This time last year, Todd Johnson was sitting in his office at a financial services company in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Despite a six-figure salary, he wasn’t happy.
Having retired as a highly decorated Army officer, Johnson parlayed a master’s degree and his military experience to snare the executive position. He had hoped to finally settle in with his wife, Amy, and two children, Emma and Audrey, after 22 years of traveling to 40 countries around the globe with the military. From Asia to the Middle East to Europe and Alaska and Hawaii, Johnson served everywhere from in the field to the Pentagon. He earned several awards, including the Legion of Merit award and two Bronze Stars before retiring as a Lt. Col.
But something was missing from his short career in private industry.
“I came home from work one day and told Amy, ‘I just can’t do this anymore,’” Johnson recalled. “Then I saw the opening at the park.”
Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, near Lovell, was looking for a park ranger. The hidden gem — often overlooked as visitors flock to Yellowstone National Park a couple hours west of the canyon — not only offered 120,000 acres of adventure in a breathtaking natural environment but also 10,000 years of human history.
Johnson was no stranger to the National Park Service. At every opportunity, the Johnson family spent time at national park properties. He had used leave to visit more than 120 parks, monuments and historical sites. Not only was Johnson into exploring the natural world, he also has degrees in history and politics in government, leading him to numerous historical properties.
He applied online for the position with fingers crossed. Soon he was being interviewed by Christy Fleming, chief of interpretation at the National Park Service property. Fleming was impressed with his background in the service.
“His military background helps him with organization and when there’s a problem, it helps him better direct through them,” she said.
But what sealed the deal was Johnson’s enthusiasm.
“He’s a take-charge kind of person,” Fleming said. “He’s creative and energetic and takes initiative to get things done.”
Once again, Johnson was packing his gear and leaving his family. After accepting the job, he and Amy made the difficult decision to again — like the many times he was deployed overseas — spend time apart. Not wanting to pull the kids from school mid-year, Johnson struck out for Wyoming alone.
It didn’t take long for Johnson to fall in love with the job.
“When I first arrived, I was told to go out and explore. I found myself in awe,” he said.
Soon he was sharing his adventures with the family through photographs, nightly calls and sessions on Skype. They were used to the long periods of time apart and decided to treat Johnson’s absence as just another deployment. But as the girls, 12 and 9, grow up, it’s not easy on the family.
“It’s tougher for our kids from the last time he deployed,” Amy said. “They’re older now and notice his absence more.”
But she knows this is for the best.
“Part of what helps us deal with the separation is his passion for the park,” Amy said. “I love hearing the excitement in his voice.”
Johnson has used that voice to help bring visitors to the park. He has taken on the task of promoting the park through social media. Not only does he write posts for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, he also uses his skills in photography to draw people to posts. One of Johnson’s photographs of a bobcat in the canyon was seen by more than 200,000 people — just shy of the roughly 265,000 people who visit the park in a year.
While Johnson’s wife and children have never been to the park, they get to see the vast canyon and lake and learn the history previewing his every post.
“It’s what you dream about,” Amy said. “One benefit of the sacrifice was to allow him to do what he needed to do to totally immerse himself in the job.”
The Powell resident also shares his love for the park and what he has learned through his studies in person with as many people as he can round up. He leads weekly hikes and has presented a series of lectures on the park’s history at Northwest College, often to packed audiences.
On Friday, Johnson was leading a group in a kayak trip on the lake. After an equipment check and lecture on safety, the small group set out into the canyon. After fighting strong winds, the group found themselves in a calm inlet sheltered from the wind. It was apparent Johnson was in his element by his broad smile.
Then, as he decided to try a new kayak, Johnson took a misstep from the rocky shore and plunged into the lake. He came up for air, climbed back on shore and without hesitation immediately tried again. This time, he was successful.
“That’s the Todd Johnson I know and love. If he’s going to do something he’s going all in,” Amy said with a giggle.
On Sunday, he was back at the canyon leading a hike and roaming the park, looking for visitors in need of information to make their day successful. The 46-year-old is starting at the bottom — a place in his career he’s unaccustomed to being. His family has absorbed the pay cut and, while he’s unsure what the future holds for him, he’s not looking back.
“If money was a driving factor, I’d still be on the East Coast,” he said.
Johnson is having a blast. And he feels he’s continuing his life goal of contributing to society. His new position in some ways mirrors his service in the Army: you don’t do it for the money and you learn to deal with the sacrifices living a life on the road — especially as a husband and father — in service.
“As long as I can come to work, have fun and contribute to something that’s bigger than myself, I’m happy,” Johnson said. “In the National Park Service, we’re preserving something intended for each and every one of us. I’ve realized as an individual you can make a huge difference in people’s lives. You don’t have to be John Muir or Teddy Roosevelt to make a difference. You just have to be there to help. There’s nowhere in the world I’d rather be.”
The Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area has a diverse mix of programs planned for this month at both ends of the park.
The following programs can be enjoyed on the South District of the park near Lovell.
Night sky programs: Bighorn Canyon has great starry nights. Join Michelle Stewart and Ranger Brian Markey in a search for Jupiter and Saturn. Participants should bring their telescopes or binoculars. Stargazing will begin at 9 p.m. Friday at the Horseshoe Bend amphitheater. Join Stewart and Markey for a second chance to find Jupiter and Saturn on July 13.
Campground programs: Singing around the campfire is a beloved tradition. John Allred will be accompanied by Ranger Amanda Allred and friends for a night of campfire songs. The concert will begin at 7 p.m. Saturday at the amphitheater.
History: Ranger Amanda Allred will answer questions about history and offer roping demonstrations at the Horseshoe Bend amphitheater at 7 p.m. on July 14.
Cultural programs: Volunteer Johnny Tim Yellowtail and his drum and dance group will share a live performance of the historic Crow Sage Chicken dance on July 19. Yellowtail will talk about the history and culture behind the performance at the Bighorn Canyon Lovell Visitor Center at 7 p.m.
Bears: Bighorn Canyon has several black bears in the park. Markey will share some tips for bear safety and stories of bear encounters at 7 p.m. on July 20 at the Horseshoe Bend amphitheater.
Bird day: Saturday, July 21 is Bird Day at Bighorn Canyon. Representatives from Audubon Society and Buffalo Bill Center of the West Draper Museum’s Raptor Experience will be on hand. Presentations will begin around 10 a.m.
Powell history: What are the connections between John Wesley Powell, the town of Powell and the area in general? Ranger Todd Johnson will share those connections at the Horseshoe Bend amphitheater at 7 p.m. on July 26.
Jim Bridger: Mountain Man Jim Bridger was a storyteller. His stories brought people west.Markey will be sharing stories about the man himself as well as sharing some of his more famous stories. Enjoy a night of storytelling on July 28 at the Horseshoe Bend amphitheater at 7 p.m.
Additional programs can be enjoyed on the North District of the park near Fort Smith, Montana. For a full list of programs and special events, visit Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area’s Facebook page. For questions, contact the the Lovell Visitor Center at 307-548-5406 or the Yellowtail Visitor Center at 406-666-3218.