Heather Conn Blogs

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Labyrinths: mini-pilgrimages within the Camino

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In dim light, I joined dozens of others on a medieval indoor path of 11 concentric circles. Some people carried small candles as they walked. I focused on looking ahead and at my feet, trying not to stray beyond the lines that marked my curving row.


On this uncharacteristically cold late May day (only 10 degrees C), I wore my coat. It seemed barely warmer inside. One walker in bare feet, perhaps warmed by an inner light, seemed oblivious to the nippy air.

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After years of anticipation, I was finally walking the indoor labyrinth of Chartres Cathedral, France’s most famous Gothic church. Feeling humbled yet surprised at the normalcy it evoked, I was walking in the footsteps of eight centuries of pilgrims and seekers. The labyrinth is believed to have been built in 1200 AD; the cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was rebuilt on the remains of previous buildings that were destroyed by fire in 1194.


The inlaid labyrinth stretches across almost 13 metres on the cathedral’s original limestone paving stones. The cathedral itself, considered one of the world’s best-preserved medieval ones, retains almost all of its original stained-glass windows. They are visually stunning, particularly the 12-metre-wide west rose window, a radiant holy eye above the cathedral entrance.


While others walked in front of me, I tried to summon a meditative state within the labyrinth. Some people stopped for several seconds, pivoting back and forth on their feet, like a mini dance step, then continued. Their repeated action prevented me and others behind them from moving forward until they were done. This routine went on for the entire length of the labyrinth. What were they doing? Was this intentional movement some form of meditation?


It took me about an hour to pass through the labyrinth, into the centre and back out. I struggled to overcome irritation at the ongoing interruptions. Was I too impatient to find spiritual bliss?

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The cathedral’s labyrinth, once walked by Christian pilgrims as a symbolic pathway to Jerusalem, has become the inspiration for today’s non-denominational labyrinths, created and used as a path to inner peace, greater clarity, and divine connection. Many modern ones, built around the world, use the Chartres design as their archetypal pattern. Local examples are the outdoor labyrinth at St. Hilda’s Anglican Church in Sechelt and the indoor one at St. Pauls Anglican Church in Vancouver.


A few days before beginning the 800-kilometre Camino Frances, which starts in St. Jean Pied de Port in southern France, my husband Frank and I were visiting the charming medieval town of Chartres (pop. 40,000). With cobblestone streets, river canals, and arched stone bridges, Chartres and its cathedral are a major destination along a different Camino pilgrimage route, the 1,000-kilometre Chemin de Paris. For centuries, it has run southward from Paris to St. Jean Pied de Port. (Chartres is only 80 kilometres southwest of Paris, accessible by train.)

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These signs in Chartres were the first evidence I saw of the Camino pilgrimage route. For a neophyte like me who had not yet begun my pilgrimage, they were exciting to see.


Labyrinths hold sentimental significance for me: Frank and I were married in one that shares the Chartres design, in the backyard of a friend in Roberts Creek, and we used the design as our wedding motif. On my travels, I seek out labyrinths to walk, indoors and out.


In Vancouver, I have walked the candlelit indoor labyrinths, created during solstice at some of the city’s community centres, and Les Blydo’s sand mandalas at English Bay and Spanish Banks. I have also co-facilitated two workshops using a portable labyrinth.

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The inaccessible labyrinth outside our hotel window

In Chartres, I was delighted to discover two outdoor labyrinths. One was directly below our room in Hotel St. Yves, an inviting stone building constructed on the site of an ancient monastery. Each morning, after opening the room’s wooden shutters, it tempted me as I looked down. However, it was now fenced off and inaccessible since someone previously had broken an ankle while walking it. The other one was nearby in an open park, where people strolled and walked their dogs. That one I did walk, and enjoyed each peaceful solo step.

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I’m standing in the middle of this labyrinth in Chartres.


Once I was on the Camino Frances, labyrinths or some version of them became an unexpected part of my pilgrimage. While stopping at one albergue, a former church, I looked down to the left of the entrance and saw a small, flat white stone, about a third of a meter long, embedded into the ground. Within it, someone had inscribed a labyrinth design. With rough edges, it was a crude modern version, but the familiarity of its symbol greeted me like an old friend.

