A late bloomer, Sandra Johnson took up power hiking a decade ago, at age 56
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Lately, there is something about birthdays for Sandra Johnson. In 1988, on her 56th birthday, significantly April Fool's Day, and only seven years after her first hike, Sandra walked 56 miles in 15-and-a-half hours to celebrate 56 years on the planet. Three years later, on her 59th birthday, Sandra set out solo on the 2,638 mile Pacific Crest Trail with a 55 pound pack.
A little over six months later, she crossed the border into Manning Provincial Park in Canada, still alone, but with a renewed outlook on life. Independence, self-reliance from months of remote travel and a commitment to simplify her life crossed that imaginary boundary as well. "If I can survive for six months with what's on my back, I don't need all those things I have at home."
In her straightforward manner, Sandra attributes some of her late start to her husband of 23 years. It seems he only liked to go car camping, not hiking. So she divorced him. That stands in contrast to her current workout regimen. Point of fact, if you were going to be hitting the trail with Sandra sometime in 1998, your sample week would look like this: 30-40 miles over varied terrain with approximately 8,000-10,000 feet of elevation gain.
Sandra's resumé reads like a U.S. through-hiking wish list. She completed the John Muir Trail (270 miles, 1990) in 23 days, the Appalachian Trail (2,144 miles, 1991) in 152 days, and the Pacific Crest Trail (2,638 miles, 1992) in 183 days. In addition to covering prolific distances on foot, Sandra is also an active contributor to her outdoor community. One major project is the first complete documentation of the Pacific Crest Trail utilizing a portable PC, global positioning system receivers, professional altimeters and distance measuring devices. Sandra also does product testing for a variety of equipment manufacturers, and regularly leads Sierra Club hikes for groups of up to 25 people.
Prior to becoming a through hiking legend, Sandra taught fashion
design at the Pasadena City College for 37 years. Her
background in the design field, combined with her extensive outdoor
experience, means she knows how things should work. She also has
found in the outdoors a freedom that is missing in her urban life. "I
love being away from civilization, which I call captivity rather than
civilization. I am in total control of my life out there. I can live
anywhere I want; I have total freedom. When I'm in the wilderness, I
make all the choices; when I'm in
civilization, I feel like I have to be beholden to all these
Sandra has a simple message for anyone in her generation who might think it's too late to get out and live large. "If I can do it, anyone can. It's never too late. I lived outside for a total of one year between the ages of 58 and 60, and I'm just a normal, everyday person." She adds, "I haven't had my own place since 1992. My tent is my house, and I can put it wherever I choose."
Sandra's requirements for role models are equally frank. "My role
models need to be older than me; I can't relate to anyone younger." One
woman who fits this bill is Hulda Crooks. Nicknamed "Grandma Whitney",
Hulda scaled Mount Whitney two dozen times between the ages of 66 and
91. Hulda set a world record at age 82 by running 1,500
meters in 10 minutes, 58 seconds. Sandra notes, "she didn't even look
very athletic." As for her own role model status, Sandra says, "I would
like to be an inspiration to other people who think they are too old to
As for any trepidation Sandra may have about being alone in the wilderness, she quickly puts it to rest. She notes that a lone woman is safer hiking in the woods than walking on the streets of Los Angeles. Animals are afraid of you, she says, and people aren't going to hike the PCT to find someone to hurt. "Your whole life is situations. It is how you deal with them and cope with them that is important."
Tim Shannon, Standard Deviation (Photos by Kaj Bune)