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Fat Man Walking

By GARY WARTH - NCTimes.com Staff Writer
Updated July 16, 2005

Steve Vaught never imagined himself a celebrity, never thought anyone would take note of a guy just trying to lose weight. But something has happened since that April day when the 400-pound Valley Center man took his first steps on a cross-country trek, an admittedly unusual weight-loss program that Vaught hopes will help him focus and keep him from the temptation of the couch and refrigerator.

People have discovered his Web site, www.TheFatManWalking.com, and began telling their friends about it. Radio stations began giving updates on his walk, with one even printing T-shirts for fans to show their support. People donated money or supplies and offered to put him up if he ever needed a room. A documentary crew started following him. So many reporters called that he started declining interviews because of the distraction.

"People have been coming out of the woodwork," Vaught said. "People have driven up all the way from San Diego just to have lunch with me."

Sitting under a tree near an overpass near Route 66 in Ludlow a few weeks ago, Vaught stared off into the distant desert and wondered out loud why so many are interested, why one man's story had caught the imagination of so many.

But the mystery is not so great. Vaught, a reflective man whose self-doubts sometimes weigh as heavily as his determination, has become an inspiration not just for people trying to lose weight, but for anyone trying to improve their lives overall, according to messages admirers have left on his Web site.

"People have said they'll quit smoking as long as I keep walking," Vaught said. "People have quit their cable (TV) so they don't have an excuse not to go out."

An Everyman equally comfortable talking about his days in the U.S. Marines as about his love for his family, Vaught said his journey has inspired him to find Zen-like observations in oranges, philosophical ponderings about life and contemplations about the ripple effect one man can have on the world.

"If you live your entire life and only affect one person positively, that's a good life," he said in June, as he was beginning to comprehend the number of people following his journey. "And when this is over, there's going to be hundreds of people. A vast majority of people have been moved by this trip, which is something that's completely unexpected and very moving to me. There's people who have changed their lifestyles. People say they read it (his Web site) every day, and when I walk, they go out and walk, so in a sense, they're doing it with me."

First steps

Vaught grew up in a rough section of Youngstown, Ohio, and he was just 3 when his father left home. When he was old enough, Steve enlisted in the Marines to get away, he said, and served for three years before being honorably discharged as a lance corporal in 1986.

Four years later, he was living in San Diego and driving up Balboa Avenue when he approached a van stopped at an intersection. By the time he realized the van had stopped for an elderly couple crossing the street, it was too late for him to stop. Both pedestrians died in the collision.

Vaught spent just 13 days in jail because of the accident, but the internal punishment lasted for years.

"I absolutely bottomed out," he said. "A lot of people don't understand this, but I don't remember being 26, 27 or 28. I remember being 29 only because I was starting to freak out about turning 30."

Life got better about nine years ago, he said, when he fell in love with a woman he originally knew as the 13-year-old sister of a friend when he was 20. He married April Vaught 3 1/2 years ago, and the couple have two children, Marc, 3, and Melanie, 8.

Despite the joy his new family brought, Vaught said he still fought depression and battled personal demons.

His outlook spiraled downward and his weight climbed higher. Once the owner of a towing business and a consultant for others starting their own businesses, Vaught began to find it hard to get new clients.

Health in the balance

The Vaughts lived in North Carolina for three years before returning to San Diego last year.

"He thought he had friends here," April Vaught said. "When he went to look for a regular job, it was just diminishing returns. The heavier he gets, the fewer offers and fewer interviews he gets."

With his family livelihood and his health in the balance, Vaught decided to take action.

"If it were just about me, I don't think I'd go through this much trouble," he said. "I'm going to be 40 this year, and I'm 400 pounds. How much time do I have left? Five or six years? I'm going to die before my kids are out of high school, and that's not fair."

"It's probably a lot of little things," April said about why Steve decided to lose weight. "Our little boy turned 3, and that brought back memories. That's when his father left him. That's always been a big issue for him."

