Steve Fugate was midway through hiking the Appalachian Trail when his only son took his own life on a Florida beach. Devastated, he left the trail to pick up the pieces, but was lost on what to do next. And then it hit him. He had to keep going.
His 26-year-old son, Stevie, had planned to hike the trail when Fugate returned, so he decided to finish the journey his son couldn’t. When Fugate completed the demanding 2,000-mile hike months later, he didn’t want to stop.
“I walked away from everything,” Fugate says of his life in Vero Beach, Florida. “When you lose your children your brain doesn’t work properly, and I found a way to ease my pain.”
With his daughter’s support, the now-divorced 65-year-old hit the streets and continued on what would become a 30,000-mile walk across the nation. Armed with a hiking pack and a sign bearing Fugate’s motto, “Love life,” he travelled from coast to coast spreading the message that life should be embraced, even in the darkest times.
“If I can love life then anyone can,” Fugate says. “I know every one of us has an intrinsic desire to stay alive. 'Love life' is the answer to everything.”
After 12 years of what he calls “trail therapy,” he’s finally taking a break. Age encouraged him to formally end his hike Saturday in Oakland, California.
Fugate has influenced countless people in his travels. He says hundreds of supporters have told him his simple, poster-board message has kept them from taking their own lives. He remembers a woman who was on her way to a hotel room to commit suicide when she passed him on the road, saw his sign and changed her mind. She later emailed Fugate and told him he saved her life.
“All she needed was a little shock to get out of that slump,” Fugate says.
He says he received emails from two people who heard him interviewed on the radio. They were on the brink of taking their lives but decided not to when they heard his story.
One California woman, who lost her father to suicide two years ago, says her sons happened to see Fugate walk past their home. She was so moved she immediately ran outside and hugged him. “It’s serendipity maybe that he just happened to walk by my house,” Julie Moran told HLN affiliate KTVU.
After more than a decade, Fugate’s mission has been far from easy. In 2005, he thought he’d reached a stopping point in his journey, but was hit with more tragic news: His daughter and biggest supporter had died of an accidental drug overdose. Once again, he knew his journey must continue.
“I do it for my babies,” Fugate says. “They wanted me to have joy in my life. For me to not love life and find joy in it is to not respect their memories.”
Supporters often joined Fugate for stretches of his walk, keeping him company and helping spread his message. He’s also received numerous donations through his website, trailtherapy.org. Though he’s cutting down on his walks, he won’t end his mission. A California organization is working to buy him an RV so he can continue to travel and give inspirational speeches.
“I am not a mental health professional,” he says. “But I can tell my story, and I can give them love.”