ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — On May 1, breast surgeon Dava Gerard, the administrator of Presbyterian Cancer Service Line, embarked on a 500-mile pilgrimage through northern Spain.
She took along both hiking boots and hiking sandals to trek Camino de Santiago, a 1,000-year-old pilgrimage with eight different trails.
She will be trekking along the most popular of them: the Camino Frances, which will start in St. Jean Pied de Port, France, take her over the Pyrenees, across northern Spain’s countryside to Santiago de Compostelo, to a site where Catholics believe the body of St. James was placed.
Hiking footwear is not all she took, though: she also took along some freshly-engraved rocks, part of a small but heartfelt fundraising program she is doing simultaneously to raise money for Presbyterian Healthcare Foundation’s Cancer Patient Assistance Fund, which provides money for gas and lodging to cancer patients, many of whom travel from across the state.
The fundraising portion of her trip, which she has spent about a year training for by hiking in the Sandia foothills, works like this:
First, anyone who has heard about her project can make a donation to the fund, requesting an engraved rock in return. Twenty-five dollars will buy a small tile, $50 will buy a large tile, and $100 will buy a fist-sized rock.
At least 350 people have already made donations to date by purchasing one of the three options, Gerard said during a phone interview preceding the journey.
Next, the rocks are picked from Gerard and husband Jorge Lubary’s large Albuquerque yard.
Then Lubary engraves the rocks by hand, using a high-speed electric engraver, based on the request from the purchaser. Some have had their initials engraved; others, their full names.
“Each day I’ll take some rocks with me, and place those rocks, and take a picture of the rocks,” said Gerard, 66, who is trekking for the first time. It isn’t too late to participate: Gerard took extra rocks and Lubary packed his engraver.
Leaving rocks along the trail is symbolic, Gerard said. “I learned it was very traditional to bring stones from your region and leave them along the real,” she said. “The symbolism is to leave something of meaning along the sacred trail.”
While she is walking, Lubary, 71, who is Argentine, will be doing a project of his own – his more genealogical than geological. He has family members who are from the Basque region, which he has not visited before, although he has been to Spain.
So while Gerard his hiking, he will have the chance to look up family members he hasn’t met before.
But Gerard doesn’t think that’s all he will do. “I think he is going to be sitting in the café talking to the world,” Gerard said with a laugh. “He’s very comfortable in that café society.”
Gerard expects to spend 35 days walking between 15 and 20 miles a day, six hours each day, a pilgrimage that will do more for her than be the capstone to blister-inducing training sessions. It’s also a way to keep in mind the people she will resume working with when she gets back in late June. “As I started planning this, I thought, this is a journey not unlike our cancer patients take.”
Many patients travel several times a week for chemotherapy and other services. Twenty percent of them live more than 50 miles away, said Gerard, who is originally from New York.
“I thought, wouldn’t it be neat to raise funds, using my pilgrimage, to help others? A significant number of patients have to travel significant distances.”
Once she locked into the idea, she recruited her husband to do the engraving. Lubary said that with his high-speed device, it takes only a minute to etch the selected name or initials onto the rock. Some are more difficult because their surfaces are harder; on others with lighter colors, he adds indelible ink so the etched letters are easier to see.
He and Gerard will not keep track of what rock winds up where. “We have so many; we are going to drop them along the whole camino without looking to see who they are,” he said.
Lubary and Gerard departed May 1. Gerard began walking May 6 and the couple will return to Albuquerque on June 20.
“We are very excited,” Lubary said during a phone interview the night before they departed. “This is a trip that has a lot of meaning for us.”