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'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."

Vaught's initial plan was to walk 20 miles a day, in order to make it to the Big Apple in six months, ahead of the winter cold. But that pace proved unrealistic, particularly as he carried an 80-pound pack and suffered from numerous injuries--including severe dehydration and the loss of three toenails due to the weight on his feet--while fighting the desert heat.

His physical pace may have been slow, but his Web following took off. Fueled by tons of media attention in the early days, some 100,000 people started following his journey. A glut of postings and e-mails crashed what initially was a homemade site, and a new Web services provider took over.

"It's turned out to be more about the journey, the people you meet, your successes and failures."
--Steve Vaught

Now, eight months and almost 1,800 miles into his journey, Vaught still gets some 5,000 hits a day on his site.

Through his Web journal, Vaught's followers have been privy to his everyday adventures, from the stray dogs who have followed him, to the motel manager who called the police on him in Springfield, Mo. because of his disheveled appearance, to the epiphanies he's had about not just losing weight today, but creating eating habits for a healthier life tomorrow.

Some followers get impatient with him, Vaught said, because in a society that he sees as based on instant gratification, they just want to know how far he's traveled and how much he's lost.

"They forget about me being a human being, not a video game," he said.

Vaught doesn't know exactly how much weight he's lost because it's hard to find scales that go high enough. He thinks it's about 80 pounds, but he prefers to measure success by how great he feels on most days--physically and mentally--and by looking at his leg, which is now about a third of the size of what it used to be.

He no longer gets killer blisters or eats junk food at every stop along the way. And his focus is on taking one day at a time--choosing the right foods, eating the right amounts and walking about 18 miles a day.

Book deal
"When I first started I had it all wrong. I was focused on the mechanics of the walk. It's turned out to be more about the journey, the people you meet, your successes and failures," he said. "Today might be a success, but tomorrow has the same vulnerabilities. I'll have to work on (my weight) every single day."

Vaught, who worked for many years as a tow truck driver, hasn't had to stress much about money since he got a book deal, with a significant advance, from HarperCollins. The publishing house, however, would like to see him get to New York by February, so the money comes with added pressure.

His trip is also being funded by just one paid Web advertiser, Drinkables Liquid Supplements, one of a slew of companies that contacted Vaught in hopes of associating their name with his journey. Vaught turned the rest down because he "didn't want to be a NASCAR."

First and foremost, Vaught said he's doing the trip for himself and for his family. But he also feels inspired by and committed to his cyberaudience, which has been routing him on electronically. That includes participants in his Yahoo discussion group and authors of more than 10,000 entries on his site's guestbook.

Stacey Tollette is typical in her sentiment. "It really takes a lot of determination and will power to overcome a weight problem and you took it by the horns and showed every one that it can be done," she recently wrote in the guestbook. "Way to go. I will pray for a safe journey and peace of mind."

Some, however, have taken offense to Vaught's reference to obesity as an affliction "that you can do something about," and the "physical manifestation of emotional problems," rather than a disease. They've also criticized him for, among other things, his candid and often verbose journal entries.

A few are relentlessly mean and spiteful, he said, such as one "Internet troll" who sent hundreds of "deprecating e-mails" to site visitors whose e-mail addresses appeared publicly.

"It seems that he has made it his duty to try and hurt me. I think that a person like him needs a person like me more than I need myself," Vaught wrote in his journal. "Where would he be if he didn't have a hated protagonist to focus on? He would only have himself and I suspect that he hates himself far more that he hates me."

Vaught has every intention of making it to New York. But if his trip ended today, he said he would still feel he's realized his goals. "I could not have done in 20 years what this trip has done in the last seven months," he said.

"This type of journey can be had by anyone, anywhere and at anytime," he wrote in his journal. "It really is a simple matter of deciding what is important and focusing on that. Then leave behind all of the other things that do not enhance the quality of your life."