If you were to look at Jo Johnson, smile at her effervescent cheer or admire her long, brown locks, you would not picture her flying headlong into the wind on a motorcycle while wearing a leather jacket — especially since if you saw Jo Johnson, you would likely be sitting through a long, county supervisors meeting.
Johnson retired Thursday, the day after her 56th birthday, after 18 years working as an assistant to county supervisors.
“It’s a great birthday present,” Johnson said. “That could be the highlight of the whole article — how to give yourself a great birthday present.”
She’s beat cancer, raised children and lived her life like it could end at any moment.
In May, Johnson and her husband, Steve, will hitch a travel trailer onto the back of their truck, pack their motorcycle in the bed of the truck, stow their leather jackets and cruise the West with their boxer, Chloe.
They’ll volunteer vacation at Grays Harbor Lighthouse near Tacoma, Wash., and also at the nearby LeMay Museum for cars.
Come July, the Johnsons will return for their son’s wedding in Long Beach, Calif.
Absent of extensive plans, exploration is the sole agenda item. “Everybody says I want to go to Europe,” Johnson said. “There’s way too many places in the U.S. that we want to see.”
The long highways through mountains and plains — the majestic open road will carry them through Idaho and Utah, Colorado and Canada.
After all, 18 years of assisting county supervisors has left Johnson wary of agendas.
“I love my job,” Johnson said. “It’s time for a change.” Pam Fisher will replace her.
Johnson grew up in Tempe when the nearby now-metropolis of Mesa was just 30,000. During high school, she contemplated studying social work but instead fell into taking photographs of babies.
When her parents decided to move to Cave Creek, “the middle of nowhere,” Johnson was old enough to decide she wouldn’t join them.
She started looking for jobs and the first ad she found sought a traveling baby photographer for JCPenney. She traveled to Casa Grande, Globe and Superior — “anywhere there was a Penneys.”
“It’s probably the most fun job I’ve ever had,” Johnson said. Plus, there was no selling.
“If you took great pictures, they sold themselves.”
Eventually, she moved with a friend to Scottsdale and took a job with Motorola, which was not as fun.
Despite six promotions in one year, Johnson found her new gig boring, and eventually Penney’s called. They had a permanent studio and asked Johnson to manage it.
While living in Scottsdale, Johnson met her husband Steve. They lived one door away from each other, and married seven months later.
Steve had family near Paragonah, Utah — present day population 480 — and the couple decided to move there. Steve had tired of police work, and started his own cabinet making business. Jo worked quaint odd jobs.
She worked at a post office/general store/coffee-gathering place, and a local movie renting establishment.
Then a friend sent Steve a job announcement for a Payson Police Department patrolman. He drove to Arizona for the interview, and got a job offer while driving back to Utah.
Two sons and 21 years later, the Johnsons are embarking on life’s next adventure.
“Your life goes through phases. We’ve had a really blessed life and this is just a new phase,” Johnson said.
It’s an early retirement, perhaps the timing contributes to Johnson’s blessed assessment of her life, but even blessed forbids perfection.
Eleven years ago, Johnson discovered she had breast cancer, and the doctor wanted to talk percentages.
“I’m not a percentage,” she told her doctor.
“I’m going to survive.” She underwent chemotherapy and surgery and today, Johnson is healthy and retiring early.
“We just did the math,” she said. She and Steve decided that the opportunity of traveling and enjoying their youth and health outweighed the larger nest egg a few more working years would have afforded.
And so in May, the couple will embark on their journey, and occasionally, they’ll pull on their leather jackets, pile on their Yamaha motorcycle and peel through the wind.
“It has to be like how a bird feels,” Johnson said.