On Monday, March 10, John O'Mahoney died suddenly during his battle with lung cancer.
"JohnO," as we all liked to call him, was an important force in helping to inspire the lightweight backpacking movement as we know it today, starting with his personal web page and his founding of the BackpackingLight Yahoo Group.
JohnO had a passion for lightweight backpacking that reflected not only his enthusiasm, but his desire to share it with others because he truly believed it would change their life on the trail. The number of people he impacted positively by inspiring them to go lighter can never be measured:
I can only say that he had a great impact on me.
Ron Richards (L) and John O'Mahoney (R) on the Georgia AT in 2000. Photo: Ryan Jordan.
I had the great pleasure of walking in the woods with JohnO on a number of occasions. My most memorable times with JohnO were in his home range, the Appalachians - and in one of mine, the Tetons.
One particular trail event we shared comes to mind and warms my heart when I think about it.
We had planned a traverse of the Teton range from Glade Creek south, to wherever the mountains decided to spit us out.
There were three key moments in time on this trek that are .... seared ... into my memory. The first of those moments was upon my arrival into a creekbed where JohnO and other members of our party decided to stop and camp. I was walking with Glen Van Peski and Don Johnston, and we decided to join them for the night. After a long day on the trail, I was eager to make dinner, as the last light of dusk was fading.
Halfway through dinner and well after sunset, I began choking on something sharp that was stuck in my throat. I was unable to cough it up. JohnO peered down my throat, said with vigor,
"Oh my GOD!"
which rapidly sent me into a state of panic, and I began to sweat. He said to me,
"Oh man, it's huge, and long. The only way you're going to get it out is by forcing yourself to throw up."
Those of you who know me intimately know also that I abhor the thought of vomiting and will go to great lengths to avoid it. JohnO, too, knew this, and looked upon me with compassionate eyes (and a playful smirk) as I walked away from the group to avoid great embarrassment.
I unsuccessfully shoved my finger down my throat in a series of gag events, none of which resulted in the expulsion of the stuck object, let alone an ounce of vomit.
JohnO and crew at “Spork Throat Camp” in the Tetons. L to R: Ron Richards, Glen Van Peski, Don Johnston, Ryan Jordan, and John O'Mahoney. Photo: Ryan Jordan collection.
As I turned around, the wheels were clearly spinning in JohnO's head. Then his eyes lit up. I knew I should run, but couldn't move. He dug into his pack, pulled out a shiny implement that I assumed was from his first aid kit, and came towards me like a crazed surgeon. As he got closer, I recognized the object that was making a beeline for my mouth at a high rate of speed - an early model titanium spork.
Before JohnO could reach me, I stiff-armed him to keep him at bay with my left hand and reached down into my throat with my right hand to pull the object out myself - and this time, succeeded.
I yanked my fist out of my gagging intake valve, and held between my two middle fingers (“the grabbing mechanism”) was a 2-inch long seed husk from some type of mountain grass.
As I coughed up blood and felt a sigh of relief that I wouldn't have to be evacuated, JohnO put his arm around my shoulder, and said quietly,
"See, I told you that spork would work!"
This was followed by his trademark guffaw that echoed off the quiet walls of our private canyon in the Tetons.
Those were only a few of the many nights I've been able to spend with JohnO in the wilderness. As our friendship deepened, so too did our relationship to things wilderness and beyond.
When I told him I wanted to start a magazine business to promote lightweight backpacking, he laughed at me, but it wasn't the same type of laugh I heard after the spork incident. It was the type of laugh that said, “Yes! Hallelujah!” JohnO provided tremendous support to me as a business person and a member of our community as Backpacking Light Magazine has grown over the years.
When JohnO started walking the IAT south of Cape Gaspe, Quebec, in 2000, he would call me from payphones and ask me about hiking in knee deep mud and constant rain. He had the gear, he had the skills, and there wasn't much I could tell him that he didn't already know. And so I told him simply “keep your head focused on the tread, take it one step at a time, and stay tuned to whatever comes.”
When my wife gave birth to a stillborn daughter a few years after his IAT walk, JohnO was among the first people to pick up the phone and encourage me. More remarkably, he stayed in touch regularly through the aftermath of one of the most difficult battles of my life. During my darkest days, I broke down and told JohnO: “I have no idea what to do, John.” He reminded me:
“Keep your head focused on the tread, take it one step at a time, and stay tuned to whatever comes.”
When JohnO called me from the road on a long distance truck drive, I told him that it sounds a lot like long distance hiking. He agreed. Especially the part where you resupply at truck stops with Little Debbies Snack Cakes and enjoy a hot shower. I asked him what the low points were.
”Flat tires, no family, and running out of gas.”
Yep, JohnO taught me that truck driving was indeed a lot like thru-hiking.
JohnO's infectious laugh, interest in people, uncompromising character, and as much passion for life's lows as its highs, all put him in a class few ever achieve, and I can only hope to realize in my dying days.
JohnO taught me a few simple rules of life.
- Family matters.
- Character counts.
- Hike light.
- Have fun.
John O'Mahoney 1946-2008. Photo: Ken Knight.