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Cross-Country Walker Collects Messages for the President

BJ Hill is a teacher from Massachusetts who spent most of last year walking across America, asking people he met along the way to write a message for the next president of the United States.

He has collected thousands of messages since he began his walk in San Francisco on March 1, 2008. As he nears the end of his cross-country walk, in Boston, he's on his third book.

"The books are about the size of a Bible," he says, turning one over in his hands. "They're black and leather-bound. There's probably around 500 pages in each one."

And they're filled with notes like this one from Frank Stahl.

My message to the president is: Be president of the USA. Quit trying to be president of the world. I felt like that Clinton tried to be president of the USA and we ended up with a surplus, and Bush tried to be president of the world and he got us in an awful mess.

Bringing the voice of the people to the president

Collecting handwritten messages for the president in an era of instant Internet communications is kind of an old-fashioned idea. But Hill has a ready answer when asked how a book of scrawled notes could help the president.

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

The Massachusetts teacher reckons that the last person to try to take the pulse of the nation like this was President Franklin Roosevelt's wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, in the 1930s.

"She would actually go out and travel the country and come back and report to him," he explains. "And what she would do is, she would write letters and put them in a basket next to his bed, and so right before he went to sleep he would read these letters she had written about what the common man was going through in places that he couldn't get to."

We need better health care for self-employed [people], and I can't say enough about the gas prices. - Rhonda Morson

They gotta do something about these oil prices, 'cause for some people, it's eat or you need heat. - Bill Kobel

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

Drawing lessons from past travels

This was not Hill's first time on the road. He points out, "I did a walk across Mexico back in 1996. I did my walk across Massachusetts in 2006."

He's also traveled the world, teaching English in China, Japan and Afghanistan. He says a lot of planning went into this trip.

"So it's not like I just up and said, 'Hey I'm gonna walk across the country. See you later.'"

On this trip, he's walked about 6,500 kilometers. He's gone through eight pairs of shoes. He's pitched his tent behind churches, in open fields, in the woods.

"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."

On an August day in Ana, Illinois, Hill sat down with Fran Jaffee and asked her to write a message to the president. She did.

"Dear Mr. Obama," it began. "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."

Back in August, long before the nominating conventions, Jaffee addressed her message to Barack Obama. Hill says a lot of people did.

"Even when Hillary Clinton was still in the race, 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."

The final leg of the journey

If his schedule holds, Hill will take the last steps of his journey on January 18. Two days later, with a ticket provided by Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, he'll take those three leather books with him into the U.S. Capitol when he attends the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Hill does not have an official invitation to meet with the president, but he's hopeful.

"I'm just asking for five or 10 minutes to make sure that these books get into his hands. You know, 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."