New Jersey Activist Walks Across the Country Again
Louis Figueroa traverses the nation for a cause
Forrest Gump’s awareness-raising marathon across the United States has become a classic American tradition. Upstanding citizens have trekked from San Diego to York Harbor, Maine, to support the senior citizen meal delivery service Meals on Wheels; from San Francisco to Jacksonville Beach, Florida, to support LGBT rights; from Coronado, California, to Washington, D.C., to support 9/11 survivors. But no one has ever made the coast-to-coast trip faster than Louis Figueroa has.
In 1981, at 16, a year after placing first in his age division in the Los Angeles Marathon, Figueroa set out from his hometown of New Brunswick, New Jersey, to fulfill a promise made to a friend’s 10-year-old brother who was fighting bone cancer. “[He] was despondent and angry over a life that was ending too soon,” Figueroa told the Vallejo Times-Herald years later. “I promised I would run across America if he fought the cancer.”
Figueroa reached San Francisco in 60 days, raising money and awareness for the American Cancer Society as he went. According to the Vallejo Times-Herald, he stopped on a bench in Georgia and told a local, “When I got tired, I slept. When I got hungry, I ate. When I had to go to the bathroom, I went,” which inspired the line Tom Hanks’ character in the Academy Award–winning film Forrest Gump would deliver more than a decade later.
But Figueroa didn’t stop. In 1996, at 31, he traveled from Bangor, Maine, to San Diego to raise awareness about the social stigma faced by AIDS victims. His brother Jimmy died of the disease. This time Figueroa walked, owing to his own battle with leukemia.
“You keep on walking so someone else doesn’t end up in this same f-ed up position,” Figueroa remembered his brother telling him. He made it to the West Coast in a little over a year. Along the way he helped raise more than $300,000 for local AIDS organizations.
In 2005, Figueroa launched a third trip to raise support for an even more personal cause. As a child, he was sexually abused by a housekeeper. To raise support for other victims of child abuse, Figueroa made a 7,500-mile loop around the country, starting and ending in Tucson, Arizona.
Though he was forced to stop after 3,000 miles because of leukemia complications, in July 2010 Figueroa started where he left off in Somerset, Pennsylvania, and finished the walk the following January.
“Everyone has a gift. The secret of life is to use that [gift] and better humanity,” he told the Columbia Basin Herald, 5,400 miles into his final act. “My gift is that my feet can go long distances.”
That, and he has a deep music collection. “The boredom would kill you if you didn’t have music,” Figueroa said. “I couldn’t do this without music.”