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(Reprinted from The Observer, Vandalia, OH, March 18, 2006)

One fat man walks ... and becomes a US counterculture hero

By Paul Harris
Saturday, Mar 18, 2006,Page 9

The white car halted on the outskirts of town and a pretty woman rolled down the window at the sight of a fat man trudging by with a rucksack on his back. "Are you Steve?" asked Kim Saylor, 26. "I am such a big fan."

For Steve Vaught, being stopped in the street is now a daily occurrence. He is an unlikely celebrity: a morbidly obese man who has captured the heart of America by walking alone across the country on a quest to lose weight and find his soul.

Like a real-life Forrest Gump, Vaught's journey from coast to coast is touching the lives of millions. Last month his Web site had more than 700,000 hits. Fans travel thousands of kilometers to walk with him for a little way. He has appeared on TV's Today show and in countless local newspapers. He has a book deal with HarperCollins and a documentary crew is chronicling his walk. Later this month he will receive the ultimate accolade of US fame: an appearance on Oprah.

For Vaught, 40, who weighed more than 177kg when he left California almost a year ago, it has all come as a shock.

"People seem to think I am some kind of American hero, but I am just a guy," he said.

His walk has touched a nerve in a US struggling with an obesity epidemic and a car-celebrating culture. What started as one man's weight loss has become much more: a symbolic quest for a better way of living. Part of it is Vaught's Buddhist-style attitude. His Web site is full of reflective musings that inspire not only people trying to lose weight but all those seeking to change their life.

"Now I realize this is an emotional journey, not a physical one," he said.

Vaught's trip began one day in a supermarket in California when he realized he could not walk across the store without becoming breathless.

"Twenty years ago I was a US Marine and in the best shape of my life. What happened to me?" he said.

His story is a sad one that saw a battle with depression and disaster express itself in overeating. He grew up in the decaying Ohio steel city of Youngstown. A bad stepfather and a tough school developed his wild side. After leaving the Marines, he was in a car accident in which two people died. The accident sent Vaught into years of depression and comfort eating.

He took a job in a car repair workshop in California, married and had two children. And he picked up fat -- lots and lots of fat. Eventually he hit nearly 190kg and he realized he would die if he carried on.

"I thought: what sort of selfish bastard does that? To die just when their kids need them. I was killing myself the cowardly way. I didn't even have the guts to shoot myself in the head," he said.

He had fantasized about riding a horse across the US.

"Well, I thought: Now I am as big as a horse myself," he said.

So last April the journey began. That was 3,540km ago. Vaught has trekked over California's mountains, through the Arizona and New Mexico deserts, across the Texas and Oklahoma plains and through the fields of Missouri, Illinois and Indiana. Now he is in Ohio, with just 960km and six weeks of walking left before his walk ends at Rockefeller Plaza, New York. He travels slowly, staying in cheap hotels or camping by the roadside.

"The only way to see this country is at 3mph," he said.

Vaught, hailed as a counterculture icon, has been flooded with commercial offers. One company wanted him to market a weight-loss pill in a deal that could have netted him US$5 million. He turned it down. Such pills, Vaught believes, are part of a quick-fix modern culture he now despises.

"It's all about `give me a pill,' `give me surgery,' do anything but face reality," Vaught said, sitting on a bench beside a railway on the outskirts of Vandalia.

"But how much does my integrity cost? I have done this walk to get my integrity back. I am not going to sell it," he said.

Vaught has now lost about 50kg. That still makes him a fat man, but it is not something he cares about: "One hundred and fourteen pounds is a whole girlfriend!" he joked. "It took me 20 years to get into this situation. It is going to take some time to get out."

Vaught believes his victory has been over his mindset, not his body shape. After years, he has come off anti-depressants and is happy again.

His trip has had its low moments. He has stress fractures in both feet. In New Mexico he was nearly bitten by a cobra, which he shot before it struck him. But Vaught's trip has revealed to him the extent of the US' subservience to cars and fast food. Walking in the US is not easy: there are few pavements. Nor is healthy eating. On the first 30km of his walk Vaught passed 24 fast-food restaurants and one grocery shop.

"What are they trying to tell us?" he said. "America should be the best place in the world to eat food. Instead it is the worst."

The list of people he has met makes up a tableau of US life. There was a Navajo woman who waited six days to meet him and ask advice for her own obese mother; another woman who gave him water in the desert; a beautiful waitress in Oklahoma, struggling to bring up three children in a town ravaged by drugs; and a young Goth girl in small-town Illinois, struggling to leave.

Vaught rejoices in his experiences in the obscure byways of this enormous country.

"This is the real America with its quirks and eccentricities. For all the shortcomings, it is a beautiful place," he said.

As Vaught trudged towards the next town, the highway was so busy with traffic that walking was dangerous and talking difficult. But behind the deafening noise, was the sound of birds singing.

(Editor's note: Vaught is a former Marine.)