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The labyrinth stone outside an albergue.

In Leon, where I pampered myself at the sumptuous Paradores Hotel, a different view startled me as I pulled back the curtains in my room. My second-floor balcony looked onto a huge courtyard, full of rows of rectangular hedges that formed either a maze or labyrinth. (A labyrinth has only one way in and out with no dead ends; a maze offers many dead ends and different routes.) Although too exhausted and blistered to walk it, I found the mere existence of this formation reassuring comfort.

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The inner courtyard of the Paradores Hotel in Leon.

On my last night in Spain, after completing the Camino, I stayed at a glorious hotel on an  acreage with meticulous landscaping overlooking the coastal city of A Coruña. While exploring the hotel grounds, I encountered a low maze, made of young pear trees cut like hedges. The hotel signage incorrectly called this formation a labyrinth; since it had a variety of paths with dead ends, it was a maze. Still, alone and feeling homesick, I reveled in the chance to walk this semblance of familiar ground.

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The maze at my hotel in Oleiros,
an affluent suburb of A Coruna.


Pilgrims say that synchronicity abounds while one walks the Camino. I don’t disagree, but it always surrounds us—not just on this defined route. No matter where we are, we can all find meaningful connections within our surroundings. We just need to stay aware, open, and grateful for their presence.

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August 30, 2013 at 2:39 pm Comments (0)

A visit to Casa de los Dioses (House of the Gods): an oasis of love

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Earlier, when a tractor passed me, I gained a new perspective on relative speed. Back home, tractors were always too slow, the impediments at the side of the road that I needed to pass in my car. Here, they were the hare to my tortoise. Humbling indeed.


Walking solo past sprawling fields of wheat and corn, heading towards Astorga, I braced myself against the wind. Even with my windbreaker hood on, my jacket zipped up as high as it could go above my neck, gusts battered my face.


This was day 24, my third week on the Camino, when I was supposed to fall more deeply into myself, according to one seasoned pilgrim. “Week three is when you get in touch with your pain,” this retired European man had told me.


It never happened. “Still have had no profound insights or revelations, no new deep stuff from my past appear,” I wrote in my journal. But I was feeling increasingly content and peaceful.


And I needed a break. The arches of my feet ached. My blisters and the bottoms of my feet were sore. Since 7 a.m., I had covered almost 26 kilometres, surprised to have seen few people in my previous hours on this red dirt path.


In flat, open space and dry scrub, passing no town or village for almost seven kilometres, I felt delighted to see a building, a few trees, and some people ahead. Feeling dehydrated and wanting more water, I now truly understood the impact of the word “oasis.”

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Approaching the front of a long, crude brick building, which looked like a warehouse, I saw scattered backpacks and a few pilgrims seated under makeshift sheets of corrugated tin. A large mural of painted coloured circles, intersected around a star, was on the wall to the right. To the left stood a tiny, free-standing derelict wood stove with a kettle on top and a small fire pit in a circle of bricks on the dusty ground.


Beyond that, in the middle of the same wall, stood two tall rusty doors, which bore graffiti and large painted red hearts. In front of all of this hung the ultimate symbol of laid-back living: a hammock. (A long-time hammock lover and user, that sight alone warmed my heart.)

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I’m happy to lounge in a hammock

The dominant feature on the wall was a large blue tarp, which hung vertically across the entire left front of the building. Pilgrims from around the globe, current and past, had scrawled their name, the date, and/or a thoughtful saying in black marker, wherever they could find room on the fabric. “Love from Gibraltar.” The star of David. A white dove with a white heart above it. “Dios esta en los detalles” (God is in the details.) It was a tableau of temporary presence, a mingling of hearts. I loved it.


A woman named Elisa, whose smile and genuine warmth exuded love and kindness, gestured at me to help myself from a wooden cart decorated with a row of hearts. I joined a handful of pilgrims who were selecting from many cartons of juice; thermoses of coffee; a plate of cookies; crackers, peanut butter; oranges; and a jug of water. Everything on this Camino-style welcome wagon was available by donation.

