If only. It’s not just an arrow, not just a symbol and sometimes it’s not always yellow: sometimes it’s red, for heaven’s sake! The arrow has ceased to be a mere tool that guides me along the camino, that does my navigating for me and saves me having to carry a wad of maps in my rucksack. Oh no, the arrow – yellow or red – has turned into a metaphor that’s wandered free from the confines of materiality; it’s an icon out of context and out of control.
You don’t believe me? You think the crazy middle-aged pilgrim’s had a bit too much sun and pyschogeography? You think that all those hours on the camino, alone and aloof, have given her too much time to think? To analyse and concoct geographical fairy tales? Who’s to say you’re wrong? The ritual, the liturgy, of walking day after day, step after step after step can do strange things to the psyche – can do even stranger things to the soul. But who’s to say I don’t want that to happen? Perhaps, rather than remaining permanently wary and prudent, I might want to throw caution to the wind; to make a Kierkegaardian leap in to faith. I am the land, the land is me; what is there to fear but fear itself.
To follow the yellow arrow is to make that leap into faith: it’s all or nothing, no time for wavering or pussyfooting around. You can’t follow the arrow half-heartedly, you have to throw in your lot and trust it to the nth degree, even when it seems to be leading you astray. The arrow says turn left – you turn left; the arrow says turn right – you do so without a moment’s hesitation. You’re standing alongside the CA-185, the road that winds tortuously up from the pretty town of Potes to the glacial austerity of Fuente Dé. For the tired pilgrim it’s a highway to hell: BMW drivers sniff pedestrian blood and drive like petrol-head Beelzebubs. Then you catch sight of the omniscient yellow arrow and it’s like all your Christmases have come at once.
The arrow whisks you away from the tedium and banality of the road and, with its long, elegant digits giving you the come-on, lures you back onto the path, the not-so-straight and the not-so-narrow. Do not think the yellow arrow will lead you to self-righteousness; it is deviancy and deviousness personified. It will take you from Alpha to Omega; eventually, once it’s run out of juice.
The yellow arrow points up. You follow, cursing at every uphill twist and turn. Gasping for breath you find yourself badmouthing the arrow and before you know it you’re both engaged in dialogue which, yesterday, went something like this (believe me, I’m not making this up):
The yellow arrow: ‘Calm down, Siân Lacey Taylder, there’s no need for that sort of language. Certainly not from a pilgrim who’s just touched the wood of the One, True Cross.’
The pilgrim: ‘I’m tired and I’m hungry and I’m very, very angry. I just want you to take me to Espinama, with minimal effort and distress.’
The yellow arrow: ‘Then take the road, it’s simple and straightforward; it’ll get you there before me. Nobody’s making you take this path, nobody’s put a gun to your head and told you to go walking in Spain. I’m neither demagogue not despot but an agent of liberation. You follow of your own volition.’
The pilgrim: ‘That’s as well as may be, but can’t you, just now and again, cut me a bit of slack?’
The yellow arrow: ‘Why should I? You wanted deviance, I’m giving you deviance; you wanted to throw caution to the wind, I’m blowing a gale to scatter your prudence across the four corners of the globe. But you have to believe.’
The pilgrim curses under her breath. ‘What’s that?’ asks the yellow arrow. ‘You heard’, she replies. Strange how, from that moment on, for the last three kilometres through the woods and alongside the Rio Deva, the arrow is suddenly absent and I feel like a spurned lover; I traipse into Espinama in a fug of guilt and shame. Tomorrow I’ll have to find the arrow again, I need it to take me over the mountains; without it I am lost.
I hate the arrow, I love the arrow, like pleasure and pain they’re just extremes of the same emotion. And boy, do we love extremes? Pain and pleasure, white and black, there’s nothing that lies in between.Well, nothing interesting, anyway.