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Walk Across America

Sean Hurley

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BJ Hill
(www.walkacrossamerica2008.com)
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Back in 2006, BJ Hill walked across Massachusetts collecting handwritten messages for the Governor in a notebook, which he handed over to Governor Deval Patrick personally. This year, BJ set out to do the same thing on a much larger scale. He's been traversing the country coast to coast collecting messages for the next President of the United States.

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I read about BJ Hill back in 2006 in the Boston Globe. He'd walked across Massachusetts collecting handwritten messages for the Governor in a notebook. And then he brought the notebook back to Boston.

He laughs as he describes the unexpected finale: "I actually got 10 to 15 minutes with Governor Deval Patrick to hand the notebooks over. We read some of the messages and talked about some of the places I'd been. The books are now kept in the Gubernatorial Archives."

On March 1st, BJ set out to do the same thing on a much larger scale. He flew to San Francisco and began to walk east. He had a backpack, two walking sticks. And tucked close behind him was an empty black leather book.

For the last year BJ Hill has been traversing the country collecting messages for the next President of the United States

It's kind of an old fashioned idea, and even a little strange. Collecting messages for the President? Isn't that what the Internet is for? How would a book of scrawled notes help the President more than, say, the latest approval poll? But BJ seems to know the value.

"I think it would keep the President grounded as to what the rest of us Americans really are thinking," he says, "What we're doing and what we're going through."

BJ has travelled the world teaching English in China, Japan, and Afghanistan. He manned the phones for the Red Cross after 9/11. He likes to try new things. But he had a lot of trouble with the handheld recorder I sent him. The first audio he sent back sounded like a forest fire caught on tape. But it wasn't long before he was sending back good audio. As he walked the country, he began to ask people to read their messages into his recorder.

Kate Shock wrote, "Number one priority in my opinion is stop the occupation in Iraq. And instead of killing people, talk to them and feed them. And talk peace instead of war. Love and hope to you, Kate Shock, Rock Springs, Wyoming."

Rhonda Morson wrote: "We need better health care and I can't say enough about the gas prices."

There were a lot of messages complaining about the high gas prices. But as the summer wore on, the tone of the messages began to change. Here's a direct transcription of one of a late summer recording BJ sent back:

BJ: Today is August 21st and I'm sitting in Ana, Illinois with Fran Jaffee. And Fran can you read your message to the President?
Fran Jaffee: Dear Mr. Obama. I am hopeful for the future. However this nation needs a representative who can put power and ego behind and truly try to do what is best for the people.

Did you notice how Fran addressed her message "Dear Mr. Obama"? This was back in August when the race was still up for grabs.

BJ saw this sort of direct appeal a lot. "Even when Hillary Clinton was still in the race," he says, "I found that a lot more messages were addressed to Barack Obama than anyone else. So it really wasn't a surprise to me when Barack Obama actually won."

BJ's been on the road now for 11 months. He's walked more the 4000 miles. He's gone through eight pairs of shoes. He's pitched his tent behind churches, in open fields and in the woods.

He describes his wide-ranging experience like this, "I've been to a rodeo in Nebraska. I've been to the library in Salt Lake City. I've been to Senior Citizen Centers in Nevada. Powwows, again in Nebraska. Anywhere where I was going to be, where there was going to be a group of people, I'd try to get in there and introduce myself."

This week, BJ finally comes home. But not for long. On January 20th, he'll enter the US Capitol for the Inauguration of President Obama. He's got a ticket. And he'll bring his 3 well travelled leather-bound books with him.

And what will he do with those books once he gets them to Washington?

"You know," he says, "I started this project and it's not gonna finish until I see it through, until they're actually in his possession. Then I'll know that my walk is done."

I've gotten to know BJ pretty well over the last year. I don't think he'll give up until the books are in the President's hands. He's nothing if not persistent.

And if I might just put down my own note here: Dear President Obama, Please see BJ Hill about an important matter involving the people of the United States.

Comments

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  • By Alice Nelson

    From Tacoma, WA, 03/27/2009

    Come April 1, 2010, my rescued bulldog/Mastiff mix and myself, a graying, overweight 60-year-old are going to fulfill my dream of walking across America. We're starting in the middle of Washington and will go straight across the top, turn left at the Great Lakes and continue until I see the Atlantic lapping the shores of NewFoundland. I am doing this because it is a dream. It isn't for a cause, to cure cancer, lose unnecessary pounds, or find relavance in a messed up world. It is just because I can't imagine NOT doing it and gosh, I'll be 61, Dozer will be three, so we are heading out. My adult children are aghast, but proud. And I think BJ is an outstanding individual. Barack will get a huge kick out of him.

    By cory mitcham

    From loganville, GA, 03/04/2009

    one of my biggest goals in life is to walk across america. this story inspires alot. i am still young only 18yrs old. hopefully one of these days i will be able to do so. i got alot of respect for BJ HILL even though i don't know him personally.

    By M Hill

    02/11/2009

    To Lisa O'Reilly, BJ received donations from people. Contrary to your assumption, he is not "independently wealthy". I've know BJ for over 13 years, I've even hosted him a time or two. I can honestly say, he is, by far, the most interesting person I know.

    By Jane Whetstone

    From Nashville, TN, 01/16/2009

    I think this is a great story. Forrest Gump and Peace Pilgrim are not alone. I have a dream to help teach preventative healthcare and a create a cleaner country by doing my own walk and coordinating it with health insurance and fitness companies..my dream www.freedomwalkfoundation.org was birthed out of much personal tragedy... I believe walking can heal Americans, as an over-stressed, over-sick society, we all need better health. Thank you for yout time, and I would love to share my hopes and dreams of creating a heatlhier and cleaner America, one step at a time...literally. Sincerely yours, Jane E. Whetstone with Shelby the dog, my walking partner and saving grace.

    By Lisa O'Reilly

    From Baltimore, MD, 01/15/2009

    I love the activity and feel that this is a great service and WELL DONE! But I have to ask: how did he get the time and the money to do this and heck, I'd like to be this independently wealthy to just take off like that... there must be money in teaching english...! This truly is the Land of Opportunity...!

    By Kirsten Niesar

    From Napa, CA, 01/15/2009

    We were lucky enough to host BJ at the beginning of his walk and follow him across the country via the internet. I really believe that these books need to be in President Obama's hands and referred to on a daily basis.

    By Ginny Harris

    From Moscow, ID, 01/14/2009

    I met BJ when he stopped by in Douglas, WY. It was so cool to meet this man trying to accomplish this pretty crazy thing, and now I can't believe he is almost done. I too have no doubt he will get these books in the hands of the President. And, I can hope maybe my message will be one he reads.

    By Ray Tsai

    From San Francisco, CA, 01/12/2009

    I saw the first steps taken on the Golden Gate bridge and I'm excited to see an incredible journey of over 10 months conclude with a presidential induction and the word the American people reaching President-Obama.

    By Alex L.

    From LaPorte, IN, 01/11/2009

    CONGRATS! Ive known BJ for a while now - starting when we both served with the RED CROSS in Texas (hurricane disater service). He was a selfless and unique guy then. A real class act - Im glad some things don't change. Miss you BJ and since I am an NPR junkie (a rare GOP one!), Im SO glad you will be on NPR! XOXO

    By Sophia Tsai

    From Los Angeles, CA, 01/10/2009

    Yay for BJ! I know of him indirectly through my brother who went to college with BJ. I'm glad that he has made it across the US safely, and even that he's being featured on NPR, on one of my favorite shows! Thank you, Weekend America, for searching to find stories that are relevant to the every day lives of people around the US.

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