In the Footsteps of Celebrated Hiker and Author Johnny Molloy
Over the last 14 years, Tennessee native Johnny Molloy has published 36 books about hiking, backpacking, and paddling throughout the Southern Appalachians and beyond. BRO talked with Molloy (who averages 150 nights a year in a tent) about getting lost for a living and why the Southern Apps are better than the Rockies.
How did you get into guidebook writing?
A friend took me backpacking in the Smokies when I was at school in Knoxville, and that was it for me. I graduated from UT and became a backpacking bum. I’d backpack the Smokies all week and then bartend on weekends. Eventually, I had 400 nights backpacking in the Smokies and a friend said I should write a book about it. So I sat down with a yellow pad and wrote a book about my adventures in the Smokies.
Which of your 36 books is your favorite?
Probably The Paddler’s Guide to the Everglades. When I started paddling around down there, I couldn’t believe there wasn’t already a book on the subject. It’s really a wide open place—just mangrove, sea, and sky. And it’s tidally influenced, so navigation is tough because everything looks different depending on what time of day it is. I analyzed the guide to death, because accuracy was so important.
You’ve traveled all over the Southeast. Do you have a favorite location?
I can’t get enough of the Smokies. There’s a reason why they made that a national park. The biodiversity is unmatched. I have over 650 nights logged in that park. That’s two years of my life. I have some favorite fishing spots too, but I won’t tell you about those.
With so much time spent in the Southern Appalachians, are you ever surprised by what you see any more?
All the time. I’m working on a 50 Hikes in Alabama book. Most people don’t realize that there’s a hell of a lot of national forest land in Alabama. The Sipsee Wilderness is known as the land of a thousand waterfalls. There’s nothing like it. But I’ve learned over the years that no place is the best. Here ain’t there and there ain’t here. Everywhere is beautiful.
A lot of adventurers who grew up in the Southeast eventually migrate out West. Why did you decide to stay close to home?
I’ve traveled a lot out West, but I like it more down this way. There’s more water, and more biodiversity than the West ever thought about. The West has more of an outdoor culture, but imagine if this country was settled from the other direction—from the West to the East. We’d have some really wild places in our backyards.
So if you backpack and paddle for work, what do you do for vacation?
Backpack and paddle. I just got done with a 300-mile rafting trip through the Grand Canyon. The guy who set up the trip had me down as a boatman, which meant I was in charge of one of the oars. But I had never steered an oar from a raft before. It’s a tank of a raft, but those are the scariest rapids I’ve ever seen. The first rapid we came to, we got stuck on a rock. But in 300 miles, I learned how to do it. Nobody flipped out of the boat.
Is being a guidebook writer as much fun as it sounds?
Ninety percent of the time, I’m walking down the trail on a beautiful day, admiring the wild flowers and I think, I can’t believe they pay me to do this. The other 10 percent of the time it’s raining or I’m lost or I’m driving on some dirt road looking for a trailhead. I go out there, I get lost, I go on bum hikes that don’t make it into the books so my readers don’t have to. So you can go out and have a good time and know exactly where to go. It’s a great job if you don’t mind being broke, dirty, lost, and tired.
Molloy has three new books about to be released: Paddling Georgia, Hiking Mississippi, and the Best Easy Day Hikes of Tampa Bay.