Portomarín to Palas de Rei (24.3km) crosses the Ligonde mountain range, which includes an ascent to Mt. San Antonio and a misty descent through the valley. Throughout the Camino, the walkway for pilgrims is marked by yellow arrows, but as I was reading through some blogs on this stage of the journey, I learned that it’s possible to miss an arrow and therefore make a wrong turn, which means backtracking, lost time, a longer day.
The Camino de Santiago has an official symbol—a scallop shell—which can be found everywhere along the journey and is often taken home on souvenirs. The scallop shell is a reference to the Atlantic Ocean—the end of the earth. Although the walk officially ends in Santiago de Compostela, Finisterre (the end of the known world, at the time people started making this pilgrimage) is another three days’ walk or a short bus ride away. (Among our group, there was talk of a scallop shell tattoo that was never fully scuttled. Does my non-walk walk earn me a tattoo at one of Modesto’s fine establishments?)
Road signs are emblazoned with the scallop shell; it’s painted on buildings and fences and walkways.
Still, apparently, it’s possible to get lost.
In the months leading up to the Camino, when I had things to worry about other than a global pandemic, this was the kind of thing I worried about: getting lost on the Camino. Also: my knee dislocating (again), blisters, bathrooms that wouldn’t be entirely private, and not sleeping.
But mostly: getting lost.
Some people are born with a sense of direction—it’s innate, not taught by a map or an app. Will has this; I’m convinced you could drop him blindfolded from a plane and provided he survived the landing, he’d be able to walk his way home without looking at his phone or stopping to ask for directions.
I was not born with this skill.
It may seem like an exaggeration to say this, like I’m making my directionally challenged self sound more directionally challenged to get to some kind of punch line. But no.
What I’m about to tell you is true.
When I started teaching at UC Merced, I met a friend who didn’t have a car and used the Cat Tracks public trans system, which is free and reliable although not necessarily convenient. I was happy to drop her off at home on my way from campus to the freeway—although it was a slightly different route than I normally took. And herein was the problem: every single time, she had to remind me where to turn, what lane to get into, when I’d passed the final turn onto her street. Every. Single. Time.
It’s become a bit of a joke, but still, even as we’re laughing about it, she has to insert a quiet, “Turn left here.”
I don’t always know where I am, but if I do it’s because I’ve memorized the route to get there. Google Maps and its predecessors have made most travel painless; I don’t even have to think, just follow orders. Sometimes it goes on the fritz, though—a lost signal, or a sudden roadblock that causes me to backtrack, reroute.
In my late twenties and early thirties I wrote for a real estate publication—this was before the housing crash in 2009. The job was easy and mostly fun, except that when I was asked to write about a new housing development, it was often in some new area with street names that hadn’t yet made it onto maps. I spent a lot of time turning the wrong way, realizing, circling and eventually figuring it out. The photographer was usually there when I arrived, and sometimes nearly finished.
In those few minutes when I was lost—it was never more than a few minutes, although that time somehow managed to feel like hours—I had what I now know was a panic attack. My heart seized; tears welled behind my eyes; it was difficult to breathe. Sometimes there was a person around to ask for directions, but mostly, I had to talk myself into trying again: you can do this. There’s no reason to panic. You’ve always figured it out before, and everything has worked out fine.
I rerouted, tried again, and always survived.
I’m writing this at night, with an episode of The West Wing on TV and my husband on the couch next to me. “I need more examples,” I told him. “I can’t remember specific times I got lost, except every single time I’ve been in a hotel and I’ve turned the wrong way coming out of the elevator.”
“Well, there was Venice,” he said, not missing a beat.
Right. Venice. I was so disoriented at the lack of trees and the winding pathways between three story buildings, I wandered for an extra hour with my heavy backpack before finding the hotel, just off St. Mark’s Square.
“And then there was the corn maze,” he reminded me.
It’s true. I once got lost in a corn maze and had a panic attack. I was 32.
And then he said, “Most of the time you’re with me, so it’s hard to get lost.”
Today I used GPS to get me to a Rock and Ready Mix place five minutes from my house.
There’s no telling what would have happened to me on the Camino, with my #CaminoAmigos inevitably walking ahead, at a faster pace. I would have had to watch for the scallop shells, follow signs, be alert.
I would have had to trust that I could figure it out—eventually.
Paula Treick DeBoard