Where Have All the Yellow Arrows Gone?

I wrote this almost two years ago, about a month after returning home from the Camino.

[Yellow Arrow on a Rock]

One of many yellow arrows, painted by amazing volunteers, along the Camino Francés.

I took one look at my toothbrush the other night and burst into tears.

There was nothing wrong with the toothbrush or anything else in the bathroom. It’s just that I’m still using the toothbrush I used in France and Spain, the toothbrush that accompanied me on a walk of almost twelve weeks along an old pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela.

I’ve been back in Canada for over a month now. I don’t think about the Camino de Santiago all the time, but I’m reminded of it a lot. I tell some of the Camino stories that spring to mind to my family and friends, sometimes, but they don’t really understand. It’s one of those you-had-to-have-been-there situations.

Other times, when I’m alone, a Camino memory can leave me in tears, as my toothbrush did the other evening.

I miss it. I miss the walking, and the feeling that for the first time in my life my body was capable of doing whatever I asked of it. I miss the friendships: all the interesting, crazy people. I miss being outside all the time. I miss stopping at bars in the mornings for cafe con leches, and in the evening for cheap red wine. I miss waking up and really knowing that I didn’t know what would happen that day—where I would sleep (though I might have had an idea), whom I would meet, what I would see.

I even miss limping up and down stairs (it made me feel like a “real” pilgrim). I even miss dorm rooms.

Most of all, I miss the feeling that I was exactly where I was meant to be at almost every moment of the trip. I miss the intensity of it, the way the colours seemed brighter, the wind stronger, the heat warmer than ever before.

It’s not that it was a perfect journey. I got sick and had a fever for a few days. I was sometimes grumpy and insecure, sometimes lonely, occasionally angry. Sleeping in a dorm room night after night, often with snorers, was enough to drive anyone crazy.

But it never occurred to me not to walk every step between Le Puy-en-Velay in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I never once considered giving up and taking the bus or going home.

And now that I am home, I’m not quite sure what to do about it.

Part of the problem is the arrows, or rather the lack of arrows. Across France, I followed the red and white waymarks of the GR-65. In Spain, these switched to the occasional scallop shell (traditionally associated with the Santiago pilgrimage) and a lot of yellow arrows. Occasionally the route branched and I had a choice between two or three routes. But for the most part, I didn’t have to think too much about it. As long as I saw the occasional arrow, I knew I was on the right track.

After we’d reached Santiago, a Canadian pilgrim-friend talked about becoming a pop singer after returning home. Her first hit single would be Where Have All the Yellow Arrows Gone? Her pop star aspirations were a joke, but the sentiment wasn’t.

I stayed with my parents for a few weeks on my return, and walked a lot. There was a school near their house, with yellow arrows directing cars around the parking lot. I had a strong urge, every time I walked past, to follow the arrows in circles around the lot. I miss the arrows that much.

On the Camino, I’d been looking forward to having my own bed in a room to myself after almost 12 weeks of staying in a different bed almost every night. But in all those beds I’d never woke up disoriented; I always knew exactly where I was. I had my first experience of waking up and wondering where I was in Santiago. I felt the same way for the first few nights back home. I’d wake up in the dark with a panicky feeling that I wasn’t where I belonged.

All of my Camino friends who I’ve been in touch with seem to have experienced something like what I call my reverse culture shock. There are articles and blog entries on the Internet that refer to the post-Camino blues some of us experience. It makes sense, I guess. It was such a huge experience, even for the pilgrims who just walked for a few weeks, and now it’s over. And, as Nancy L. Frey points out, most of us don’t have much help integrating our Camino experiences into “real life.”

I guess we have to do the best we can. I’ve worn my scallop shell earrings almost every day since I returned. I’ve sorted through my photos and shared them with friends through Facebook, and looked at my friends’ Camino photos. I write about the Camino, sometimes.

And then there are the intangibles. A lot of us seem to walk the Camino during a transition period in our lives, or when we want something to change. I still don’t know exactly what I want to do with my life. I’m not even sure what the next step should be. I haven’t undergone a huge transformation.

But there are little changes, maybe. I do seem to be better at having less privacy, less time alone. Different walking companions have, perhaps, made me a little more patient with people who don’t want to do things on my schedule, with the “right” timing. After living out of a backpack, I appreciate small pleasures like fresh blackberries and washing machines.

I still worry. About jobs. About money. About not being settled. About what to do with my life.

But I’m not quite as afraid as I used to be. My journey, somehow, has made me a little better able to face the uncertainties of life.

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Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 2:52 pm
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17 Responses to Where Have All the Yellow Arrows Gone?

  1. kelsey mason says:

    I love your writing Anna-Marie, just read about Where have all the yellow arrows gone. Wonderful.

