'Fat Man Walking'--wired on Route 66

Cell phone, laptop and iPod--when they work--help make Steve Vaught's cross-country trek to shed pounds easier to bear. Photos: En route for health

As Steve Vaught walks across country to shed weight and gain a new outlook, the once 400-pound man known as "The Fat Man Walking" is leaning on gadgets to put a spring in his step.

Currently more than halfway through his highly publicized trek along Route 66 that started on April 10, Vaught has sung along to his iPod, recorded sights with his video camera, and used a laptop and cell phone to stay in touch with loved ones.

The 6-foot-1 father of two left his hometown outside San Diego earlier this year in an attempt to walk to New York City to "lose weight and regain my life." Approaching his 40th birthday, the former lanky teenager and muscular Marine decided he needed to do something drastic if he was going to live to see his children grow up. Steve Vaught On Monday, he is arriving back in Rolla, Mo., where his journey left off before he flew home to spend Christmas with his family. Despite the cold, he said he camps out in the tent he's carrying about half the time, and stays in motels the other half. He also leaves provisions in a car driven by a man filming his trek for a documentary.

But while technology has made Vaught's trip more bearable, it's also had its down sides. Over the course of a few days earlier this month, he lost his video camera charger, saw his iPod blank out and witnessed his laptop crash.

"Electronically, I've been sabotaged," said Vaught, noting that the cold was making it hard to listen to his iPod anyway. "It was so cold, the earplugs wouldn't stay in my ears."

Still, technology has served The Fat Man Walking well. Vaught seems most thankful for his Verizon-donated cell phone, which helps him feel like a part of his family's day-to-day life. On a recent day, for example, he got a real-time report from his wife about his 4-year-old son, Marc, who has emulated his dad by putting on a backpack and pretending to start out on his own cross-country journey.

The phone, of course, needs charging, which can be challenging when Vaught's camping out. He tells of gas station attendants who wonder why he's sitting against the wall for hours, not realizing that under his right arm he's pilfering electricity.

He also had to charge his video camera--until he lost the charger at least. And his first-generation iPod needs to be juiced, too, although that "froze to death," as he put it. Vaught had used the iPod mostly for audio books, but also noted in his journal that he's a huge music fan and often gets complaints at motels for singing too loudly.

Vaught's trip also wouldn't be the same without his Compaq laptop, which, when it works, allows him to keep in touch with daughter Melanie, who is 8 "going on 35" and has her own e-mail account. "Wireless is the only way to go," Vaught said, adding that he has found signals outside farmhouses next to barns in the middle of nowhere. He has better luck, however, sitting in parking lots in between two major hotels, he said.

Epiphany in Amarillo
Another technological lifesaver has been gear provided by GoLite, a Boulder, Colo.-based company committed to improving people's outdoor experiences, said co-founder Kim Coupounas.

Coupounas said her company offered help after seeing pictures of Vaught moving at a snail's pace with an 80-pound pack. "He's really an inspiration for us all," she said. "We just wanted to see him succeed."

With Coupounas' help, Vaught was able to lighten his core load to about 16 pounds by getting a lighter pack, tent and pad and cutting unnecessary straps, among other things. That 16 pounds doesn't include Vaught's electronic gadgets, which bring the weight up to about 23 pounds.

"I really never thought about redundancies before. But after really examining what I had versus what I needed, it became apparent that I had way too much junk," Vaught wrote in his online journal.

GoLite sales director Kevin Volz visited Vaught around Halloween and admits that he left feeling a bit discouraged and surprised that Vaught hadn't been carrying much in the way of water or healthy food. Volz also realized that Vaught hadn't really modified his eating habits and was often eating junk food from convenience stores or restaurants along the route. "He was eating the worst foods," Volz said.

But Volz's visit triggered a momentous change both in attitude and behavior for Vaught. Not only did he pick up his walking pace somewhere around Amarillo, Texas, he realized that he "had to learn to eat better" and lose weight gradually.

"I put the weight on slowly. I have to lose it steadily, so I can keep it off," he said. "I don't want all this effort to go to nothing."

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