Walk covers state of the community

Tuesday, November 07
NORTH ADAMS — He didn't have a job, he didn't have any money, and he had just broken up with his girlfriend.

As far as B.J. Hill could tell, he had a limited number of options: He could send out another flurry of résumés and wait for the callbacks that weren't coming. He could sit on the couch and get depressed. "Or I could do something," Hill said. "The stars had aligned. I decided to seize the day."

The 30-year-old unemployed teacher packed a bag, got a ride from his home in Leicester to the Vermont border in Williamstown, and, on Oct. 4, pinned a sign to his backpack that advertised his Web site and his mission: WalkAcross Mass.com.

And now, as a result of his walk, three of the four gubernatorial candidates are promising to meet with him about his journey and what he discovered about Massachusetts should they be elected today.

Initially, Hill started walking southeast in a long, meandering line with no particular goal in mind other than to "kickstart my writing," he said.

"I wanted to get back to basics. I was frustrated with life," Hill said.

He walked between seven and 12 hours a day, "depending on with whom I stayed," and covered 15 to 18 miles a day. Occasionally, he stayed in homes; most of the time, however, he pitched his tent. He ate apples and granola. He ate diner food. He lost 5 pounds.

After 24 days and about 270 miles later, he was frolicking in the cold surf in Provincetown, a changed man.

"I'd been to Mexico, Japan, China and Afghanistan," Hill said in a recent phone interview. "But how well did I know my own state? I'd never been west of Amherst until I walked across Massachusetts."

The change in Hill, however, was more than just an awakening to the existence of the western part of the state.

About three days into his journey, Hill wandered into a brunch in Charlemont, held in honor of state Rep. Daniel E. Bosley and state Sen. Andrea F. Nuciforo Jr., who had pushed through legislation to get $1 million back to Charlemont, Hawley and Heath after the three rural Franklin County towns took out loans totaling $1.2 million to cap a landfill in Heath.

When Hill learned at the brunch that the reimbursement funding Gov. Mitt Romney had allocated to the landfill project in 2005 had been usurped before it could reach the towns, he was dismayed.

"I realized that the governor didn't know what was going on beyond the (Route) 128 beltway," he recalled.

It was a turning point in his walk.

"I thought, 'What if I jotted down messages to the governor?' " along the route of his walk, he said. "It will be a mandate from the people directly to Beacon Hill."

In Buckland, he got a spiral notebook and started taking down messages from anyone who wanted to contribute them.

"I have notes from small-business owners, firemen, teachers, high school kids," Hill said. "The biggest issues were taxes, education and health care."

As he got closer to Boston, people were "more cynical," Hill said. "They looked at me like I was selling snake oil. That was discouraging."

People got friendlier and more receptive as his walk progressed into Cape Cod, however. And as the clear, warm days in early October gave way to the chilling rains that came later in the month, he thought of the people he had met — an elderly couple frightened by rising property taxes, a teacher frustrated by watching her resources continue to dwindle — and he knew he couldn't quit.

"The notebook became the meaning of the walk," he said. "There was a sense of urgency."

Hill plans on presenting the notebook to the new governor after he or she is inaugurated at the beginning of the year, and late last week, he drove to Williamstown, North Adams, Florida and Charlemont to collect more messages directed at the governor-to-be.

"I just stood on the street corner and let people write," he said.

He noted that representatives for independent candidate Christy Mihos, Republican Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey and Democrat Deval L. Patrick have already promised him face-time should they be elected governor and are willing to read the notebook post-inauguration.

"Deval Patrick is running a grassroots campaign," said Libby DeVecchi, spokeswoman for the Democratic candidate for governor. "He's looking for the best ideas, no matter where they come from. He'd be happy to look at the notebook."

Although Hill said he would be up for an even longer walk in the future, he has had to reshuffle his priorities after his eye-opening October on the road.

"My primary goal now is just to find a job," he said. "This unemployed thing is getting old."


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