As she walked on the shoulder of San Juan Grade Road toward San Juan Bautista, Edie Littlefield Sundby drew closer to the mission bell tower in the distance. It was 2013, and she was nearing the end of a pilgrimage that began hundreds of miles to the south at Mission San Diego. Sundby’s footprints marked more than her presence in San Benito County. They represented her determination to walk California’s entire mission trail, despite the cancer that was equally intent on hastening her death.
Sundby’s walk and battle with cancer are now the subject of her debut memoir, The Mission Walker: I was given three months to live… The account hits bookstores on Tuesday, July 25.
The author explained in a recent telephone interview with BenitoLink that she was diagnosed with stage 4 gallbladder cancer in March 2007.
Sundby’s fate looked bleak, a diagnosis revealing that she would not be alive to celebrate her August birthday.
Always one to embrace possibilities over probabilities, Sundby set out to defy the odds with the support of her family, friends, and medical team at Stanford’s Cancer Center.
Over the next five-and-a-half years she endured “79 chemotherapy infusions, one every three weeks,” she said.
Meanwhile, the aggressive cancer continued metastasizing.
Two surgeries later she was left with less than 60 percent of her liver and a right lung that filled with just enough air to allow for a single step—an important outcome since Sundby had included walking as part of her daily regime after diagnosis.
Her decision to walk the El Camino Real—the Spanish-era road linking California’s 21missions—was fueled in part by a life-long fascination with the state’s mission system and a “call of mystery” tugging at her heart.
And rather than viewing the nearly 800 mile trek as a form of exercise, Sundby saw it as something else.
“I was walking away from cancer and towards Spirit,” she said, adding that “It was to be a walk of joy and healing.”
To prepare for such an endeavor, Sundby consulted Ron Briery’s book, California Mission Walk: A Hiker’s Guide to California’s 21 Missions along El Camino Real.
On Feb., 20, 2013, Sundby set out from Mission San Diego, joined by her husband Dale and others, including Briery and his wife who had both agreed to accompany Sundby to Mission Santa Barbara.
Left with only a few traces of the original El Camino Real, Sundby found herself traversing city sidewalks, sauntering on rural roads, and, on at least one occasion, following a railway line until an oncoming train convinced her that walking next to California’s busiest highways was less perilous.
Her daytime arrival at each mission outweighed the obstacles and challenges she encountered along the way.
“There was always a mission to look forward to every three to four days,” said Sundby. “The mission was my reward.”
And a in scene repeated throughout her journey, she entered the mission church, finding solace in a pew, before being blessed by the parish priest and lighting a candle in gratitude.
Exiting the Salinas Valley, Sundby made her way through San Benito County on Day 45 of her walk.
Owing to Spring rains, the hills lining San Juan Grade Road were awash in wildflowers.
“A place of perfection,” Sundby said of the landscape that surrounded her. “I thought of buying property and moving there.”
At Mission San Juan Bautista, Sundby found remnants of the mission trail adjacent to the church.
Taking off her well-worn shoes, she walked barefoot, kicking up dust on a path used by Franciscan missionaries, Mexican soldiers, and Western pioneers.
“It’s beautiful that San Juan has retained it [the original El Camino Real],” she said.
Ten days after her stopover in San Juan, Sundby arrived at Mission San Francisco Solano in Sonoma, the last of California’s missions.
This marked the end of her mission walk and the beginning of a cancer-free life—or so she thought.
In 2015, a malignant tumor was detected in Sundby’s left lung. Surgery not an option, intense radiation treatment began immediately.
Once again the mission walker yearned to move. But this time, Sundby chose the road less traveled.
“When cancer comes back, you do wild and crazy stuff,” she said.
Baja California is home to another mission trail—El Camino Real del Sur.
Initially built by Jesuit missionaries during the 17th Century, the trail, cutting through desert and mountain passes, is nearly as long as its northern counterpart.
On Oct. 27, 2015, Sundby departed from Mission San Javier in Loreto, Mexico, near the tip of the Baja Peninsula.
With a team of vaqueros (Mexican cowboys) and mules, she headed north, confronted with an inhospitable terrain composed of lava rock strewn like shattered glass.
Sundby faced other dangers, including: consuming contaminated food; drinking brackish water; and navigating through razor-sharp cactus thorns and territory used by Mexican drug cartels.
And unlike the California missions that were resuscitated from ruin in the early 1900s, many of those in Baja have been reduced to rubble.
Needless to say, Sundby’s time on the El Camino Real del Sur was much different than her steps through California.
But the experience was just as rewarding.
“I learned that if the cancer comes back I can control my fear through moving,” she said, adding that, “I was amazed on how wonderful my body performed.”
Sundby met her husband at the border two days before Christmas.
They returned home to La Jolla and celebrated the holiday and new year with their daughters, ever grateful for the time together.
Sundby is currently cancer-free.
And with nearly 1,600 miles behind her, she is preparing for her next walk, though she is not quite sure when or where it might be. Or even if it will be.
“You can’t have expectations when fighting this disease,” she said.
One thing is certain.
She hopes readers enjoy her memoir, drawing from the mission walker’s journey “whatever feel they need to take away.”
The Mision Walker: I was given three months to live... by Edie Littlefield Sundby; 272 pages; Thomas Nelson, $24.99
Follow Edie L. Sundby on Twtter @ediesundby
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