Heather Conn Blogs

spoutin’ about by the sea

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)

The Camino adopts the scallop and St. James as global brands

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A pilgrim’s walking stick with a gourd
and scallop bearing the St. James cross


Before walking the Camino, I knew nothing of Saint James. Excuse my ignorance, but I now know that he and his brother John were among Jesus’s first apostles; they were the fishermen to whom Jesus said “Come, let me make you fishers of men.”


A pagan at heart, I felt little affinity to this notable Christian, particularly since he tried to convert Druids in Spain. But when I learned of his beheading in Jerusalem by King Herod in 42 or 44 A.D. (official dates vary), he gained greater favour in my eyes; viewed as subversive, he had died for his beliefs, evoking my sympathy for the wronged rebel. He’s now the patron saint of Spain.



It seems fitting that the memory of someone who worked in the sea is now paired with an ocean emblem like the scallop. Different legends explain the origin of this connection. In one popular myth, a ship that transported St. James’ body from Jerusalem to northern Spain smashed on rocks during a storm; when his body was recovered, it was covered in scallop shells.

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This scallop image appeared as a repeated symbol on this Camino bridge.

Today, the scallop is to the Camino what the golden arches are to McDonald’s: a global brand and repeat motif that every Spanish village and town displays in myriad forms along the route. Just as in India, where the “Om” symbol graces hats, souvenirs, carved rocks and any meditation-related surface, you’ll find a scallop logo on the Camino embedded in bridges, sidewalks, roads, on manhole covers, in stone waymarkers—anywhere where pilgrims’ eyes and feet will pass.

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A yarn-bombed waymarker bearing a scallop shell


Each urban municipality along The Way presents its own version of a stylized scallop. Seeing such a variety of presentations, I assumed that some lucky graphic designers must have enjoyed healthy contracts to create such distinctive, professional-looking images.

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A scallop image embedded in a cobblestone street,
next to my bandaged toes


I bought my own souvenir scallop at the albergue in Roncesvalles on day two of my Camino journey. It’s a real shell, about four inches across, with a red St. James cross painted on it. A long loop of red cord makes it easy to attach this to a backpack. This scallop version is the one most commonly seen dangling from pilgrims’ packs. It’s an overt yet silent way of saying: “I’m part of this particular global walking tribe.”


As I walked along, my shell clinked or bobbed. Whenever I rested, I made sure to lean my pack down gently so that the shell wouldn’t smash. Once, just after I had stopped and written something in my journal critical of the Catholic church, the shell fell off my pack. A subtle message in response to my sacreligious sensibilities?

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One of the many representations of St. James along the Camino

Some pilgrims will wear an additional scallop, perhaps as a hat or lapel pin. I bought a beautiful one, about two inches wide, hand-carved by a young German from the remains of a church pew. Suspended on a suede cord around my neck, it became part of my daily pilgrim attire, much like a bolo tie.

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The German carver who created
my wooden scallop necklace


In medieval times, pilgrims attached a scallop shell to their hats or clothes and used it as a portable bowl or dish. They’d use it as a scoop to receive a scallop’s worth of food donated at churches or other pilgrim-oriented centres along the path.


On day 21 of my journey, in the small village of Reliegos, I met an 82-year-old Dutch man who was walking the Camino for the twentieth time. He told me that the Canadian regiment that had liberated his city in the Second World War had worn scallop shells on their hats. Based on subsequent internet research, this must have been the Lincoln and Welland regiment, based in St. Catharines and Welland, Ont., which liberated Arnhem under the leadership of General Sir Isaac Brock. I had no idea that scallops had been part of this wartime victory.

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The 82-year-old Dutch man
with U.S. pilgrim Michael Romo and I

Some of today’s European languages still draw a connection between St. James and scallops: in French, a scallop is coquille Saint Jacques and in German, scallops are Jakobsmuscheln (James mussels). In Dutch, Jacobsschelp means “shell of St. James.”


My constant viewing of scallop imagery along the Camino, combined with an assortment of life-size and smaller public statues of St. James, reminded me that walking this path plugged me into an archetypal history, one that valued his selfless service to others and the power of community.



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A statue of St. James


Although James has become a saint, I like that he was supposed to have been fiery and impetuous, blowing up at those who ran afoul of his visions. This makes him more accessible as a symbol of imperfect humanity rather than some beatific angel basking in the glow of his halo.


His heritage does give him saintly “street cred,” though. His mother Saint Mary Salome was at the foot of Jesus’ cross during his crucifixion and later brought herbs and spices to his tomb to anoint his body.

I had thought that James’ mom was the famous Salome of the dance of the seven veils; a Catholic-educated friend quickly corrected me on this (thanks, David M.). But I still like to think of James—dare I call him Jim?—with a soul of earthy rawness. Just think if he had become linked with oysters, instead of scallops . . .

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A depiction of St. James’ beheading
from a door panel in the cathedral at Santiago


By the time I got to Santiago, I didn’t care if the sacred relics of St. James in the cathedral were real, fake or nonexistent. I had made it—unlike him, with my head intact.


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November 5, 2013 at 11:11 am Comments (2)