14 years ago, Steve Fugate took it upon himself to walk across America, as therapy after losing his son. Through his extraordinary journey, he hoped to spread just one simple message – ‘Love Life’.
It’s estimated 67-year-old Steve has walked over 34,000 kilometers since he first set out on his legendary treks. Fugate, a native of Florida, had never really been a fan of walking, but he found it to be a great way to spread love after he lost his children. 1999 was a particularly tough year for him. He was going through a failed marriage and his business had taken a hit. To make matters worse, his son Stevie, 26, was convicted of drunk driving. It was all getting a bit too much to handle, so Fugate decided to go trekking on the 2,167 mile Appalachian Trail, leaving his son in charge of the business.
Unfortunately, young Stevie was also dealing with several serious issues at the time and committed suicide. Fugate received the tragic news as he was trekking through Pennsylvania. “When he put a gun to his mouth and pulled the trigger, he ended my life too,” said the heartbroken father. After a brief period of grieving, he made up his mind to finish the trek. This turned out to be a life-altering decision. “When I was out there, something happened to me. I couldn’t imagine any other human being going through what I did. It’ll change your whole life.”
But Fugate’s troubles were far from over. In 2005, tragedy struck again. This time he lost his daughter to an accidental overdose of drugs that were meant to treat her for multiple sclerosis. That’s when he gave up all hope, wound up his business and took up walking as a therapy. He calls it ‘Trail Therapy’. “I tried every sort of group therapy there was and it didn’t work. I started my own group. God doesn’t do group therapy, it’s strictly one-on-one.”
For a while, Fugate set up a non-profit organization to accept donations towards his cause. But he soon stopped. Now he refuses to accept any kind of charity. He only walks to raise awareness about depression and suicide, and to encourage people to love their lives. “I’ve lost both my babies. If I can love my life, anybody can,” he said.
His constant hope is to dissuade people from taking the drastic step of ending their lives. “That’s the opposite end of the spectrum. If you love life, you’re not going to end it on your own.”
“You can do anything you want in this life except hurt other people. You are not allowed to take your own life. It does not belong to just you. You are not getting rid of your pain, you’re passing it on.”
Fugate isn’t sure how many people he might have saved so far.
“I tried to count them up before, but I can’t get past one,” he said.
When he was told that he had an impact on at least 10 people who were in the act of killing themselves, he said: “It doesn’t get any better than that.”
“A young man reached out to me and said, ‘I went to school with your son.’ He just wrote me and said he was in his 40’s now, and had gotten into drugs and a few other things. He thought that killing himself was the only way out.” But now the man is sober and free of suicidal thoughts for two years.
“He didn’t do it because it would have made him feel rotten to do that to me. He didn’t even know me,” said Fugate.
Fugate always sets out on a walk with a sign that reads: ‘Love Life’. He says it brings out the best in people. Some people give him snacks and water, others offer him cash. “That happens all the time,” he said. “People think I’m homeless, but I’m not. But I never ask for money; the only things I ever ask for is a bottle of water or a place to charge my electronics, my phone and laptop.”