COLUMBIA — If you happened to be driving on U.S. 63 near Columbia on Monday, it would have been hard to miss the hooded man walking with a big, red-lettered sign.
Undeterred by cars screaming past, Steve Fugate trekked down the shoulder of the highway with a smile on his face.
With the “Love Life” sign attached to his backpack and 19,500 miles under his belt, Fugate, 61, walks with a purpose — he’s walking diagonally across the United States to share his love of life with whomever he meets along the way.
“I got a joy for life, man. Sometimes I dance and sing out here,” he said.
In 1999, Fugate decided to take some time off of work, leaving his car-detailing business to his 26-year-old son Stevie Fugate, to hike the Appalachian Trail.
Three months into his hike, Fugate learned his son had killed himself. Nine months later, Fugate finished his hike in the Appalachians in honor of his son and coined the term “Trail Therapy.”
“This is more than hiking. It’s a way of life for him,” Jeanne Boger, Fugate’s older sister said.
Fugate has been walking ever since the tragedy. But during his second walk, which began in his hometown Vero Beach, Fla., tragedy struck again. Fugate’s daughter, his only other child, died of an accidental drug overdose at age 36 because of complications with her multiple sclerosis medication.
Fugate camps out where he can during his walks, often in fields and occasionally in motels. He gets food where he can, he said.
Fugate said this will be his fourth walk.
His first was 2,175 miles on the Appalachian Trail, from Springer Mountain, Ga., to Mount Katahdin in Maine; his second was 4,858 miles across the U.S. from San Francisco to Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware; his third was a 9,727-mile circle beginning in the Miccosukee reservation in Florida; and his fourth is a walk from corner to corner of the United States.
Fugate said that in those months spent in the Appalachians, he did a lot of “screamin’ and cryin,’” but has since forgiven his son. He’s realized that although he was unable to save himself grief, he’s now on a mission to help others.
Fugate hopes to spare people the pain he went through when his son took his own life.
So far, Fugate said, he knows of 12 people who have decided not to take their lives because of him and his sign.
“That’s a great feeling!” he said.
Fugate has other stories of people quitting smoking or drinking, getting back together with spouses and mending relationships with friends or siblings because of him and his “Love Life” sign.
Fugate said that the other day, a lady drove past and yelled, “Thank you,” from her car window while tossing out a full pack of cigarettes.
Fugate has a Web site, trailtherapy.com, with similar inspiring stories.
Fugate emphasized that his Web site is not about preaching or asking for money but about realizing that life is worth living.
He said he expects his current walk to take about three years. He began in Blairsville, Ga., then went to Surrey, Maine, and he’s now on his way to San Diego, Calif. He’ll walk up to Washington state, down to Key West, Fla., then back to Surrey.
Fugate said this walk, “The Shelly Walk,” honors his daughter.
Boger said she doesn’t think her brother will ever really return to society after the loss of both of his children.
“I don’t think he’ll ever stop walking,” she said.