MAINE MAN'S LONG WALK FOR GAY RIGHTS BRINGS OUT THE BEST©Copyright 1998 Guy Gannett Communications
He'd covered only two miles of his Canada-to-Kittery walk when Paul Fuller saw the truck slow down and stop just outside of Van Buren. The driver, clearly troubled by the ''Vote No on Feb. 10'' printed across the back of Paul's bright orange vest, motioned him over.
''You know, Jesus loves you,'' the man said patronizingly.
''Yes, I know,'' Paul replied.
The trucker picked up a flyer off his seat, handed it down to Paul and drove off. Paul walked on in the early morning stillness, marveling at the freshly fallen snow, the sun shining through the stately fir trees, the sheer beauty of the northern Maine woods.
Then he looked down at the flyer, boldly entitled ''How to Get to Heaven.''
''I wished he hadn't left so quickly,'' he recalled. ''I would have told him heaven is right here, all around us. But he just couldn't see it.''
Paul has seen it - and not just in the scenery. Since he began his 390-mile hike on Jan. 15, he's seen time and again that Michael Heath and his band of Bible-thumping homophobes are nowhere near the majority they claim to be.
Rather, this 58-year-old antique dealer from Waldoboro, whose eyes keep smiling even as his feet grow more blistered, has witnessed the real Maine - the one he hopes will go to the polls Feb. 10 and vote against repealing the new state law granting equal rights to gay people.
''I hope it's working,'' he said, waving back to the tooting horns on Bath Road. ''And I think it is.''
The idea came to him - actually, it woke him out of a sound sleep - one night late last year. Long active in gay politics, Paul wanted to do something to help preserve the equal-rights law . . . but what?
''I woke up and said, 'You know what you can do? You can walk.' ''
That he can. He hiked the Appalachian Trail in 1990. Four years later, he trekked the 2,750-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Van Buren to Kittery? No problem.
He enlisted two friends - Larry Godfrey and Frank Hart - to escort him in a pair of support vehicles. He drove the route himself, logging landmarks down to the tenth of a mile and plotting out his three-week, 20-mile-a-day itinerary. Other friends lined up lodging - all donated - for each stop along the way. News releases went out . . . cell phones were distributed. . . .
''It's amazing, just amazing, how it all came together,'' Paul said.
Even more amazing, however, has been the response.
Sure, he's received the rare obscene gesture or cry of ''faggot'' from those too blind to see what he's doing. But when he reaches Kittery on Tuesday, those are not the people Paul will remember.
He'll remember the woman in Edgecomb who stopped one cold morning and told him he looked hungry. Before he could respond, she handed him a grapefruit and wished him good luck.
He'll remember the man in Presque Isle who pulled over his pickup and, while his wife and kids waited, walked over, took off his glove and shook Paul's hand.
''I want to thank you,'' the man said. ''I know what discrimination is all about. I'm a native American.''
He'll remember the two women in Caribou, both in their 60s, who handed him a check - one of scores of donations totaling more than $2,800 so far. They were lesbians, the women explained, and after all these years together, they're tired of life in the closet.
He'll remember another woman in Wiscasset who walked up to him, hugged him and suddenly burst into tears.
''She didn't want to say,'' Paul replied.
He'll remember the delegation of two dozen supporters, led by former Bath Iron Works President Buzz Fitzgerald, that proudly led him through downtown Bath. And the crowd 10 times larger that met him as he crossed Tukey's Bridge Saturday afternoon and escorted him to a reception and rally at Portland's First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church.
The celebration was a far cry from the solitude outside Van Buren, but for the man with the aching feet, it was yet another sign that the state he loves so dearly is already much closer to heaven than some might have us believe.
''I've never been so proud to be a Mainer,'' Paul said.
Come Feb. 10., Maine can return the compliment.
- Bill Nemitz (e-mail) is a columnist for The Portland Newspapers.
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