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Pasco father embarks on long hike in honor of his late son

If all goes according to plan, Norman Morris, his wife Rochelle and his friend Bob Mullins will stand on Springer Mountain in North Georgia on March 20 and recall with mixed joy and sorrow a camping trip he and his son, Adam, spent there in 1988.

He will walk around, visiting spots where he remembers conversations about changes in their lives. He will spread some of Adam's ashes in those places.

Then he will lace on the boots he bought for $5 at a thrift store, pick up the pack he bought for $15 at another thrift store — and he and Mullins will hit the Appalachian Trail for a 2,181-mile journey layered with meaning.

That's the plan, and Morris will accept no semantic breach of his stated intentions.

"Some people say they are going to try to walk the trail," he said. "We say we are going to walk the trail." Rochelle will provide support by making multiple trips in an RV she has dubbed the Roche Coach.

Morris is keeping a promise he made to Adam during that camping trip after they met a 60-year-old man beginning his own trip up the trail that winds through 14 states, up mountains, through towns and across rivers before ending on Mount Katahdin in Maine.

"Adam was knocked out that a 60-year-old man was going to take on the trail,'' Morris said. "We became friendly with the man and found out that he had just retired."

"Dad," Morris recalls his son, then 10, saying, "you could do that when you turn 60 and retire. We could do it together."

Morris said they would, and over the next 13 years they frequently discussed the planned trip.

But Adam's journey through a sometimes difficult life ended in 2000 when, under circumstances his father considers suspicious, he drowned in a lake near Gainesville. Morris went to the lake to take part in and watch the search and found Adam's body where searchers told him it couldn't be, floating near a dock in the lake that had already been searched and dragged.

That began a painful journey for the soft-spoken, retired social worker. "I think I can say as a professional that I was clinically depressed for three years," Morris said. He conducted his own investigation, questioning witnesses who might have seen or heard something on the November night when Adam was last seen entering the chilly water.

Adam was a recent college graduate with a degree in exercise science and was working at a nearby grocery distribution firm when he went to visit a friend and disappeared during the night, leaving only his glasses and wallet behind.

There were no drugs in his system, the autopsy said, and, "so little alcohol that he could legally have driven," his father said.

Morris began to have heart trouble, which he attributes to the grief and stress of losing his son. He had a stent put in one coronary artery.

"After I had been depressed for about three years, Rochelle finally said, 'That's it,' and said she would always be heartbroken, but she couldn't be depressed any more," Morris said, "and I knew she meant it."

The couple had already begun to memorialize Adam's life by establishing an Outward Bound scholarship in his name. Adam, at 16, had benefitted from the program, which helps young people experience personal growth through challenges in the wilderness.

They continue to contribute with their own money, proceeds of small house concerts for folk and bluegrass musicians at their home and contributions from friends and supporters.

The couple's journey from grief has been geographical as well as spiritual. They spent two months in Nepal where, in their son's name, they bought winter coats for orphans. There were similar acts of kindness in Thailand, Cambodia and in Vietnam, where they endowed a small school library.

And now with Morris turning 60, he's making good on his promise. The trip will take him and Rochelle and their friend, Mullins, on a seven-month trek along the ridge that becomes the backbone of the Appalachian mountains.

Mullins, a 69-year-old retired Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy, is a longtime friend of the Morris family. His wife, Sherry, who met Rochelle when she was a student in a class Rochelle taught at Hillsborough Community College more than 20 years ago, officiated at Adam's funeral service.

So how does a guy packing a coronary artery stent and a couple of hernias prepare for a 2,000-mile walk?

"I run," Morris said. He has, in fact run three marathons, one shortly after Adam's death in his honor. He also walks, "a lot.''

To simulate the weight of the gear he is still assembling on his thrift store budget, Morris fills a backpack with 80 pounds of rocks and walks from his colorful home on the park in San Antonio to Dade City and back, about 10 miles. He expects his health, conditioning and determination to carry him all the way to Maine.

An avid Miami Dolphins fan, Morris plans to finish his trip by early October, in time for football season. "I don't want to miss that," he said, adding that he also roots for the University of Florida, where he went to undergraduate school, and Florida State, where he went to graduate schools. "I root for both of those teams, except when they play each other," he said, "then I am all Gator."

And proceeds from the trip will go toward the Adam Morris Outward Bound Scholarship fund that has, so far, sent eight underprivileged kids through the program, and to enterprises similar to those the couple began in Asia. Local charities also sometime receive contributions from the small amounts the Morrises raise on concerts.

"What we are doing is selling miles," Morris said. "People can purchase, say, mile 300 to mile 400, or mile 650 to 660 at a dollar apiece." Pledges will not be due until Morris and Mullins actually walk the miles specified. "Then they will get an e-mail with a picture off us standing at that point," Morris explained.

And don't be surprised if a dragonfly or two appear in the picture.

Smitten with a young woman he had met at work shortly before his death, Adam wrote a poem titled Dragonfly, which has since been set to music by Gary Bukstel and Ellen Bukstel Segal.

The poem says, in part:

The very key that can hold us together

I have found again in my heart.

I don't want to let it go really,

But it might tear me apart.

"I interviewed her after Adam's death," Morris said. "He had not yet told her how he felt. It turned out she felt the same way about him."

Ever since his son's death, Morris says, dragonflies have turned up at points where he seems to be in most need of support.

"I have no doubt that Adam will be with us on the trail," he said.

.Fast facts

Help the adventure

Anyone interested in learning about the hike, or contributing, can reach Rochelle Morris at rochelle@coffeetalkcafe.net.

Pasco father embarks on long hike in honor of his late son 02/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 12, 2011 12:53pm]

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