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Walk, Branch, Walk

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Branch Clarke is walking away from his life.

At 26, he's a 2003 graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University with a fine-arts degree who's spent the past four years dedicated to the fine art of cooking at Joe's Inn on Shields Avenue.

Now he's planning to walk a thin 2,000-mile-long line stretching from coast to coast, braving cliché and the elements on a quest for self-enlightenment.

"People my age — I think people in their mid-20s — they're starting to accept a lot less for what they need for success," says Clarke, a thin, soft-spoken Richmond-scenester type in drainpipe jeans and a band T-shirt, nursing a cup of cold coffee at the Joe's Inn bar. "I just feel like I've settled for a lot less than I'm capable of."

What he thinks he's capable of is walking. A lot.

He says he's driven by a need to improve himself and hopes his cross-country trip shows other 20-somethings that there's more to life than cheap cigarettes, too-tight ironic T-shirts and low-pay, restaurant-industry jobs.

"The thing that keeps people from doing this kind of thing is, 'I have a job, a girlfriend, a life.' You get caught in a schedule," he says. "I have all those things, too."

He won't for long. Since committing to the trip — he leaves sometime in March — he's divested himself of the job in favor of training and planning time. With the long view of keeping his girlfriend of seven years and his favorable living arrangement, he secured her begrudging blessing and arranged a sublet for his apartment.

Though he's dedicating his walk to cyclist Lance Armstrong's cancer research fund, with a stated goal of raising $50,000 for the charity, Clarke says his motives for walking are all pretty much about personal improvement.

His plan is to complete the hike in about five months — budgeting some time to take in the sights. He'll carry a 40-pound pack, a tent and some basic necessities — like plenty of socks and a laptop computer to journalize at www.branchwalks.com.

Starting at his family's vacation home in Sandbridge, he'll follow a winding path that passes through 11 states before arriving in San Francisco.

"It's not the quickest route," Clarke admits.

That said, Clarke plans to fly home. When he arrives, except for the girlfriend and the apartment, he's coming back to nothing.

"Metaphorically, 'I' don't want to come back anyway," he says. S

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