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Walking, and Thoughts Along The Way

In the 2010 indie film The Way, the actor Emilio Estevez says to the actor Martin Sheen, who’s both Estevez’s on-screen and real-life father: “You don’t choose a life, Dad. You live one.”

Sheen is driving Estevez’s passionately nomadic character, Daniel, to the airport so thathe can strike out on an 800-kilometer pilgrimage in northern Spain known as the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, or Way of St. James. Daniel gives a you’ve-never-understood-me shake of the head when he speaks. Sheen’s character, Tom, is a suburban dentist who just wants his kid to get a real job already, take responsibility for himself, settle in for the long-haul, like him. So when Daniel makes such a proclamation about living a life, Tom doesn’t appreciate his son’s wanderlust. More simply, he doesn’t even understand it.

And actually, I’m not sure I do either. It’s been a few years now since I first saw The Way, among the younger set attending a screening in a small art theater in Pittsburgh. And I’ve watched it several times since then. I’ve mulled over Daniel’s assertion, thought about how deliberate I’ve been about investing my own earthly pilgrimage into school and work and family.

Surely, I think to myself, I’ve done well with what I’ve got, regardless of whether I call it “chosen” or “lived,” “seized” or even “planned”Or is this what Daniel means, that by choosing so deliberately, I’ve actually lost something in the living? Would Daniel upbraid me, too, as he does his father?

While I’m tempted to dismiss Daniel as naïve or foolhardy, there’s something in my inability to discern the difference between choosing a life and living one that tells me I’d do well to pay close attention to this film that coaxed me, on a cool November night in Pittsburgh, to go for a long walk and leave it all behind.


The actor Martin Sheen is saying this, with gravitas, about my dad: “I remember him as being very shy. And he had the courage to stay shy.” In a blue sport coat and plaid tie, Martin has an ever-combed look and wide smile and crow’s feet, hardly the same man who played a young, suicidal soldier in Apocalypse Now, on a mission to slaughter Marlon Brando’s Colonel Kurtz. Today, Martin’s mission is to attend a loved one’s wedding at Holy Family Catholic Church in Dayton, Ohio, but he takes a few moments to recall his days at a Catholic high school, just blocks from where we’re standing, and reminisce about this particular chum.

“I was shy as well, but being an actor I had to come to grips with that and have kind of a public persona. But George had a private and a public persona that was the same. But that’s hard to cut.”

Martin emphasizes his next line with raised eyebrows, insistent eye contact, and a lean inward. “That’s a very enviable characteristic.”

He’s speaking into a VHS video camera (this is the mid-1990s) held by my younger brother. I’m standing outside of the camera shot while our older brother peppers Martin with questions. We’re shooting GHK, a this-is-your-life documentary to celebrate our father’s 55th birthday.

When I watch The Way and see Martin Sheen decide to hoof the Camino de Santiago like his son, I of course think of my father and this scene in GHK. I recall our hikes together – in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina, in Ohio’s state parks, on the wooded land where he and my mom built a home. Those times would inspire my own hikes as an adult, in the Rockies and Alps and Sierra Nevadas, and an upgrade from car-side camping to backcountry packing.

Martin then recalls his participation in Sodality, a student organization that encouraged devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus. He describes the Catholic spirituality that he and my dad shared, that I would, years later, struggle to maintain and then finally abandon, while still trying to cling to something ethereal in Jesus of Nazareth.

As we finish the interview with Martin, I tentatively put my arm around him while my older brother flanks him and does the same. We sing “Happy Birthday” into the camera, with gravitas.


Just minutes into The Way, and just a few kilometers into the camino, Daniel dies. A sudden storm levies the ultimate price for his nonchalance. So, grieving, Tom ends up hiking the pilgrimage in Daniel’s stead, sprinkling his son’s ashen remains along the trail.

He eventually gains traveling companions, including an overweight Dutchman, an embittered, chain-smoking Canadian, and an Irish writer. Tom and his companions share conversation – at times playfully spontaneous, at times stilted and even hostile. They shelter at small-town hostels, share meals over laughter and a bottle of wine as they plumb the depths of life’s meaning. With each rhythmic step, Tom gradually loses some of his inhibitions and anger.

Diversions take their journey well beyond the bounds of a hike. At one point Tom has to leap into a rushing river to retrieve his backpack and the tin containing his son’s remains. Another day, a gypsy boy steals this same backpack, and when the boy’s father drags him out into the light to shame his act and demand that he return the bag, the evening ends in gracious, gypsy-style revelry. Tom even gets arrested one afternoon after a drunken tirade in which he castigates his mates, targeting the Irishman in particular, who in turn pays Tom’s bail. Interspersed with these scenes, a kind of apparition of Daniel appears to Tom – along the trail, at the dinner table – and the father and son share unspoken moments. Viewers get the sense that Tom’s beginning to share his son’s appreciation for pilgrimage.

