'40 below': Local acupuncturist Michael Johnson arrives in Black Mountain

Ty Roush
Black Mountain News
Michael Johnson left his home in  Johnson City, Tennessee, to pursue acupuncture in Seattle and later Fairbanks, Alaska.

Michael Johnson had planned on attending a graduate program for psychology before he started experiencing migraines and neck pain.

Johnson attended a martial arts class, where his instructor began pushing on certain points to relieve tension on his body and some of the pain from his migraines.

After being introduced to Eastern medicine techniques, the migraines and neck pain went away.

“I went from having two migraines a week to now, my migraines are completely gone,” Johnson said. “I went from having neck pain to having no neck pain and being more rested.”

Graduate school was no longer the plan.

Johnson told East Carolina University, and then his family, that he would no longer be attending the school. Instead, he packed his cars and four trash bags filled with clothes and headed to Seattle.

The new plan was to find someone with an empty room and attend a school to learn acupuncture.

“It was pretty intense,” Johnson said. “The first semester I was there, the other classmates had a bet going that I would be the one that wouldn’t make it because I was so intense that I couldn’t relax.”

Though he had left home to pursue a new career, Johnson says he was determined to make it work.

“It was hard being out there by myself,” Johnson said. “It was a good learning experience because I learned not only acupuncture, but I learned a lot about myself. I expanded and I decided I’m going to become really, really good with at least this one thing.”

New style, job search

After graduating from Bastyr University, Johnson started working with a local, gentler and more Japanese-style acupuncturist. Through two years, Johnson had transitioned from the Chinese-style acupuncture he learned in school to this new technique.

And then he started checking out job advertisements in a local newspaper.

“I saw an ad that said you can make six figures at this job, and everybody was advertised as having worked in Seattle, and this one said Fairbanks,” Johnson said. “I didn’t connect the dots, but it was Alaska. I thought, there’s all kinds of neighborhoods around Seattle, it has to be one of those neighborhoods I’ve never heard of.”

The Fairbanks, Alaska, company interviewed Johnson and told him he would be a good fit. His wife was unaware. Johnson said he wasn’t aware Alaska would be a career option.

“I didn’t even know this was Alaska until this phone call,” Johnson said. “And I haven’t even talked to my wife about it. I don’t even have kids yet.”

The pair traveled to Alaska to visit their future home. 

Thirty days later, Johnson started at Alaska Center for Natural Medicine.

‘40 below’

Johnson says he only missed work twice in his six years at the Fairbanks-based center. Once, he was asked to leave because he was injured in a car accident. The second time was because of an ice storm.

“Forty below is something else,” Johnson said. 

One morning, a customer stopped by while dragging a “quarter of a moose” behind him, holding onto one hoof before dropping a bloodied bag onto the center’s lobby floor. It was his tip for a previous appointment.

“He’s like, my job was to give you the moose, your job is to figure it out,” Johnson said.

Other customers tipped in caribou. One patient missed an appointment because they had fallen through ice on a dog sledding trip. Some patients lived over 130 miles out of town and had to commute via airplane, Johnson said.

Experiencing Alaska was a “really neat experience,” but it “was too hard to be away from family and that far away.”

Heading home

Johnson and his wife moved south of Seattle to Salem, Oregon, where Johnson opened his first business. 

Through four years, Johnson began learning how to run a business in addition to being a practicing acupuncturist. His family, located primarily in the Southeast, was now able to keep in touch more often.

Johnson and his wife then began to discuss moving closer to Johnson's family in Tennessee.

They visited three separate locations that he and his wife had decided could be viable options: Richmond, Virginia, various areas in East Tennessee and Black Mountain.

"When we came to Black Mountain, I already knew the area because when I was growing up, I used to spend about three weeks to a month with my grandparents in the Crossnore area ... and whenever I thought of my happiest place on Earth, it was with my grandparents in the mountains up there," Johnson said.

He already had the "warm fuzzies" for Black Mountain. His wife, Kim, told him that "this is it, I don't even need to look at anything else."

The area reminded the Johnson family of Alaska.

"The warmth from the people was just unparalleled," Johnson said. "It was amazing. It reminded me of Alaska without the 40 below."

Seeing the joy in his wife and two oldest sons with their new home, Johnson is reminded of leaving home, equipped with trash bags en route to the Pacific.

"It's really interesting to come back to things as a person with kids now, whereas when I left, I was kind of a kid," Johnson said. "I have this whole new appreciation for something that I didn't appreciate when I was younger."

Johnson now runs Pristine Acupuncture and Wellness at the Swannanoa Valley Medical Center.

He says he can't imagine where he would be had he not experienced migraines and neck pain several years earlier.

"I think I would have been a horrible psychologist," Johnson said.