Imagine de Tocqueville with a Twitter account. Or maybe Jack Kerouac without a car.

B.J. Hill started walking across the country in March 2008, carrying a then-empty journal and asking people he met if they wanted to write a message to the president they were in the process of selecting. And they did, filling three books of 600 pages each with their well wishes and occasional insults, their hopes and, increasingly, their anxieties.

I first wrote about Hill in December 2008 when his cross-country walk took him through Maryland, but it wasn't until Friday, when I caught up with him again, that it struck me why his project is so compelling. At a time when so much of what people have to say gets said digitally — and often anonymously and profanely — the idea of a guy walking up to someone who then takes actual pen to actual paper is so oddly out of time, so personal.

And it was.

"These books have really become a part of me," Hill told. "I've slept with them, I've used them as a pillow. My heart has skipped a beat when I've thought, 'Where did I leave it?' It's going to be a little difficult to give them up."

But he will, and to their intended recipient all along — President Barack Obama.

The delivery is about three years later than Hill, 35, of Leicester, Mass., had hoped when he embarked on what turned out to be a nearly 11-month, 4,250-mile walk. Hill hoped to deliver the journals to Obama at his inauguration in January 2009 but was never able to get an appointment.

Real life took over — Hill, a former teacher, now works as a network administrator for a nonprofit — but he always felt the tug of this unfinished business. Two months ago, he emailed someone he had met from the office of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., back in 2008 and asked for help in setting up a meeting with Obama. More emails ensued, and Hill says he eventually was granted a brief meeting on Thursday.

"I've been rehearsing this meeting in my mind for years," he said, adding that he mostly planned to ask Obama to read the thousands of messages from across the country.

True to form, Hill decided to walk to Washington, with a fourth journal that people have been writing in. He left Boston on Oct. 30 for the 450-mile trek to Washington. When I spoke to him by phone on Friday, he had left Havre de Grace before sunrise and was heading down Route 7 in Harford County.

It probably goes without saying, but Hill has found a more sour and partisan mood out there. He's come across a tea party rally and occupy sites alike on his walk but says he maintains the same neutral approach that he took from the start so as not to influence what people write.

Whatever the tenor of the messages, they likely won't come as a surprise to Obama. As Washington Post reporter Eli Saslow relates in the recently published book, "Ten Letters: The Stories Americans Tell Their President," Obama reads a sampling of the 20,000 missives that arrive at the White House every day. Every day, his staff selects 10 representative letters for him to read that night, and sometimes respond to, ranging from people who think he's a socialist to those who share heartbreaking stories of illness or bankruptcy.

Hill got a taste of that as well, and sees the journals as "a time capsule" of what people were thinking in 2008, with a shorter epilogue of what he's getting this time through a smaller slice of the country. And he hopes to publish a book of his own that will show the letters in their original format, and contain some of his own thoughts and photographs from the trip.

And indeed, it was one of those experiences where the journey was perhaps more meaningful than the destination. Camping out or spending the night with people he'd found through couchsurfing.com, walking through both rural and urban swaths of the country, Hill truly saw America from the ground level. (You can see more about his adventures on walkamerica2008.com.)

"Being from New England," he said, "I never thought there was anything between St. Louis and Omaha," he said. (Apparently there is: a lot of cattle.)

In the Baltimore area, he had a predictably quirky experience — his couchsurfing host one night was a roller derby gal, and the bartender at Bad Decisions bar made him a "crazy flaming shot" of something.

Now, he — or at least his feet — is looking forward to the end of the road. When he ventured on his 2008 trip, he was at loose ends, having gone through a breakup with a girlfriend and contemplating his future. As he was planning the trip, he happened to re-connect with a woman he'd previously met, and she promised to take him for a steak dinner when he returned.

"We've been together ever since," Hill says happily. "Now my family jokes the next walk I do, there better be an altar at the end of it."

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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