Finally, the party reaches the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela where they attend the Pilgrim’s Mass. Each character pensively places a hand upon a pillar supporting a statue of St. James, an act teeming, it seems to me, with gratitude for the journey completed. These are hushed moments, after 800 kilometers of movement.

They watch the world’s largest thurible, a 175-pound censer hanging from the cathedral’s dome, swing to and fro through the church’s nave in what is, I later learn, a 200-foot arc that reaches 70 feet at its apex, going speeds of up to 50 miles per hour. They watch slack-jawed as the censer douses travelers and worshippers with smoky incense. The camera then lingers upon the church’s crucifix, that wounded sufferer at the apex of his own journey.

After the group’s final reckoning on an Atlantic Ocean shoreline, the film ends with a shot of Tom, this buttoned-down dentist, now trekking through some crowded city market (in Morocco is it?). He ventures alone.

Tom’s companions, big-hearted and foolhardy, seem to have helped him come to terms with himself and his son, and with life. But whatever healing or transformation has happened for Tom and his friends, it’s less an epiphany than it is a kind of quiet resolution, less “success” than a kind of peace. This didn’t happen because Tom set out to problem solve or even reconcile with his son’s memories. He simply showed up in the French Pyrenees – a starting point for many Way of Saint James pilgrims – to retrieve his son’s ashes. Then, responding to some quiet something urging him toward uncertainty, he walked.


At the end of many pilgrimages around the world – there are thousands to choose from – you’ll find crutches and canes on display, in haphazard piles or in glass cases. It’s claimed that the touch of sacred water or soil, or else the presence of relics or some other totem, has a healing effect on pilgrims’ bodies and lives. For whether it’s Santiago de Compostela or Mecca or the Ganges, this is what many pilgrims seek – transformation and restoration. Tom finds awakening, though his own walking stick remains in-hand from beginning to end.

In fact, most major religions recognize the value – and in some cases the centrality – of pilgrimage to the faith. Any Muslim capable of travel must complete the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, at some point in his or her lifetime. Jews go on birthright and journey to Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall. Hindus trek to sites all over India and beyond. As early as the 4th century, Christian pilgrims traveled to holy sites related to Jesus birth, life, and death. Since the 8th century, believers have walked the Camino to Santiago de Compostela where the remains of James the apostle were purportedly buried.

Some pilgrims seek atonement. In The Way, Tom and his companions pass ascetic believers carrying large wooden crosses, imitating Jesus’ sacrificial suffering up that dark hill called Golgotha. In front of Mexico City’s Basilica of Guadalupe, where the Virgin Mary is said to have appeared before an Aztec boy in 1531, I once watched devotees crawl their way across massive expanses of concrete. In tearful deference, these pilgrims seemed to trust that every scrape of a knee might show just how remorseful they were for being an angry parent or an unfaithful spouse – sinful, frail, and faulty. Walking and crawling can be acts of recompense.

For some, pilgrimage is, if nothing else, a chance to leave it all behind – the stress and baggage of day-to-day life so different than odyssey. These pilgrims bicycle, ride horseback, and hike open roads that lack the fetters of everyday life (which, one could argue, may well represent a more arduous journey than a long trek abroad). Especially when traveling alone, long walks and drives and flights provide liminal space, that space between leaving and arriving where you have few other responsibilities but to follow a path, take the right exit, enter through the correct door, sit, think, wait for the next exit or door or leg of the journey. As a solitary pilgrim, it’s all so simple, and decisions – choosing music or an in-flight movie – aren’t beholden to others’ wants and needs as when fulfilling work responsibilities or parenting. You’re even liberated from time; as long as you’re headed in the correct direction and at the right pace, time seems to stop.

Pilgrimage can provide this kind of escape. While on a months-long journey on the Camino de Santiago, Tom simply has to put one foot in front of the other. He has few responsibilities but to tend to his needs for food and shelter. And on pilgrimage he’s constantly withdrawing from his surroundings, forever leaving.

Over the years, pilgrimage as a means of escape has brought no small amount of criticism. Even the 15th century monk Thomas à Kempis noted that, “It frequently happens that it was mere curiosity and a desire to see new things and new places that led these pilgrims to take to the road, and rarely does one hear about them amending their lives as a result of a trip that was spent mostly in exchanging gossip and with no thought of contrition for sins.” For some purists, “getting away from it all” makes sense in Ft. Lauderdale and Vegas, but not on these more sacred paths.

Still, North Face-branded trekkers do populate many of today’s pilgrimages. And we throw around the term “pilgrimage” when traveling to such “tourist Meccas” as Graceland and Gettysburg, Yankee Stadium and the Green Bay Packers’ Lambeau Field. In Assassination Vacation, author Sarah Vowell describes her impassioned peregrinations to the locations where presidents Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley were murdered as a kind of pilgrimage, ending her journey at the Lincoln Memorial, “the closest thing I have to a church.” Photographer Anne Liebowitz’s book Pilgrimage depicts those places and people most inspirational to her creative journey.

