Having been an outdoorsman all his life and spending 21 years as a Boy Scout leader, Eagle Scout Richard Morriss’ love of nature recently took him a few steps farther — approximately 5 million steps, in fact.
Morriss, 61, recently completed a thru-hike of the Appalachian Trail, winding his way along one of the most famous hikes in the world. The five-and-a-half-month trek covered more than 2,000 miles.
"It was just something that had been in the back of my mind for years," said Morriss, a local painting contractor. "I used to go hiking with college friends in the '70s. A lot of us wanted to do it, and some still do.
"I just decided I was going to do it and figured out a way to do it, somehow."
With the help of family and friends, Morriss did just that, setting out on the trail in July 2014.
"I started to do it southbound, from Maine to Georgia in one shot, but personal circumstances didn't work out, so I had to do it in pieces. So, I went from Maine down to Connecticut last year," he said.
Those personal circumstances included tendonitis in Morriss' knees, prompting a return to Statesboro by more conventional means after walking the first leg from Katahdin, Maine, to Salisbury, Connecticut.
But that was only a temporary setback for the determined Morriss, who returned to the trail early this year, hiking from Virginia back up to his previous stopping point in Connecticut.
"I never considered quitting," he said. "I got frustrated a couple of times and wanted to throw my hiking sticks off a mountain, but I never considered quitting. That just wasn't going to happen."
He was then transported back to Virginia, where he completed the thru-hike to Springer Mountain, Georgia, in "flip-flop" fashion, a method of breaking the hike into sections.
Still, any Appalachian Trail hike completed in the span of one year is considered a thru-hike, placing Morriss in an elite group.
During the journey, he counted on family and friends to transport him to starting points and keep him supplied with food and other personal needs. His close friend Jack Williamson was instrumental in getting Morriss to his starting points along the trail.
Morriss met many fellow hikers along the way and likened them to any other group of people.
"It's just like a linear community. It's like a town stretched out 2,000 miles," he said. "You're going to meet people you like and people you don't like, and the good thing is, you can just keep walking."
And most of those hikers adopt an Appalachian Trail tradition — trail names. So to many of the people Morriss met on the trail, he was known to them only as "Wrinkles."
"Wrinkles" said the hostels along the trail also provided a look at a variety of lifestyles.
"At the hostels, you run into all different kinds of people. There was a group of people smoking pot on the front porch of one of the hostels at 8 o'clock in the morning. It's not my thing, but … "
However, one person he met along the trail left a lasting impression. Early in the walk, between Massachusetts and Connecticut, Morriss discovered his shoes were too small, which lead to the tendonitis in his knees.
"I stopped in Salisbury, Connecticut, and there was a lady named Maria McCabe who runs a hostel there. She's 85 years old," he said. "She came and picked me up and took care of me for four days. She's a very special lady."
Morriss was so grateful for her help and hospitality that he made it a point to revisit her when he was driven back to Connecticut to continue his hike after recuperating.
"I made sure when I got back to Connecticut to stop by her house and happened to hit it on Mother's Day, and she was there with her family," he said. "That made it extra special to end my northbound point there. She's a great lady."
McCabe was a special new acquaintance for Morriss, but she was only one of many faces he saw as he made his way along the long, winding path.
"There are always a lot of people out there. You're never alone," he said. "I mean, you might go a day without seeing anyone, but if you get hurt, just sit down and somebody will walk by you eventually.
"Since I was going southbound and the majority of the people were going northbound, I passed them. I didn't really hike with anyone; I just passed them going in the other direction."
Morriss was surprised to run into one familiar face, a man who attends the same church, Pittman Park, here in Statesboro. He said the man, Gordon Goodwill, is currently walking the trail.
"I was sitting on a rock, eating a snack. He was going north, and I was going south. He just happened to walk by me," Morriss said. "He didn't recognize me at first, but we talked a while and realized we went to the same church."
As for all the bear stories that surround the trail, Morriss said he only saw two young cubs in a tree early his hike. He picked up the pace after spotting the little ones, hoping to avoid a confrontation with a protective mother.
He did see other creatures along the trail, "mostly snakes — a lot of snakes, a lot of squirrels, things like that.
"I did have a snake crawl across me while I was sleeping one night — and that snake went flying," he said with a laugh.
Morriss said that over the course of the hike, he never felt a sense of danger from any source.
"The trail is rugged, but it's not that remote. You're close to towns and roads, so if something happens, you can get help," he said.
But Morriss' walk in the woods didn't necessarily change his life or provide any new revelations — it simply brought him back home.
"It just reinforced what I already knew: how great my family and friends are. They supported me all the way."
Eddie Ledbetter can be reached at (912) 489-9403.