“One step at a time … one step … at a time … one … step … at … a … time….”There are any number of ways to see the Old Mission Trail of California, the historic El Camino Real stretching from San Diego to Sonoma. Few, though, would choose the path taken by Edie Sundby, the path that takes her — on foot — to within a few feet of 18-wheeler big rigs and traveler-laden Amtrak trains.Even fewer would choose the path Edie has taken since 2007, when she was diagnosed with stage 4 gall bladder cancer and given maybe three months to survive. That’s the path that includes endless rounds of surgery and radiation and chemotherapy and doctor visits, plus days and nights filled with fear and dread and despair.But Edith Littlefield Sundby wants nothing to do with that path. This 61-year-old wife and mother chooses instead to walk a path filled with joy and affirmation and energy, supported by devoted family and friends, bolstered by the healing work of dedicated medical professionals, nurtured by her faith and trust in God.All of which have encouraged her to stay this 800-mile course up the El Camino Real, because she decided, upon first hearing those dreaded words “cancer” and “three months to live,” that she wasn’t going to roll over, give up and die without living the rest of her life, however long that was, on her terms.And that’s what Edie, who doesn’t even like the description “cancer survivor,” has done for the past five years, walking for her health. Last year, before her most recent surgery, Edie made up her mind that she would walk what she calls “this magnificent American treasure,” starting from San Diego de Alcala, the first of the 21, and ending at San Francisco de Solano, the last.Starting out Feb. 20, she had reached San Luis Obispo by March 17 — a day after the sixth anniversary of her first diagnosis. By April 20, she hopes to be standing in the courtyard of Solano.‘It has totally touched my heart’“These missions are living testaments to God’s grace, because it truly defies the imagination that anyone could make what the Spanish friars made, literally out of the dust on the ground, the brush and the dirt and the weeds. They took what was here and made it into these beautiful missions. So it’s very humbling to me to think of the spirit, the courage, the bravado, the creativity, the inspiration that it took to build these.”Slight of build, fair of skin, Edie Sundby doesn’t look like she would last half an hour on a stroll in the park, much less 20 miles a day on dusty paths that adjoin active railroad tracks, and busy highways where 18-wheeler big-rigs barrel past less than 10 feet from her, and up and down steep hills.But physical size can’t contain an indominatible spirit, nor can it hide an ebullient personality and engaging smile that, by itself, invites others to join her on this walk of all walks.A walk she readily admits she may not complete.“The longest I ever walked before this was seven miles,” she smiles, during a break at Mission Santa Barbara, where she took a Sunday’s rest March 10 — her first break in 18 days — to prepare for probably the most arduous part of the journey: up the San Marcos Pass toward Lake Cachuma, and then down the pass to Mission Santa Inés in Solvang.“I was never good at sports,” she continues. “I couldn’t throw a ball well, or kick a ball. So activities like walking, jogging, yoga are what I do, and even then, never a great deal of it. “But since I was diagnosed with cancer, I’ve tried to walk a lot more. And I really believe that walking has helped keep me alive — not just physically, but mentally, emotionally, spiritually. My feeling is, you just have to get out and do it.”In preparation for and during her walk, many, she says, have asked her, “Aren’t you scared?” She laughs. “I was scared from the first day in San Diego; I wasn’t sure I could make it as far as Santa Barbara — but that’s the beauty of this adventure, not knowing how far you will go. It’s just one step at a time. It becomes hypnotic; you just focus on the walk. You forget about the physical toll, the emotional strain. The spirit is there, but the spirit is one with the walk.”She draws strength from the warm reception she receives at every stop.“Every one of these missions is unique; each has its own spirit, each one transcends time,” she says with admiration. “San Buenaventura, for example — right there on Main Street, in the heart of the community. How great is that?“But most of all, it’s the wonderful people I’ve met. Like in Santa Barbara; the priests and a number of people came out and were waiting for me when I got here [March 9]. They asked me, ‘How are you? Do you need some water, some food, a place to rest?’ I’m enjoying that part of this walk most of all. It has totally touched my heart.”In fact, Edie is accompanied by her friends Ron and Sandy Briery, veterans of Spain’s Santiago de Campostela pilgrimage walk, and their camper van, which is parked in a campground or available lot at night. It was Ron whose passion for the California Missions led him to walk the El Camino Real in 2011 using Google Maps (and his own amendments), and inspired Edie to do likewise.Edie’s husband Dale has joined her on weekends, taking Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner up from San Diego where he works during the week; he plans to accompany her the rest of the way once she reaches San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel, which she hopes to do by Easter Sunday.