Walk across America glimpses its spirit

December 04, 2008|By JEAN MARBELLA

There was the well-considered - or at least alliterative - sack of sustenance that someone gave him in Nevada, containing a banana, a beer, and a bag of chips. There was the family in Nebraska that invited him in for dinner and put him up for the night in a spare bedroom.

And then there was the sheriff's deputy in Utah who nearly arrested him for the apparent crime of being a stranger in town.

B.J. Hill estimates he's gotten "pulled over twice a state," by police who have wondered just what he is up to, trudging down the road with a backpack and a sign that says "walkamerica2008.com."

The short answer is that he is indeed walking across America, a 4,200-some-mile journey that took him through Baltimore yesterday en route to his ultimate destination of Boston.

The longer answer is found in three bound, brick-sized notebooks in which hundreds of people he has encountered have written advice, good wishes and even the occasional insult to the next president of the United States.

"It really is a snapshot of America in 2008," says Hill, a 32-year-old teacher from Massachusetts who began his epic walk March 1 in San Francisco.

Paging through the entries is a reminder of just how much has changed since then: The primaries were still going on, for example, so the entries are addressed to "Mr. or Mrs. President." Bosnian sniper fire, Jeremiah Wright, Sarah Palin and, most of all, the economic meltdown, had yet to make their appearances. In fact, many of his contributors were consumed by gas prices early on, an issue that has largely disappeared now that a gallon has dropped below $2.

How Hill came to be the on-the-ground chronicler of what random people would like to say to the president is one of those only-in-America stories. He has always wanted to walk across the country, having walked across Massachusetts several years back, compiling a similar journal that he gave to Gov. Deval Patrick. As a single, physically fit man without the usual encumbrances of family and career - his last job, which he gave up a year and a half ago, was as a special-education teacher in Winchester, Mass. - he figured it was now or never.

Hill describes himself simply as a "concerned citizen," an independent who declines to say whom he voted for in November. He figured the only way to make the views of average Americans known to the president was by doing something fairly dramatic; and he has been working with his representatives in Congress to get a couple of minutes when he can present his notebooks to President-elect Barack Obama in person.

That's kept him going, through the bad weather, the bout of food poisoning and other travails of the road.

"I don't think the president is going to meet with someone who almost walked across the country," Hill says. "The main reason I want to meet with him is to make sure this gets in his hands, not just an aide's or an intern's."

There is no guarantee he will actually read through it, of course, but who knows? As The New York Times recently reported, Obama probably will have to give up his beloved link to the outside world, his well-thumbed Blackberry - among other reasons, the Presidential Records Act could subject even an innocent TTYL to scrutiny.

So perhaps if he's feeling particularly trapped in the virtual cocoon of security and ceremony that is the American presidency, that walled-in existence of no surprise encounters, no contact with any actual person who hasn't cleared seven layers of security, maybe he'd relish looking through some low-tech, hand-scrawled messages from the outside world.

Maybe he'll find this message, from someone in Spartanburg, S.C.: "I have held many leadership positions in my lifetime, and one thing remains true to them all: STRESS. Mr. President, I ask one thing: Take care of yourself. ... Have an outlet, enjoy life, and keep everything in perspective. If you ever need someone to call anytime."

That this particular writer is a college student - hey, they know from STRESS - may remove some authority from that particular bit of advice, but surely the sentiment is sincere. Others share their stories - a nurse in Alabama wrote that her husband was a steelworker for 23 years until the plant closed in 2000 for "the third and final time." She implored Obama not to raise their taxes. Someone else simply asked him to "please keep our country safe."

Some offered advice ("let God guide you"), passed along messages ("say hi to your wife") or were sweetly solicitous ("eat right and get plenty of rest").

Hill says he has used savings and accepted donations to fund the trip, which hasn't been too expensive because he has often camped out or stayed for free with friends of friends, or strangers he has met online or as he's walked. With his cell phone and GPS, he's been Twittering ( www.twitter.com/walkamerica2008) and otherwise providing online updates on his travels. He hopes to find a publisher to give his messages to the president a wider audience than one.

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