Tecumseh High School grad hikes his way into 900-mile club on Smoky Mountain trails
Tecumseh High School grad John Northrup felt right in his element while hiking the trails in the Great Smoky Mountains over the past three years. In March of 2010, he accepted a position at the remote and rustic LeConte Lodge, located near the top of 6,593 foot Mt. LeConte in the Gatlinburg, Tennessee area, which is only accessible by mountain trail. Guests and staff alike hike to the lodge, which is open nine months of the year, and often involves hiking in snowdrifts.
The Northrup family, including John’s parents, Pat and Dick, along with some other Tecumseh families, have been visiting the area for more than 30 years and John had fond childhood memories of the area vacationing with them and brothers, Joe and Bart, who are now Tecumseh teachers. When he was studying history and music at the University of Michigan, he was dreaming of getting back to the mountains. Upon graduation in 2009, he applied for the lodge position he found online and was accepted from among hundreds of applicants.
While there, another dream began to take shape. John heard about the 900-mile Club, an elite group comprised of individuals who have hiked all of the maintained trails that appear on a map of the Great Smokies National Park. He’s also taken treks on more remote trails as well.
“For some people it takes a lifetime for them to accomplish this, and some do it during their retirement years, so it’s kind of rare for somebody as young as I am to do it, but whenever I had some time off, I’d go out and hike one of the trails,” said John. In 2010, his parents came down to provide transport between trails so he could hike all six trails leading up to LeConte in under 24 hours after hearing that someone else had done this. John hiked the 50 miles of trails on that occasion with an overall time of 16:48.
To become a member of the 900-mile Club was an ambitious goal, but he achieved it on May 11, 2012. Overall, he’s hiked more than 3,000 miles on the trails, 2,800 miles of them in the same Vasquez boots, which recently have worn out. John received a special certificate for the achievement, but said it’s largely the personal satisfaction of accomplishment. He has no problem heading out into the wilderness with just a pack and sometimes a lamp strapped to his head and said it’s an experience he truly enjoys.
“There is a solitude aspect to it,” he said. “It’s nice to be away from the crowds and busy traffic and there’s lots of peace and quiet up there. I really enjoy the wildlife and being out in nature. At LeConte, there’s no electricity or TV, but you can take in some of the most amazing sunrises and sunsets and view the whole Tennessee Valley.” John also has taken hundreds of photographs and some may be viewed on the Internet by putting “Smokies Stories And Glories” in the search engine.
John also got more than he bargained for through his spirit of adventure in the Smokies. He met the woman who later became his wife while there. One day shortly after taking the job in 2010, he volunteered to go down the trail with a shovel and pick-axe to tackle some huge snowdrifts after a storm.
“There was an eight-foot drift blocking the trail and guests wouldn’t have been able to make it up,” he said. “I was working on that when Bonnie came around the corner. It was like I’d been struck by lightning. I knew she was someone special.” From Marietta, Georgia, Bonnie was headed up to the lodge for a job interview. She joined the staff that May, and the couple married on June 16 of this year.
“This wasn’t what I’d planned, but I found my life partner there and we had so much in common, especially a love for the mountains,” John said.
The couple was visiting John’s family in Tecumseh over the Christmas holiday. John was also hopeful about an interview he had scheduled with the National Park Service to become one of the rangers that work in a backcountry office in the Smokies. He believes his degree in history would come in handy in that capacity as well.
“There’s a lot of history in those mountains and about the people who used to live there before it was a national park,” he said. Bonnie holds a degree in early childhood education and likes tutoring and working in small classrooms, and the couple would like to remain in the mountain area they have both come to love, though they do not plan to return to employment at the lodge next season.
“We decided that after three years it was time to move on,” John said. “But I’m never going to stop loving the Smokies. We’ll still go back and hike the trails and one of the great things about the Smokies is that they are surrounded by other national forests. We can branch out and visit other parks and not just in the Appalachians. We may go out to the Rockies, too. But we’ll certainly always consider the Smokies our home.”