FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) — Working his way down Alabama 157, Micah Willis skims along smoothly as though he's gliding across water.
The St. Louis resident is on a mission to travel from his hometown to Treasure Island, Fla., aboard his land paddle board.
Stand-up paddle boarding is a new sport derived from paddle boarding on water, said Willis, who is a professional and instructor in the fledging sport.
The 34-year-old hopes his venture raises awareness about the sport, but the journey carries a greater purpose. He wants to serve as an inspiration for burn victims and raise money for the burn unit at St. John's Mercy Hospital in St. Louis.
"I was burned when I was 18," Willis said Monday as he made his way from Colbert County into Lawrence County.
He said he was burned in an explosion moments after he arrived at a gathering with friends who had assembled a bonfire. Aerosol cans were thrown into the fire, causing an explosion that sent a fireball hurling his way.
"One blew up and it hit me," he said.
He spent a month in St. John's hospital, undergoing skin grafts and went through a year of recovery. Willis carries scars on his back and the back of his right leg and arm.
"That's my inspiration ... to inspire burn victims to recovery and to show them they can lead a normal life," he said. "No matter what's going on in life, you can work through it."
A paddle board resembles a skateboard. Willis stands on it with both feet and pushes himself along with a pole, much like one would use an oar in water to propel a boat.
The effort is demanding.
"I put on 20 pounds training for this, because I knew it would take a lot of strength," he said. "I will probably lose about 30 pounds by the time I'm done."
His journey began Jan. 25. He left from a St. Louis business called Future Sk8. His goal is to reach Suncoast Surf Shop in Treasure Island. Willis believes it will take about 23 days to complete the trip.
"I've had amazing amounts of support so far," he said.
Willis said when he traveled through Belleville, Mo., police officers learned what he was doing and paid for his hotel room that night.
"Restaurants have been very good to me," Willis said. "They have run outside and given me food, just throwing me food along the way, when they saw me. One night, somebody opened up their house for me."
Willis is setting a record along the way. His journey will cover more than 1,000 miles, which far outpaces the 444 mile land paddle board record set by Shane Perrin, a fellow St. Louis resident who is the No. 1-ranked athlete in the sport.
Willis travels for about eight to 12 hours each day, withstanding cold-weather conditions. He said he is used to dealing with low temperatures.
"I like to run outside when it's colder," he said.
Still, he jokes, he looks forward to Florida weather. "It's 80 degrees in Florida. Why do you think I'm going there?"
Anyone interested in keeping up with Willis' journey can follow him on Expedition Skurf: Sk8 2 Surf on Facebook. T-shirts may be purchased as part of the fundraiser for the hospital. He also has a PayPal account in case someone wants to donate through that.
"They are the best burn unit in the nation," Willis said. "What they did for me was phenomenal. They do amazing work there."
Information from: TimesDaily, http://www.timesdaily.com/