Vaught acknowledges the cross-country walk is a challenge for an obese man, but doesn't see his goal as quixotic.

"I'm just a human being like everybody else, but every human being is capable of doing amazing things," he said.

On the road

While shopping in Target earlier this year, Vaught found himself out of breath and with back pains after walking the length of the store. Frustrated and disappointed in himself, he vowed to turn his life around and drop the weight he had slowly put on over the years.

But Vaught feared that a regular diet-and-exercise routine wouldn't work, that he would get bored and depressed and would slowly slip into his old ways after six weeks.

Walking across the country had been a lifetime dream for Vaught. But what would his wife think?

"I thought she was just going to say, 'What are you, stupid?'" he said.

Instead, April Vaught gave her blessing.

"I said, 'Well, hurry up and do it, then,' because he hasn't done anything in ways of helping his health, and it's just been getting progressively worse."

The couple sat up in bed that night talking about it, and the next Monday Vaught quit his job at an auto shop and began walking and buying supplies. He set up a Web site to help friends keep track of his progress, never realizing the thousands of visitors it would attract. His wife and children are staying with her mother, and April is working part time at different jobs to keep funds coming in.

Vaught left April 10, starting his journey in Oceanside, heading north on Coast Highway and east on Highway 76. Unaccustomed to the weight of a 75-pound backpack, Vaught lost his balance near College Avenue. He fell and landed on his knee, which hurt for weeks.

Lessons about life

Vaught said he has lost three toenails, developed a rash and came down with the stomach flu in Victorville, where he had to recuperate in a motel for three days. The frame on his backpack has snapped twice, kids have shot paintballs at him and he has been threatened with arrest for walking on freeways.

He also has been surprised at the generosity of people and has learned lessons about life that only the solitude of the road can teach.

"I've really started to realize that I've been pursuing the wrong things," he said. "You start to realize that what's important is not what you build around you, it's the life around you, the people around you. I've never been in a graveyard yet that's had somebody's credit rating on their headstone."

In Fontana, a fruit vendor offered him an orange when he was hungry, and Vaught still remembers the simple joy of its juicy taste when he was famished.

"I started eating this orange, and it was the best orange I've ever eaten in my life," he said. "I must have looked like an idiot, because I'm walking up the street, giggling. That was the best moment I had in years. Happiness comes from the simplest things."

Vaught didn't bring any music to listen to or books to read when he started the walk.

"When I first left, I thought, this is a journey of discovery. I have to be by myself. But you find out pretty quick you're boring." Vaught now has some books to keep him company.

In Arizona

Two weeks ago, Vaught was in Kingman, Ariz., following 66E to Flagstaff. A visit to a doctor's office revealed his weight was 358 pounds, and he is averaging a loss of about 4 pounds a week.

In her Web journal, April Vaught wrote that Steve had been outside cell service, but that he had called her from pay phones. In one of the most challenging stretches of his trip, she said, Vaught was in 102-degree heat, traveling long stretches between towns and without cell service. She wrote that local law enforcement officers had brought him water after she called them about him.

A Washington Post reporter called her on July 6 to say he had met Vaught in the desert and found him in good spirits. After that article appeared on July 8, the New York Times magazine section ran a story on July 10. That got the attention of the "Today" show, which sent a crew to April's house in Valley Center and another crew to Williams, Ariz., to interview Steve in a hotel, where they provided him a room. They were interviewed live on Tuesday.

All the media attention caused the Web site TheFatManWalking.com to overload. Mirror sites have been set up until the site can be put on its own server.

At press time Friday, Steve had reached Ashfork, Ariz. After he gets to Flagstaff, he plans to head east to New Mexico, then through north Texas and into Oklahoma.

Vaught said earlier he has no idea when he'll make it to New York, but he is determined he will get there some day.

"If I'm out here and I break my leg, I'll walk on crutches," he said. "But I'm not going home."

See Steve Vaught's progress at www.TheFatManWalking.com.

Contact staff writer Gary Warth at gwarth@nctimes.com or (760) 740-5410.

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