Heather Conn Blogs

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Three men, a map, and an arrow to nowhere

The Roman road: part two

Michael and I walked for hours on the Roman road without seeing anyone else except a Spanish shepherd, his flock, and three scruffy dogs. We both had to squeeze to the edge of the dry, dirt road to make way for the sheep, which passed us as one moving huddle.


Michael and I reached an umarked turnoff, which did not make the way to Reliegos clear. We weren’t sure where we were. We had passed a narrow canal, as marked on our guidebook map, but discovered that the map showed the canal, plus a nearby prison and highway intersection, in the wrong place. This was the first time that my Camino maps had failed me.


Two male pilgrims, the same middle-aged man from Wisconsin we had met earlier and a fit man in his twenties, approached us. We all wondered in which direction our destination, Reliegos, was.


“This map sucks,” said the young one, Andrew, a Malaysian lawyer who lived in London, Eng. I looked at the map, baffled by its array of thin lines and small squares, then let Michael and the other two haggle over the options. Watching the three men hunched over a tiny map, I thought: How ironic. This group consultation is defying the stereotype of males never asking for directions.


Michael and I kept going in bright sun, expecting to see a town over the next rise. Across the dried flatness, we could see one over to the left and behind us. Arrows and signs seemed to identify it as Reliegos. But someone had used white paint to cover the arrows on the road. We found out later that this was due to a turf war between two neighbouring towns, one trying to reroute Camino pilgrims to bypass the competition.

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Albergue Gil in Reliegos (Michael Romo photo)

When we arrived in the next town, we assumed that it must be the larger centre of Mansilla, 7.6 kilometres beyond Reliegos, but indeed, this burg was Reliegos. Michael and I plopped ourselves down under an umbrella at a table outside Albergue Gil’s restaurant, and he treated me to a beer, which I ordered with lemon flavouring.


“Ah, that tastes good,” said Michael. “And it’s great to be in the shade.” The wind picked up, feeling lovely and vibrant after our hot day of walking. When Andrew and the Korean (I don’t remember his name) arrived, Michael treated them to a beer too. These three men were the only pilgrims I had encountered all day on the Roman road. Clinking glass beer mugs, we toasted the road and ourselves, a mini-tribe on this shared path.


“We did it!” I said, feeling like a pioneer or conquering hero.


“My Camino comrades,” said Michael.

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The four conquerors of the Roman road


“You inspired me,” said the Korean to Michael. “This morning, I was going to stay in the last town but seeing you two leave made me want to push on.” I credited Michael for also inspiring me.


“I’m glad you were with me or I would have been afraid I was going the wrong way,” Michael told me. A laudable admission, I thought.


We all considered it odd that no other pilgrims had come this way, particularly since the guidebook identified the Roman road as the preferred route. They must have taken the bus or train to León, we figured, which was about another 26 kilometres ahead.


A trio of Canadians appeared—middle-aged Steve, his brother-in-law Mike, and Mike’s 10-year-old son Reece—who I had seen off and on the Camino since I started. But they soon left in a taxi for Mansilla since Steve’s leg was sore and needed medical attention.


Michael, Andrew, the Korean scientist, and I shared dinner and wine at the same table outside the albergue. I had stuffed red peppers with seafood and so-called “Cuban rice”: white rice with tomato sauce and a fried egg. Michael and I agreed that this was definitely not a Cuban meal. We all shared travel tales, Camino highlights, and stories of our work and education. Andrew, who was walking 40 kilometres a day on The Way, normally trained weekly in tae kwon do with an Olympic athlete.

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With Michael and the Korean scientist from Wisconsin

Fate, decisions, and route choices had brought the four of us together; I could have joined the three Canadians in a cab, but chose not to. To me, our small grouping felt complete. As someone who always likes to look at things symbolically, I said to my dinner mates: “In Jungian terms, four represents unity and wholeness.”


Silence. No one responded. Guess this wasn’t an artsy crowd for sharing such observations. Reminded me of my family dinner table in childhood.


Eager talk resumed. We joked that Andrew should send John Brierley, our guidebook author, a note on his legal letterhead saying that his maps were wrong. Apparently, the one for the previous day had been incorrect too.


“What’s the lesson here?” I said to Michael. “Don’t believe everything you read.” These errors made me glad that I had not used maps too much on the Camino. So far, my trust system had worked well.


Past dusk, it grew so windy that the restaurant owner closed the umbrella that was over us. As Michael chatted with him in Spanish, we learned that this business had been in his family for three generations. This restaurant was evidently a popular social spot for locals. Men and women hung out inside and on the street around us as several dogs tried to beg scraps from us. I wallowed in the relaxed, welcoming atmosphere, a treat after the trial of non-stop walking in the heat.


The four of us stayed talking until past 10 p.m. It was still light. Contentedly, I later padded off to a private room in the same albergue, shared with two middle-aged women, both teachers in Arizona. Rather than the Roman road, they had taken the path to the left, seeing only six other pilgrims all day. I lay awake on a top bunk bed, feeling energized by the talk and camaraderie. Another day on the Camino—only two more weeks to Santiago.


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January 21, 2014 at 4:18 pm Comments (2)

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)