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As a handful of us stood around the cart, a beat-up old truck appeared from the west, pulling up next to the building. A handsome, tanned Spanish male, with his shirt off, jumped out, gave us a celebrity-bright grin, and said in English: “Welcome to paradise.”


His name wasn’t Adam, but David, the man who had created this slapdash stop for pilgrims in 2009. He called it Casa de los Dioses or “House of the Gods.” I asked him why he felt compelled to create such a place and gave it that name.


“I wanted to create somewhere where all gods, for all people, could come together,” he told me in broken English, “and where people could feel loved.”

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David and a friend


He explained that all religions wanted the same thing, love and peace. This humble pilgrim stopover was his attempt to create a loving sanctuary on the Camino. He and Elisa described, with passion in their voices, how they hoped to raise $30,000 to buy the surrounding land, owned by a friend of David’s, to establish Casa de los Dioses permanently.


Elisa, who had come from Italy to serve as a Casa host for two weeks like a hospitalera at an albergue (hostel), offered me a kind smile and hug. She exuded simple warmth and kindness. No smarmy niceness here.


This place is a church of the heart, I thought. To me, David’s sincere welcome and vision of oneness brought more love to my Camino experience than any church or cathedral I had entered so far along the way.


For the first time on The Way, I felt inspired to add my name and a sentiment to a collective pilgrim document. Grabbing a black marker, I wrote “One Heart, One Soul, One Spirit” with my name, the date, and Roberts Creek, BC on the bottom left-hand corner of the blue tarp. It felt good to be part of this cross-cultural, multilingual record.

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This Casa—a feel-good haven with hippie ideals and a community-minded soul—reminded me of Roberts Creek, my home. In my journal, I called it “bohemian funk.” For a weary pilgrim seeking basic comfort, it was the sustenance I truly needed: validation that someone else, on a route defined around the world by Christianity, valued oneness beyond the separation of religion, culture, race or language.

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On a red, heart-shaped table, I eagerly stamped my credential (pilgrim passport) with the heart-shaped Casa “logo,” like a groupie getting a temporary tattoo. Continuing westward into the wind, I felt grateful to have visited this mini-oasis of love.

For more information about Casa de los Dioses, see their Facebook page.

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August 23, 2013 at 4:26 pm Comments (4)

Sharing the path with “all creatures great and small”

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Cats on the Camino, gathering under a window, waiting to be fed

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A pilgrim from Spain feeds his horse before starting another day on the Camino

“I will cease to live as a self and will take as my self [sic] my fellow creatures.”

—   Shantideva, an 8th-century Indian Buddhist scholar and yogi

On a windy, cold day, walking through forest past the town of San Martin del Camino, I watched two pilgrims ahead of me scoop up things from the path and put them in a white plastic bag. The twenty-something couple, travelling with an older man, bent down at least a dozen times and continued to fill the bag.

When I approached them, they said, in English: “We’re going to have them for dinner.” Snails. Escargots. The pilgrims were French. A typical delicacy for them, right?

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I felt sorry for the poor little snails. This was day 24 of my pilgrimage. By then, I had shared The Way with many snails, ones with black-and-brown striped shells that looked at least twice the size of our snails at home. I thought of them with fondness as my fellow travelers, along with the slugs, ants, beetles, lizards, and bigger creatures—dogs, cats, horses, sheep, and cows—that shared brief portions of my journey.

For me, these tiny sentient beings were as much a part of the trail as human pilgrims. In my busy life back home, they often went unnoticed or ignored. On the path, they had become visual focal points for me. After all, my eyes were constantly looking down, surveying the terrain for the most level surface, trying to avoid any potential footfalls. Amidst stones and other stationary features, insects added a spark of movement that invited more attention.

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I began to see them as a symbol of life’s interconnectedness. At times, while hiking alone on the  Camino, my mind and body, with no conscious effort, entered a sense of profound oneness with my surroundings. Physically, I felt as if I was no longer separate from what I could see and feel. Everything—my moving legs, shadows and bugs on the ground, birdsong in the air, waving tufts of wheat—were linked energetically as one fluid form of life. Insects weren’t just little dots beneath me: they were part of my own soul and being.

