So here I am 736,248 steps and 543.39km into the Way of St James on the way to Santiago, with another 330 km to do in 14 days. My friends think I am mad, walking every day for 5 weeks in the hot summer heat of Northern Spain. I am no spring chickens, not exactly the fittest chick in the run ! After my mum died in 2010, I started walking, mainly along the seafront every morning, then walking became running before work. There is nothing more invigorating , breath taking , inspiring and thought provoking as those early mornings on Brighton seafront. My mum lost her leg when she was 54, so being able to walk is something I have never taken for granted.Walking has become a passion which I have used to encourage people to takes steps for mouth cancer and develop Moveit4smiles collaborative initiative, an initiative that now sits within the Oral Health Foundation , something I am very proud of.
I am clear that I am doing this to raise awareness of mouth cancer and to help raise the profile of the campaign to get men, our sons, grandsons, brothers and nephews vaccinated for HPV alongside our girls.
HPV is responsible for 5 % of all cancers worldwide,it’s the easiest sexually transmitted virus, research suggests it might even be transferred through French kissing, 80% of the population will have it. For most, our immune system will deal with it, but for some it will cause cancer.. In fact HPV is overtaking smoking and drinking as a risk factor for mouth cancer and it is no longer an older persons’ disease .
Mouth cancer kills more people than testicular and cervical cancer combined due to late detection. HPV mouth cancers do not usually present until the fourth decade although the first seed will/lie deep within the tonsilar tissue. You cannot screen for HPV in the mouth like you can in the cervix, because the tonsilar tissue is 2 ft by 2 ft of folded tissue. So if we are to catch mouth cancer early, and prevent people from losing their lives ( or if not their lives it will take their face, tongue, taste, speech and function). We all have to have more knowledge, be more aware and get the health of our mouth checked out every year, whether we smoke or not.
So I have taken the campaign to get boys vaccinated to the Pyrenees and will finish in Santiago on June 24th, 34 days after I started . It’s not the first time I have taken on a walk on this length. For the same end, I walked from Scotland to Brighton in 2012. It was then that I first heard of the Camino de Santigao, and then I watched the film “The Way” and wondered how I would cope with doing it alone, like Martin Sheen. But I, like him, have made many friends in the short time I have known them. You become part of what the Camino refers to as loose groups. They do become like your Camino family .
You start walking each day and many people walk at the same pace as you, some take rest days or half days, start later or earlier, so you see the same people. In the morning, at cafes along the way and in the allbergues ,hostels or hotels at night. The conversations I had with these people are deeper, open,and more honest than I would normally have with people II had just met.
The Camino, I have heard described as a journey of 3 parts, “Life”, “Death” and “Resurrection”
“ Life “ From St Jean to Burgos
St Jean Pied de Port straddles the French and Spanish border, crossing The Pyrenees on my first day was the toughest physically of the last 22 days. The day I arrived the tops of The Pyrenees were shrouded in fog, and rain had been falling for most f the day. I went into the pilgrims’ office to collect my passport , which I have to get stamped at every place I stay or in the churches of the towns in order to receive the Compestella awarded by the monks. They advised the that the steep uphill 25 km climb and the 3.5 km steep downhill into Roncesvales would be treacherous with the day’s rain and I should be very aware of my footing and take plenty of water to keep hydrated, but that I would be rewarded with stunning views all around.
It was at the statue of the Holy Mother, half way up, I met Johny a 75 year old South African who had run out of water and was turning to walk back down. I gave him half my water and he was going to wait for the owners of a car to return and head back to St Jean. He did in fact complete the walk to Roncesvales that day but I would not know that until I reached Pamploma when I was to see him next. “The Camino will provide” is something I have heard so often.
I was too tired that evening to even to talk with the couple sitting beside me at dinner., Thank Goodness, they persevered with me at breakfast . James and Pauline, from just outside Dublin, were to be my saviours and my first walking buddies of the Camino. I walked with them to Pamploma through the high mountains and the deep valleys of The Pyrennes, and it settled me into the Way of Saint James. I had been so apprehensive of doing this on my own. Many people do the Camino in sections. Pauline and James would be staying on in Pamploma , their Camino for this year finished there. I realised how fortunate I was to be able to take the time and have the sponsorship from local Brighton businessman Chris Weatherstone of Weatherstone Properties, Denplan and Dental Health Spa to be able to do this. I need to spread the word, and I will continue to do at every opportunity. It turned out that their youngest daughter Aoife and had been seen at the hospital the day before they left for a white lesion at the back of her throat. I will keep in touch with them . Pauline was 62 , the youngest of 17 children, and her mother died when Pauline was two years old. Her father took to his bed, but fortunately her grandmother stepped in and raised them. The conversations we had over those few days together about Irish history were so interesting and distracted from the steep inclines, declines the rain and the heat of the Camino. On the morning I was leaving Pamploma they got up early to walk me to the start of the Camino trail to ensure I was heading the right direction, and to give me the wooden walking stick that James had been using, to take to Santiago. Walking sticks are an essential part of your kit- “The Camino will provide” Walking out of Pamploma, up the steep climb of Alto de Perdon, wth stunning views back over the fortress town of Pamploma, you come across the very tall wind farms and large metal symbols of the Camino and, if you have seen the film “The Way” you would recognise them from it.
I continue to walk on my own for a few days but, as I said, you are never really on your own. You catch people at coffee stops and in the evenings where you stay, walking an hour or two with some, touching base with others. As you approach Logrono the landscape changes as its dominated by vineyards , and the wine growing region of Rioja . I spend quite a bit of time on my own which is good.Plenty time to reflect.
