According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), suicide has become the 11th highest cause of death in the USA. Over 33,000 people take their own lives every year. For Steve Fugate, one life lost to suicide is too many.
Steve is an advocate for the lonely and the heartbroken. He hikes America with his message of hope and encouragement. Fastened to his backpack frame above his head, both sides of a large white sign are printed with bold red letters: LOVE LIFE. One side is dedicated to his son, the other to his daughter.
“In 1999, my son was suffering from depression, dealing with having to complete community service required by the courts for a DUI conviction, and looking for something to keep him busy and grounded. I thought giving him the responsibility of running my business would be good for him. I told him that I was going to hike the Appalachian Trail (AT) and when I was done, it would be his turn,” Steve explained.
Halfway through the 2,200 mile hike, Steve got word that his son, Stephen (Stevie) Lee Fugate had put a gun in his mouth and killed himself. Left behind were twelve unfinished suicide notes.
For Steve Fugate, the pain was indescribable. “I felt as though someone had taken an ax and chopped out my heart.” It took eight months before Steve could start hiking the AT again. He picked up at the same spot where he left the trail after learning of Stevie’s death. He dedicated his full 14 state hike to Stevie and created a motto that has become his creed: “I want to mend the broken heart while it is yet beating.”
Steve’s daughter, Shelly, helped to make things work at home so that he could hike, supporting his plan to take his message on the road. Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2005, Shelly died of an accidental overdose of MS medicine while Steve was once again on the trails. He is convinced that the grief of losing her brother made her careless, that she would never have killed herself and left her four-year-old daughter motherless if it weren’t for the pain Stevie’s death had inflicted.
“I take the energy and power of that loss and convert it into positive energy to help others. No matter what anyone says, losing a child and losing him or her to suicide is the hardest grief to experience.” Steve believes that people who consider or succeed in committing suicide are in so much pain that they never really understand what impact and damage their death creates. “They need to think about us when they are contemplating. We need to forgive them if they succeed.” He wants to bring awareness to the pain, guilt and confusion those left behind experience, and comfort to those he meets as he hikes.
“I tell the people I meet along the way that you can do anything in the world except hurt other people. You have no right to that. Some of them have heard me. Some have changed their minds. I tell them that they need to put blinders on, to focus on one thing and that is to love life. It’s all about love.”
This year, Steve Fugate’s hike began in Florida on April 30th. He traveled through Georgia to North Carolina, along the Tennessee border into Virginia. After a brief stay in Elliston, Steve will hike up to Maryland and continue on to Maine. From there, Steve will make his way through Cincinnati for a visit with his mother and siblings, eventually crossing state by state until he lands in Oakland, California.
“My goal is to buy a self contained van and tour the country. I want to talk to all the young and old people out there. High schools, colleges, community groups—wherever there are people at risk of taking their own lives, I want to be there to talk to them. I want to tell them: ‘if you want to be happy, stop thinking about yourself.’” Steve’s passion for his message is evident in everything he says, although his voice is soft and his demeanor is humble.
“The people I meet and the things I see, it is difficult not to live my message. I say to people to get their kids into the woods for a good walk. Camp and see America. Feel nature and fresh air breezes and take the time for your family to really settle into the outdoors. It will make you stronger.”
Follow Steve’s progress at http://www.trailtherapy.org/ and click on his blog tab. You can also become friends with Steve on facebook.com and see his daily comments.
“Word of mouth has been the best advertising for me. I’ll be out there passing the word and you can pass the word for me here,” Steve grinned. “It’s all about the love.”