Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Reflections | Sports

October 30, 2007

The Solitary Stroll

Stephen Vaught's walk across America didn't make him thin, but it transformed him in more important ways.

James Curcuru

Weighing 410 pounds, and simmering with a lifetime's worth of mistakes and tragedies to reflect upon, Stephen Vaught left his San Diego home one day and went out for a stroll. When he'd returned, the Fat Man Walking, as he was known, had put 3,000 miles behind him, shed approximately 100 pounds, and, of course, appeared on Oprah.

Stephen Vaught (all photos courtesy his website)
"Having the limelight on you when you are struggling so hard to overcome a self-inflicted situation makes it all the more difficult."

Stephen Vaught (all photos courtesy his website)

The combination of morbid obesity and chronic depression isn't the most obvious recipe for such ambitious feats. But happy or sad, fat or slim, we all conjure up the notion of checking out and hitting the road from time to time. While many of us are able to shake off such flights of fancy with a quick re-read of On the Road, for some the drumbeat of the unknown isn't silenced quite so easily.

Stephen Vaught found himself to be one such unfortunate adventurer. A former Marine, he was once at the pinnacle of physical fitness, had a decent job, had dated a few pretty girls here and there. He'd had his share of ups and downs, wins and losses, just like the rest of us. But as Vaught told Gelf in a recent email interview, his demons were far more extreme than the average man's woes of domestic boredom and post-adolescent restlessness.

An unhappy childhood and a young adulthood marked by tragedy—he was behind the wheel during an accidental vehicular manslaughter of an elderly couple—set a dour tone that would anguish Vaught for decades. Through routine bouts of nomadic living patterns and self-imposed isolation, he couldn't escape his guilt, grief, and self-loathing. Gradually, his depression was changing him into the Fat Man.

Vaught eventually found himself with a loving wife (April—they're now divorced) and two young children. His sunny San Diego domestic life may have appeared full, but to him only highlighted the emptiness that probably made a family man (and fat man) out of him in the first place. Vaught had settled down, but he remained unsettled.

A heart-attack scare during a night of casual shopping in a local Target store provided the spark that lit the fire under Stephen Vaught's boots. After choosing a destination (New York City) and a path by which to reach it (primarily Route 66), Vaught began his tumultuous, epic journey on April 10, 2005. Armed with basic backpacking supplies, he went out to find himself (and hopefully a thinner version of himself).

By the time he crossed the George Washington Bridge thirteen months later, Vaught was a bona fide celebrity surrounded by reporters and a documentary crew. His personal website was mobbed by a curious public. But as the media transformed his search for curative yet strenuous introspection into a generic inspirational story intended for mass consumption (see ABC's Fat March), Vaught became tired of the weight loss angle to his walk.

His weight loss of 100 pounds (today he says he's at 315) wasn't big enough for some of his audience. How could such drastic measures produce such mediocre results? Vaught said those naysayers missed the bigger picture. The readings of the scale were far less important than the qualitative transformation of his state of mind, or, dare he say it, soul.

Nearly a year and a half after ending his trip, Vaught, 42, tells Gelf what a really long walk taught him about self exploration, religion, and perfect media storms.

Gelf Magazine: Where is the Fat Man Walking (or Working, Playing, Living, etc.) these days?

Stephen Vaught: I'm back in San Diego after spending four months with my family in Ohio. I'm working for a friend right now but looking for something more creative. I've spent most of my adult life as a business manager, but that no longer fits into who I am.

GM: If you do not want to classify your journey as a "weight-loss story," what would you like it to be classified as? Is such a context important to you, or irrelevant?

SV: Weight loss is certainly the goal because obesity is the result of a poorly managed life, in my case. But that weight loss is pointless without a real and significant change to the behaviors that caused the obesity in the first place. Without critical self-examination, commitment to change, and finding an agreeable center, you cannot expect to change who you are. Without such change, weight loss is not permanent. So in that regard, the more important part of the journey is the pursuit of the self. Without it, failure is certain; with it, weight loss comes naturally. Dam the dike and the flood waters recede.

"I didn't quit, mainly because of my sincere desire for change and partly because of how humiliating it would have been to do so."
GM: Now that the media spotlight has dimmed, do you feel you've reclaimed your experience?

