To many people, as Kevin Michael Connolly traveled the world, he was many things — most of them not even remotely connected to reality.
"This woman walked up to me, didn't say hello or anything, just said, 'Thalidomide' in a questioning tone," Connolly said.
Then she told him it was a drug that had caused birth defects after it was given to pregnant mothers.
"Was that you?" she asked.
Other people presumed he was a beggar, or even a holy man.
But children were different.
"By and large," said Connolly, "a little kid would look at you and just go, 'Aw, wow.'"
The reality about Connolly is much more remarkable than the scenarios people imagine about him — especially when seen through the art of his camera, from an angle he's known for all 22 years of his life.
"I was born without legs," said Connolly, matter-of-factly. "This is all I've known, and to me, it's not really a big deal. I think it was called a 'sporadic birth defect,' which is basically the doctors saying they don't know what happened."
He often travels by balancing his torso on a skateboard, and moving expertly through the streets of the cities he visits. From the skateboard, he has taken more than 32,000 photos of the stares he attracts. Some are displayed on an Internet site, therollingexhibition.com. They are riveting, sometimes humorous, examples of human nature in different cultures, where, with each stare, people also form quick and even fanciful interpretations of who Connolly is, and why.
Connolly is a senior who studies film and photography at Montana State University. He has short-cropped brown hair, good looks and an affable, open demeanor. His upper torso is fully formed, large-boned, muscular and trim. His internal organs are healthy.
He rejected the prosthetic legs with which he was fitted when he was young, because they were uncomfortable and made it difficult for him to move freely. Instead, he wears what he calls a "boot" to cover his lower body. It is a rounded device that fits perfectly around his lower torso and protects it as he moves.
"The boot is fully custom made and it actually serves two purposes," Connolly said. "One is, it's basically a shoe, you know? You have a Birkenstock sole … and the whole goal is to imitate the practicality of footwear."
It is also a posture-correcting device.
Inside the boot, Connolly has written the words "Do not steal, especially if you're a middle-aged woman." One time, when he left it under a bench to ski, two women mistook it for something they could use as a flower pot and walked off with it.
The freedom that characterizes his life has been a component since the beginning.
"My parents made the decision to not put me in a wheelchair or a hospital. They just took me home."
Family photos from his home in Montana show a young man camping out, rock climbing and skiing so well in his custom rig, that he won a silver medal in the January 2007 X Games.
But not before he flipped down a mountainside once and broke his jaw on an avalanche fence.
"I have a steel plate here," Connolly said, pointing to his left jaw. "So, I can't feel it. It was, I think, seven or eight days before I was scheduled to leave for New Zealand for a year. And so, I postponed it for a couple days, had my jaw wired shut and then went."