In the ninth century, the Catholic Church announced that the remains of the Apostle James had been discovered in the far west of the Iberian Peninsula, in what would become the city of Santiago de Compostela. It further stated that anyone willing to make a pilgrimage to the site would receive plenary indulgences, or remission of punishment for their sins. The faithful came running, er, walking. The Camino de Santiago was created and has been walked with varying degrees of popularity ever since.
The Camino goes over the Pyrenees and through desolate plains; it passes through villages of a few dozen inhabitants and large cities (Pamplona, León). Often under the blazing sun.
I first walked this path a quarter of a century ago. There was no religious calling for my walk, but like so many pilgrims through the ages, the Camino brought in me a transformative – dare I say spiritual? – experience. I had always wanted to return to the Camino and in the summer of 2021 I invited my then 19 year old son, Sam McCarthy, to join me. Sam, an actor and native New Yorker who has appeared on shows like “Dead to Me” on Netflix surprised me by saying yes. We arrived in Spain at the end of July and walked through a sweltering August to Santiago de Compostela. And then, as I set down my weary body, Sam went on, another 50 miles to the sea, ending his journey in the village of Finisterre.
I wrote a book, Walking With Sam: A Father, a Son, and Five Hundred Miles Across Spain, which tells the story of our journey from my perspective, but what did it mean to him? Why would a teenager say yes to a month of hiking with his dad?
“It didn’t really feel like a big decision,” Sam said. “It was something you always talked about, and it intrigued me – the idea of walking across a country. I didn’t feel like, “Oh, now I’m going to go for a walk and do this thing with my dad so we can get closer.” That wasn’t really the case for me.”
“But I’d say it’s drawn us closer together,” I said.
“Of course,” he said.
This conversation has been shortened and edited for clarity.
What surprised you the most?
Before you started something like the Camino, at least to me, the idea of finishing or finishing it felt kind of amorphous. I didn’t know what to expect. But there is great power that accompanies an achievement like walking. It’s a bit unshakable. It is something tangible that you have completed that cannot be taken away from you. I suppose for the first time I got the feeling of doing something difficult that had seemed a bit incomprehensible. I mean there’s a hill and it’s so far away, and then I get to the hill, and then I walk to the top and then there’s another one in the distance and it’s super far away. And then I get to it and then I get to the top, and then there’s another one until you get somewhere. And that gives you, I don’t know, a kind of ownership that can’t be explained away.
Did you find it physically demanding?
Yes I did. I found it physically difficult for the first two, two and a half weeks, and in the last few weeks I felt like I could walk two more countries.
Why did you go to Finisterre?
Because what’s the point of just going to Santiago?
Because that’s where the pilgrimage ends.
Yes, but I was not a religious pilgrim. That was nothing to me. It was always talked about as a walk through Spain, and then you stop 90 percent of the way? Why should I just stop?
The easy metaphor of you going above and beyond what I did, the idea of my son accomplishing more than me – I think that’s a desire that’s in every parent’s psyche.
Okay, well, that’s your thing. I wanted to see the ocean.
Was reaching the sea the highlight of your journey?
It was the whole experience. It’s kind of indescribable, and I think it’s weird to talk about it because the words in the English language can’t really – not that it was such an intergalatically profound experience, although it was profound. It’s more like I don’t know how you would really describe it. I suppose the pinnacle was the state of being you enter. And sure, reaching Finisterre, but I’m not sure finishing is the intention.
What is the point?
There was a saying on the Camino that you didn’t understand or really care about that I loved: “Walk, don’t reach.”
So what does that saying mean?
It just means walking. Don’t think about where to go next time. Don’t reach for a finish line. Just be here instead of reaching for what’s in front of you in five minutes, five days, or five weeks. It’s not an original idea. But you know, maybe I lost myself a little bit for the Camino, and I think you saw that. People are going to try to find themselves. You walk and walk and walk and it’s like, am I here? Am I here? And it’s like no, I’m here all the time.
Mmm. Would you do it again?
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