The Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, which Dawson plans to hike solo, is a vast, moderately dangerous and strenuous hiking trail running through the U.S. from Mexico to Canada.
Dawson, who is slated to retire in March, has served MSU as a faculty member for more than five years. As he nears his retirement date, Dawson decided to make plans for philanthropy when his time at MSU is finished. Dawson will be 64 when he starts his journey.
He chose to raise money for a non-profit organization called Big City Mountaineers. The organization aims to change "the lives of under-served urban youth through wilderness mentoring expeditions that instill critical life skills," according to their website.
Dawson said he chose the group because of his wilderness-oriented background. He attributes his strong affinity for the outdoors to the days when his parents took him camping and hiking — a tradition which he has carried on with his own children.
After one particularly moving family expedition in 1998, he decided to make hiking a large and frequent part of his life. Dawson and his family have not missed a trip for 18 years.
"We discovered a whole new fondness for exploring wild places and every year since we have made time to spend at least one week a year exploring new wilderness areas as a family," Dawson said in a testimonial on Big City Mountaineers' website.
Dawson said Big City Mountaineers "build confidence" and teach kids to realize they're worth something.
"It was kind (of) a life changing event for all of us," Dawson said. "I (began) looking for a group that took kids before they got bad."
He will hike through five states during a period of 150 days; a trip which usually takes most of the people who attempt the trail each year a total of six months.
He'll encounter various hazards within each segment of the trail. Dawson will hike through the parched miles of New Mexico, along with roughly 180 miles of snow and ice further into the Rocky Mountains.
Grizzly bears, river crossings, hypothermia, scarce water sources and lightning storms all lay in the trail ahead of Dawson. Aside from the vast physical obstacles, he'll also be almost constantly isolated from human contact for five months.
"My wife is scared to death," Dawson said. "I’ve got friends that said, 'Ken, just think about (it), you’re doing 20 miles a day for 150 days straight.'"
Dawson has received support alongside apprehension from his friends, family and colleagues.
"People see the passion I have in what I’m doing," Dawson said. "I wanted to have something that I could use all these skill sets (for) and find something with a humanitarian aspect."
Dawson said the Big City Mountaineers have expressed full support of his expedition, offering to provide him with adequate hiking gear.
He hopes to record his travels through a blog his daughter will update; chronicling what he sees, if he runs into any people on the trail and his thoughts and feelings throughout the trip.
In the months leading up to the start of his trek along the Continental Divide, Dawson is collecting donations, which are tax-deductible, toward his goal of raising $25,000 to help urban youth. Though the hike will cost him personally approximately $10,000, all the money he raises through the support of donors will go to Big City Mountaineers.
As of press time, Dawson had raised $900 toward his goal.
"The money I raise I want to delegate to Michigan cities," Dawson said. "(Cities such as) Grand Rapids, Detroit (and) Lansing."
Post-trail, he hopes to join Big City Mountaineers as a mentor to the children who participate in the program, most of whom come from youth homes.
"No matter how bad things get, I can look back on this and build off it," Dawson said.