Mike Harris doesn't have anything left to prove.
He served in the Air Force for two decades, retiring in 2002 at the rank of lieutenant colonel. Three years later, he hiked the entirety of the Appalachian Trail. In 2008, he began serving as an aide to special-needs students at Lawrence's Sunflower Elementary School.
It was working around children that inspired him to return to the Appalachian Trail, at the age of 54, to see if he could best his time from 2005. The paraeducator — classroom name "Mr. Harris" — wanted to show his students that, with a little determination, they too can accomplish similar feats.
"The first time it was just a lifelong dream of mine, to hike the Appalachian Trail. I'm a big outdoors person," he said. "This time, I wanted to tell kids, if I can do this, they can really set goals and do whatever they want to do."
Turns out Harris was up to the challenge. He completed the 2,200-mile trek in four months, about two-thirds the time of the average Appalachian Trail hiker — roughly 75 percent of whom don't even make it to the end. In averaging more than 19 miles a day, he outwalked and outlasted hundreds of people: While he was about the 500th person to start from Georgia in March, he was just the 22nd to reach Maine four months later.
Harris took a unpaid leave from school last January to begin three months of intense pre-trip training. That included walking up and down the nine flights of stairs at Kansas University's Hayworth Hall every other day for three months, including the last month with his full camping pack on his back. He also hiked the trails of Clinton State Park regularly.
At the same time, he had to gain 25 pounds in preparation for all the calories he'd burn on his journey.
Harris — trail name "Chino"; alternate trail name: "Chuck Norris" — lost that weight in the first 35 days of his trip, plus another 20 pounds the remainder of the time. It's not that he didn't try to prevent that from happening: Whenever he stopped in a town, he'd pig out, downing entire large pizzas in one sitting or binging on all-you-can-eat buffets. At restaurants near the trail, Harris would simply ask for the "hiker's special"; they knew what he meant.
Unlike most hikers, Harris didn't pack cooking equipment, so he carried a lot of cookies, candy bars, honey buns and crackers, washing them down with pints of half-and-half. "Anything Little Debbie made, I ate," he joked.
Harris, ever the disciplinarian, traveled light, with only 20 pounds worth of gear. He reluctantly agreed to carry a cellphone (4.5 ounces with the charger) after his wife insisted.
He encountered some inclement weather along the way. If it wasn't raining, it seemed, it was snowing — and vice versa. In Tennessee's Smoky Mountains in March, he encountered more than 2 feet of snow, forcing hikers off the trail for a day. And it was so cold on top of Vermont's Killington Peak, for instance, that locals were expecting snow — in June.
At night, he hung his food and gear on cables, to keep it out of the reach of bears. He didn't directly encounter any bears — but from his nearby sleeping shelter, he listened to the cables being shaken at night.
Back at Sunflower Elementary, students kept track of their Mr. Harris' progress by moving a picture of him on a popsicle stick up a map of the Appalachian Trail. Resource teacher Eve Cummins said that after Harris left the children were equal parts proud, sad and worried.
"Kids get pretty attached to people they work with," she said. "But it was a neat thing for them to see someone put so much effort into a huge accomplishment.
"The whole school got into following him," she said. "We'd be here complaining about stuff then read his website, where he was writing about sleeping with mice and bugs."
Harris isn't from Lawrence originally. He was born and raised outside of Cleveland. He joined the military in his early 20s.
In the service, Harris — Air Force name "Lt. Col. Harris" — flew B-52 and B-1B bombers as a master navigator — flying name "Chino" — before working at the Pentagon, commanding squadrons in basic training, and helping devise nuclear weapons deployment strategy.
He came to Kansas to be closer to his son, who had moved here with Harris' ex-wife. Harris met his current wife through his church in Lenexa before moving to her hometown of Lawrence, where he took the job as a paraeducator at Sunflower Elementary. "I have a soft spot in my heart for students in general, but especially students with special needs," he said.
Would he ever return to the Appalachian Trail? Probably not, he said — then added: "After the first time, I said I wouldn't, but I did it again." His next big goal is to walk across Ireland — all of it. It won't be anytime soon, though, as he is still recovering from his Appalachian Trail trek, five weeks later.
He's trying to regain the weight he lost. He has some lingering pain from a fall. He doesn't have all the feeling back in his toes yet — a result of the near-constant walking — and can't get his wedding ring off, because of a broken finger he suffered in April.
Harris was bruised and battered as he traversed the trail, contracting the norovirus and running out of water more than once. But even with the injuries and illness, he never considered quitting. Asked what would have taken off the trail, he said, without blinking, "Probably a compound fracture."
Fortunately, all the wear and near was nothing new for him.
"I went through air-crew-survivor training. I went through prisoner-of-war training — we call it resistance training," he said. "I can take care of myself out there."