600 more miles to finish the distance.

James has since become a Board Member of School of Louise’s Dreams, and feels that he should be heading back down to Nagarote with Louise and Marie when they go back down in June, but the call of the wild and the desire to finish what he and Eva have been hoping to accomplish since 2007 is a passion as well, one that becomes more difficult to accomplish with each passing year. “I call it marching with Arthur (Ritis), I have arthritis in both knees, my right hip and left shoulder, I try to ignore it and we try to “proceed on” like Lewis and Clark, but to paraphrase Kris Kristofferson, my heart keeps tellin’ me, you’re not a kid at 63.”

James and Eva want to dedicate these last 600 highest and hardest (and most spectacular) miles of the Pacific Crest Trail to School of Louise’s Dreams, with the hopes that others will match their miles with donations for our students’ education. In return, supporters will receive not only the knowledge that they’ve supported our great little school and our students in Nagarote, but also periodic updates of progress at the school, and possibly even reports of bears and mountain lions!

Although James will be supporting the students from afar, every time he encounters Spanish speakers along the trail, James will be sure to sing them Nicaraguan songs and tell them of the wonderful school he is supporting, planning to return to Nagarote in the fall to continue our good work at School of Louise’s Dreams.

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