  2. Jo says:

    Oh, I feel for you. I felt exactly the same after finishing the camino. For a while, almost a year afterwards now, I kind of drifted away from the whole idea of it, from pilgrim websites, etc, but now I’m being drawn back to them and the urge is there again, with the nostalgia. Like you said, I even miss limping all the time and my muscles aching and my feet hurting. Ahh, those camino stairs… How i miss you 🙁

    • Anna-Marie says:

      The same thing happened to me. I stopped reading and thinking about the Camino all the time for a while, and then got drawn back. It’s funny because when I was actually walking–especially since I walked from Le Puy–I thought this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But as soon as I got to Santiago I started thinking about another pilgrimage.

  3. Pingback: Chemin to Camino Culture Shock

  4. Thanks for this blog – it brought tears to my eyes. I had such a hard time after finishing the Camino. I suppose that is a big reason I have kept it so alive in my heart by doing a documentary on it – just couldn’t move on in my life, wasn’t meant to I suppose.

    I do feel like I am finally doing what I am meant to be doing, but man it is hard, really hard sometimes.

    The funny thing is – my love for the Camino is what is driving me to do the documentary, yet ironically it is the documentary that is preventing me from going back and doing it again. I can’t wait to do it from Le Puy! That is my next Camino.

    Thank you for your writing! Look forward to talking with you sometime soon!

    • Anna-Marie says:

      Good for you for doing what you’re meant to be doing! I’m struggling toward that myself. Your documentary looks wonderful.

      I hope you get to do the Le Puy route soon. I loved it, though in a somewhat different way from the Camino Francés. I’ve been drooling over the Arles route lately myself … and maybe the Camino del Norte. Although my absolute must-do route seems to change with my reading.

      I’m looking forward to talking with you soon, too!

  5. Mary Lynn says:

    Your writing also brought many tears to my eyes. I returned only three days ago from a 436Km walk and was not prepared for the sense of loss or sadness or…something. I think I am afraid the memories will fade or I will lose touch with the meaningful experiences and the wonderful relationships found along the way. I’m feeling at loose ends right now and need something to anchor me, in the same way that my feet kept me attached to the earth as I walked for the past month. Or maybe it’s just jetlag. I’ve been organizing my many photos, listening to Oliver Schroer’s music, and even reading more books about the Camino. When I googled ‘returning home from the Camino,’ I found your website. I do feel better that these unexpected emotions are not unusual and to know that it’s not just me! Maybe I need to make sure I take time to continue to think about my experiences and eventually I will integrate back into this other life at home. Thanks for sharing your Camino life.

    • Anna-Marie says:

      It’s definitely not just you. I’m just back from the Vía de la Plata, and feeling almost the same way again.

  6. charly bouchara says:

    After walking the Francès in 2006 and le Chemin d’Arles in 2008, we ‘re leaving Montreal in a couple of days for Malaga.
    From which we’ll head for Merida where we start our Via de la Blata.. (I like the Arabic sounding and origin of that name … b’lata..,. better than Plata-money)
    Anyway… I understand so much what you’re talking about ’cause I felt the same blues after the 1st and then the 2nd… you know the secret?
    It’s to tell yourself you can always find another one to walk on… Portuguese, Chemin d’Arles, Chemin de Vézelay…
    We are 63 and 58, Mo and I but I am pretty sure it’s not our last camino…
    Take care.
    Et j’espère que vous entretenez votre français et votre espagnol… ils pourraient vous être encore utiles!

  7. Jackie says:

    I am currently walking the coastal route from Porto, Portugal to Santiago and it is really nice. It is a slower process than your walk as we do it once a month but extremely interesting and beautiful. I have posted two sectors on my blog about it, please have a look if you have a moment? Must admit I’m getting hooked too on these walks. http://portugaluntouched.wordpress.com

  8. Yamethin says:

    thanks Anne-Marie for a great post. My partner and I have now walked three Caminos since 2007, the Camino Frances, the Via de la Plata and last year the Camino del Norte.
    I liked what you said about it not being easy, the mixed feelings but simple joys that sustain you. One of my favourite memories and touchstones of joy is from the De la Plata. We bought fresh bread rolls from one of those little white bakery vans and sat on a concrete drain cover to eat them with a piece of cheese. It doesn’t get much better than that. Our dear camino friend Ricardo told us that we had ‘la duende del Camino’, the lure, spirit or magical appeal of the camino, which seems to kick in at some point and carry you on, when you don’t think you can go one step more.

    We are booked to return to Spain this coming year, perhaps to do the Aragones.

    But fellow peregrinos, please care for the Camino, whichever you do, take your rubbish with you and bury those darn tissues, don’t just throw them by the track. Buen camino.

  9. Jim says:

    Was sent this link by a friend who i didn`t think understood my Camino rants and how i always seem to end up talking about the Camino but i now think she gets it somehow and that means a lot to me! 🙂 Just booked flights today for September for 6/7 of us to return for year 3 on the Camino Frances. Next year will finish it for us? Was elated, saddened, confused, tearful to read all the comments. Camino means timeless & priceless for me. In turmoil here just trying to leave a comment that i know i want to make but can`t say what i mean if that makes sense!? Buen Camino. Slán.

