Seventeen years ago, Deirdre Fournier’s sister, Juli, was murdered in Florida, shot by her estranged husband in front of their two small children.

Had she lived, Juli would have turned 62 on April 24 this year. That’s the day Fournier, who grew up in Cape Elizabeth with Juli and three brothers, set out to hike across the country on the American Discovery Trail. She wanted to honor her beloved sister’s memory and raise awareness of domestic violence.

Halfway through her odyssey, Fournier’s hike turned into a struggle of its own – a test of will and strength. But she’s achieving her overarching goal: To visit small towns across America, and find and share stories of other victims of domestic violence.

“Juli was incredibly intelligent and very funny. She was a hairdresser and an incredible artist,” said Fournier. “She could tell a story like nobody. And she was fiercely protective of her kids. She just was a strong-willed person. She was not the one you would think would become a victim of domestic violence.

“But domestic violence doesn’t discriminate.”

THE PLAN

Fournier, 56, left her job in Reno, Nevada, last winter to move to California and prepare for her trek: the 6,800-mile American Discovery Trail that meanders from the West to East Coast. By blogging about her journey (deegoesfromtrialtotrail.com), meeting victims and telling their stories to small-town newspapers along the way, Fournier hoped to spread a greater awareness of domestic violence.

She planned to stop at women’s shelters as she traveled, but even before she set out, the shelters informed her that confidentiality laws prevented them from introducing her to their clients. Fournier didn’t let this stop her. She strapped a large sign to her backpack with these words written in bold capital letters: “Trek across America Raising Awareness to End Domestic Violence.” She would find victims herself.

So far, it’s worked. She’s met survivors of abuse on the streets of small towns, in hotels where she’s stayed when she’s not camping, and on the trail. The women have taught her a lot, and she says these interactions have made her a better advocate for ending domestic violence.

Deirdre Fournier began hiking the American Discovery Trail in April; she reached St. Louis earlier this month. Photo courtesy of Deirdre Fournier

Though an avid hiker, Fournier had never backpacked. And despite several mishaps, including foot pain she blames on inadequate hiking shoes that forced her to skip the snow-covered mountains and deserts of Utah, Nevada and parts of Colorado, the organization that founded the American Discovery Trail has celebrated her resilience by reposting her blog on its Facebook page.

“Dee is probably the toughest person who has done the trail so far,” said Bob Palin, vice president of the American Discovery Trail Society.

THE TRAIL

The American Discovery Trail extends from California to Delaware, linking 12 national historic trails and 35 national recreational trails, and leads to 16 national forests and 14 national parks. (It does not extend to Maine.) So far, the footpath is little-known, Palin said, but the Society hopes a bill before Congress will designate it a national trail.

The trail was mapped between 1980 and 1990, the work of advocates at Backpacking Magazine and the American Hiking Society. So far, day users and weekend backpackers are its biggest constituency, Palin said. Fewer than 30 people have hiked its entire length.

After starting at Point Reyes National Seashore in California, and passing through Nevada, Utah and Colorado, the Discovery Trail splits into two in Denver. It runs south through Kansas, Missouri, Kentucky and Ohio – the trail Fournier took – and north through Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. The trails merge in Elizabethtown, Ohio, and then continue through Ohio, West Virginia, Washington, D.C., and Maryland to end at Cape Henlopen State Park in Delaware.

On Fournier’s first day out, she was carrying so much she had to pull a cart with her stuff for 18 miles. She quickly realized the absurdity of her setup. She lugged the cart to a hostel, where she jettisoned, among other things, a pillow, coffee mug, extra clothing and shoes, cooking utensils and a day pack.

She kept essentials, including her camping gear, pepper spray, cell phone and iPad. Her pack was reduced to a reasonable 30 pounds.

Later, there was a trip to the hospital for a tick bite that gave her Lyme disease, and many sleepless nights due to an inadequate sleeping bag.

In Missouri, hiking at night on the Katy Trail without a head lamp, she fell. She hiked 9 miles to the trail head, covered with bruises and ready to quit.

“I was just plain tired. I was thinking, ‘How will I tell my brother? How will I tell people supporting my hike?’ ” Fournier said. “Then something caught my eye. It was a purple flyer with a peace sign and a heart that said: ‘Katy Trail non-competitive bike race to raise awareness for domestic violence.’ I took it as a sign from Juli. And I told her, ‘I’ve got this.’ ”

Deirdre Fournier has walked past many farm fields in Kansas and Missouri as she travels the American Discovery Trail. She said the views were ordinary, but the people she’s met were extraordinary. Photo courtesy of Deirdre Fournier

IT CAN HAPPEN TO ANYONE 

The Fourniers were a happy, close-knit family in Cape Elizabeth. Violence wasn’t part of their lives.

“My parents didn’t drink or do drugs. We lived in a neighborhood of well-manicured lawns. We walked to school. We played outside in the street. When the street lights came on, we knew it was time to go home,” Fournier said. “You see domestic violence in homes and see it trickle down. It becomes a vicious cycle. That never happened to us.”

At the time she was killed, Juli Stimus was getting a divorce. “She never gave any indication she was fearful for her life,” Fournier said.

Fournier’s brother, Rick, and his wife Renee, who live in Bangor, eventually raised Juli’s two children. Juli’s estranged husband went to jail, sentenced to life without parole.

Juli’s death became the shocking reality their family had to live with, Fournier said. She moved across the country to California, then to Nevada. But she couldn’t shake what had happened.

Several years ago, Fournier began hiking long distances; she thrived on the immersion in nature. At 55, unhappy at work, she wanted to make a change. A high school friend reminded her of her love for hiking and her sister, and Fournier conceived her plan.

“I know we’re all here on this Earth for, but a blip. I wanted my blip to be worth something other than a string of unsatisfying jobs,” Fournier said. “Maybe God knew I was ready for this now.”

THE VICTIMS

Much of the American Discovery Trail goes through small towns, farmland and horse farms. Fournier has been captivated – and inspired – by the kindness of the people she has met and their interest in her quest. While she carries pepper spray, she says she’s never felt threatened on the trail.

“I know I’m reaching people and educating people. People don’t understand why a woman doesn’t just leave,” she said. “I explain it’s not as easy as people think.”

Dozens of women who have suffered from domestic violence have shared their stories with her, she said.

In Fountain, Colorado, Brenda Leuteman invited Fournier to stay at her home. As the daughter of an alcoholic and the former wife of a man who mentally abused her, she related to Fournier’s cause. “I’m glad Dee is doing this,” Leuteman said.

Ronnie Arnold also lived in an abusive marriage for 13 years. Arnold bumped into Fournier at the hotel in Boonville, Missouri, where Arnold works. When she saw the sign on Fournier’s backpack, she showed her the purple ribbon tattooed on her wrist – a show of support for those struggling with abuse.

“She grabbed my wrist and said, ‘I’m so glad you got out of that situation,’” Arnold said. “I really appreciate she’s trying to raise awareness.”

Fournier started the trek to help inspire such victims. As she forged on from St. Louis last week, she said their stories of survival and triumph may lead her down a new path after her  journey ends.

“I do not think my physical journey across the U.S. will finish my being an advocate,” she said. “I think it’s almost the beginning.”

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