Walking Off the Fat, Across the Land

Vaught has lost about 50 pounds since April 10.
Vaught has lost about 50 pounds since April 10. (Amy Argetsinger - Twp)
By Amy Argetsinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 8, 2005

PEACH SPRINGS, Ariz. -- This week, his 13th on the road, has been the hardest thus far for Steve Vaught, a 400-pound man trying to walk across America.

On Sunday morning, he found a creek just as the desert heat forced a midday break. But when he woke from a nap and tried to fill his water bottles, the stream had already gone dry. Late that night, he walked right past his scheduled motel stop in Truxton, a flyspeck on historic Route 66 so slight it vanished when the sun went down.

On Monday, out of water in 102-degree heat and miles from any town, he sent a frantic text message to his wife, who called the local police. They drove him to a hotel, where he rested a night and a day, sick with dehydration. On Wednesday he started late and tangled with a scary dude on the desolate highway.

"I'm quitting," he told his wife this week. She said okay.

But within hours he hit the road again, as they always sort of knew he would. For quitting is not so easy when you're 500 miles from home.

This spring, as he neared his 40th birthday, Vaught had an epiphany: If he didn't lose the weight, he would die before 50. But dieting would not work, he decided, and neither would normal exercise. He knew he was the kind of guy who could rationalize his way out of one three-mile walk after another. "My weakness," he said, "is the easy way out."

So Vaught made it hard. On April 10, he left his home in San Diego -- and his wife and two children -- and started walking, alone, to New York.

There's something about this nation's geography that inspires this kind of journey -- to hike the Appalachian Trail, to kayak the entire Mississippi River, or just to drive from Maine to Key West, and maybe make sense of things along the way. Which is how it has gone for Vaught, on the road mulling issues far beyond weight or willpower. The trip has not gone completely as planned. He has only rarely come even close to the pace of 20 miles a day he estimated would put him in verdant Missouri by now, not Arizona in July.

He strained a couple of ligaments shortly after he started, and he lost three toenails climbing the final mountain pass out of California.

If he is very lucky, Vaught will clear 80 miles this week, a fraction of his 3,000-mile goal. On Wednesday, he remained deeply concerned about his ability to cover a 25-mile stretch of uninhabited desert between Seligman and Ash Fork.

On the bright side: That 400-pound man now weighs only 350.

Health Implications

"Does this seem insane?" Vaught wants to know.

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