Walker for love

Steve Fugate takes time out Friday while passing through Grayville to pose for a photograph with the sign that espouses his philosophy.

It’s hard to miss Steve Fugate’s message.

It’s in bold red letters on a sign mounted over his head.

And it’s simple:

“LOVE LIFE.”

The 67-year-old Vero Beach, Fla., resident is spreading that message by walking across America. Pulling a cart packed with his supplies and a supply of water, he set out from his home on March 23 and plans to walk through all of the lower 48 states.

“I’ve done 10, and I’ve got 38 to go,” Fugate said, expressing confidence he will complete his journey.

“I finish everything I start.”

His travels brought him through White and Edwards Counties late last week as he followed Illinois Route 1 up to Grayville, where he spent the night at the Super 8 motel, and then to Albion, where Friday night found him bedding down at Roy M. Luthe Memorial Park.

Since 1999, Fugate has trod over 31,000 miles. What drives him is the memory of his deceased children.

Back then, Fugate was coming off the failure of his 28-year marriage and for 30 years owned and operated a successful car detailing business in Vero Beach.

His 26-year-old son, Stevie, had recently been convicted of driving while intoxicated after being involved in a traffic accident. Between his fines, fees and restitution, he was facing a considerable financial burden.

Fugate happened to read about the Appalachian Trail, which runs 2,167.3 miles from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mt. Katahdin in Maine, and was struck by a brainstorm.

He would undertake the challenge of making the thru-hike of the Appalachian and turn his business over to his son to operate. The young man would take over the business in Fugate’s absence, and keep the profits, enabling him to pay off his restitution quicker. His son enthusiastically agreed.

And so Fugate set out on his initial hike. But while he was hiking through Pennsylvania, tragedy struck: his son committed suicide.

“When he put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger, he ended my life too,” Fugate said.

He broke off his hike and and after a period of grieving, determined that he would finish hiking the Appalachian Trail. “When I was out there, something happened to me. I couldn’t imagine any other human being going through what I did (when his son killed himself). It’ll change your whole life.

“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.”

After that, he resolved to spread a simple message in hopes of dissuading others from ending their existence, urging them to “Love Life.”

 “That’s the opposite end of the spectrum,” Fugate said. “If you love life, you’re not going to end your own.”

In 2005, his miseries were compounded by the loss of his daughter, due to an accidental overdose of her medication intended to fight her multiple sclerosis.

“I’ve lost both my babies,” he said, voice choking. “If I can love life, anybody can.”

Fugate’s simple message brings out the best in people. While he was in Grayville, people came up and handed him cash, unsolicited. One of the bills was a Franklin.

A convenience store clerk walked up and handed him a bag of snacks and a bottle of water. Another passer-by stopped and told Fugate that there was a hot meal waiting on him at Borowiak’s IGA, no charge.

“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.”

While he was setting up camp at Albion, Ryker Moore offered to let him stay at his home, Jeff Moats brought him several bottles of Powerade and a bag of ice and the owners of Los Chicanos offered him lodging as well.

Fugate posts regularly from the road on Facebook (he has nearly 5,000 friends), and maintains a website—trailtherapy.com—that tells his story and philosophy.

As can be expected, Fugate draws plenty of media attention. He has been the subject of countless newspaper and television stories, and has been interviewed by CNN and Mark Sommers on his radio show on NPR.

He has been told of several people whose lives were probably saved by hearing his message on the NPR show, including 10 who were in the act of killing themselves. “It doesn’t get any better than that,” Fugate said.

“You can do anything you want in this life except hurt other people,” he emphasized. “You are not allowed to take your own life. It does not belong to just you. You’re not getting rid of your pain, you’re passing it on.”

He’s been asked how many lives he believes he’s touched in a positive way. “I tried to count them up before, but I can’t get past one,” he grimed.

His mission is “to mend the broken heart while it is yet beating,” Fugate said.

“I’m about loving life more than anything.”