Finding her place

Kathie Johnson loves living in the mountains

Kathie Johnson grew up outside of Chicago, but she always yearned to be near the mountains. Five years ago, she got her wish.

"I just like how friendly everybody is here, and I like living in a small town," she said.

Johnson moved around the suburbs northwest of Chicago and spent some time in Utah before settling in Craig.

"This house, I think, is the longest I've been anywhere," she said of her home in Western Knolls.

Being in Northwest Colorado means fresh air, beautiful views and space to ride like the wind, Johnson said.

"I always wanted horses," she said. "I couldn't really have one until I moved here."

Living in Craig also means access to Johnson's greatest joys. She likes hiking, camping and riding all-terrain vehicles, but being on top of the mountain is what she likes best, she said.

"Skiing -- that's my favorite thing," she said. "We moved here just for that."

Love behind the badge

She and her husband, Ken Johnson, met in Chicago while Ken was a police officer and Kathie was a dispatcher. They were married seven years ago. Shortly after, they headed west.

The two are again working side-by-side. Ken is a corporal with the Craig Police Department and Kathie is the department's animal control officer.

But Kathie Johnson hasn't always been in law enforcement. For 10 years, before she became a dispatcher, Johnson could be found behind a Chicago-area bar.

"I can flip bottles around like Tom Cruise," she said.

Working in animal control is less hectic than bartending, but Johnson said she still has her share of crazy days.

Although her job means steady hours, having her own office and the opportunity to work with animals every day, being an animal control officer isn't always easy, she said.

On a call a more than a year ago, Johnson approached a live animal trap on a porch. There she found a skunk, which she intended to euthanize via a long pole.

"Its butt was pointed in my direction," Johnson said. "I went to stick that pole in there, and pfwing!"

The skunk sprayed her directly on the chest.

Johnson recalls another time when two horses were loose near Kampgrounds of America, on the east end of Craig.

It was getting dark, so she asked a police officer to help her walk the horses along U.S. Highway 40 back to McCandless Animal Hospital.

Instead of following Johnson to make sure a car didn't hit her, the officer drove ahead, giving her a police escort to the hospital.

Scary situation

But not every memory Johnson has of animals is so comical.

Four years ago, while hiking on Cedar Mountain, Johnson endured an incident she said she'll never forget.

She was walking up a path with her German shepherd, Elwood. The dog saw something in the distance and barked. His fur stood on end, and he ran in the opposite direction, she recalls.

"I don't know what made him freak out and run, but he busted the leash," she said.

As he pulled on the cord, Johnson's right leg got caught between two rocks. She fell and broke her leg just above the ankle. Elwood was gone.

"I was scared," Johnson said. "I was all alone."

She worried Elwood had seen a mountain lion and reached for her knife, but it had fallen from her pocket. Without a knife, Johnson held a rock as protection as she crawled for an hour back to her car.

"I screamed the whole way down," she said.

When she reached her car, she drove back to town, using her left foot, to Loaf 'N Jug, and laid on her horn until a woman came to help her.

When she moved to the mountains from the Midwest, she had sworn off cell phones and pagers.

"After that, I bought a cell phone ... and a gun," she said.

She has since returned to Cedar Mountain but still gets scared, she said. Even the smell of sagebrush stirs the bad memory, she said.

"I don't think there's a day that goes by that I don't think about it," she said.

Eventually, she found Elwood.

Roots in Craig

Johnson has good times with her pets, too. Everyone at the Moffat County Public Safety Center knows her mild-mannered dog, Missy, because she often accompanies Johnson to work.

At home, Johnson has four more dogs, seven cats, three foster kittens, an Amazon parrot and two (soon to be three) horses.

Many of them followed her home from work. Part of her job is to spend time at the animal hospital finding pets good homes. Sometimes, that means bringing them to her home.

Johnson said she really enjoys her job and the new challenges she faces each day.

Her two sons moved to Colorado after their father, Johnson's first husband, died. Erik Plate, 19, is now a student at Mesa State College. Kristopher Plate, 26, and his wife, Julie, have made Johnson a grandmother.

And with 17-month-old Kylie in town, Johnson said she plans to stay in Craig for a long while.

Michelle Perry can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 209, or mperry@craigdailypress.com.

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