How many times have you asked yourself, “Which way do I go? Left, right or straight?” It can be a terrestrial question or a spiritual one. Both kinds of questions are often asked—and answered—on the Camino de Santiago.
Wondering about where to walk? Fortunately, 90% of the time there is an obvious sign, a yellow arrow telling you exactly which way to go. It is usually accompanied by the symbol of a scallop shell.
Signs and symbols are all over the Camino. The sign—the arrow—is specific, concrete, unambiguous. GO THIS WAY. The trick is spotting the arrows. Some are big and easy to see. Others are more obscure and easily missed.
Can you see the arrow in this picture to the left? It was early morning and Moritz and I were leaving Burgos. I was so happy to be walking with him again, to have such a gorgeous morning to begin the meseta. This wave of beauty washed over me blinding me to anything but the magnificence of this tree. So I missed the arrow.*
We miss signs all the time: signs of serious illness, of abuse, of depression. We miss signs telling us when it’s time to move on or to change things or to stay put. We even miss signs of love. Usually it’s because we don’t want to see them or we’re moving too fast or just not paying attention. Sometimes our egos get in the way.
As much as I missed Moritz, when I walked alone, I was forced to pay attention (a good thing) and look for the arrows. Which I did—most of the time.
One day I was walking alone in the early dawn. It was not yet light but I knew the guy I was passing was in his twenties. I also knew that the gray haired man ahead of him was Polish and spoke no English. They both had stayed at my albergue the night before.
After a couple of hours I could see a village up ahead. Café con leche in my future! Suddenly Young Guy motored by me and then overtook Polish Man without so much as a “Buen Camino.” What the . . . ?
By the time I reached the café Young Guy was already at a table waiting for his order. He raised his eyebrows at me. That smug son-of-a-bee-hive. I would press on! Apparently Polish Man felt the same way. We both cruised past the coffee-sipping whipper snapper.
I was fueled by that blinding kind of I’ll-show-you energy. I didn’t mind being behind Polish Man. We were the Mature Adults united in our dislike of Young Guy. Ha!
But after a few minutes I started to get that uneasy feeling that something was not right. The path started looking less like a path and more like a street. No yellow arrows. No other Pilgrims. We were not passing through the village; we were going into it. Then, like well-rehearsed Broadway dancers, at the exact same moment we stopped in our tracks and spun around. We glanced at one another and without a word started back.
When we reached the café, I saw two things at once: the yellow arrow we missed and Young Guy. He was sipping his coffee and when he saw us, he smiled and raised his cup. I was mortified and mad—a terrible combination.
I wanted to be mad at Young Guy. He could have simply pointed to the arrow as we walked by! But I knew it was my own fault. Still, I walked ten kilometers before I unclenched my jaw.
It’s not always easy to backtrack. Sometimes we’re just plain lost. That’s where friends and family and faith can show us the way—both on and off the Camino. We just have to ask for help. That can be the hardest thing of all.
But you know what? Even if our cry for help is ignored or refused, I think there is something inside us that is strengthened just by the asking. And you know what else? Even if other people don’t help us, God always answers. It just may not look like the answer we were expecting. Just like how the arrows and scallop shells didn’t all look alike.
On official Camino markers the bright yellow arrow on the blue background is accompanied by a bright yellow scallop shell. The shell is a symbol of the Camino and of the pilgrim. I walked into a museum in Astorga to buy a ticket. The clerk looked at me and said, “Ah, sí. I give you the pilgrim price.”
“How did you know?” I was amazed. I was clean and was not carrying my pack.
“Your earrings.” I was wearing teeny, tiny little scallop shell earrings. But everyone in Spain knows scallop shells mean “pilgrim.”
If you ask a pilgrim, we’ll each have different answers about what the shell means. It has grooved lines along the outer rim which converge to a meeting point at the base. Many paths to God? I like that explanation. Or perhaps it symbolizes our personal journeys. Maybe at different times we are all on the outer rim of ourselves, trying to find the way back to our center.
I was struck by how the shell serves different purposes depending on how we hold it. When we hold it with the inside up—like a cup—we can use it as a vessel. So we can give and we can also receive. If we walk through life with an attitude of curiosity and hope then our pilgrim shells will catch the gifts that life offers. If we don’t pay attention, we can miss the gifts as well as the arrows.
If you hold the shell inside down—like an umbrella—it provides protection. That’s also valuable. Sometimes we need to shield ourselves from anger, despair or hurtful words.
The ancient Greeks associated the scallop shell with fertility and I like that too. A reminder that something new is being created in each of us. It’s a symbol of possibility, of creativity, of abundance, of vision. Of birth!
I picked up my shell the very first day I registered in St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France. There was a huge basket of them available for a donation. I closed my eyes when I chose mine. I waited until I got outside to look at it. It is a little chipped around the outside edge and that seemed just perfect to me.
I tied it on my pack and off I went.
*It’s on the trunk!