SV: Well, not entirely. It seems that the media is, was, and always will be a part of the story. I started this walk alone and finished it with a worldwide audience, thanks entirely to the media. My inexperience in dealing with that media made them part of the story. So now when I think back to the walk, I really remember two different walks; the first half, where it was really about introspection, challenges, and overcoming odds; in short, finding inner strength. The second part was more about surviving my own creation: staying focused with what I needed to do for myself while riding the tidal wave of media, and subsequently, the fans. Once I separate out the mania surrounding the walk, I can appreciate how great the experience was for me, how much it really changed my life, and most importantly, that it was the greatest year of my life.

GM: Was the pressure of public scrutiny something you sought before you started your walk, perhaps as a drastic stab at self-motivation?

SV: Not at all. Initially I thought I might get some local interest. I had family and friends that I thought would pay attention to the website. But I never imagined that things were going to get like they did. If I had known then, I might have reconsidered the whole thing. In fact, I didn't even do a journal until I was well underway. I told April what was going on, and she posted things to the site. But soon I found that telling the story made me feel connected to people with similar issues, and that was a very powerful motivator. I believe that it was because of that journaling that interest started to grow. People began living vicariously through me. Having the limelight on you when you are struggling so hard to overcome a self-inflicted situation makes it all the more difficult. In hindsight, the media was both good and bad.

GM: You've said your website was largely responsible for your eventual rise to fame. Its deliberate publicity of your trip seems somehow in conflict with the nature of your walk. Why was this personal journey something you felt the need to broadcast, despite its highly private significance?

SV: This was something I let the public know about for two basic reasons: One is that it is harder to fail when you have a lot of people watching you, and from that you can draw strength. Secondly, I knew that there were a lot of obese people out there looking for answers and motivation. I wanted to show people that you are only limited by your own fears and inaction. More importantly, people do not need to rely on gimmicks and potions. They have the power of change inside of them, and just need to find it.

Image Description

Vaught crossing the George Washington Bridge

GM: In essence, then, you were your own publicist?

SV: In the beginning, April and I simply called local camping-supply stores asking them to give a discount in exchange for ad placement on the website. I had no idea how big the thing would really become when I started, so I never looked to them as sponsors. We were approached early on by a couple of business people that wanted to monopolize the name and website. That's when I started to get it, about the popularity of the story. After that, April and I both made the decision to just let any potential sponsors approach us, and I'd just focus on the walk. I didn't have time to deal with all of it, and April had very little interest in it. I now know that that decision was a mistake and it caused more chaos then it prevented.

GM: How do you believe your trip would have been different had you told no one about it? Do you ever wish that you'd kept it to yourself?

SV: Sometimes I think that if I'd been alone, that I might not have finished. There is no way to know that for sure, but there were plenty of days that I thought about giving up. That is part of being obese, giving into your weaknesses. But I didn't quit, mainly because of my sincere desire for change and partly because of how humiliating it would have been to do so. I believe that if I had kept it to myself it might have been more beneficial for me personally, giving me more time to reflect and less distractions. But either way, it brought me to where I am today and I am grateful to be here.
There are a lot of people who have emailed me asking about how they can get attention for their walk, run, ride, swim, or whatever. I tell them to be careful what they wish for, seriously think about what they are trying to achieve, and determine if the public helps or hinders that effort.

GM: What were the specific religious or spiritual undertones of your trip? Was this trip framed in a spiritual context from the get go? If not, when and where did it adopt one?

SV: I have to start by saying that I don't believe that religion and spirituality are necessarily connected. Certainly, religion—true religion, that is—has spirituality at its core. But I believe most people use religion to hide from the intellectual and existential journeys that we all need to take. It is a truly spiritual religious person that embraces the inherent intellect to find the way to God, even if God is not the intended goal. Those who avoid this journey are not living life's richness, and instead are simply burning precious time. I feel that growth is not possible without introspection of some sort, willing or otherwise. Accidental enlightenment is fine, but not guaranteed or even likely.
When you spend sufficient time alone in your own mind things seems to open up, the world becomes clear and simple. This is not to say that if you stand in a field for a few weeks, all the world's ills will disappear. It means that the way you see that world changes, and thus so does your experience within it. This is the base of all philosophies (religions), acceptance through understanding—but it is really focused on in Eastern philosophies. I tend to favor the Zen Buddhism outlook, although I shy away from calling myself a Buddhist.

"The idea of a risky walk across the country pales against the risk of living as an obese man."
GM: Before your trip, what were your religious beliefs?