This sensation was so palpable I wondered why I didn’t feel it all the time.  I wrote in my journal: “I truly felt as if I had reached a state of grace while hiking alone today. . . It felt as if all life was sacred, including the flies, splats of cowshit—everything.”

Beyond  visual sensations, the Camino offers frequent reminders of bird and animal presence: the clang of cow bells, cuckoo calls, seemingly nonstop birdsong, and rooster crowing, even in the evening. Along the route, storks build thick, high nests of large branches on the flat eaves of many stone churches. The migratory paths of many birds follow The Way.

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The bright colour of this beetle, on a white path, drew my interest

We are never alone if we are willing to let all of nature into our hearts. Perhaps that is why I revel in solitude when in the outdoors.

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A cluster of beetles in the shadows

In hills with radiant rows of heather, thick and tall, on the highest part of the Camino (1,505 metres), while walking from Santa Catalina to Acebo, I noticed individual beetles, shiny and iridescent, along the path. Then I came across a cluster of them, later writing in my journal: “They’re startling in their mundane beauty.”

While contemplating these wee beings, I was surprised that the words from a hymn, which I sang in church as a child, came back to me:

All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.

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some of the gorgeous hills of heather on the Camino

Had the Christian roots of the El Camino reached me? I had not thought in terms of “Lord” or “God” in many years. I believe in Soul and Spirit and divine essence, a unifying link of Oneness, rather than an externalized God or Saviour. Yet the phrase “all creatures great and small” stayed with me as I walked, almost as a mantra.

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swallows amidst pilgrims’ laundry

On day 27, while walking from Acebo to Cacabelos, I saw what looked like a large chickadee, with dark orange on its throat, alight on a low branch of a shrub. I remained only about a metre away and it did not fly away. Two days later, a yellow finch with some orange in its tail feathers hopped along the dusty path just in front of me.

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These direct encounters with nature occurred while I was solitary and had seen no other pilgrims for at least an hour. They reminded me that any notion of separateness, viewing someone or something as The Other, or better or less than, is ultimately an illusion. All living beings share a heart that beats. That is enough to unite us all, big or small.

Then why did I inwardly condemn the pilgrims who repeatedly got drunk or treated the Camino like any regular two-week vacation? I resented the brashness of some bicyclists who hurtled downhill, loud and sometimes with little warning, expecting those on foot to make way for them. My mind eagerly put them in a category separate from me.

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On the Roman Road with U.S. pilgrim Michael Romo

With humans, I feel the need to maintain the illusion of my own identity, making others somehow wrong so that I can feel righteous or more evolved. With insects and animals, no such filter is necessary; with them, it is easier to connect from pure spirit.

NEXT WEEK: La Casa de los Dioses


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August 16, 2013 at 1:38 pm Comments (4)

Duct tape dharma: what feet can teach

 “When in doubt about where you are meant to be, look down at your feet.”

—    A Buddhist saying

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“Stick a sanitary napkin in the bottom of your boot—it will soak up the sweat. It works!”


“Slather your foot in Vaseline, then put on your sock.”


“Put a few tufts of sheep’s wool inside your boot. That’ll keep you dry.”

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One of my heel blisters


Blister remedies—El Camino style. These are just a few I heard while walking with sore blisters for the first three weeks of my pilgrimage in France and Spain. Who knew that tiny blisters on the top and side of your little toe could produce such agony? I also had big ones on my heels, my instep, and under my toes. Blisters on blisters.


For a few days, I wore my Teva sandals because it was too painful for my heel blisters to rub against my Vasque hiking boots. Then I got new blisters from the sandals.


I pondered the symbolic ramifications of my condition. What was I supposed to learn from this? I decided that it was a way to slow me down, to invite me to bring a greater sense of presence to my journey. Too often, I live in my head, speeding along and missing so much around me.


My blisters were a silent reminder: Stay grounded. They forced me to stop earlier or more frequently to rest and ease my discomfort. In turn, I could use this time to admire a cluster of wild poppies against a sprawl of green fields or to chat with a fellow pilgrim whom I might otherwise just pass by and never get to know.


