A phone call, a flight to Paris, an unexpected journey: these are the basic elements of The Way, a movie written and directed by Emilio Estevez and starring Martin Sheen. The call is from a police officer in the village of St. Jean de Port, France. He’s calling to inform Tom Avery, aging optometrist, of the death of his only son, Daniel, in a storm in the Pyrenees Mountains.
Leaving his comfortable California life behind, Tom travels to St. Jean de Port where he identifies Daniel’s body and takes possession of his son’s personal effects. In his hotel room that night he goes through the things his son left behind. Inside Daniel’s backpack he finds a “credencial,” a pilgrim’s passport that, when stamped at various towns along the route, will document that the bearer has completed the pilgrimage to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Legend holds that the remains of the Apostle St. James are buried beneath the church there.
Pilgrims have been walking the Camino de Santiago, the Way of Saint James, for over a thousand years. Beginning the journey at one of several towns in southern France, they cross the Pyranees and walk across northern Spain, Basque country, until they arrive at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galacia. It’s a difficult task, one that takes many weeks and sometimes months to complete.
At some point during the night, Tom Avery makes the decision to complete the pilgrimage his son had only begun. Shouldering the backpack that contains Daniel’s ashes, he sets out on the 500 mile hike across the Pyranees. An inexperienced trekker, he hardly knows why he’s doing it or what he might encounter. He knows only that he must complete this journey in place of his son.
Along the way he sleeps in hostels, limps along on sore feet, loses his backpack, is joined by traveling companions who fall in step with him, then disappear, only to reappear. Despite the near impossibility of the task, he never stops, never ceases to put one foot in front of the other, until he finally arrives at the Cathedral. He and the three companions who have joined him lay their hands on a pillar just inside the church, and their fingers fit the imprint worn into the stone by those who made the journey before them.
The story is touching, the scenery wonderful, the gift Tom ultimately receives so gratifying, I want to fly to Paris, buy a pair of hiking boots and backpack, and set off on this journey so many before me have taken.