I was born in Fayetteville, Arkansas, to Dr. Joseph E. Johnson, an Army doctor in World War II and an internist for the Veterans Administration hospital, and Dorris Matthews Johnson, a teacher and specialist in early childhood education. We moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, when I was six years old. There I attended Monte Vista Elementary School, writing my first book ("Things in Space") on Big Chief tablet paper, serving as scribe of my Cub Scout den, and working on my first political campaign. My friend George Livingston convinced me that John F. Kennedy's presidential platform included (1) starting a nuclear war and (2) making kids go to school on Saturday (like the Russians). Naturally I threw my lot with Richard Nixon, even though my parents were Democrats. I wrote to Nixon describing my efforts on his behalf and received a warm reply on Vice Presidential stationery, an autographed picture, and a requested supply of Nixon buttons and bumper stickers. This recognition resulted in my first appearance in a newspaper, the Albuquerque Journal.
From there I went on to Jefferson Junior High School (I supported LBJ over Goldwater), and Highland High School (Eugene McCarthy), graduating in 1970. I registered for the draft as a conscientious objector but drew high enough a lottery number to stay out of the Vietnam war.
I spent two quarters as a freshman at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis before transferring to the University of New Mexico, where I was the editor of the Thunderbird literary magazine and news editor of the Daily Lobo. I wrote a dissenting editorial to the Lobo's call for Nixon's impeachment. Though I was a McGovernite, I was convinced that Nixon had suffered enough and should be allowed to simply resign. (Later I had a dream in which he and I were strolling along the Mall in Washington. It was time for the country to put Watergate behind it, he said.)
I graduated from college in 1975, and after a year of freelancing worked for the Albuquerque Journal as a copy editor, then as a police reporter (I got to do my rounds in a four-wheel-drive vehicle bristling with antennae and equipped with a police scanner and two-way radio). This was enough to convince me that it would be really fun to go to graduate school. Armed with my first trophy, a golden gorilla (the coveted Ape Award), given by the Albuquerque Press Club for Best Spot News Story of the year, I went on to American University in Washington. There I earned a master's degree in Journalism and Public Affairs in 1979. The same year I began working as a special-assignment reporter for The Minneapolis Star.
The rest of my professional career,
including my books and my stint at The New York Times, is
outlined in my resume. When I'm not writing I like to spend my time reading, hiking in the Sangre de
Cristo and Jemez mountains, and working on my collection of
1920s radios and 1960s hi-fi equipment. I also enjoy the challenge of xeriscape gardening (xeri = dry) in the high altitudes of Santa Fe.
My high school garage band. (I'm the one behind the mike.)
My gravestone in Boot Hill.
In white tie and tails at the Nobel prize ceremony in Stockholm, 1997 (with Hillary and Steven Rose). Photo by Dominique Leglu.
With Joe Palca (on the right reading the map) at the 2000 Santa Fe Science Writing Workshop. Photo by Karen Paulus.
With my mother and father on one of his last birthdays. He died on March 29, 2001.