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The best job in the world

With Labor Day approaching, one man feels his 'labor' hardly qualifies as work


NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Michael Johnsons security guard gig next to the upper Tualatin River is a job fit for one of his early inspirations, Walden author Henry David Thoreau, who wrote, I found myself suddenly neighbor to the birds; not by having imprisoned one, but having caged myself near them.It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it.

From Memorial Day to Labor Day, Michael Johnson spends five days a week in a lawn chair that serves as his tree-shaded “office,” next to a sparkling river, reading interesting books.

Sometimes he’ll take a little break from all that hard work to photograph his wildlife friends or chat with the occasional human visitor.

Officially, Johnson’s job title is “security guard.” Unofficially, “it’s a way for me to retire without actually being retired,” said the former English teacher, who has master’s degrees in education and English and a “chartered property casualty underwriter” designation from the Insurance Institute of America.

“I’m the most overeducated security guard you’re ever going to meet,” he said.

It’s the kind of work Johnson dreamed of back in 1988, when he left his fast-paced, high-pressure job as corporate spokesperson for Transamerica in the Los Angeles area.

Nearing 50, Johnson wanted to slow down. When he and his family left Simi Valley, he told his 15-year-old daughter, Elyse, “I’m going to drive north and you tell me when you see a place you’d like to live.”

When they arrived in Portland, he says, Elyse took a look at Mount Hood and said, “This is the place.”

After moving to the Forest Grove area, Johnson and his wife, Shirley, got their main income from a stable they run and from the insurance underwriting done by Shirley. But they needed home-improvement cash so after a short-lived attempt to be an insurance agent, Johnson picked up the newspaper to scan the want ads.

“I just need something to keep me busy but that’s real easy,” he thought, “and would give me plenty of time to do what I want to do, which is continue my education.”COURTESY PHOTO: MICHAEL JOHNSON - Michael Johnson keeps his camera ready to capture local wildlife, such as this doe and fawn, who like to ford the river near his office.

At County Protection Service (now Spartan Security Services), Johnson patrolled everything from construction sites to stores, industrial plants and even the World Forestry Center. Then about eight years ago, his boss called him and said, “I got this new account that you would love.”

The city of Hillsboro needed someone to keep people away from its water-treatment plant in the Coast Range near the upper Tualatin River.

On his first trip to inspect his new workplace, Johnson couldn’t believe his commute: Down a tree-shaded gravel road, along a small, sparkling river, past a beautiful waterfall.

The first several miles of the road are open to members of the public, who come to fish or hike or cool off on hot days or admire Lee Falls.COURTESY PHOTO: MICHAEL JOHNSON - Michael Johnson keeps his camera ready to capture local wildlife, such as this grouse.

Occasionally, visitors wander farther up the road to the gate marking the beginning of Hillsboro’s property.

Johnson’s job is to make sure those visitors don’t go past the gate, partly because of liability concerns but mainly, he said, because plant workers don’t want to be distracted by intruders.

In eight years, Johnson has encountered only a half dozen people who gave him any kind of trouble. He’s more likely to radio an alert when a tree falls over a power line or if someone injures themselves jumping into the river at Lee Falls or if a fire starts — although he said he’s put out several small fires on his own.

Shirley, now a teaching assistant at Poynter Middle School in Hillsboro, has visited her husband’s work site. “It’s a very nice place to be,” she said. “It’s very good for him.”

Johnson is sure some people might get bored or lonely, but he loves the outdoors and reading.

On the job, he reads a couple books a week, he said, and loves biographies, having read a five-volume series on Thomas Jefferson and a three-volume series on Winston Churchill.

Among the books he’s read so far this summer are “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” by Annie Dillard, the Holy Quran, “the Complete Idiot’s Guide to the U.S. Government,” “Unbroken” and “Seabiscuit” by Laura Hillenbrand, “Ulysses” by James Joyce, “You’re Not Even Close” (a comparison of the economic performance of Democrats and Republicans since 1910), and a book on the philosopher Spinoza.

Because he spends most of his day reading quietly, Johnson gets rare glimpses of local wildlife and keeps his camera ready for such moments. He’s seen bobcats, bear, coyotes, elk and deer — almost everything except a mountain lion. “I know there’s one up there because I’ve seen a couple of kills,” he said.

The weather doesn’t bother him. If it’s too rainy, he reads in his truck. If it’s too hot, he visits a little stream that tumbles out of a side canyon into the river. “It’s like you’re sitting next to an air conditioner,” he said.NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Johnsons morning commute takes him past beautiful Lee Falls, where he occasionally calls in emergency medical aid for people who hurt themselves jumping off the falls.

The only possible downside to the job, he said, is the pay. It’s better than minimum wage but only a quarter to a third of what he used to make.

But he’s not about to complain to his superiors, he admits: “I would probably pay them to let me go do this.”

My job’s better?

Do you think you have a better job than Michael Johnson? Or do you know someone else who does? If so, please contact us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and let us know what makes that job “the best.” We’ll print reader responses in our Sept. 9 paper.