Maybe pilgrimage – whether religious or secular or merely adventurous – is simply an expression of restlessness, a physical working out of one’s faith in something or someone whom we hope will bring us a semblance of peace. Maybe pilgrimage of any ilk is a kinetic prayer demonstrating Augustine’s oft-quoted cry, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” We’re in pursuit of transcendence, wherever we each may find it. Sometimes a long walk gets us there.


Even as today’s technologies make travel easier than ever, I find pilgrimage difficult to find, incompatible with my current, more sedentary lifestyle in which I’ve committed myself to a very stationary family and vocation and neighborhood.

As a tired parent (whose children can be as delightful as they are contentious and messy), as a teacher (a job that can be as delightful as it is contentious and messy), and as a neighbor committed to my community, my days can feel irksome and foolhardy, much less grand, much humbler than some majestic pilgrimage. Dirty dishes and children’s runny noses, fissured sidewalks and littered streets, urban “door bells” (honk hoooonk blares that car horn, again, at 6am …) and urban blight aren’t usually evoked in the mind’s eye when envisioning some intrepid journey full of discovery of self and God. And yet, this is the life I’m living.

As a man who feels he’s had glimpses into transcendence while wandering more forested settings (once, in the Austrian Alps, I encountered a rainbow traversing a mountain valley that spoke – I swear to you the rainbow did speak – words of assurance and peace), I found The Way’s cinematic pilgrimage spiritually satisfying. The film piqued my interior life and refreshed my imagination. (Art can do this, I was reminded.)

But once I emerged from that small art theater in Pittsburgh, a touch glossy-eyed, where was I to find my own pilgrimage? As much as I admired Tom and his companions, how was I to follow in the Camino’s saintly footsteps? I was, within the hour, returning to the mendacity of bills and committee meetings and home repairs.

I want my everyday life to be blown away by gusts of awe. I want pilgrimage along an unceasing, winding trail, through idyllic countryside, and the serendipity of stepping around a mountain crag and being bowled over by sublime vistas.

But what does pilgrimage mean for me, or for anyone else unable to leave it all behind to hike picturesque pathways in the Iberian Peninsula?


For starters, I can walk.

Until the eighteenth century, walking was, for the most part, work. If you had the means you rode a horse or carriage or boat rather than walk. Then William Wadsworth and other Romantics began walking for pleasure and inspiration. A long stroll became a means of embracing the wildness of nature, and, for a brief time, becoming part of it.

For others, the walk became a matter of coping. Henry David Thoreau walked to remain sane:

I think that I cannot preserve my health and spirits unless I spend four hours a day at least — and it is commonly more than that — sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldy engagements … When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shop-keepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them — as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon — I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.

Fortunately, for American literature and for Thoreau himself, this existentialist lived before the invention of cubicle farms. And I can only imagine what he’d have to say about how our vehicles and devices have made us simultaneously more mobile and more sedentary in our work. To work, we sit. But, hey, we can sit anywhere we want.

All concerns of suicide aside, I do think Thoreau is onto something. “The legs were made” – specifically designed – for locomotion. Humans are the only tailless, two-legged mammals who stand upright. Possibly we have a primal drive to make use of these noble, upright walking abilities that have freed up our hands for other activities – from building robots and skyscrapers to twiddling those opposable thumbs. So maybe if we’re not walking, we’re not taking our rightful place on the evolutionary journey. (And it may well be that as we neglect our unique gift of walking, we’ll devolve. See the 2006 film Idiocracy.)

Today, walking may still bring pleasure, but too often we isolate this pleasure to hikes in state parks and along gardens, short strolls down neighborhood sidewalks along manicured lawns. Rarely do we walk great distances to drop in on a friend, to explore, to cope as Thoreau once did. Instead we champion the comfort and efficiency of more modern modes of transportation, and walking is again work, a terrible necessity when other modes – those planes, trains, and automobiles, those buses and bikes – aren’t available to us.

A temperature-controlled car ride, between white and yellow lines (others’ interpretations of the best way forward) at a determined maximum speed asks little more of us than to gaze forward, flex a foot and ankle, turn a steering wheel, maybe tap a button to wipe away raindrops. We’re even more sedentary on airplanes, and airports provide moving “walkways” that simply ask us to hang on. Except on long trips, travelers don’t arrive at their destinations weary-bodied. Walking, on the other hand, parallels the labor of life. As poets and saints have shown us, time and again, life is a long, arduous journey down a winding path, or maybe a mountain ascent, not a nap through international airspace. Walking more accurately reflects our difficult day-to-day reality, that strain toward something more. Walkers arrive with scuffed shoes and soiled clothes because they’ve been moving and remained in close contact with the earth. Efficient, sanitary travel leaves shoes unblemished. “To walk there is to earn it through laboriousness and through the transformation that comes during journey,” writes Rebecca Solnit in Wanderlust, her book examining the finer points of walking. “Pilgrimages make it possible to move physically, through the exertions of one’s body, step by step, toward those intangible spiritual goals that are otherwise so hard to grasp.”

