The day started with fears Pine-Strawberry Fire Chief Gary Morris was either injured or dead after going missing on the Arizona Trail and ended with cheers and relief after Morris sent an unexpected text message Wednesday.
No one had heard from Morris since Monday afternoon when he sent his wife a text message saying he was on schedule and should make it home that evening after completing the roughly Sunflower to Doll Baby Ranch section of the cross-state trail. Then he didn’t arrive and by Tuesday morning, his wife had called the Gila County Sheriff’s Office.
By all accounts, Morris, 73, had done everything right.
He brought plenty of water and food, had trained, told someone where he was going, checked in regularly and even left a photograph of his boot print — just in case something happened.
But a new GPS program reportedly led Morris astray.
The tripMorris left the Sunflower area, located southwest of Payson, Friday, Oct. 25, hoping to complete the 51-mile section of the AZT that runs through the Mazatzal Wilderness in four days.
Hikers later reported on social media sites and to officials that they had seen Morris Friday just a short distance from Sunflower. They said he appeared excited to hike and had asked them about the water situation.
Stacy Figueroa, with P-S Fire, posted Morris had gone on “one of his typical ‘alone time’ hikes that he loves to take ...”
Morris is an avid hiker and has made it to the highest peaks on four continents and completed 1,000 miles on the Appalachian Trail with his wife. He has also survived two near-death experiences, both during rescue missions as a firefighter.
Morris had been checking off sections of the AZT when he had a chance.
Bill Pitterle, commander with Tonto Rim Search and Rescue, said he too is completing the trail in sections.
He checked off the Sunflower section in March with Alicia Keller, a member of TRSAR.
On the AZT, like most thru-hikes, it is common for hikers to earn a nickname that becomes their primary identity.
Pitterle is known as “500,” his call sign with TRSAR, which was given to him by “Milkman.” Keller is known as “Three Angels” since she has lost three of her five children. Pitterle didn’t know if Morris had an AZT nickname, yet.
When Pitterle and Keller heard Morris was missing neither could believe it at first.
“This is just heartbreaking,” said Keller, just minutes before a Department of Public Safety helicopter airlifted her Wednesday from the Payson Airport to the AZT to help look for Morris.
Mike Reichling, with P-S Fire, said he has known Morris since the ’70s when they both worked for Valley fire departments.
Reichling said it was highly unusual for Morris to just fall off the map.
Morris had texted his wife Sunday evening, giving her coordinates of where he planned to camp for the night. Pitterle said he was familiar with the ridge where Morris was camping.
Then around noon Monday, Morris reportedly texted her he was on schedule to reach the Doll Baby Ranch area that evening.
That is the last time anyone heard from Morris.
After Morris’ wife called the GCSO around 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, a DPS helicopter made dozens of passes of the trail, but could find no sign of Morris.
Morris says after he sent that last text message to his wife he followed his GPS. It led him down a canyon. Unaware he was off trail, Morris followed it some five miles before the canyon ended.
That is when he knew he had made a wrong turn somewhere along the way.
With the sun setting, Morris decided to camp for the night in his zero-degree rated sleeping bag.
Morris said he never heard the helicopter Tuesday night as it looked for him.
With enough food and water to last a few more days, Morris said he was confident he would either be found or get himself out.
As five TRSAR teams searched for any sign of Morris along the AZT Wednesday, GCSO Sgt. Dennis Newman received an unexpected text message. Newman, who normally handles search and rescue calls for the sheriff’s office, had been off Wednesday. So, Deputy Cole LaBonte was organizing resources and monitoring their progress. LaBonte had told TRSAR volunteers that if they didn’t find Morris Wednesday he was going to “flood the trail” with searchers Thursday, with groups from around the state ready to help.
Then Newman got a text from Morris: “Dennis. Choppers miles east of me. Gary.”
Newman told Reichling and they called Morris.
“He dialed Gary’s number and (he answered) “Gary Morris.” I said, “Gary!” I went into dad mode ... then I realized this is my chief and not one of my kids,” Reichling said laughing.
Newman said as the day had worn on they were worried they might not find Morris alive.
“The later in the day it gets, my hopes go down with the sun,” Newman said.
Reichling said if anyone was going to survive, he knew Morris could.
“I have had this knot in my gut since this thing started and I am just so relieved.”
After speaking with Morris, they instructed him to hang up and call 911 so dispatchers could locate his coordinates. DPS Ranger then flew in and picked him up.
Morris arrived at the airport a little trail-weathered, but smiling.
He said he felt fine and joked he could hike a few more miles that night if needed.
He said he was headed home to his family and planned to warm up in the Jacuzzi.