SV: This is always a difficult question for me because it tends to polarize people. I usually sidestep it by saying that I don't discuss because weight and depression are universal and my message is not meant for one particular belief or another. What I do believe in I am confident in, comfortable with, and always test. I grew up a Christian, but most people born in this country were. I have spent a great deal of my time studying religion, theology and philosophy specifically, and consider myself well-versed in all the five major and a great deal of the minor belief systems.

GM: Before you embarked on your journey, did the risk of dangerous or uncontrollable situations make it more appealing to you? Do you think you generally embrace reckless behavior more than the average person?

SV: I have to admit that I do enjoy the unknown, and I usually respond better in a crisis situation. In some cases you never really know how strong you are until you test it, and not just any test, but a life-and-death one. I believe that this is a product of my inner-city upbringing and time as a Marine.
But in my situation, the idea of a risky walk across the country pales against the risk of living as an obese man. On the one hand, a cross-country trek is risky, but you fend for yourself and adapt, improvise, and overcome. Conversely, with obesity you will not survive unless you change and do it fast. So when you compare the two risks, walking across the country no longer seems so dangerous.

GM: Have you gained an understanding of a man who chooses to leave everything he has behind?

SV: Attachment is the most egregious quality of man. The more you hold on to a thing, the more it holds you prisoner. With the exception of my children, I have completely abandoned my previous life. I no longer manage business or pursue money beyond what I need. I've given away all of my material things and live life out of two or three carry bags, and I recommend it highly. Without the suffering related to desire, and envy over material things, I'm able to remain focused on my greatest possession: my existence.

GM: How do you think your experience has left its mark on the life you've led since its completion?

SV: It has certainly made things more difficult, in a way, because I'm unable to return to my old life even if I want to. Exploring one's self is an endeavor that you cannot return from, you cannot unlearn or decide to quit. As a result I find myself stuck between those two worlds, one pulling me towards the old life and the other pulling me further away. Cutting those last strings is proving to be the most difficult.

GM: Do you ever think about a second trip?

SV: I wish I could leave tonight. Hell, if I had the opportunity I would leave during the middle of this interv…

Related on the Web: Steve Friedman, who will be appearing at Gelf's Varsity Letters event on Thursday, November 8, profiled Vaught for Backpacker last year.

James Curcuru

James Curcuru is your average post-collegiate wunderkind looking for kicks from the printed word. He lives in Brooklyn.







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Comments

- Reflections
- posted on Oct 30, 07
Mike

Again blaming the media..... in an interview no less....

- Reflections
- posted on Oct 31, 07
Thomas

Great human interest piece! I'd like to hear more from Mr. Curcuru.

- Reflections
- posted on Nov 01, 07
Mary Walley

Excellent interview of a man whose journey I have followed for about 2 1/2 years. I am struck by how he has grown in insight and ability to express himself. What started out as a quest to lose weight and become fit, has grown into something much more interesting.

- Reflections
- posted on Nov 01, 07
Willy

I would like to see someone that interviews him bring a scale instead of reporting, "...he SAYS he is at 315." I would also know what sort of "creative" career he thinks is going to fall into his lap?? Instead of wandering around for a year, visiting family and living off of their money, he should have taken some classes and actually learned to DO something so that he can support his children. Why Curcuru keeps reporting on this deadbeat dad is beyond me...

- Reflections
- posted on Nov 01, 07
Vin

Fast Jimmy C strikes again! Real good work, my man.

- Reflections
- posted on Nov 01, 07
Robin

Interesting story! I would like to see more articles by Mr. Curcuru.

- Reflections
- posted on Nov 11, 07
TnT

I am sorry to inform readers Steve Vaught died during the night of an apparent heart attack. God bless you big guy. I hope you finally found peace, my friend.

- Reflections
- posted on Nov 12, 07
Gary Long

Great story, After learning about Steve, I also walked and lost nearly 150 lbs. Steve's story really touches folks all around the world.

- Reflections
- posted on Nov 12, 07
TnT

I see that someone is posting under my name again.. As far as I know Steve is still up and going and very much alive.. I don't see how people get joy from posting such lies about someone dying!!
Teresa in Texas

- Reflections
- posted on Nov 13, 07
James Curcuru

The previous comment about Mr. Vaught's death is false. I've been in touch with the man since the posting of said comment, and he is in fact very much alive. That is all.