So I need Thoreau’s saunter through woods and fields because in the pilgrimage that is life the physical act of walking – the physical act of anything – matters. Like my 9-year-old son who can’t keep his bottom “glued” to his chair during dinner (no matter how many times I ask him), my own spiritual journey, in this corporeal body, needs actual movement. So I do take long Saturdays at those state parks, away from urban settings. I camp and backpack when I can. I slip into city parks as restful asides from driven days. Sometimes these walks are difficult and lengthy; I need to finish with a sense of weariness and accomplishment, with scuffed boots.

When I can, I also walk in my city – to work, to complete an errand, to see and feel. I recall Jane Jacob’s work on great American cities and the dance that is urban community: “The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place, and in any one place is always replete with improvisations.”

I walk my cemented neighborhood, get to know the contours of my city streets, and, when possible, engage with porch-sitters, few as they are these days.


On many occasions, my walks have come in the form of protest. With hundreds and thousands of other people, I’ve marched in demonstration against my country’s wars, marched for universal access to free and clean water, for unionized labor, for women’s rights, and against the brutal beating of a local high school student by undercover police officers.

Protestors walk as an expression of concern or anger, but also as a show of force – We have stormed the moral high ground. We can vote you out of office. There are more of us. Beware. Because there’s something in the movement of a march that speaks to power. Of course, Gandhi and Chavez and Mandela and protestors from Cairo to Tehran to Washington, D.C. have leveraged this kind of walk. People (Rebecca Solnit among them) have marched to protest nuclear warheads, dictatorships, mass incarceration, climate change. They’ve marched for gay rights, workers’ rights, water rights, land rights, and animal rights, and even for fiscal restraint in government. People walk to raise money, fighting everything from breast cancer to leukemia.

It’d be a misnomer to call these marches pilgrimages, per se, yet the two take parallel paths. They begin with an individual choice to get up off your duff and walk in search of change. And like the pilgrim, marchers walk in the name of transformation, of self and society, to transcend circumstances. Yet in neither case do you ever really end up walking alone. On pilgrimage, if you’re not walking alongside a fellow pilgrim, you’re at least retreading ground blazed by a body of saints that walked before you. All the more so, then, when you walk in the name of justice and love for those facing oppression do you walk in solidarity and in community. “I still think that walking down the middle of the street with several thousand people who share your deepest beliefs is one of the best ways to take a walk,” Solnit said in a recent interview.

Martin Sheen seems to get this. He’s marched against nuclear proliferation, as well as the School of the Americas (renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), a U.S. government facility criticized for training militants in Latin America. He’s also taken on justice-minded acting roles, including a politically subversive clown and as a judge in a low-budget film called In the King of Prussia, a true story about a group of Catholic activists breaking into a warhead-producing General Electric plant. This was 1983, after Sheen hit the big time with Apocalypse Now, after playing a journalist in Gandhi, and part of his own spiritual awakening. In fact, Sheen has revealed his commitment to intertwining his personal journey with spiritual, justice-seeking work. Describing his own off-screen activities recently, he noted the power of the Civil Rights Movement and the effect it had on him: “I found it so moving and inspiring and it changed the direction of my life. For the spiritual life to be active you have to put your body where your spirit is. We must find a way to unite the way of the spirit with the work of the flesh.”

Walking – and by extension pilgrimage and protest – is one way of uniting that body and spirit.


So I still want the real journey, the actual walk. As The Way’s Daniel knows – and as his father learns – you can always choose a path, but if you really want to live that path, you have to walk it.

I’ve found that a real, material struggle can actually bring greater rest to the soul than if you’d never labored in the first place. A long walk can help get you there. But in the end pilgrimage – and protest for that matter – is about more than fixing society or self, more than personal fulfillment or finding answers. Sure, Tom is graced with a new sense of adventure and even personal peace, and Jack, the Irish writer, seems to overcome his writer’s block, but the Dutchman remains gluttonous, the resentful Canadian continues to chain-smoke.

As these characters complete their journey amidst crashing waves and saltwater mist on the Atlantic Ocean shoreline, they quietly inhale and exhale, and they simply look to the horizon.

They no longer walk. They no longer work. They just rest, together. One senses that in this quietude they each feel self-acceptance, gratitude for one another, and a deeper serenity.

During that long walk, something did happen.

Originally appeared in Vox Populi, 2018


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