‘Special and life-affirming’Raised in a Baptist home, Edie Litttlefield married Dale Sundby in 1975, and they moved to the Silicon Valley, and later San Diego, raising twin daughters while working in the high-tech industry. Edie and Dale attend St. James-By-The-Sea Episcopal Church north of San Diego, a faith community which has provided profound support, moral and physical, during the past six years.Last fall, prior to surgery to remove her right lung, Edie was asked what she would like to do most, if given the chance.“I said, I’d like to walk the Old Mission Trail, the El Camino Real. I love to walk, and to me this is something not only special but life-affirming. I’ve actually wanted to do this for several years, but I’ve been tethered to so much equipment that it sort of got in the way.” As she says in her Facebook video, she believes walking has kept her alive in the years since she was first diagnosed, and that is certainly true on her current adventure during which, amazingly, she has endured (other than fatigue) remarkably little physical discomfort. “My body does well up to about 15 miles, but I try to do 20 a day,” she says. As for her feet, she took the advice of a friend who had walked the Campostela, and places lambswool lining inside her hiking boots, while wearing blister-free socks.Most importantly, “I slather Vaseline on my feet, my toes, all over, two or three times a day when I stop to re-lace my shoes,” she says. “That prevents dry skin rubbing against itself to cause blisters.”The greater challenge is the route itself — in some places, quite pleasant; in others, a battle to keep a safe distance from cars, trucks and trains.“It’s too bad,” she notes, “that when they paved the 5 and 101 highways, they didn’t leave a hiking or biking trail along the old El Camino. There’s a part of the 101 (Ventura to Carpinteria) where for several miles there are cliffs on one side, the railroad tracks on the other, and we had to walk either on the highway with 18-wheelers rushing past or near the tracks with Amtraks racing past. And because of the ocean roar, you don’t hear the trains until they’re right on top of you. I got a little intimidated. “So you need to be cautious, but that’s part of it. In some ways, I really feel like a pilgrim from 300 years ago. But then I think about the pioneers who settled this state, dealing with insects and animals and rivers and creeks and no bridges. And I think, ‘It’s not that bad, what I deal with.’”‘I feel so blessed’Indeed, whatever reservations Edie might have about the walk’s physical challenges are far outweighed by her delight in enjoying such a unique part of history.“For me this is a pilgrimage walk, a walk of joy, affirmation of life, thanksgiving and gratitude,” she says. “People ask me, ‘Why this Mission trail?’ Well, no other place in the U.S. has what we have here. The missions are a national treasure, a world treasure. I just feel so blessed to do this.”Her treks from mission to mission have taken her from a day to four or five days apiece. It was 56 miles from San Fernando to Ventura, 59 from San Luis Obispo to San Miguel, 83 from Soledad to Carmel. Conversely, the Santa Inés to Mission La Purísima was a nice, easy 17 miles.And at each mission stop, she takes time to light a candle inside the church, “in thanksgiving for the gift of life.”“When you are diagnosed as I was with stage 4 cancer, you know the stats are pretty grim and dismal as far as your chances for survival,” she says quietly. “You’re told your life is likely going to end soon, and you should be told. But you know what? There is always hope that you can fight back, that you can withstand the treatment, the chemo and radiation, that you can live a longer life — maybe not a long life, but a longer life. “So I hope this walk will inspire others with late stage cancer that there is hope to enjoy their lives, to do something of value. Consider that 47 percent of Americans will have some form of cancer in their lifetime; that means a lot of people are affected in some way. So I want to connect with these folks, hear their stories, share mine, give them a reason to keep going.”Edie Sundby has plenty of reasons to keep going — at the very least, a reason for each step she takes on this journey on which she is, indeed, blazing her own path of affirming hope and life, much as those Mission pioneers did three centuries ago.And whatever the outcome, she says, each step will be worth it.“Only God knows how far I’ll make it,” she smiles. “But I look forward to doing as much as I can, because I feel so empowered, so gifted with what I’ve been able to do. It’s been a fantastic experience.”To learn more about Edie Sundby’s journey, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FoIgxb7ylbg. {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2013/0322/sbedie/{/gallery}