To Grow Closer, Father and Son Go on a 500-Mile Walk

From a Washington Post story by Donald Liebenson headlined “To grow closer, father and son embark on 500-mile walk”:

Andrew McCarthy may be the consummate Brat Packer, with starring roles in era-defining movies such as “Pretty in Pink,” “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “Less Than Zero.” (He is directing a documentary based on his memoir, “Brat: An ’80s Story.”) But he has also veered off the Hollywood path as an award-winning travel writer whose books include “The Longest Way Home” (2012).

His new travel memoir, “Walking With Sam,” chronicles his 500-mile pilgrimage across Spain’s Camino de Santiago with his 19-year-old son, Sam, in the summer of 2021. McCarthy hoped the trip might bring him closer to Sam before he flew the nest; also, he was nostalgic for his first Camino walk in the ’90s, after he’d achieved sobriety.

The pair took about five weeks to walk from the Rue de la Citadelle in France, over the Pyrenees, into the Basque region of Spain to Pamplona, through La Rioja’s wine country, the city of Burgos, then, McCarthy writes, “out onto the treacherous high Meseta, onward to the bustle of Leon, and into the verdant hills of Galicia, ending in the far west of Iberia at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela — if all went well.”

McCarthy, 60, explores the sometimes fraught but ultimately bonding journey with Sam. “The Camino de Santiago is well known to illuminate fears, doubts, and insecurities of pilgrims who decide to make the walk,” McCarthy writes early in the book. “My own experience on The Way long ago confirms this. But we haven’t even started yet!”

McCarthy talked about what makes the Camino de Santiago so special and what you should know before you take your first step on this long road.

Q: What inspired you to ask your son to undertake this grueling journey with you?

A: When I left home at 17, I never looked back. My relationship with my father ended entirely. The idea was something I just thought would transform our connection into something more adult, so we would approach the world as equals. I knew he would get something from it.

Q: Did he absolutely okay it?

A: On Day 2, he asked, “What’s the point of this walk?” And on the last day, he said the experience was the only 10-out-of-10 thing he had ever done in his life. I hoped that’s what his experience would be. The Camino does that; you come up against yourself in a real way, but something profound happens while you’re walking that far. There is something about a pilgrimage path that’s been walked for centuries by millions of people. It’s undeniable. Anyone I’ve ever known who has done it says their life has changed.

Q: You’ve walked the Camino twice, once solo in your 30s and the second time in your late 50s with your teenage son. Both walks seemed to come along in your life at just the right time.

A: That’s true. The first time I did it, I didn’t know I was looking for something, and halfway into that walk, I had this revelation how much it had dominated my life. That was a liberating experience. Walking it again had been sitting on the deep back burner, and I had the idea of asking my son to do it, particularly after the pandemic. I had the notion I could use a booster shot against fear. My son was leaving home. I thought it would be a way to connect with him in a new way. I knew the Camino. You don’t really have to do anything; you just keep going, and it takes care of the rest. I knew if I could keep him going, something would happen.

Q: Early in the trip, Sam tells you that he’d like to have a profound experience, but he doesn’t know what he’s going to get out of doing the walk. That’s a lot of pressure to put on a trip.

A: Isn’t it? The beauty of the Camino is that, in the walking, all that stuff gets burned off or worn down, so you’re just yourself. You may want whatever you want, but it’s going to be what it’s going to be. There may be pressure on Day 1 or Day 2 to be saying such a lofty kind of thing, but blisters and fatigue and hundreds of miles and bad nights’ sleeps in bad beds will wear all that away, so the legitimacy of what’s happening asserts itself in a way that goes beyond whatever idea you have of what a big experience is. You’re simply having one.

Q: For anyone inspired by your book to attempt to walk the Camino with their child, what tip do you have?

A: The instant they say yes, go buy a ticket. Don’t think about it. Just go. I say that about traveling anywhere. If you have an inkling to go, go.

Q: What’s the biggest tip on what not to do?

A: Don’t look for the meaning in every step. You start walking, and everything falls into place. Have some laughs, have a good time, and the big stuff happens. And buy comfortable shoes. As I write in the book, we bought shoes the day before we left for Spain. Sam had a choice between comfortable shoes and a pair that looked cooler. I told him: “You know what will be cool? Not getting blisters.”

Q: What was the first activity you and Sam did together after you returned from the walk?

A: We went out to eat sushi.

Q: Have you noticed any qualitative improvement in your time together?

A: Yes, in the way we approach our conversations. I don’t try to hold on to him anymore, so he can feel the space and come to me for counsel in a way that he didn’t before. He was better at walking the Camino than I was. I’m old and got tired. He was bombing across the country. At first, I was leading him, because I’d done the walk. At the end, he was charging ahead of me, and isn’t that what life is supposed to be? I’m more relaxed about our adult relationship.

Donald Liebenson is an entertainment writer. His work has been published in the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, and New York Magazine’s Vulture website.

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