“They just couldn’t believe that somebody would do all that running for no particular reason.”

 – Forrest Gump responding to countless
questions from news media types as he jogged back and forth across the U.S. for two-and-a-half years.

Somewhere between the congregation rolling the casket up the steps and down the aisle of that cathedral in Rhode Island, gulping down a greasy order of bacon and eggs at the truck stop off the Interstate outside Providence, R.I., and bunking down in the woods for the night with his four-legged traveling companion, an old yellow lab named Buddy, 20-year-old Enoch Garris realized he had the entire world – or at least the entire U.S. – at his feet.

Garris is a 225-pound young man with a crew-cut, who could easily pass for an All-American guard on one of the late Bear Bryant’s national champion Alabama football teams way back when; he looks like one of them tough-lookin’ lantern-jawed fellas who ran out on the stage with his helmet under his arm and a golf ball-sized wad of Skoal tucked into his cheek.

But this admitted “country boy” from Braithwaite who, with his 12 home-schooled brothers and sisters, polished the edge off some of their corn pone and “aw shucks” with frequent visits to New Orleans for “fun weekends” over the years, is a man on a different mission these days. A real-life Forrest Gump, Enoch Garris isn’t quite sure what that mission is. But just as sure as there’s a Route 66 out there, there’s a mission. Garris knows that. All he has to do is identify it.

“I guess it was about a year ago when I decided I was going to walk across the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific,” Garris says. “I started in Boston and walked down to Philadelphia for practice. That’s about 300 miles. When I got to Philadelphia I thought I’d take a break and come down to New Orleans to visit my brothers and then my parents over in Dallas. But after our visit that evening I’m flying back to the Philadelphia airport right where I stopped the first leg of my journey. I’m going right back to that same spot and head toward California. I’m not going to start here in the South. I don’t want anybody to say I’m cheating. No shortcuts. I originally set out for ‘coast to coast’ and that’s what it’s going to be.”

The only difference with the rest of the trip will be the absence of Buddy, who Garris dropped off with family in Dallas. “It gets to be a little much carrying food for Buddy,” he says. “My brother Noah is coming back to Philadelphia with me, and he’s going to keep me company through Cincinnati. At that point, he’ll come back home and I’ll be on my way to Los Angeles, or San Diego, or somewhere out in California by myself.”

So who’s donating 25 cents a mile to Garris, as he wears out shoe leather walking some 2,600 miles over the legendary Route 66 through the Heartland?

“Nobody,” says Garris. “I didn’t have a cause or a charity in mind when I started this. I just knew deep down inside it was something I wanted to do, something I had to do. When it’s all over I want to go to helicopter school. That’s my dream, but for now, it’s on to California. It’s something I’ve got to do. I just keep figuring somebody is going to see me and say, ‘Hey, I want to be a part of that! I want to help that guy get where he’s going!’

So far on the first 300 miles Garris has turned down numerous car rides (“that would be cheating”), has slept in cheap motels and eaten in divey diners along the way to save money. He has slept in the rain and wind and he’s been hassled by a few deer and raccoons, but nothing serious. He has also been befriended by church pastors and their wives who’ve invited him to eat hot meals and shower at their homes: “Man, you don’t know how great a hot shower can be until you haven’t had one for a few days,” says Garris.

He sits in his brother Luke’s living room in Metairie mending his travel gear and pulling together his supplies (“I had a great bamboo walking stick, but they wouldn’t let me take it on the plane.”). A visitor to the home donates a smart straw hat with a wide brim and places it on Garris’ head. “For you,” the visitor says. “To keep the sun off your head.”

Garris smiles and thanks the guy – this is one less thing he’ll have to buy for the final 2,500 miles or so of his trip.

“He and I have talked about this many times,” his brother Luke says. “I even did a sort of interview with Enoch to help him understand what this is all about. He may not have had some set cause or group in mind, but it’s all coming together. I think Enoch now understands that this journey is a metaphor for life. He knew he would have struggles on this journey just as in life, and that those struggles have to be overcome and won. I told him that a lot of people would look at him and not see just some kid walking along the road, but would vicariously be seeing their own lives, their own struggles through him. It’s a great adventure, one that will bring out the best in Enoch and will give him experiences and memories he can draw on throughout the rest of his life.”

Enoch Garris, meanwhile, is telling the story of the time he stopped for prayer and rest at a cathedral in Rhode Island when a funeral party came in. Garris, dressed in battered cargo pants and a road-beaten shirt, smelling like six-day-old fish, began shaking hands with everybody there. “I almost became a pallbearer right there on the spot,” he says with an explosion of laughter. “In the end the funeral went on, and I walked outside and got Buddy and we were on our way to Philadelphia.”

“There are those things that come into people’s lives that they must face, and must do,” Luke says. “This is it for Enoch. Our entire family is proud of him and supporting him.”

“That’s what keeps me going, brother,” Enoch smiles at Luke. “When I’m in the rain and my legs ache and a car goes by and splashes me, I just remember one of your speeches and I’m all inspired.”

Enoch Garris has all his grub and gear packed and he talks incessantly about making that final leg to Pacifica Boulevard in Los Angeles or somewhere else in California, with only the blue ocean in front of him. Although he may not have a cause or a reason firmly locked down, for a split second you can almost hear the late Nat King Cole crooning those long-gone lyrics:

“Won’t you get hip to this timely tip:/When you make that California trip/Get your kicks on Route 66.”