At times, I raged inwardly against the pain. Other times, I tried to push through it with my will, until stabbing jolts made me realize: I need to listen to my body and stop for the day.


I learned to make the pain part of my walking meditation. My blisters became my teachers, inviting me to feel every step and bring more mindfulness to the stony paths, curbs, and uneven surfaces that I encountered. They brought me greater compassion for those with similar afflictions.


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Receiving expert blister treatment

Through my blisters, I became part of a community of fellow sufferers, both first-time and repeat pilgrims, swapping jokes and stories and comparing remedies. Favourite solutions were to use duct tape or Compeed, a brand of blister treatments found in European pharmacies. Moleskin was a great preventative measure, as long as you covered every potential blister spot, which was tough to do. (I still wonder what happened to the feet of two pilgrims on The Way who were wearing plastic Croc shoes.)


After walking almost 200 kilometres, I paid a Spanish volunteer at an albergue in Santa Domingo, a self-described blister expert, to drain my blisters using a needle and iodine and wrap them in gauze and medical tape. Thankfully, I overcame my reluctance to pay someone else to do a version of what I was already doing on my own. Maybe he could teach me something.


When he peeled off the dressings on my left heel, the inch-wide blister was a disturbing caramel brown. The pus that drained from it was the same colour. The guy shook his head.


“It’s infected,” he said. Obviously, I didn’t know as much about my feet as I thought.


“Don’t use Compeed,” he told me. “Once you’ve got a blister, it seals it off and doesn’t let it breathe.” I’d been using Compeed-like blister packs recommended by a Swiss-German friend.


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some of the red blotches on my feet:
allergic reaction or heat rash?

“Change the dressings every two days and change your socks every two hours,” he said. “And don’t put cream on your feet in the morning—do it in the evening.” His advice about the cream treatment contradicted what I’d read and seen other people doing.


He told me that the itchy red splotches on my feet and ankles, which I assured him were heat rash, were an allergic reaction to the chemicals in sweat. “It’s a common thing. I’ve seen a lot of that.”


After my visit with the expert, on day 12 of my pilgrimage, I started to take my boots and socks off about every two hours and air out my feet. That helped. I added gauze to my first-aid repertoire, which included antibiotic cream. And I never put cream on my feet in the morning, only at night.

I tried the sanitary napkin treatment—but can’t tell if it made a difference. The daily Vaseline-in-the-sock option sounded too yucky to me; besides, how would the guck come out every night with hand-washing?


In preparation for the Camino, I had bought two pair of expensive Merino wool socks, recommended by outfitters and guidebooks. But after the itching and rashes started, I switched to cotton socks.


Before arriving in France and Spain, I had taken time to break in my new, super-comfortable waterproof boots, wearing them continuously for days and with a loaded pack. But on the first four days of The Way, in almost solid downpour and mud, my feet had gotten wet, which I learned is the worst breeding ground for blisters.

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A common sight at every albergue:
pilgrims’ boots stored en masse



By week three of the Camino, I joked to pilgrims that my fantasy was to arrive at Santiago Cathedral free of blisters, like a leper miraculously cured. And it happened. My blisters dried up and I was walking pain free for the last week. Yahoo!


And while blister free, I didn’t speed up. I slowed down even more, to appreciate the mountains, vineyards, and orchards that made me think of B.C. My feet, literally, showed me The Way: I’ve never maintained such a prolonged, intimate relationship with them or with ground surfaces.

NEXT WEEK: All Creatures Great and Small

August 9, 2013 at 4:17 pm Comments (4)

El Camino: Trust your inner yellow arrow

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I’m a country pilgrim, content in shade

“Spirituality is living from an authentic inner self that exists beyond ego identity and materialist reality. It means following one’s spirit into the Unknown and risking loss of perceived security and safety. It means connecting to a vast, divine essence that can provide deep guidance and fulfillment.”


