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The Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James

The Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James is a spiritual journey that pilgrims of all faiths and backgrounds have traversed for over a thousand years. The pilgrimage originally began at one’s doorstep, though modern trekkers today would find that rather difficult, particularly American pilgrims needing to cross the Atlantic. While there are a number of established routes leading to Santiago from all directions, the most popular is the Camino Frances, which crosses the Pyrenees Mountains along the Spanish-French border starting in St. Jean Pied de Port.

This Camino route covers 800 kilometers that traverses an idyllic northern Spanish countryside. By following the yellow painted arrows marking the road, a pilgrim can expect to walk 12-15 miles a day to reach the next town for the night. At this pace, a pilgrim can reach the Cathedral de Santiago in 6 to 8 weeks time to attend the Pilgrim's Mass held at noon each day. Some take more time, others less. Some choose to travel by bike, and some have done the Camino on horseback. Along the way travelers encounter albergues, refugios and casa rurals that cater specifically to the thousands of pilgrims of all ages that take this journey each year, immersing themselves in the local food, culture and history dedicated to this experience.

Pilgrims walk the Camino for various reasons. Some to seek penance, others enlightenment, and still others for a sense of adventure, yet all progress toward the Cathedral in Santiago where it is believed the remains of the apostle St. James are held. Most pilgrims choose to carry a scallop shell with them to symbolize their journey in honor of St. James. According to legend, scallop shells are said the have covered St. James’ body after it was found on the shores of the Galician coast. Another, perhaps more useful symbol is a walking stick to aid a weary pilgrim on his or her journey. Most pilgrims also carry a document called the credencial, purchased for a few euros from a Spanish tourist agency, a church on the route or from their church back home. The credencial is a pass which gives access to inexpensive, sometimes free, overnight accommodation in refugios along the trail. Also known as the "pilgrim's passport", the credencial is stamped with the official St. James stamp of each town or refugio at which the pilgrim has stayed. It provides walking pilgrims with a record of where they ate or slept, but also serves as proof to the Pilgrim's Office in Santiago that the journey is accomplished according to an official route. The credencial is available at refugios, tourist offices, some local parish houses, and outside Spain, through the national St. James organisation of that country. The stamped credencial is also necessary if the pilgrim wants to obtain a compostela, a certificate of completion of the pilgrimage.

Regardless of whether a pilgrim’s journey begins for religious, spiritual or cultural reasons, the meditative nature of the Camino offers the perfect landscape in which to dedicate contemplation. Pilgrims follow the path amidst the villages, towns, rivers, mountains and fertile valleys that have changed the lives of millions of pilgrims who walked before them.

Why The Way

It had always been Martin’s dream to walk the Camino de Santiago. After having the privilege of holding Mother Theresa’s hand, sitting with Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, visiting the holy shrine at Lourdes, and making a film in Medugorje, his next wish regarding his faith was to visit the Cathedral de Santiago by way of its namesake pilgrimage. He was in the middle of his 7-year tenure playing U.S. president Jed Bartlett on the West Wing when he seized a tiny window of opportunity to realize his goal, at least in part.

After attending a family reunion in Ireland in the summer of 2003 that celebrated his mother’s lineage, he had a moment of inspiration. He convinced a few family members to fly to Spain in honor of his father’s heritage as well by touring the Way of St. James toward Galicia, his father’s homeland. Unfortunately, seven days was all Martin had before needing to return to work in Los Angeles. Knowing this wasn’t enough time to walk the Camino, he pushed forward presuming it was now or never.

Upon landing in Madrid, he rented a car with friends and family and set out on a northern path toward the nearest Camino town of Burgos to visit the famed Burgos Cathedral built in the 13th century. From there they hugged the Camino west as best as possible via major highways, detouring at important locations to walk a bit each day. By the end of their trip they arrived in time for the Pilgrim’s Mass at the Cathedral de Santiago. The beauty of the northern Spanish countryside proved too magical to experience in such a short period of time. Martin pledged to return one day soon for a proper pilgrimage toward Santiago.

On The Way

Through a series of ongoing conversations between Emilio and Martin, the two decided to create a tribute to Spain to rediscover the land where the Estevez family was rooted. The Camino de Santiago served as the perfect partner in their efforts. And while Spain serves as the backdrop, the film’s primary theme of self-discovery belongs to everyone from all ages and backgrounds, as does the Camino, which has helped transform the lives of millions of pilgrims for centuries.

In the film, a father unfortunately comes to understand his son’s life through his death and along the road finds himself as well. The main protagonist of the film is the conflict we each have within ourselves of choosing a life versus living a life. This greater question of finding oneself is a matter of acceptance and choice. Given the circumstances of our lives, how do we understand ourselves, our family and our friends, and the choices we make? Do we blindly go through life unaware of our actions and how they affect not only ourselves but others, as well? What role does our community, friendships and faith play in our decisions?

The Camino, by its nature, serves as the ultimate metaphor for life. Footsteps along a well-trodden path may be our guide, but do not shield us from the questions that most of our busy everyday lives prevent us at times from fully recognizing. The road offers very little to hide behind. The process of life is life along whichever road, path, Camino, or Way we find ourselves on. Our humanity toward ourselves and others, our history and our future is what defines us. Take the journey of life. Buen Camino!

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