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(RNS) — As the year winds down, many of us get philosophical about the things we did and didn’t do in the previous 12 months. I no longer make New Year’s resolutions, but several years ago I made a long-term “life resolution” to travel as much as I could, whenever I could.

My life circumstances have made this possible. I’m an empty nester and still young enough to enjoy good health. My job flexibility allows me to write and edit from anywhere (if I’m disciplined enough to make the time). I’ve also traveled very cheaply on miles and points, or on someone else’s quarter.

I’m acutely conscious of what a privilege this is — and how quickly it could go away. Any moment I could be called to serve as a caregiver for a grandchild or aging relative, or develop a medical condition that makes traveling unpleasant or impossible. The whole miles and points world is also in an uproar lately about possible congressional legislation that could make rewards travel diminish or disappear altogether.

In any case, I’m seizing the moment. Earlier this year, a friend I hadn’t seen in a while asked me how I was doing. “I’m living the dream,” I told him, without a hint of irony.

I will treasure and remember all of these trips when I’m no longer able to travel. Among all of those beautiful experiences, the Camino de Santiago stands out as one I want to do again more fully, and to share with others.

"Walking with Sam" by Andrew McCarthy. (Courtesy image)

“Walking with Sam” by Andrew McCarthy. (Courtesy image)

I just finished an excellent book about the Camino, “Walking with Sam: A Father, a Son, and Five Hundred Miles Across Spain,” by the actor and now travel writer Andrew McCarthy, who walked the 500-mile pilgrimage with his son.

If McCarthy’s name sounds familiar, it may be that you’re a GenXer who remembers him as an integral player among Hollywood’s “Brat Pack” in the 1980s. He starred in movies like “Pretty in Pink” and “Weekend at Bernie’s” as well as the Brat Pack-studded flick “St. Elmo’s Fire.” McCarthy’s role in that last film was of the romantic would-be writer with hidden depths — a role he now seems to inhabit professionally. He’s a truly gifted and observant writer.

His book is an honest reckoning of how travel can change a person and how it forces us to confront those parts of ourselves that need changing. For me, some of these are my addiction to creature comforts (my husband says I have basically a two-degree window of well-being where temperature is concerned), and my inflexibility when change is called for.

“Walking with Sam” captured something I tasted briefly on the Camino in May, which I wrote about here: We have to jettison some parts of ourselves along the way if we want our souls to grow.

The book is not overtly religious, in that McCarthy has serious doubts about the institutional Catholic church of his childhood, and about the hypocritical, judgmental religiosity he sometimes sees today. But he is very open to spiritual, even mystical, experiences that come out of the blue on occasion as gifts of the Camino.

He also seems to resonate with an idea he expresses early on — that historically, “a lot of time in purgatory could be spared by a good long walk.” The purgatory he’s speaking about is not one after death. It’s here on Earth, the purgatory of being strangers to ourselves and victims of repeating the same mistakes without much contemplation.

In his book he gets his Hollywood history out of the way first thing, telling readers that he experienced unexpected success as an actor early on and always worried he didn’t deserve it. His 20s were a blur of fame and substance abuse. Then, in his early 30s, he impulsively went on the Camino de Santiago. (Note to potential pilgrims: He did this so impulsively that he did not break in his hiking boots beforehand and suffered the consequences. Learn from this, gentle reader.)

Andrew McCarthy and son, Sam, along Spain's Camino de Santiago. (Photo via Instagram/Andrew McCarthy)

Andrew McCarthy and son, Sam, along Spain’s Camino de Santiago. (Photo via Instagram/Andrew McCarthy)

McCarthy went from being a drifter who could not finish anything to a grown man who had “an internal baseline from which to go forth in the world. Simply because I started walking … I earned my way across Spain.”

Midway through that first Camino, he unexpectedly dissolved into a sobbing mess one day. Just as unexpectedly, the meltdown allowed him to discard some of the fear and shame that had long plagued him.

Even my brief experience on the Camino taught me how it indeed shows us who we really are, exposing our fears and insecurities as we walk. For him, this involves navigating the tricky terrain of being a parent to the 19-year-old son he has convinced to come along. Sam is at times reckless and overconfident, and at other times requires a strong guiding hand. McCarthy, rather desperately and touchingly, wants to have a relationship with his young adult son that he never had with his own father, a rage-prone man from whom McCarthy was largely estranged. 

If you have children, you might recognize that dynamic, of wanting to protect them from harm and disappointment while also knowing that they need to experience such realities if they’re going to take charge of their own lives.

The irrepressible Sam is sometimes infuriating, assuming that dad will be there to pick up the pieces, pick up the tab, pick up the slack. Sam sleeps late routinely on a Camino that is engineered for the early riser — the heat of the day is not when you want to be walking. (I’m not sure McCarthy ever says exactly when they traveled, but judging from the context, they seem to have been doing the Meseta portion in the worst heat of August or September. Ouch.)

But Sam grows beautifully, as does McCarthy himself. They argue, they listen to music, they process Sam’s first serious breakup. Mostly, they walk. “All you can do is walk through it, Sam,” McCarthy tells him.

If I’m fortunate enough to ever walk the Camino again, I hope to do the “whole” thing — the traditional Camino Francés all the way across Spain. When McCarthy and Sam near the end of that odyssey, Sam realizes how many people join for only the last 100 kilometers and has scathing things to say, which made me laugh.

McCarthy is conscious that such a long pilgrimage is an incredible luxury, made possible with health and money and the gift of weeks of free time. He, too, wants to seize the moment knowing it could all end, knowing what a holy gift every day can be. It’s a realization that comes home to me most poignantly when I’m on the road.

The Camino Portugués, May 2023. Photo by Jana Riess.

The Camino Portugués, May 2023. (Photo by Jana Riess)

McCarthy feels it most palpably after taking a painful spill. He writes, “It’s age that brings an awareness of the luck of life, how the tiniest membrane can be the difference between a calamity causing enduring hardship and the near miss that allows us to press on, clinging to delusions of invincibility, with the potentially catastrophic incident soon forgotten.” 


More RNS content about the Camino de Santiago:

People (and dogs) we meet on the Camino

‘The Way,’ Emilio Estevez’s film about the Camino, returns to theaters

‘I’ll push you’: Friends, one in a wheelchair, document their Spanish pilgrimage

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