On a hot North Carolina evening in 2013, I watched a little movie called “The Way” about an American doctor who walked 500 miles across northern Spain. A year later, on Oct. 2, my husband and I became pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, just as Martin Sheen’s character had.
“Is this supposed to be a vacation?” friends and family members often asked when we would talk about our preparations for the Camino. No, was the clear answer, but our reasons always started with “The Way.”
During the weeks we walked – across mountains from France, through medieval villages and modern cities to Santiago de Compostela near the Atlantic coast – we asked people who came from England, Korea, Australia, Canada and beyond why they were walking. Christians have been walking that route since the 9th century when the remains of James the Apostle were unearthed near Santiago. They believed that completing the pilgrimage would secure their place in heaven, regardless of their sins.
Invariably, today’s pilgrims explain their decision starting with “The Movie.” If you haven’t seen “The Way” – and most people haven’t – the story begins with the death of the doctor’s son only a few days after he started his spiritual journey on the Camino. Tom, the doctor, immediately leaves for Spain to retrieve the body of his estranged son, played by Sheen’s real-life son Emilio Estevez. Instead of bringing the body back home to California, Tom decides to honor his son’s memory by finishing the Camino for him and sprinkling his ashes at key intervals. I won’t spoil the ending for you.
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The weekend that the movie opened in art theaters to mixed reviews, it took in only $110,418. In four years, it still has earned just $4.4 million. The late film critic Roger Ebert wrote, “ ‘The Way’ is a nice film. Not great, not urgent, but quietly positive.”
Yet how many “quietly positive” movies cause people to travel thousands of miles to strap on a heavy backpack and walk 500 miles without making any hotel reservations? Although the Camino had been nearly forgotten by the 1980s, about 200,000 people a year complete it these days.
A Raleigh couple, Bob Higgins and his wife, Betsy, had been pondering the Camino since their parish priest completed it on his second try. “We saw the movie after he went,” Higgins said, “and it pushed us over the cliff.” It’s an apt metaphor for retiring from a good job with IBM and auctioning off enough of their belongings to downsize into smaller quarters before flying off to Spain for 48 days.
“I just know myself. Two weeks from Santiago, work was going to come back in,” he said. That sentence could have been a line of dialogue from the movie. In “The Way,” the doctor’s focus on his work sours his relationship with his son, a cerebral sort who follows a different drummer.
I asked Martha Hayes of Raleigh, who has two Caminos under her belt, to join me in speculating on the movie’s motivational power. “First, it seems doable. It’s just walking,” she said. One of the Camino‘s charms is the way it binds together people from different cultures. “The movie pulls together several people, who have common themes in mind,” Hayes said. “I walked with a carpenter from Ireland, a priest from Brazil, a lawyer from New Zealand, a college student studying French literature at Oxford.”
My husband and I made friends from Colchester, England; Brisbane, Australia; Toronto and Victoria, B.C., in Canada; and Ashland, Oregon – friends we intend to visit.
Portrayals of the doctor’s walking companions are warm and funny. They are people you would want to visit with again and again. But there’s more, and Hayes nailed it when she said, “You see transformation in all of them.”
None is overtly religious, though. What they are doing is portrayed as a pilgrimage, so that people of faith recognize its significance, but others are not excluded. “Everybody’s searching,” Higgins said. “Some are going to be more methodical about it.”
Though we are churchgoers, Ed and I didn’t feel the need to walk the Camino for religious reasons, but we craved time away from duties and distractions to reflect on our purpose in life. And it delivered, just as in the movie.
Higgins and Hayes agree that they are still drawing lessons from their days on the trail. “I’m much more patient about getting a parking spot close,” Higgins said.
After carrying all she needed on her back for weeks on end, Hayes said she has been shedding material things. “I was crying in a grocery store. All I wanted was a cracker, and there were so many choices. And with 30 percent unemployment in Spain.”
My husband is still reading the blogs of our little Camino family, and he’s not going to rest easy until everyone is home safe.
I’ll remember walking on slippery rocks all morning in heavy fog, fearful of what we might be walking into. I held onto that day’s quote in our guidebook from the scientist J.R. Oppenheimer until I was able to find beauty in that fog. “The foolish man seeks happiness in the distance. The wise grows it under his feet.” Sure enough, the fog lifted right along with my spirits.
Carol Frey of Raleigh is a former editor and editorial writer at The News & Observer.