Ike, the 3-year-old gray Maine Coon cat that hitched a 600-mile ride from Oak Ridge to central Florida, has been reunited with his owner.

“He waltzed right on up to us,” owner Ashley Gaines said in a phone interview Friday from her Beverly Hills, Fla., hotel room. “He just walked up all leisurely, and I thought, ‘Why aren’t you running?’ ”

Ike inadvertently ended up in Citrus County, Fla., on July 7 after his curiosity over a Tennessee neighbor’s open moving truck got the best of him.

Unbeknownst to the neighbors, he headed south with them. He gave them a start when he bolted out of the back at journey’s end.

When Gaines learned of Ike’s escapade, she got emergency leave from her downtown Knoxville employer and she and her mother traveled 10 hours to search for the beloved animal.

Gaines posted fliers, pleaded for assistance from local media outlets and spoke with nearly everyone in the area.

Her first tip came Wednesday when a parcel deliverywoman notified the search party she’d spotted a cat that fit Ike’s description. Gaines said the good news rejuvenated her spirits, which were admittedly dwindling considering her cat was in an area populated with coyotes.

“I was beginning to think we wouldn’t find him,” she said. “But she gave us a few street names to search.”

Buoyed by a story in the Citrus County Chronicle newspaper and an outpouring of community support, Gaines and her mother zeroed in on the targeted streets.

What they found were numerous households that left food out for stray cats, including several gray ones, increasing their optimism.

“He really landed in the best possible place to get lost,” Gaines said.

The most promising lead came Thursday afternoon from a neighborhood handyman who heard her calls for Ike.

Around 10:15 p.m. Thursday, Gaines returned to the man’s home to see if anything had developed. While she spoke with the man, Ike strolled onto the driveway and right up to her.

Gaines said she plans on taking the cat to a vet so he can get a GPS tracking collar. She doesn’t plan on letting him outside until then. Ironically, she added that once they were back at her Florida hotel, Ike was meowing to go outside.

After an interview with a Florida news station this morning, Gaines, her mother and the pet will head back to Oak Ridge to await the return of another family member away from home. Gaines’ husband, Thomas, is a lieutenant in the U.S. Army three months from completing a 15-month tour in Iraq.

While Gaines said Ike is her companion while her husband is deployed, Thomas Gaines offered a further glimpse into just how much the four-legged family member means to her.

In an e-mail message, he said they picked out the Maine Coon, a breed commonly regarded for its hefty size, because he’s a dog person. He joked that he envisioned growing the cat to a size large enough to ride, but when Ike peaked at around 10 pounds, Thomas Gaines resorted to treating the bushy-tailed cat more like a child than a mode of transportation.

“When I first deployed, he was there as a replacement for affection during her first lonely nights,” Thomas Gaines wrote. “When Ashley learned that I and several members of my platoon had been injured, Ike noticed her distress and spent more time curled up next to her.

“Ashley has been forced to cope with so many things this past year alone, and now the one thing she did have had been taken away from her. There really was no other course of action that she could have taken than to go down to Florida to look for Ike.

“Because, in the end, she was not looking for Ike, she’s looking for me.”