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.
"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. "