Sharon Funck was just passing through on a motorcycle the first time she roared into Death Valley, but she already felt like she was home. Four years later, it was her home.
There was one problem. While she reveled in the solitude and beauty – the “spirituality” as she puts it – being alone in the desert terrified her. “The desert is so big and quiet and being alone made my mind go wild,” says Funck.
Death Valley, smack in the Mojave, is notoriously inhospitable. History books teem with stories of fortune hunters and travelers who entered the valley but never emerged. It’s the second hottest place on earth, with summer highs routinely topping 120 degrees F and surprisingly chilly night temps. There’s less than two inches of average rainfall annually, though summer thunderstorms can trigger flash floods. And, of course, there are the usual desert inhabitants: snakes, scorpions, coyotes, black widow spiders…
But Funck had grown tired of fear holding her back, of her “what ifs” as she called them. “I didn’t want to not try something because I was afraid,” she says. She made a list and set out to conquer her what ifs one at a time. Ride a bike: Check. Learn to swim: Check. Go to Thailand and ride an elephant: Check. Walk into the Death Valley desert and camp out under the stars – alone. Check, check – and check.
This last one wasn’t easy. She devised a plan – walk 13 miles out into the desert (“too far to simply turn around if I got scared,” she says), sleep out under the stars, then walk 13 miles to Stovepipe Wells, a small Death Valley community where she would treat herself to a nice meal, then stay overnight at the hotel.
One May day in 1994, Funck carefully deposited five gallons of water – one gallon each at four-mile intervals, hidden behind rocks or shrubs – along her route into the desert. At the 13-mile point, she placed a sheet and ice pack. That’s where she would sleep. Her friends thought she was crazy. Her parents – “my poor parents,” she laughs – were nervous. The next morning, she set out.
She learned a lot of things that first walk, including the importance of big shoes (“feet swell,” she says) and good socks. “There were times when I would look out into the desert and it was spiritual and so, so beautiful,” says Funck. “But there were times when
I wondered what I was doing.” About every seven miles, she would cry.
But she did it, arriving at the hotel at Stovepipe Wells to discover her parents had paid for her room and dinner, and left a note: “We’re so proud of you. Love Mom and Dad.” Funck cried. So did the man behind the counter.
For eight years, she repeated her pilgrimage into the desert – always alone, even after she married and her husband asked to join her. “This is my thing,” she told him, though he did participate by setting up her campsite at the halfway point each year.
But then, in 2005, came Funck’s biggest “what if.” Cancer. Leiomyosarcoma, to be exact, a rare cancer of the muscle with a survival rate that doesn't inspire optimism. For a nanosecond after hearing the diagnosis, Funck wondered how long she had. Her husband began to cry. The cancer diagnosis, she says “was a complete surprise.” There were nights she woke up petrified, but she says, “I just knew I was going to live.”
Stacia Erckenbrack, Funck’s daughter, had generally considered her mom’s annual walk in the desert to be, as she puts it, crazy. “I never wanted to do it.” With radiation treatment looming, however, Funck had to forego her annual trek so Erckenbrack decided to walk in her mother’s place – without telling her mom. “If I did it,” she thought, with the kind of logic that figures into close mother-daughter relationships, “it kinda counted as if she’d done it.” She started off on her own, and would be joined by her mom’s co-worker a few hours later when the woman got off work.
The only sound, she recalls, was her steps in the dirt. At first, it was fun. “Like ditching school,” says Erckenbrack. “I was doing something my mom didn’t know about.” It was also breathtaking. Erckenbrack had heard that it was butterfly migration season and she’d hoped to see a few. Instead, she was swarmed by dozens. “They completely enveloped me for a minute, then flew away.”
Between the butterflies, the wildflowers and the silence, Erckenbrack began to understand her mother’s love of the place. “It was so beautiful. So serene.”
Earlier in the day, Erckenbrack’s dad had set up a camp spot at the 13-mile point, including a lean-to, sleeping bags and three jugs of water in exactly the same place he always put it for his wife.
By the time Erckenbrack and her mom’s co-worker found the camp spot, they were exhausted. What they found wasn’t the lean-to and promised sleeping bags…but one jug of water. The rest had been stolen.
“It was the longest night of my life,” she says. “Freezing and windy.” Though the women barely knew each other, “we literally spooned together.” She fought tears and frustration. “I was trying so hard to be strong.”
At sunrise, after a breakfast of pistachios and water and with the temperature already rising, the two set off again. They reached Stovepipe Wells at mid-day. “I realized this was what my mom had done. I’d shared her experience.”
After lunch, Erckenbrack headed to her mom’s place to tell her what they’d done. “We walked in your place,” she explained. “That way you’ve done it every year. Next year, you can do it again.”
Erckenbrack was right. By the following May, Sharon Funck was cancer-free and ready to resume her walk in the desert. This time, however, she wasn't alone. Joined by 19 friends, they created a fundraising walk, not only raising funds but spirits. It was an important thing for Funck to do, to bring the community together as they had supported her. “I was never alone,” she says.
The Death Valley Walk for Life became an annual event from 2006 until 2011 when Funck – still cancer-free after six years – moved from Death Valley following the death of her parents.
Funck is proud of what she and her friends accomplished over those years. Thanks to the annual fundraising walk, anyone in the community diagnosed with cancer could call and know they’d get not only financial support – a gas card to help with trips for treatment, payment to a doctor – but the wisdom and advice of someone who’d been there, and who had fought her way through the “what ifs” to come back.
Leslie Garrett is an award-winning journalist and author of 14 books, including The Virtuous Consumer: Your Essential Shopping Guide to a Better, Kinder, Healthier World (and One Our Kids Will Thank Us For).