A Walk in the Woods

Features - Interview

Brad Johnson left his company for five months to hike the Appalachian Trail. Along the way he learned a lot about himself and his business.

March 11, 2011
Chuck Bowen

On a hot summer day in 2009, Brad Johnson opened a form letter from TruGreen. They were interested in talking to him about buying his company, Lawn America, in Tulsa, Okla. Johnson had done that once before, and wasn’t interested in doing it again, so he tossed the letter in the trash.

But it got him thinking. What would he do if he sold his business and walked away with a pile of money?

The answer came pretty fast: Hike the Appalachian Trail.

The AT starts in Georgia and snakes 2,100 miles up the East Coast through 14 states until it reaches Mount Kathadin in Maine. Along the way, it crosses some of the harshest terrain the woods can throw at a hiker. Fully one-quarter of folks who start at the southern terminus quit before they even make it out of Georgia. A thousand miles later (and halfway through) another half of them have bagged it. Only 20 percent of the thousands who undertake the trek finish.

“I hate sitting at my desk all day. I always have,” Johnson says. As a kid, he’d spent countless summers hiking in the Rockies, and continued backpacking with his wife and children.

During his trip, Johnson averaged 16 miles a day with a 30-pound pack for four months. Oh, and he raised $105,000 for five local charities.

“I’m no spring chicken. I’m 56 years of age. That’s why I wanted to do it before I retired and couldn’t do it physically. Or be dead,” he says. “We’re not guaranteed anything.”
The hike was a very physical – and emotional – undertaking. In the first month, Johnson lost 30 pounds and struggled to keep weight on. He had to get a cortisone injection in his arthritic hip. He got dehydrated, suffered from heat exhaustion and was bitten by a mysterious spider. His toenails fell off and got infected. When his wife came to visit him on the trail in New Hampshire, he hopped in the rental car and promptly wrecked it. His mother died.

But through it all, his business grew 20 percent and had its most profitable year ever. “I don’t know if we grew in spite of me or because of me,” Johnson jokes. Lawn & Landscape caught up with him to talk about learning to delegate, following your passion and the importance of good boots.

What was it about that buy-out letter that got you thinking about the AT?
I’d been there and done that. I sold my first business to (TruGreen) in 1993, so I didn’t have much interest in doing so.

But I read the letter, and it caused me to just think, for a second, what would I do if I did sell out again and had the financial wherewithal to do whatever I wanted to do within reason, and I was able to leave the responsibilities of my business?

If I could sell out again and walk away with a pocket full of cash, immediately the thought came to mind: Hike the AT. I used to backpack when I was a kid. Every year we’d go at least once or twice to the Rockies backpacking. It’s been a passion of mine from when I was a child.

I dismissed it after thinking about it for a few minutes. But the spark was lit. I Googled “AT,” and got to reading about it.

I started reading and reading and it really started to well up inside me. “Maybe I could pull this off.”

The thought came to me, “It can’t just be about me. That would be selfish.” It kind of came together I would do this walk across America for charity, they would benefit and I would be challenged and have a ball. And it became a God-inspired passion. It went from maybe I could do this to maybe I can do it, because I had some questions whether I could take off for four months, whether I could physically do it. It got to the point then that I got to do it.

Was the decision to do it difficult?
I really struggled with that decision. I struggled with, “Can I leave my business for four months? Would it be selfish of me to do something like this and leave my business, leave my family?” For me, personally, it may have been selfish to do that and not do it in conjunction with a charity. I’m a big advocate of win-wins, or even triple wins, to benefit other people.

There were times when it would have been easy for me to quit – I think most people would have quit – but I had too much at stake.

Too many people knew about it. And I would have failed – I would have let down a lot of people – if I’d bounced off the trail or not gone back to the trail one of those many times I had to go back for a family emergency.

How did you prepare your employees for your absence?
I’ve been in the business 25 years. In a way, it took 25 years of experience to even get to the point where I could do that. This is the 12th year for Lawn America. Two or three years ago, even here, I couldn’t have done this. The business wasn’t ready, my leadership wasn’t ready. The business wasn’t mature enough. We were good, but not where we needed to be where I could leave for four months.

It turned out where I was gone five months instead of four months. But we’ve developed good procedures, we’ve hired good people. We’re very goal-oriented, and their salary is tied into reaching those goals, so they’re very motivated. We got to the point where I don’t need to be that hands on in the day-to-day activities and I can focus on other stuff. I’ve learned to delegate. That’s been a 25-year process to really learn how to let go; to find people and train them and trust them. I really had to trust them.

