Cross-Country, Baggage & All

Some doubt that Steve Vaught walked the entire way from California to New York.
Some doubt that Steve Vaught walked the entire way from California to New York. (By Chris Hondros -- Getty Images)

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By Michelle García
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 26, 2006

NEW YORK -- He became America's hero, a flawed man with a massive belly and a headful of demons. Fat Man Walking, as Steve Vaught referred to himself, embarked on a cross-country journey to discover why he was unemployed and depressed, and weighed 400 pounds.

Americans cheered him on and some walked with him on desolate highways. Tens of thousands tracked his progress online ( http://www.thefatmanwalking.com ). The media showered him with attention. A documentary film is being produced about his journey.

Two weeks ago, Vaught crossed the George Washington Bridge into New York with reporters in tow and television helicopters overhead. "I had no goals," Vaught told reporters on the corner of 178th and Broadway. "That's something I learned to let go."

But what Vaught, 40, achieved is less clear. Interviews, online journals and a timeline of his progress provided by the documentary film crew have raised serious questions about whether Vaught in fact walked every inch of the way. Members of the film crew gave Vaught a camera (they didn't accompany him for the whole trek) and in one case, the film places him in Albuquerque one day and 117 miles to the east in Santa Rosa, N.M., the next.

The filmmakers and Vaught's wife, April, have questioned how he could have done that in a single day without catching a ride. But Vaught said that he walked every step of the way.

April, who has now filed for divorce, said Vaught rationalized skipping ahead without ever saying how he covered such distances so quickly.

"I know what he told me," said April, who spoke with her husband nearly every day of his cross-country journey. "He said, 'I walked all these miles around Albuquerque.' He skipped ahead to Santa Rosa and counted the miles in Albuquerque to getting to Santa Rosa."

The cross-country walk was supposed to take six months; it became a 13-month odyssey instead. In Ohio, he suspended the trip and flew back to Los Angeles for a two-week session with a personal trainer before, he said, he picked up where he left off. He had a dispute with his ghostwriter over "accuracy and tone." And his book deal has evaporated.

"We are no longer working with him," said Judith Regan, publisher of Regan Books. She would not address why.

Vaught said he fulfilled his promise to walk to New York. The walk through the heart of New Mexico appears shorter because he withheld his journal entries and coordinates for a few days for "security reasons," he said in a phone interview from the San Diego area, where his journey began.

If it seems he walked farther than he might have been capable of, Vaught said, it was because he was getting stronger and healthier along the way. He said he lost 100 pounds on the trip.

While he took every step between California and New York, he said, the journey was not about the weight lost or the physical distance covered, but about his own personal discovery.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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