Simply put, spirituality involves letting go of fear. I wrote the three sentences above in response to a list of self-assessment questions or “inner waymarks” in The Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago. This guidebook by John Brierley, used by almost every native English-speaking person on The Way—includes prompts such as “What do you see as the primary purpose of your life?” and “How will I recognize the right help or correct answer?” (Brierley, a former oil executive and Dubliner, realigned his priorities towards inner growth after a pivotal visit to Scotland’s Findhorn community in 1987.)

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Hotel Eslava in Pamplona, Spain

I wrote these answers on day five of the Camino Frances, while resting at Hotel Eslava in Pamplona, Spain. In response to the question “How will I recognize resistance to any changes that might be necessary?” I wrote “Fear and worry are my resistance . . . [along with] self-doubt and negativity.”


Trusting myself and others has been a lifelong challenge. On the issue of “confidence to follow my intuitive sense of the right direction,” I gave myself 7 out of 10. This did not refer to geography but life direction—when would I know that I was choosing a path that reflected an authentic self, rather than one motivated by a need for recognition?


As part of this 800-kilometre walk, I was determined to open myself up to greater trust. Unlike some pilgrims, who called ahead to reserve at hostels or hotels or read about all the albergues in each town, I decided to trust that I would find what I needed when I needed it. Whenever it felt right or my body was too exhausted to continue, I would stop. Each day, I didn’t read my guidebook or look at its maps too thoroughly because I wanted to stay open to spontaneous discovery.


That process worked. Only once in my 34-day journey was one of the albergues I had ended up at full. Every day, starting on the path by about 7:30 a.m. helped ensure that I would arrive at most places by early afternoon, when beds were still available at hostels.

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Camino’s ubiquitous yellow arrows
provide comforting reassurance


Four days before arriving in Santiago, I came to a crossroads on a country path between Mercadoiro and Portos. A large rock had a yellow arrow pointing in a different direction than what my intuition told me to follow. I wanted to keep going on the wide dusty path that I was already on; it seemed like a natural continuation. But that yellow arrow, part of the directional system of the entire Camino route, had never led me astray.


My cynical mind wondered: Did some prankster move the rock so that the arrow pointed in the wrong direction? I chided myself for such thoughts. This was the Camino, after all, a space that promotes a spirit of sharing and truthfulness. After two other solo pilgrims arrived, both middle-aged men, and chose to obey the arrow, I decided to follow them.


For about an hour, the three of us walked down a path with no way markers or yellow arrows visible. Finally, we realized that this was not the right direction and had to retrace our steps. I felt irritated at this “wasted” time. I had put more faith in others’ choices and made the yellow arrow an external authority over my own intuition. That arrow had never been wrong before. What could I learn from this? Maria Theresa, a pilgrim from Colorado whom I met repeatedly along the route, said: “We need to learn to follow our inner yellow arrow.”


Ironically, the only other time that I got lost and wandered off the Camino was later that afternoon.  Alone, I found myself in a field of tall, dried grass, descending a long, steep cow path barely wide enough for my feet. I had no desire to go back up. Continuing downwards, I trusted that it would connect with the highway, which I could see below me. I hoped that I wouldn’t have to cross one of the electric fences I had seen or jump down to reach the road. Thankfully, the pathway led right down to the highway. After consulting my guidebook map, I cut through the closest town and managed to return to the Camino route, feeling proud of my ability to get back on track.

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This narrow path (left, foreground) led me safely back to the highway

By this time, I had walked the Camino for a month. For six of those days, I shared the path with a married, middle-aged German businessman who walks portions of the Camino every few years as a nurturing solo holiday. A lovely man, he expressed an attraction towards me but I had no interest in any connection beyond friendship. At times, he said that I seemed fearful; I worried that he would say or do something inappropriate. Would I have to fend him off? After we discussed my desire for openness and trust, he assured me that he would not do anything to hurt me. After suffering assaults on previous travels, I deeply appreciated his conviction. With that bond of trust, we have stayed friends and continue to email each other as supportive friends.

See Camino Guides for more information about John Brierley’s multiple guidebooks.

NEXT WEEK: Feet and the Camino

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August 2, 2013 at 9:45 am Comments (6)