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Two for the Camino: Island women realize long delayed dream

P.A.T. Hunt Photo |  Harriet O’Halloran on the Camino de Santiago in a photo taken by her travelling companion, P.A.T. Hunt.

P.A.T. Hunt Photo |
Harriet O’Halloran on the Camino de Santiago in a photo taken by her travelling companion, P.A.T. Hunt.

Five hundred miles on foot over 40 days.

Those stark figures only begin to sum up two Islanders’ walk across northern Spain from the end of March into May. It was a trek decades in the making to participate in the ancient pilgrimage of Camino de Santiago.

Translated as “the Way of St. James,” or, by those who make the long hike, simply as “the Camino,” P.A.T. Hunt, 64, and Harriet O’Halloran, 72, completed the journey they both had dreamed about for years.

Ms. Hunt first heard about the Camino about 20 years ago. She described the idea that wouldn’t leave her as “a longing.”

She compared it to a feeling she had as a young woman, not long out of high school in New England. “I had a longing to go to California,” she said. And with a couple of friends in a Volkswagen bus, she took the hippie trail to the Golden State where she lived for about a year.

“I thought about that on the Camino,” she said. “I never regretted that initial response to go. There was uncertainty, but part of me wanted to go into the uncertainty.”

For Ms. O’Halloran, the seduction of the Camino began almost 50 years ago when she was a student at Trinity College, Dublin, and made several trips to Spain. “I talked about going for years,” she said.

The Camino is one of the oldest pilgrimages in history, predating Christianity, with pagan Celts dedicating time to make the journey. It became one of the three important journeys Christians made in medieval times, the others being to Rome and Jerusalem.

In the Middle Ages, many European pilgrims — and some still today — began their spiritual voyage by just walking out their doors and heading for Santiago de Compostela, a town near the Atlantic in the northwestern tip of Spain in the province of Galicia.

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Here there is a cathedral dedicated to St. James, whose body, legend has it, was taken from Jerusalem to Galicia for burial.

Some travellers, like Ms. Hunt, go on to Finisterrae (“the end of the earth”), a lovely city on the sea. “I wanted to see the Atlantic from the other side,” Ms. Hunt said.

Thousands of travellers take the Camino every year, for a variety of reasons, not all of them religious, but to experience a culture from the ground up, for sport or for a prolonged meditation on one’s life and place in the world.

Many books have been written about the Camino and a major movie, “The Way,” starring Martin Sheen, was released in 2010. A documentary,  “Walking The Camino: Six Ways To Santiago,” is now in release.

For Ms. Hunt and Ms. O’Halloran, the first steps were taken at St. Jean Pied-de-Port, on the France-Spain border at the heart of the Basque country, where most pilgrims start.

The Islanders were joined by several other women from Southampton who had decided to walk only for a couple of weeks, but both Islanders were determined to make a complete pilgrimage.

They had trained, beginning with long walks in November of last year. Both had always loved to walk, and Ms. Hunt had done some serous biking, travelling across Kansas and Iowa on two wheels. But lately, she said, she wanted to travel at “a more human pace. Ten or 15 miles an hour was too fast.”

The traveling at times was arduous, with the terrain evolving from flatlands to hills and the surfaces changing from rocks to large stones to dirt and concrete.

Ms. O’Halloran suffered a mild case of sore feet, but Ms. Hunt came through blister-free. “I thanked my ancestors for good genes and blessed the man who sold me my shoes,” she said.

The landscapes they travelled through included views of snowcapped peaks and beautiful, long views of a pastoral world. They trekked past lush scenes of small gardens, pastures with goats, sheep and cows set along orchards and vineyards.

“It was so old, yet not covered up and built on,” Ms. Hunt said.

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And they were graced with perfect weather, of bright spring days, cool in the mornings and evenings and never hot during the day.  Galicia is known as “the Ireland of Spain,” and the travellers had a couple of days of walking through “Irish mist,” Ms. Hunt said.

There are hostels along the route for pilgrims, basic places to sleep, usually in large rooms with bunk beds, and three course meals including wine and bread are provided for pilgrims for about $10.

The food was similar to what they would eat on the Island, with one great connection to home  — scallops, with the scallop shell as one of the symbols of the Camino. One poignant memory was seeing an artisan carving scallop shells out of different types of wood at the side of the road.

The symbol of the shells comes from a myth that when the boat bearing the remains of St. James ran into a tempest off the coast of Spain and the craft was lost, the body of the saint was found on the shore, intact, covered in and protected by scallop shells.

The people along the Camino were invariably welcoming, some leaving water and fresh fruit outside their homes for the pilgrims, or directing them to places to rest along the way. “They embraced you,” Ms. Hunt said.

She hit a low spot, a sort of wall, about a month in on the long hike, which lasted a couple of days, but when it passed, she returned to a feeling of living moment to moment with few thoughts “of the future or the past.”

Ms. O’Halloran didn’t have a let down, although she admits to being worried she would make it all the way to the end. “But every day, every moment, even if my feet hurt, it was joyous,” she said.

Both women said the motivation to make the journey isn’t easy to describe. For Ms. O’Halloran, some lines from W.B. Yeats can be used, she said, as a clue to the emotions she felt:

“How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face.”

In the airport waiting to fly home, Ms. Hunt met a woman who had finished the Camino, who said, jokingly, “Well, back to the real world.”

She thought about that, and wondered which world was more real, the simplicity of life on the road to Santiago de Compostella, with all your possessions in a pack, with a clear goal in mind? Or life at home?

“When I got home and opened my bureau, I thought, there’s way too much stuff,” she said. “That’s another gift of the Camino.”

There was no great sense of accomplishment in walking 500 miles. “I think it was more a feeling of gratitude,” Ms. Hunt said. “It was in some ways big, in some ways small. In some ways personal, and in some ways there was a feeling of wanting to share it.”

But she treasures a thought she had when first arriving at St. Jean Pied-de-Port, the stepping off point for the Camino: “Well, I showed up.”

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