- Reflections
- posted on Nov 17, 07
John Henry Riddick

dae steve, this is your mate , john, in aussie, boy a damm real good story, you should be awriter, you two made this story real good, ,still in aussie, one day i come back to san diego, maybe we meet, go out for pol and a few beers, i am going to ride a push bike across usa, was going to walk like you did call it www.thethinmanwalking.com but damm i get tired of walking, aftera bit due to bad feet, you did good two things never forget your kids still lvoe you, and hope you meet taht girl called josie who write nice report of you, i send you some phtos soon of where i lvie now, soon i go to canbera to lvie again, your mate, john in aussie, i still think you should publish all thsi you did,

- Reflections
- posted on Nov 19, 07
Paul

Why did he shut down his guestbook?

- Reflections
- posted on Nov 27, 07
Christy

read Sylvia Browne's Book~ The Other Side

- Reflections
- posted on Nov 27, 07
Ivan

Hi, my name is disman-kl, i like your site and i ll be back ;)

- Reflections
- posted on Nov 29, 07
Tricia Marshall

I know Steve personally and frankly anyone who has doubt about what he weighs or what he says, go look in the mirror and stare real hard, whats it feel like to see perfection staring back?

- Reflections
- posted on Dec 06, 07
Mike

Near perfection frankly feels good enough not to throw my life away, Tricia.

- Reflections
- posted on Dec 09, 07
KACKY

I HAVE KEPT UP WITH YOUR WALK AND WISH YOU WELL. I HAVE A SON WHO WALKED THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL AROUND THE SAME TIME. JUST TO FIND HIM SELF. I HAVE NOT SEEN HIM THE LAST 2 YEARS AND NOT KNOWING WHERE HE IS. LIKE YOU I GUESS HE IS STILL TRYING TO FIT IN. ALL I WANT FOR HIM AND YOU TO BE HEALTHY AND HAPPY AND FIND SOME PEACE.

- Reflections
- posted on Dec 13, 07
Anonymous

Wow! Thats an expience that no one would be able to forget. To have a life so bad and yet still come through the tunnel on the other side is amazing.

- Reflections
- posted on Dec 14, 07
S GREENE

GELF MAGAZINE circulation 17!!!!

- Reflections
- posted on Dec 14, 07
S GREENE

I dont want to GELF anybody else when I think about Steve I GELF myself.

- Reflections
- posted on Dec 25, 07
Rick

Vaught's crime: "The woman, Emily Vegzary, 75, went through the windshield and died instantly. Zoltan Vegzary, 81, lived 21 days before he died. Vaught spent his first night in jail (he would serve 13 days for vehicular manslaughter), with the dead woman's blood and pieces of her skin in his hair."

Vaught: "I wish I could leave tonight. Hell, if I had the opportunity.."

Me: I think HELL is exactly the opportunity that Vaught has ahead of him...

- Reflections
- posted on Jan 12, 08
Barney

Watch out for Steve...he farts alot...and his farts really stink BAD!

- Reflections
- posted on Jan 17, 08
Diane Rialto

Questions were raised by both the media and fans as to whether Vaught caught rides and did not in fact walk every mile. Mr Vaught was also still morbidly obese upon completion of his journey and in part, has blamed the fast food industry for his failure to lose weight during his 3,000 mile trek. Pierre Bagley, a Texas filmmaker, travelled much of the journey with Vaught in order to produce a documentary. Interviewed at the end of Steve's walk, Mr Bagley stated that rather than the 110 pound weight loss claimed by Mr Vaught, he believes that the loss was no more than 40 pounds.

Mr Vaught returned to California upon completing the walk. Mr. Vaught refuses to step on a scale in front of witnesses. He insists that he has lost some weight, but will not allow anyone to see his weight.

- Reflections
- posted on Jan 17, 08
HarePie

I want to know who's dating April, his ex-wife. She's pretty cute, and I can easily see why she divorced his a**. She has a hell of a lot more potential than to be saddled with some fat dude with baggage issues. Having 2 young rug rats doesn't make her as "marketable", but she's got some potential.

- Reflections
- posted on Jan 17, 08
Iam Hairpii

Ex wife April is a cutie and pretty smart. I'd like to put my Italian sausage in her tail pipe.

- Reflections
- posted on Aug 04, 09
Karen

If you read his journal entries, from the beginning he gets rides, hotel rooms, and lots of stuff! It feels like such a scam. By the second month, he asks for a RV! If anyone has an RV, here is my email address... THAT is why he was still fat, he didn't walk much (only to see reporters or anyone who would give him more free things) HE RODE IN A RV THE WHOLE TIME AND LIVED IN IT! What a scam artist.


Article by James Curcuru

James Curcuru is your average post-collegiate wunderkind looking for kicks from the printed word. He lives in Brooklyn.

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