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Nov 7, 2011 6:41 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press

An East Hampton Pilgrim Crosses Spain

Nov 21, 2011 9:43 AM

Margaret Dunn took the first step of her pilgrimage on September 15 in St. Jean Pied de Port, France, in the foothills of the Pyrenees. She hiked over the mountains to Northern Spain, walked across that, and shortly before 9 a.m. on October 12 arrived at Santiago de Compostela, the destination of pilgrims before her for more than 1,000 years.

Technically, the distance was “only” 494.6 miles, but “I always say 500” because once you arrive somewhere, you do still more walking, she said recently, about two weeks after returning to East Hampton. It took her a good part of those two weeks to get used to not carrying a pack on her back, she said.

Each year, thousands of people from all over the world make a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain, where the Tomb of St. James is located. The ancient routes they can take there are collectively known as the Way of St. James, or the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Among them, the road—the path, really—most traveled is Camino Frances, which starts out, as Ms. Dunn did, in St. Jean Pied de Port.

“It wasn’t religious for me,” said Ms. Dunn, a retired East Hampton Village Police detective. “I did it for the experience.” A friend made the trip about 10 years ago, and the physical challenge as well as the opportunity for solitary reflection held part of the appeal.

“I think it’s everything mixed in,” said Ms. Dunn, who is 50. “It’s just a challenge to every person in its own way.”

At home, Ms. Dunn tries to walk or bike every day, covering as many as 15 miles by foot in a stretch. She walks to Amagansett and back from East Hampton, and she rides her bike to Sag Harbor and Greenport. She also bikes in the Soldier Ride for wounded veterans and each year walks 35 miles over two days for breast cancer victims and survivors. Even so, she started putting on extra miles to prepare for the trip.

Ms. Dunn had never been to Spain or France, nor does she speak Spanish. No matter: The natives embrace the pilgrims, who come from all over and speak many languages. Well-wishers bid the travelers “Buen camino” as they pass through villages or meet each another while hiking. Ms. Dunn walked her first day with people from Germany and Oregon, and she shared her first dinner at a table with travelers from Holland, China and Germany.

“You’re trying to picture the history,” said Ms. Dunn, who saw “stunning” churches and cathedrals, villages dating to medieval times, and farms dotted with olive and fig trees, vineyards, sheep, cows and horses, as she walked a path that’s been trodden since the Middle Ages. “It’s breathtaking,” she said of both the landscape and the architecture.

She spent her nights at alburgues, hostels that welcome the pilgrims, often providing communal meals as well as bunk beds for a nominal charge. In Samos she stayed at one of Spain’s oldest monasteries.

After washing out her clothing, showering and getting some rest, Ms. Dunn set out again each morning by 7:30 at the latest. The most she walked in one day was 22 miles; the least was 15.16. She carried a water bladder she refilled at fountains in the villages she visited, as well as her backpack, which weighed, on average, about 20 pounds. “I got stronger carrying the pack every day,” she said. “You don’t pick up a lot of souvenirs.”

Inside were a handful of provisions—a baguette, cured meat, a can each of sardines and anchovies, a banana—as well a guidebook, gloves, flip-flops to “let your feet take a break at the end of the day,” and a few pieces of clothing, including a rain jacket and rain pants. Over 27 days, she encountered only an hour and a half of rain. “The weather was beautiful,” she said.

The path is marked by blazes in the form of scallop shells, the symbol of the camino both because the shell’s ridges, like the camino routes, arrive at a single point, and also because travelers historically used a shell as a portable cup and bowl. In some places the terrain was flat and in others it was steep. “Downhill was something else,” Ms. Dunn said, unfolding a map depicting the elevations for each day of the 34-day itinerary, from which she shaved off seven days.

Ms. Dunn walked completely alone for as many as three or four hours at times and at other points with fellow pilgrims at her side. “For me the solitude was nice,” she said. “It gives you a lot of time for reflection.”

Even so, she said, “the people I met were fantastic,” and she built some “nice relationships” with people she’s been in touch with since returning home on October 18.

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