I’m just like every other business owner – this is the biggest asset on my balance sheet by far, and I trusted these people to handle that while I was away. That speaks volumes to them.

And this isn’t like a two-week vacation, where you’d be reachable all the time. You’re in literally the middle of nowhere.
There were times I couldn’t be reached. I called in or they called me maybe once a week, that was it. That was one of the things that could have gone wrong.

Only 20 percent of those who set out to hike the Appalachian Trail finish, thanks in part to the fact that the trail goes up – not around – almost every mountain peak.How many times did you leave the trail?

I had to come back four times. I had a whole list of things that could go wrong. I lost my mom. I lost my mother-in-law while I was on the trail. I had to come back for funerals.

I decided to flip-flop the hike. I could see that schedule of going 18 miles a day I was going to kill myself and or not enjoy it, so I decided to slow it down just a little bit. So I came back for that. I had twin granddaughters born. Their dad was in Afghanistan fighting a war, so I spent two and a half weeks at home, and I took our youngest son to college. When my son came back from Afghanistan, I was off the trail five days then.

The whole trip had been backed up so much – I had planned our 30-year anniversary trip to be in mid-November. I thought there’d be no way I’d still be hiking. I’d be done. Well, I wasn’t done. So, when I got to Harper’s Ferry, I had to go home …  I got to come home. (laughs) I was ready to come home and go to the Cayman Islands and had Thanksgiving.

That made it really tougher, physically, because you lose some of your trail legs when you’re off for two or three weeks. Mentally it’s tough going back to the real world, back to the trail, back to the real world. They’re two totally different worlds.

When I went to the airport, I couldn’t sit. I had to walk. Going into the bathroom having it flush for you, compared to the privies I was in. You get hungry, you don’t have to dig through your pack for a granola bar, you just go order a cheeseburger or whatever.

It’s such a contrast between the world in the woods and the Appalachian Trail and our modern world.

What did you take away from your experience hiking the AT?
One reason that I succeeded and others fail in some cases is that they don’t prepare a plan. I knew what I was getting into beforehand. But like anything else, until you really do it, you really don’t fully understand it. So once my boots hit the ground and I started walking and spent some time on the trail, I really began to figure it out a bit more. But I knew what I was getting into, because I had prepared. Just like in the business world, if you don’t prepare yourself, you’re probably going to fail.

My plan was too detailed – I had it detailed every day. I was going to do it in four months. May 28 was start date, and was going to end on Oct. 1. I had it planned where I knew where I was going to stop for resupply, how many miles I was going to go each day. And that was good, and through the first month, I was pretty much on that plan, except for a day I had to take off for infected toes. That was day four.

But I began to see I had to improvise and modify the plan, and that’s the way it is in the business world. We can plan, but we don’t need to plan so detailed; we need to have a big picture plan. It got to be the last month or two, I did a lot more adjustments day to day, and shot from the hip a bit more. You have to. There are so many weather factors, you don’t know the trail condition. You know the length and the cities it goes by, but you don’t know the trail condition. And that played a big part in how far I could go, because some sections – not many – were smooth, well-graded, not real steep and other sections were unbelievably steep and difficult. You don’t see that in a guidebook or on a map.

What did you bring from your experience as a business owner to the AT?

If you’re in lawn care for 25 years, you’re probably pretty tough mentally, and pretty persistent and determined. That’s where I had the advantage over the younger hikers. These hikers are half my age and physically stronger, but I had the advantage mentally. I’ve been through tough times with the business and family situations and just with life. And I had a cause, too. I was determined to make it. That’s who I am – some of my strengths are persistence and determination.

So would you do it again?
Absolutely. I would do it again. I the heat of battle when it was so difficult and it was everything I could do just to get through a day and then wake up and hike the next day, and it was hot and I was hungry and I was lonely. 

That was the hardest part, the loneliness and being away from your family and your friends and your business. There were days I didn’t see anybody on the trail.

I met a few people who had hiked it more than once. One guy had hiked it eight times. I thought, ‘Why would you do this more than once?’ But when you finish, you get it. I’d do it again. Not next year, because my wife wouldn’t let me. (laughs)

Any final thoughts for our readers?
I see a lot of people just cruising toward retirement. Go for it – recreate those childhood passions and help others at the same time. Just do it. L&L

The author is editor and associate publisher of Lawn & Landscape. What’s your AT look like? Send him an e-mail at cbowen@gie.net.