The conversations can be quite deep. You realise everyone has a story and reason. You get a real chance to put your own life into perspective.
The scenery of this first section is spectacular, the terrain is challenging and the sun is hot. There are many fresh water fountains and shaded areas to take a break. There are many people walking at this time of year in this first section. The day I arrived I learnt from Pauline that a plane full from Dublin landed at Biaritz. There are many Irish and Americans along the Way of St James inspired by the film it seems.
I hook up with Maurice from Dublin and Kate a journalist from Montana in Longrono, and Tim, Elsa and Parnille from Denmark over the next few days. We are all at different paces, some have blisters so their pace is slower, but it’s a nice distraction from the continual walking. I have been walking for 7 consecutive days, and have already walked over 190 km. The blisters I had from my first day’s climbing are better, I am walking in Brooke running shoes, much better and lighter than my walking boots. I continue over the next 3 days walking and chatting. In and out of these lose groups of Camino buddies.
It’s day 10 on the way to Belerado that I meet Donna and Grace , mother and daughter from New Jersey, Donna is a retired litigation lawyer, her ex husband was a Dentist. She really gets me and a strong bond forms with us. This is her 3rd time on the Camino , she is doing it in sections. Her daughter Grace surprised her last year when she was doing the last section, she has yet to do the start! They are walking from Santo Domingo de la Calzada to Leon. We are not always staying in the same place. They end up meeting Maurice and Kate as well, so our group grows for a bit. We spend the next 3 days walking together to the medieval city of Burgos with its spectacular Gothic cathedral . Donna is able to guide us through an alternative walk in down the side of the Pico river and the city of Burgos awaits – and my first rest day after 12 days of walking.
The arrival in Burgos completes the first stage of the Camnio and 342 km covered. We spend the evening having dinner with all the people we have met who are still travelling The Way. The following morning Maurice and Kate head off, they only joined at Logrono , they are not taking a rest day. Donna , Grace and I sightsee Burgos together before I bid them a sad farewell, but arrange to meet again in Leon.
Donna explains the next stage onto Leon is referred to as “Death”, is desert like, and provides very little shelter from the heat and sun, and is known as the Meseta.
“Death” The Meseta
The Meseta is the central part of this walk with flat lands and very dry heat with little to no shelter after Burgos. I approach it on my own , quite nervous but the days are shorter and I plan to start getting up early and leave at 6 to escape the midday sun. I am now behind my Camino friends that I have grown vey close to over such a short time. To begin with I love the quiet solitude , the flat paths are bordered by bright red poppies and an assortment of wild flowers, the vineyards replaced by green lush fields of crops . It will be 8 days before I reach Leon and see Donna and Grace. After a day on my own , the heat, the continuous flatness , make the distance and time seem never ending . I have developed another blister from my day of sightseeing in Burgos wearing sandals ! The paths are loose stones and rocks , pounding against my feet. Thank goodness for Compedes and walking sticks.
It’s not long into the Meseta before two older Americans, Ed and Jim, take me under their wings. They are loud, with a very dry sense of humour, and are getting their packs shipped ahead, and Ed offers to carry my back pack, at first I refuse but he is insistent . My foot is hurting, and eventually I agree, so he carries it for half a day and me the other half.
Three days into the Meseta, with only half a day between Donna and Grace, we suddenly realise we are staying in the same place, and we are reunited at Carron de los Condes.
A welcome reprieve for all, Grace has had problems with her knee, so they had to slow the pace. We have ten for dinner that night, a bit of a party all round one table having the Pigrims’ menu. Joining us are Ian and Lynn from Australia , both 80 , they celebrated their wedding anniversary along the Camino, they walked the coast to coast in the UK two years ago , what an amazing couple,, they have become Ma and Pa to us all. I have spoken and walked little bits with them along the way. Also with us are Philip and Jane from New Zealand.
I have given out , on request, lots of dental and oral health advice across the dinner table. My foot has become more painful and more drastic treatment is required. Grace threads a needle and thread through it and dresses it. We all decide to take a horse and cart ride through part off the Meseta the next day, to give my foot half a day with just dressing, and Grace a chance to rest her knee.
We all say our goodbyes after half the day together the following day, and arrange to catch up in Leon. I continue on with Ed and Jim, my foot still very painful with the pounding from the rocks under neath. Those last few days of the Meseta were hard but Leon was in our sights and we had crossed the halfway mark which psychologically had a positive effect. I was starting to get down and homesick.The heat and the never ending sight of the Meseta was getting to me. Two days before Leon, on the way to Bercianos de real Camiono we starting chatting to two young American girls, Catherine and Ally. What a breath of fresh air! They were staying in albergues and we were talking girlie things, I was old enough to be their Mother . The problem with the albergues were limited showers, and they were carrying their back packs with all their belongings for the Camino and their ongoing travel They were away from home for eighty days and when they get back on July 25th, Catherine is having a tumour removed on the 27th. The doctors believe it is benign but it has grown in size . I let them use my bathroom, and toiletries. I brought too much and I have lightened my rucksack and cleared stuff out. They joined us for dinner that night and then walked with us to Leon. Ally’s feet were worse than mine and, bless Jim, when we arrived in Leon he put the girls up in his hotel, treating them like any of us would like to think someone else would treat or our own children .
We arrived in Leon June 9th, twenty two days after we all started in St Jean, for me it’s 523.39 km and 736,248 steps taken for mouth cancer and supporting HPV vaccination for all