Friday was one of those days that makes Louie Rochon wonder at his decision to walk roughly 5,000 miles from Miami to Seattle. Torrential rains turned the half-dozen stuffed animals tied to his backpack into heavy lumps of sodden stuffing.
But as soon as he starts to feel sorry for himself, Rochon, 44, thinks about the children who gave him those stuffed animals--youngsters infected with HIV or who have AIDS. He walks from 6 to 20 miles a day to increase awareness about what he described as the "forgotten children."
"The challenges are all emotional," Rochon said, taking shelter from the deluge at a Huntington Beach fast-food restaurant. "Sometimes I say, 'What the hell am I doing out here?' But it all comes back to the kids."
He tirelessly plugs his adopted cause, the Wisconsin-based Camp Heartland, a free camp for children living with HIV or AIDS.
"He's a great guy. Never before have I met anyone with his passion," said Neil Willenson, Camp Heartland's founder.
A midlife crisis and an epiphany while watching the movie "Forrest Gump" set Rochon on this somewhat quixotic walk across America. He gave up real estate and decided that walking, like Gump's running, might help him get his priorities straight.
But what started out as a long hike mushroomed into a cross-country crusade. Charmed by a 12-year-old AIDS patient named Stephanie in Arizona, Rochon devoted his walk to children like her. He left Miami on Sept. 16, 1996. Each day, he drives a donated motor home to his stopping point, drops off a scooter, then drives back to his starting point and starts walking. He rides the scooter back.
"I'm planning on walking up Highway 1, but it depends on whether or not El Nino blows me off a cliff," he says. "I really want to finish by September or October, but who knows? I keep things open."