Happy Trails

Does hiking and sleeping under the stars sound like a perfect vacation? For guidebook writer Johnny Molloy, it’s just another day at the office.

Johnny Molloy is up against a rash of deadlines. Daylight is fading. The temperature is dropping. The scheduled release of his book — Day and Overnight Hikes in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (Menasha Ridge Press, 2004) — is approaching. Four miles stand between him and his campsite. Racing across a sandstone ridge deep inside Great Smoky Mountains National Park with a 40-pound pack strapped to his back, Molloy notes imperfections like a food inspector traipsing through a restaurant: tree branches protruding into the trail, poorly signed trail junctures, campsites partially overgrown with vegetation. As the trail takes a dip, Molloy ducks into a dense, wet labyrinth of rhododendron, yelling over his shoulder, “Locals used to called these ‘hells.’ ” Rock-hopping across a feeder stream, he notes casually that the Smoky Mountains have the densest population of black bears in North America. Molloy has no tent, no water, and he’s well out of cell-phone range. For the next 24 hours, he’s on his own.


“People are amazed he does this for a living,” one of his editors says.

But then, Johnny Molloy is always on his own. One of the most prolific outdoor guidebook writers in the business, Molloy, 43 (a boyish smile hides his age), has spent an average of 100 nights in the woods per year for the past 15 years. He has written more than 22 books. He has backpacked in 41 states. And for the past year and a half, he has lived out of his car. For some, Molloy is the stuff of water-cooler daydreams. He’s the guy who has made his passion pay. Molloy waves and smiles at park rangers as other business travelers greet doormen at office buildings. He drinks from spring-fed creeks as others do from water fountains at the airport. He fills out expense reports showing line items for things such as granola, fleece, and canoe paddles. He leads a life without suits and ties, without bosses, without walls. “People are amazed he does this for a living,” says Russell Helms, one of his book editors. But here’s the thing: Johnny Molloy — the happy-go-lucky guidebook writer — is a lot more business-minded than you might think.

Molloy’s schedule is on par with that of the most harried VP of marketing. He juggles a handful of projects at any given time, researching, writing, updating, and promoting — while crisscrossing the country on hunts for best-of-breed adventures. He emerges from the woods to do book signings, lectures, TV and radio interviews; then he heads back to the bush. For example, a week before entering the Smokies, he was in West Virginia on a 12-day backcountry trip inside one of the largest wilderness areas in the east for a book revision. Two weeks earlier, he was in the Dakotas in the Black Hills National Forest on field research. After the Smokies, he’ll be hiking along Kentucky’s Sheltowee Trace promoting a book. Meanwhile, when he can get a cell-phone signal, he’s talking to editors all around the country trying to sell them new ideas. He’s in discussions with folks in Seattle about a guidebook that spotlights loop hikes; editors in Birmingham, Alabama, about a guidebook on tent camping; and editors in Florida about a guidebook for RVs.

Molloy is a thorough pro. He has never missed a deadline, and missing a deadline is about the worst thing that could happen to a guidebook. You miss the buying cycle. Distributors lose faith in the title. Momentum is lost. Molloy is keenly aware that fall, when temperatures start to drop, is a good time to release a book about Florida, and that early spring is when you’d want a book about the Appalachians to ship. “Every outdoor publisher has its most reliable guy. He’s ours,” says Helms, at Birmingham-based Menasha Ridge Press. “He’s ‘Johnny on the spot.’ ”

In more ways than one, in fact. As soon as he’s finished hiking, he’ll write up his observations on-site, emailing them to his publisher soon after. That way, he captures the immediacy of the hike and improves his accuracy. “People are banking their free time on me, and I take that very seriously,” he says. “You’re only as good as you are accurate.”

Molloy’s tools include a tape recorder, a GPS receiver, a digital camera, and a laptop. He tapes observations as he hikes. The GPS gives him data to build trail maps, create gradient charts, and provide trail statistics. Pictures go in his books and on his Web site. When he returns to his car, he downloads the data from his GPS receiver, listens to his tape recorder, pulls out field guides and pamphlets, and writes his review. He checks his email with a cellular hookup.

Molloy didn’t grow up camping. It took his college roommate almost a year to persuade him to go, and when he did, “it was a nightmare.” It rained. They got lost. Molloy got hurt. But he was hooked. He became a backpacking bartender — until someone suggested he write a book. A few years later, he quit his night job and focused on outdoor writing (he was and remains single). His mantra: “Do what you love, and the rest will follow.” Making a living as a full-time outdoor writer isn’t easy, though. Advances aren’t large; press runs aren’t astronomical. Molloy makes just $27,000 a year and is always waiting for the next check.


But Molloy’s name brand in the guidebook business makes him attractive to corporations seeking to reach 73 million U.S. hikers. He has licensed his name to Chase Bank, whose cardholders emailed him asking advice on where to hike. He has teamed with Jeep, leading hikes into the wilderness during annual events. He has negotiated sponsorships with Old Town (canoes), CampTrails (backpacks), Silva (compasses), and Eureka (tents).

On the way to the campground, Molloy offers up a preview of what his review of this low-light, fast-paced hike through the Smokies might include. He mentions that it’s good for families because it’s a loop, weather systems aren’t a threat, and bears have rarely been spotted in this area. “The only surprises you’ll have should be pleasant,” he vows. Reaching the campsite moments before sundown, Molloy gathers a few armfuls of moist wood and has a fire going almost instantly. As he grabs his cigar — his reward at the end of a long hike — he explains that this’ll be the last book he does while living out of his car: He’s moving into a new house. But he’s not giving up the lifestyle. He’s already expecting to be gone six months of this year, maybe more. He couldn’t imagine doing anything else. “The perks are too good, and the opportunities for adventure are limitless,” he says. “I have the best job on the planet.” nFC

Christopher Percy Collier is a freelance travel writer based in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.