The idea for the trip began last year when the family was doing day hiking at Natural Bridge State Resort Park. On a back trail, they came across the symbol of a turtle on a white diamond — the insignia of Sheltowee Trace.
“I started looking at backpacking equipment online and wanted to go ahead and buy it, so I¿bought it,” Johnny said. “My original thought was to hike it over a span of a couple years, and then with (Johnathan’s) wanting to join me, I¿just said we’ll do it this summer.”
The duo took the journey in 30-mile segments over periods of one to three days, starting the trail at Pickett State Park in Tennessee during spring break in April. Johnny said his son had a tough time at first.
“After the first outing that we went, he had such a hard time on it, I¿didn’t think he would ever come back with me; I thought I’d be doing the rest of it by myself,” Johnny said. “But he came willingly — it was up to him whether he wanted to come or not every time I¿went out.”
Once summer came and school ended for Johnathan at Wilmore Elementary, weekdays were freed up for trips. Johnny’s wife, Nicholasville Elementary teacher Jodi, was free to take care of the couple’s 1-year-old son, Jason, after dropping Johnny and Johnathan off along the trail. They would usually start on a Sunday or Monday and have Jodi pick them up on a Tuesday or Wednesday, keeping Johnny home for his restaurant work on weekends.
The pair went out eight times, staying out for two or three nights until they got used to the trail and did some overnight trips late in the summer.
“In the beginning, we weren’t as conditioned as we were at the end, so our time out would be like 8 miles in a day, and toward the end, we were doing 12 to 15; there was even one stretch we did 20 in one day,” Johnny said.
The trail crosses the state line into Kentucky and passes Cumberland Falls and Laurel Lake before crossing Interstate 75 — on a bridge — north of London. It goes through Natural Bridge State Resort Park and then past Cave Run Lake near Morehead before ending north of Interstate 64.
The hikers navigated with a manual from the Sheltowee Trace Association as well as a GPS and a hard-copy map “just in case,” Johnny said. They had a cell phone that had service about a third of the time; they usually kept the phone off until the last day in case they needed to change pick-up plans with Jodi.
Johnathan and his father settled into a routine, eating a dehydrated stew for most every meal and sleeping in a small two-person tent at night.
“We’d usually get up about 5 or 6 in the morning, eat breakfast and start walking by about 8 and usually hiked till about 4 or 5, pitch camp and then sit around the campfire — before the fire ban,” Johnny said. “Then it was just sitting around in darkness until we went to sleep.”
The Cartys encountered other complications along the way, including triple-digit heat, a drought and even some tornado warnings and some strong storms near the end at Cave Run Lake.
“We went through two storms that day,” Johnathan said. “One storm we had to hide in a little rock shelter, and the second storm, we didn’t have any rock shelter so we just had to hike right through it; we got soaked.”
Johnathan said the hardest part for him was not the inclines or the terrain but open fields with tall grass.
“With his size, a lot of the weeds were above his head; he couldn’t see anything,” Johnny said. “He took a few spills; we did a lot of climbing — ups and downs, ups and downs.”
There were plenty of animals to see along the way, from copperhead snakes, turtles and a bobcat all the way down to salamanders, centipedes and spiders.
Johnny said he bonded a lot with his oldest son during the trips; the pair only passed two or three other hikers on the entire trail.
“It was just us and the wildlife,” Johnny said. “It was fun watching him grow from the beginning when he had his pack on — his pack weighed about 10 to 15 pounds in the beginning, and it was 5 miles and he would break down and start saying, ‘I¿can’t do this; I can’t do this,’ and toward the end, he was carrying almost 20 pounds and doing 15 miles, so it was great watching his progress that way.”
The pair will turn their journals in to the trace association to prove they completed the trail; Johnny said he spoke with an association director and found out Johnathan may be the youngest to ever complete the whole trail.
The father and son have plans to keep hiking over the summers, with a trip to Alaska next summer and the possibility of doing the entire Sheltowee in one three-week span the year after that. Johnathan had been no stranger to camping before this summer’s treks but admitted it was a new experience.
“The 280 miles was different,” he said.