On March 1, 2008, I set out on what would be a 10-month walk across America—from San Francisco to my hometown of Boston. Along with my tent and sleeping bag, I carried a blank leather-bound journal, and on the way, I asked people to write messages for the soon-to-be-elected president.
My route took me to Napa Valley and then across to Salt Lake City, over to Wyoming and to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, on through Nebraska to St. Louis, across Mississippi and Alabama to Atlanta, through the Carolinas to Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia, and finally into New England.
By the time I finished in Boston on Jan. 19, 2009—over 4,250 miles later—I’d collected three books of notes from small-business owners, ranchers, single moms, teachers, students, veterans, immigrants, octogenarians, nurses, mayors, and the homeless. The messages covered everything from the economy to the environment, from education to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For months after my journey, I tried unsuccessfully to arrange a meeting with the president to deliver the volumes. On a lark, in September 2011, I emailed an aide in Senator John Kerry’s office. She put me in touch with President Obama’s deputy chief of staff, who connected me with a woman from the White House’s scheduling office. When could I visit the White House? she asked. I wrote back, “How is December 1 for the president?”
I would need time to get there. Staying true to my original journey, on Oct. 30 I began my walk to Washington, D.C., from the Massachusetts State House. On Dec. 1, I arrived in Dupont Circle, with the notebooks under my arm. My appointment with President Obama was at 11:40 a.m.
During our 15-minute meeting, Obama perused the notebooks and asked me about my odyssey. Afterward, he said, “Well, B.J., we’ll take a look at these letters. What you did is collect a unique tapestry of the American spirit.”
It had been the adventure of a lifetime: I walked across a nation, took messages from thousands of people, and put their words in the hands of the leader of the free world.
Hill works for the nonprofit Children’s Friend in Worcester, Mass. He plans another walk to coincide with the 2014 Massachusetts gubernatorial race.