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Friday, October 23, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Story Of Hope: Aids Trek Nears End

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

On the road, Louie Rochon wouldn't allow himself to think of the distance he hoped to travel on foot because such thoughts would drive him crazy.

And he tried not to focus on the loneliness, which is what happens when you're out there walking through swamps and thigh-high grass, on snowy ground, on asphalt so hot it's like stepping on chewing gum, going for long stretches without meeting another human being.

Rochon did his best to dismiss the spitting, the cussing, the rocks and bottles hurled at him, which didn't happen too often but enough to give him pause.

There is still so much misunderstanding about AIDS, he realized. People thinking AIDS is "a gay disease" was one of the toughest things about the walk that took him two years to complete.

What made it easy - if one can ascribe "easy" to walking across the country, from Miami to Bremerton - were the children Rochon kept thinking about.

Rochon walked to call attention to children battling AIDS, and he met many of them along his route.

He had never known anyone with AIDS before he met these kids. And having met them, it became unthinkable to consider quitting, he said, because kids with AIDS can't give up.

"So you wake up," he said. "You put on your boots. You do it again and again and all of a sudden, you're doing something."

Rochon arrived in Seattle last week on a ferry, having made it on foot to Bremerton. All along he planned to walk the last mile as

part of a final ceremony and one last fund-raiser. That walk will be tomorrow, from Waterfront Park to the Space Needle. He wants the public to join him and help raise money for Camp Heartland, which is a free summer camp in Willow River, Minn., for children affected by AIDS.

Rochon's story is about hope: how he went looking for it, how he found it along the way and how he gave it to others.

He used to sell real estate in Bothell, a job he did quite well. Over the years, he acquired many sales trophies. He had a nice house and cars. He wore good suits. He was married with one child.

Till then, his life was about working so that he could collect things and be more comfortable. Nothing wrong with that, Rochon says now, except it wasn't enough for him.

He lost enthusiasm, then he became depressed, which cost him his job. He divorced. He floundered.

"It's funny how you get to middle age and you kind of get brainwashed," the 42-year-old says. "You think: Why try anymore? I needed to prove to myself that there was still a possibility that an individual can make a difference. I had become pretty apathetic."

Rochon's walk was never about breaking some distance or speed record. Instead, what he wanted to do was call press conferences along his route and ask people to donate to a local children's AIDS group. And he hoped to meet with children wherever he could.

Early on, a girl named Stephanie, who had AIDS, gave him a stuffed bear that Rochon pinned to his backpack. Other children followed suit, giving him more stuffed animals, photos, good-luck charms, cards and hugs wishing him well.

Rochon tells of the enormous effect the walk has had on him.

"My whole center of focus used to be, `How can I get more? Be more secure. More things. More assets.' That was my life.

"Now, it's, `How can I help? What can I give?' It's about making the difference in someone else's life instead of your own."

He sold his assets before he left. When money ran out, strangers stepped in and bought him coffee or a meal. His mother also helped support him each month.

For most of the 4,900 miles, Rochon walked alone with the bears. He traversed 1,500 miles of desert in the West.

It got nasty in California with El Nino downpours of such severity that roads were washed away. Many times, Rochon walked and then had to turn back and find another route.

He walked 10, 15, sometimes 20 miles at a time, walking against traffic because it's safer that way, tying small red ribbons at each point he stopped so he would know where he should start up again.

The children he met who had AIDS told him to tell other children that they weren't bad kids, just sick.

Mothers and fathers wrote to him, thanking him for his support.

When he began walking along the West Coast, he asked that donations be sent to Camp Heartland. So far, the camp has collected $4,000.

"It kind of warms up my heart, it's special of him to do something for children with AIDS," said Jonathan Swain, a Wisconsin 15-year-old who has had AIDS since he was 2 days old. He will meet Rochon for the first time tomorrow.

"I think it's kind of crazy," he said about Rochon's walk. "But it's real nice in another way."

Florangela Davila's phone: 206-464-2916. E-mail: fdavila@seattletimes.com ------------------------------- To join the walk

The final leg of Louie Rochon's walk begins at 10:30 a.m. tomorrow at Waterfront Park, on Alaskan Way between Piers 59 and 62.

To make a pledge call Camp Heartland at 1-800-724-HOPE.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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