He would walk 500 miles New lease on life inspires retired popular teacher to take Spain trek

By on August 28, 2013


DONNA WALKER Review Correspondent

, Staff Writer

Edith S. Slote

Step by step, a retired and well-liked retired Ephrata teacher will fulfill a long-held desire to walk in the footsteps of millions of pilgrims who have sojourned on the path of a saint.

Former Spanish teacher, Paul Murr, will spend most of September, and part of October, on a 500-mile trek known as El Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James. The saint didn’t walk the path himself, but since medieval times pilgrims have traipsed to his burial site in Santiago de Compostela on the northwest coast of Spain.

Pilgrims back then walked El Camino for religious reasons, seeking forgiveness. Nowadays, reasons vary: the adventure and sport, seeing Spain and experiencing the Spanish, and the camaraderie that builds up over weeks of walking with others from the world over.

For Murr, those reasons apply, but there’s one more.

"On Oct. 28 of 2009, I went for a stress test in the morning and by that evening, I had a seven-bypass open heart surgery," he said. His surgeon thought he would live two or three days more.

"I basically got a new lease on life," he said. "I thought, ‘I’ve got to do something,’ and in the spring of 2012, I said, ‘Yes, I’m doing this.’"

Murr had already traveled 20 times to Spain with students from Ephrata High School, where he taught all levels of Spanish for 30 years. He accompanied more than 700 students to Spain.

"On some of the 15-day trips going from city to city, we would pass the Camino de Santiago that runs along the highway and we would see the pilgrims walking," Murr said. When he saw them, he’d think, "I’d like to try that some day."

Following retirement in 1999, he became an adjunct professor of Spanish at York College, yet he continued to coordinate the student trips for area high school students. His retirement from York last May finally gave him the time he needed to make the month-long trip.

His interest in the Spanish language and culture began as boy in Lancaster’s Seventh Ward where Murr grew up.

"In the late ’50s, early ’60s when the Hispanics began to move into the city, that was the area (they came to)," Murr said of his interest in the language.

Murr’s ninth grade Spanish teacher also played a part in his passion to learn the language and the culture.

The recollections of a colleague from York College who’d traversed the Camino in 2001 also helped cement the idea.

"He did it for the purpose of rediscovering his faith," Murr said. "He said you can’t describe it. You can’t put into words what it’s all about."

He’s already packed. In his backpack will go two pairs of slacks that zip at the knees to double as shorts, four light-weight athletic shirts, two pairs of cotton sock liners, four pairs of wool socks, a towel, washcloth, three pairs of undies, a dry sack for clothes, poncho, toiletries and walking sticks.

Murr started in April walking the area’s rail trails, and he walks for exercise. At 6-foot, 1-inch and 205 pounds, he’s in excellent health. He plans to finish in 26 or 27 days.

The route is defined for him in a guidebook that estimates the miles he’ll travel, the time it will take and the degree of difficulty. Directional signs depicting the seashell of the Camino and yellow arrows will point the way.

The Camino’s scalloped seashell, "la concha," shows lines extending from the tip of the shell to its outer edges, symbolizing the many paths to Santiago de Compostela. The shells are often attached to hikers’ backpacks so they are instantly recognized as pilgrims.

Murr will stay overnight at inns, "albergues," along the way that cater to hikers like him. Innkeepers might check his "credencial," a passport-like document he’ll get stamped along the way to authenticate his travel. He’ll need it to get his "Compostela," a certificate of completion.

Murr isn’t worried about traveling alone because he knows he’ll meet many other pilgrims. That camaraderie attracts him, as does the ability to be alone when he wants. "No one walks the Camino alone" is a popular pilgrim saying.

Murr’s walk will end in Santiago de Compostela, where he plans to stay a few days before returning home Oct. 10. He’ll be there Oct. 7, his 66th birthday.

He mentioned that every day at noon at the St. James cathedral, a Mass for pilgrims occurs. While his family is Catholic, Murr is not. His upcoming journey is not a religious trek, but faith creeps into his conversation.

"It’s personal," he said of his reason for going. "But I think there are some religious overtones there.

"I’m thankful for still being here."

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