  10. It’s fascinating to read the comments and observations which pilgrims have made following their caminos. I am attaching the comments I wrote one year after completing the camino from Le Puy en Velay to Santiago in 2005. For me there is no reason to alter what I wrote then ……save to say that the Via de la Plata is still in my mind for another walk.

    Reflections and ramblings a year on, ie. in 2006:

    So what is a former pilgrim thinking, doing a year on from his pilgrimage? A few reflections….

    A year ago I was just starting to write my chronicle in the Santiago-Today forum and in my blog. Time seems to pass quickly and I have not made time to read about other pilgrims’ worries (before travel) and excitements (during and after).

    Has my peregrination changed my life? In a word, no. My life goes on much as before. I think my outlook has changed marginally; however. I am far more aware than before of just how many people walk for pleasure, spiritual reasons or any other. My goal was simple: to walk 1600 km at one go from Le Puy to Santiago following what seems to be the oldest pilgrimage route to Santiago, a camino dating back 1055 years.

    As I live not too far from the Camino in France I have occasion to cross it quite frequently, but I rarely see any pilgrims. However, recently I drove along part of the Chemin for a few kilometres east of Figeac and saw 5 pilgrims, walking separately, waved at them and they waved back. There are frequent moments of nostalgia: out running in the early morning brought back memories of seeing the sun rise, valleys shrouded in mist, the call of birds, the peace and tranquillity of the morn, the absence of people, beautiful countryside in both France and Spain, quiet villages.

    I have had occasion often to mention to people I meet that I completed a pilgrimage to Santiago. Some show a passing interest:
    “How far did you walk? How long did it take? Would you do it again?” are the most frequent questions. Occasionally, somebody will ask a lot of questions and show real interest, and then, of course, I can wax eloquently about the trip. Several friends followed my progress through my blog and then, of course, a number of readers of the forum followed it too. Several people remarked that it was really good that my wife joined me for the last 111 km from Sarria to Santiago. I thought it really good too! It gave her a small taste of what it was all about.

    I started to write a proper account of my pilgrimage but it is not yet complete: too idle perhaps, or too many other distractions?! What I have found is that, by looking at my notes and photographs, I can recall quite a lot of detail about any particular day or place, and this is good for keeping the memory alive. I have read that some people have great trouble settling down again after the long walk but this has not been my experience. Normal life resumed at once.

    Would I do it again? The experience of walking unaccompanied from Le Puy to Santiago I still regard as marvellous: meeting other pilgrims from many walks of life – the Belgian who started at home in Belgium, pulling his “trailer”; 2 Swiss, met separately, who started in Switzerland; a Russian who shared what was probably the worst accommodation I stayed in, in Spain,; 2 ladies who snored for England; a French couple and their Labrador; New Zealanders, Canadians, Brazilians, and the young Frenchman who insisted I stay at “En el Camino” in Boadilla del Camino, saying it is the best albergue in Spain……It was!

    …..And what about places? A “concert” in the Abbaye at Conques with its sublime acoustics; the long distance views over the Aubrac in France and across the meseta in Spain; Burgos and its cathedral; the cock and hen in the church at Santo Domingo de la Calzada; the moving moment during Mass in the cathedral at Santiago; hilltops covered by windmills particularly on my second day’s walk after Santiago on the way to Finisterre; the somewhat grey, evening sky over the Atlantic “a los cinco por la tarde” when I reached the end of the earth at Finisterre.

    So you can see that much remains in the mind exactly one year on from my departure. No doubt much is forgotten too, but no matter, there are good memories. Names of some villages in Spain conjure up nostalgic recollections: Puente de la Reina, Carrion de los Condes, Calzadillo de la Cuerza, Manzilla de las Mulas, Hospital de Orbigo, Rabanal del Camino….To me such wonderful names!

    Visions of the Camino shall float them before me
    Echoes of dreamland shall bear them along
    Like the notes or the catch of a song,
    Till the fields ring again and again
    With the tramp of women and men

    And no, I would not wish to walk the same route because the magic moments would not be there – but there could, and would, be others. Another route? Now, that would be of interest! They tell me that Sevilla to Santiago is good…….

    I have not walked a step since I reached Finisterre last November, but a different challenge exercises me at the moment: trying to fly a paramotor (or motorised paraglider). Hmmm, to fly the length of the Camino would be good – but probably not practical. A 5 day walk was planned for this year on a variant of the Chemin but it is postponed to another year.

    Why have I written all this? It just shows that even though I have not visited this or other forums very often since last November the reminiscences of the pilgrimage remain strong and while the pilgrimage may not have re-shaped my life it has certainly marked it.

    Ultraeia !!