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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)

"You can't cheat. There is no possible way to cheat. It was my journey," said Vaught. "I didn't care about where I was at and where I was going. I don't care if it was 2,800 or 1,500 miles. . . . It's about where your head is."

It was that internal journey that attracted Pierre Bagley, a Texan who is directing the documentary and who traveled with Vaught periodically. The filmmakers said they never saw Vaught hitch rides and they defend him as a troubled man who was ill-prepared for the monsoon of media and public attention.

"He tried to do this the best way he could," said Bagley, who nonetheless is now skeptical that the trip unfolded as Vaught said it did. "If he lost more than 40 pounds, I'm a rock."

Years earlier, Vaught, a former Marine, had served time for vehicular manslaughter after striking and killing an elderly couple. Vaught said that plunged him into a deep depression, and he gained hundreds of pounds. He began his walk in April 2005 with those emotional burdens and a marriage on the rocks with his wife ready to divorce him.

"The walk had to happen in order for the divorce not to happen," said April, 33, who devotes her days to home-schooling the couple's two children. "They're connected; they can't be separated. It didn't happen the way it needed to happen."

April, who is featured in the film, says the media attention engulfed her husband, swelling his ego.

"The only thing I had was a requirement and expectation of him to exert himself physically and to have time and introspection to come up with a value system of his own," said April. "Something that would bring us closer as a family."

Now, she says that didn't happen and wants the divorce to go forward.

Her husband acknowledges that his newfound fame "distracted" him from his mission. When he got to St. Louis, Vaught said he was ready to return home to his children. But, he said, "I couldn't go home because there was so much expectation for me to go to New York."

Vaught says he felt torn "between focusing on the walk and what became the business of the walking." Journalists lined up to interview him, agents wanted to represent him, and e-mails consumed precious time. The Washington Post featured him in a story on July 8, when he was in his 13th week on the road and trudging through the desert near Peach Springs, Ariz. He said, "It did disrupt my overall sight of what I was going to do."

Through it all, Americans kept cheering Vaught on. He arrived in New York late on May 9 and the next morning appeared on the "Today" show to talk with Katie Couric, telling her the trip was about "life overall and struggling through adversity."

But why all the attention lavished on Vaught? After all, many have walked the length of the country. A group of Christians makes an annual pilgrimage from California to Washington to protest abortion. A "peace grandmother" protesting the Iraq war completed her walk in just five months, compared with Vaught's 13 months. But none of them became a counterculture icon.

Documentarian Bagley calls Vaught's journey an American story. "It's an amazing thing about America: We can make anybody a hero, whether they deserve it or not," he said. "Everything would have been better if he had not had all this pressure to live up to this Hollywood version of Forrest Gump."

Vaught has returned to the San Diego area and put his belongings in storage. He lives in a Super 8 motel with no job and no clear goal beyond promoting The Fat Man Walking as a business sponsoring walkathons and charity work to fight child obesity. Even so, Vaught said the journey worked out for him, leaving him stronger and healthier.

"I'm doing this for the betterment of Steve," he said. "I said I'm a flawed individual. I think that people were struck by it and the honesty of it. "

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© 2006 The Washington Post Company