On May 5, as his semester of study in Costa Rica came to an end, Nick Johnson put a video on Facebook explaining to friends what he was going to do, starting the next day.
Over the next couple of months, he told them, he would do “off the grid” and slowly make his way home to Jacksonville, traveling only by land.
He explained: “Every day we have a choice. We have a choice to find good in this world and we have a choice to be afraid of it. This world is not a scary place. God has written a beautiful book — and what a shame it would be to only read the first page.”
He did not, however, explain that he would be limiting himself to $20 a day as he traveled, eating mostly tuna fish out of a can.
Or that he would be taking local buses and hitchhiking, sleeping in a tent or in the houses of people he met along the way.
He was looking for an adventure and, being a religious guy raised in parochial schools, he had another goal: “I had a burning desire to find good in the world, especially in places that people are afraid of.”
Back home in Arlington, his parents, Tim and Donna Johnson, fretted.
“I didn’t sleep well,” his mother said. “Not at all. It was a very trying time.”
Johnson sympathized, and tried to send a quick text home any time he got service. But he didn’t change his plans.
He is 21, a Bishop Kenny grad who went to Heidelberg University in small-town Ohio to play football. He quit the sport after two concussions.
But that was a blessing, he said, one that gave him the freedom to explore worlds beyond football.
He studied a semester in Rome, then spent the first four months of this year at a university in San Jose, Costa Rica.
He had bought a one-way ticket there, figuring he’d figure out how to get home later. By May, his Spanish was good and he had time on his hands.
So he hatched his plan.
He wanted to average five hours of travel a day, leaving him time for sight-seeing and meeting people.
On May 6, he left San Jose.
After a rough start, very little bad happened after that.
On day two, he scratched up a rented motorcycle in Nicaragua. The owner was not happy, and threatened to call police. After some negotiation, a suitable price to avoid that was found.
On day three, in the historic Nicaraguan city of Grenada, he made a wrong turn on a bicycle into a bad neighborhood. Two teenage boys, at knife-point, relieved him of that bike.
That was the worst of his interactions, by far. Everywhere else, he met only kindness — exemplified best, he says, by the poor family in Belize who took him in when he fell painfully ill, nursing him to health in their house made of scrap wood.
“There’s good everywhere in the world,” Johnson said.
He slept many nights in his tent: in the woods, on the beach, in front yards, on roofs. He lost 20 pounds eating mostly tuna fish out of the can, then 10 more when he got sick.
Strangers took him in, and so did many friends-of-friends: Some from home, some from college, some from people he’d met along the way.
Hitchhiking in Central America was easy. Within minutes, he’d have a ride, usually in the open back of a track.
Hitchhiking in America was tougher, with hours-long waits. Cars would even swerve away from him at highway on-ramps.
He laughs: He could understand why. By then, he had a big beard and numerous holes and stains in the four T-shirts he’d packed for the trip.
Counting an earlier bus trip he took to Panama, he figures he traveled some 5,000 miles on the cheap, covering eight countries: Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico and the U.S.
Johnson said one his missions was to understand, as best he could, what drove poor people to risk everything to make it to America.
He’s a conservative Catholic, and he felt comfortable, he says, in the conservative Catholic societies he found in Central America.
“What do you hear, if you’re on this side of the border?” he said. “You don’t hear anything good.”
So he spoke with a man who’d been in the desert for two weeks, a woman who has smuggled in boxcars, a family who had walked every step of the way from Guatemala to Pueblo, Mexico.
In contrast, Johnson knew that he was privileged, lucky. And with a passport and a credit card, he knew he always had a way out.
If he really needed to, he could soon be on an airplane home, far above the muddy roads and slow buses.
He had a deadline: He made a promise to his parents to be home in Jacksonville for a welcome home party. They had scheduled it for 2 p.m. July 2, and insisted he be there.
He didn’t quite make it on time, even with the help of a car ride from a friend, all the way from Mobile, Ala.
They got to Jacksonville that day and headed right to Friendship Fountain on the Southbank Riverwalk. Then they went to EverBank Field, jumped on top of the prowling Jaguar statue (how could he resist?) and made it to his parents’ house at 2:30, “fashionably late.”
The adjustment to the U.S., he says, has been hard at times.
He’s changed, but the place he came back to hasn’t. People are still watching the same TV shows, doing the same things.
He has one more semester of college in Ohio that’s he’s already feeling restless about. There’s lots of corn near the campus, and not much else.
Johnson said he feels wants to be “a nomad” for a while — traveling until money runs out, working a bit, then getting on the road again.
His mother isn’t thrilled by the idea, and hopes that’s a phase he’ll grow out of. But she recognizes something in her son: “That’s him. I don’t think we can stop him now.”
Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082
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