Tuesday, December 27, 2005
Hiker learns her strengths
Confronted with the death of her husband, Sarah Funk takes to the AT alone in his honor.
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The Wild Life blog
RADFORD -- When her husband died in July 2004 from a long-running bout with lymphoma, Sarah Funk didn't know what to do.
In their Radford home, the Sarah and Johnny Funk had raised two children. Since then, the beautiful, blonde 29-year-old Ashleigh had gotten married and moved to North Carolina to begin a job as a clinical research coordinator. The charming and artsy 28-year-old Adam moved to Georgia to become a drummer.
Sarah Funk dedicated most of her adult life to her passion for teaching special education. She retired in 2003 and spent her time taking care of her husband.
Despite her sadness, Funk is not the kind of woman who gives up. Her warm, tanned cheeks and sweet-tea Southern accent make it hard to imagine her in any place that is not full of sunshine.
When life was presenting challenges, Funk decided that she would take on some of her own -- the Galax native would spend six months conquering the Appalachian Trail.
"I've wanted to do it for 25 years," the 56-year-old said, two months after she completed the biggest journey of her life. "I've always been interested in the AT. My husband and I used to go hiking all the time together around the Grayson Highlands area. When I set my mind to do it, I started reading more about it and educating myself."
Funk began preparing for the hike in October 2004, five months before her start date. She attended a long-distance hiking workshop for women to hear others' stories and learn. She visited many hiking outfitters to learn about equipment.
Nothing was going to get in her way. After all, as she tells everyone upon first inquiry of her hike, she was doing it for her husband.
Funk began her hike March 22 at Amicalola Falls -- a state park about 90 minutes from Athens, Ga.
Her son, daughter, brother, and sister were all supportive, and each made plans to accompany her for as many portions of the trail that they could.
Her son began the hike with her, near Athens. Funk recalls that it was a miserable day.
"The first day of spring is a popular day for many hikers to start," she said, "but it was raining buckets.
Mark Taylor | The Roanoke Times
Sarah Funk pitches a tent along the Appalachian Trail. She hike the entire trail in the summer of 2005 in honor of her husband, the late Johnny Funk.
- Travel as lightly as you can. There's some high-tech lightweight stuff out there now.
- Start out slow. If you go too fast, you may develop knee of ankle problems.
- Take a walking stick of ski poles.
- Don't leave trash anywhere. Pack it in, pack it out.
- Educate yourself. Talk with people who have done it.
- Plan far -- at least five months -- in advance.
- Take your time on the really steep sections.
"That was my first big challenge. I started thinking, 'what did I get myself into?' "
But she stuck with it.
"I had only backpacked two nights before the trip -- and they weren't even consecutive nights. Some people think that's strange, but once you get out there, you make it work," she said.
Funk started out hoisting a good 48 pounds, including her backpack, water filter, stove, one-person tent, a titanium pot, food and water, a dry pack of clothes and her hiking poles.
"Those hiking poles were the most important thing I had with me," she said. "They were just old ski poles I bought from the Goodwill.
"But I couldn't have hiked without them. They helped with balance and took so much weight off my ankles and knees."
Funk's hike led her through 14 states. She hiked through sweltering heat in the Shenandoah Valley mountains and bad weather in the northern states. Sometimes, she would stay wet for three or four days.
Sometimes she was with people -- other hikers she met along the way and her children -- but most of the time she was alone.
Funk's trail name -- a moniker that all hikers adopt to identify themselves -- was "Slow and Steady," the way she describes her pace. While on the trail, she developed a friendship with a man named "Waist Deep," whom she ran into periodically.
"He was really friendly and fun to be around," Funk said. "He liked talking, but he wasn't intrusive. He was like me -- he liked going at his own pace and not having to keep up with anyone else."
On average, Funk hiked 15 to 20 miles a day, beginning about 7:30 a.m. and hiking until it started to get dark.
She always made sure that she allowed enough time to cook her dinner while it was still light. Dinner on most days consisted of freeze-dried food or Lipton's side meals.
"In addition to meals, I always made sure that I had a block of cheese, some peanut butter and sunflower seeds with me," Funk said. "They were my staples throughout the day."
Funk did a lot of thinking on the trail and took some books to read, afterward using the pages to burn at campfires. Surprisingly, she never got bored.
"Most of the time I just took in the beautiful scenery," she said.
"At night, I was too tired to get bored. Every morning, I woke up ready to hike -- I was always curious as to what was around the next corner."
Funk saw a lot of wildlife on her journey, including several black bears, deer, grouse, birds and even a rattlesnake Surprisingly, she was never afraid and didn't even carry protection.
"Being in town's a lot scarier than being on the trail," she said.
The hardest thing about the trail was fording the streams. Funk was afraid she might get her pack wet.
Fortunately, this never happened. At one particularly hard forge, she met a couple of Virginia Tech graduates -- trail names "Stats" and "Mud Pumpkin," who helped her across.
She did have one scary thing happen to her, though. It was when she was hiking through New Jersey.
"I came upon a man on the trail wearing jeans and cowboy boots, and he was just carrying a black notebook," Funk said.
"That's very strange attire for a hiker. For the first time, I started to get a little nervous."
When Funk approached the man, they exchanged hellos. But what came next was particularly disturbing.
"He told me he had just crashed his airplane, and that his plane was only ash," Funk said.
"Naturally, I didn't believe him. He wasn't beat up or hurt. I offered him my cellphone, but he said he didn't want to use the phone until he got to a road crossing. So I told him where the road crossing was and booked it out of there."
It was a little while down the trail (which Funk was covering pretty quickly) when she came across it -- a little bit off the trail was a plane, smoldering.
She couldn't believe her eyes. There was barely anything left. She had no idea how the man had made it out alive.
At the next road crossing, Funk flagged down an emergency vehicle and told the driver what she had seen and help soon arrived.
"It was one of the strangest things I've ever seen," Funk said.
She continued her trek through New Jersey and on into the northern states. The rocky terrain there was much more difficult, and her daily average dropped to seven or eight miles.
By this point in the trip, her daughter Ashleigh had noticed how much her mother's endurance had improved.
"It was very obvious how quickly mom got in shape from hiking every day," she said.
"When we started out hiking in Georgia I was able to keep up with her. By the time she made it to Virginia, she was having to wait for me at the top of every mountain."
Most nights, Sarah Funk stayed in trail shelters, but she stopped in towns about once a week for a shower and to do laundry.
"When I started the hike, there were no leaves on the trees and you could see for miles," she said. "But as I hiked into the summer, I found myself walking through a tunnel of forest, which was beautiful."
She completed her goal of reaching Mount Katahdin, Maine, before mid-October. This is when they shut down the mountain for bad weather. Funk hiked the mount -- the final summit of the AT -- on a very special day.
It was Sept. 24, and it would have been her husband's 58th birthday.
Her children accompanied her to the top, and the three shared a very special time on the mountain.
It was a glorious occasion for Funk.
"I learned a lot about myself on the trail," she said.
"I learned that I'm pretty strong. And I can do anything I want to do. That's a pretty good thing to know about yourself."