The Five W’s, One Gap Year, and a 2,189-Mile Decision: Me and the Appalachian Trail

What, When, and Where (The Easier W’s)

I am thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail (AT), going NOBO, beginning February 1, 2020.


Who am I? Well, that’s a philosophical question that’s difficult to answer. However, I will do my best to sum up some of the titular things that have shaped me as a person. My name is Andrea Johnson. I’m a 30-year-old military veteran, long-distance runner, and avid environmentalist. I grew up in Southern Ohio in an area known for its poverty, opioid epidemic, and farms.  During my senior year of high school, I joined the Army in order to get out of my small town and to get away from the unhealthy family situation. I served in the military for nine years, 2008-2017. I tried my hardest to excel because, in my mind, the harder I tried and the better I did, the less I was like the people and the place I was trying to escape from.

In 2012, I deployed to Afghanistan for a year. The experiences I had there led me to question the purpose and meaning of life. After I returned to the US,  I struggled with depression. Looking for answers and something else to focus on led me to begin going to school at a North Carolina community college. I fell in love with academia, specifically the philosophy courses I took. After receiving my AA, my military contract was at an end. I transferred my credits to North Carolina State University, where I finished out my philosophy degree. In my last year of university, I wrote an honors thesis, graduated second in my class, and got accepted to graduate school. Now, here I am on a gap year and preparing to hike the AT.


Now for the why. I constantly used my upbringing as a motivation for pushing myself hard. This isn’t a terrible motivator. However, it’s also not the best one either. At some point, I started using my happiness as a motivator for what kind of future I wanted. Work hard, play hard. I am currently on a gap year before going to Virginia Tech to get my master’s degree. I asked myself how I could travel and take advantage of the great outdoors during this time. The answer came pretty quickly: why not go hike in the woods for several months and put all that military training and fitness to good use. So here I am.

I am nothing short of ecstatic to begin my journey through the trails of Appalachia and share my tales of trials, tribulations, and success. Here’s to a successful, adventurous, and smile-inducing 2020.

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Comments 9

  • Todd Twiggs : Jan 5th

    Hi Andrea!

    Army retiree here; we share some common difficulties. My wife and I are seriously considering an AT hike as well. Just wondering – why February? It can be awfully cold in the mountains in February and March (and even sometimes April), so very curious as to your start decision.

    We’ll definitely keep up with your journey!

    • Andrea Johnson : Jan 6th

      Thank you for your service.

      I chose February for two main reasons – firstly, I didn’t decide to hike the AT until October 2019, and I needed a few months to save up some more money and do research; secondly, I start graduate school in August 2020 and February gives me a big enough window to finish before then.

      Also, something that came into consideration a little later was how crowded the AT was going to be. I was looking at the volunteer thru-hiker register on the ATC website and it showed that a good amount of people are going in February but in March the number increases dramatically. I want to have a hike that won’t leave me feeling alone or crowded (don’t we all, haha).

      Best wishes to you and your wife!

  • Sail Away : Jan 5th

    Have fun. I through hiked in 2006- beginning the day I separated from 6 months in the military.

    Go light above all. You’ll need a warm sleeping bag in the winter, though.

    • Andrea Johnson : Jan 6th

      Thank you for your service and advice. My gear list is currently a little over ten pounds, so not too heavy but not ultralight either. I wanted that pillow and coffee cup, haha.
      I have a 20-degree quilt and warm clothes, so that should help with the warmth factor.

  • Terry Crisler : Jan 6th

    I am a 67 year old retired security ex looking forward to trekking the AT NOBO. Very active cyclist, triathlon experience, camper, and out door activities. Always looking for new life changing adventures. Only requirement from wife is not to solo.

    Very interested in tracking your trip.


    • Andrea Johnson : Jan 6th

      I can understand your wife’s concern about going solo. The AT seems to be one of the safest long-distance trails, but life is unpredictable. I’m personally going solo, but I’m going when a group of other hikers is going. Having a trail family means we won’t be alone. 🙂

      • Gene : Jan 6th

        I too am leaving 2-1-2020 WHY
        1 no worries about bears for the first 400 miles
        2 Camp sites are not Crowded for more than 2 months
        3 No snakes or Bugs for a month or more
        I am 63 Retired as of 1-10-2020 and have planed this trip for the last 4 years .
        Look forward to sharing ideas and how to lighten my load I am at 30 Lbs with out food.

        • Andrea Johnson : Jan 6th

          I hope to see you out there on the trail!

  • Diana : Jan 11th

    Hi Andrea,

    I hope to follow your blog! My husband and I try to hike a potion of the AT in hopes of seeing a through hiker. We have met several ( they’re easy to spot as we usually catch them in their 2nd month on the trail). I love hearing their stories and always happy to give them a donation to help them along their journey. I hope you meet up with a lot of kind people along the way and look forward to hearing some of your tales.

    Best of luck to you,


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