My Camino – Madrid to Finisterre

Kilometer Zero – Puerta del Sol, Madrid

Everyone takes the first step on their Camino having come at it from a different place, in a different way. Some come from thousands of miles away and some from their doorstep. Some come from a place of pain and heartbreak, others from a sense of wonder or adventure. No two stories, no two journeys are alike.

I am writing this a year after my Madrid Camino, having travelled great distances since then, since that singular journey, having finally gained some objectivity. Enough, maybe, to go back to the beginning, to the long and winding lead-up that propelled me to go – alone – on an 800 kilometre walk across Spain.

I am semi-retired and married to Catherine, an amazing woman who teaches elementary school. We have a 22 year old son, Henry, also amazing, who happens to have autism. We have lived in both the heart of big cities and deep in the country and we are currently traveling in France, Spain and Portugal for a year. We consider ourselves semi-nomadic. We are not typical consumers. We are frugal and spend our money on what interests us, where our passions lie and what we wish to learn more about. Travel suits us very well indeed.

It hasn’t always been so.

When Henry was younger, travel was difficult and often discouraging. Change was tough. He picked up on our stresses and they tended to magnify within him, causing some achingly difficult situations – often in public. Noise was also a big factor for our boy – he couldn’t filter it out, hearing absolutely everything. (An audiologist once told us that if we wanted to know what it was like to be inside Henry’s head, we’d need to sit in a steel drum while someone hit it with a hammer) Needless to say then, for many years we stayed close to home. Just short family car trips, little more. Mostly, people came to us, to our house in the country, for visits. Catherine and I had travelled together a great deal before Henry was born, and had planned to continue, having one child as a kind of portable family. But it was not to be.

So it became separate vacations for me and Catherine. She’d go to Paris and New York with friends. I would go to Spain with my friend Jan. Why Spain? Well, I had been to Madrid as a young teen with my family and remembered it fondly, and when Jan was shooting a film in Spain, he invited me to join him for a week’s travel after he wrapped. I went. Loved it. And have been returning ever since.

Then, once while I was away in Barcelona, Catherine booked an all inclusive trip with Henry to the Dominican Republic. Her parents met them there. Henry travelled beautifully. They had a wonderful, magical time. He still talks about it. A year later we rented an RV and drove across Canada and the U.S. – success!  Then a road trip to the Maritimes staying in motels – no problem. Finally, we began taking month long trips to Europe, broadening our horizons with every new adventure. Finding our rhythms. Making concessions and compromises and at the same time, challenging ourselves until, finally, we were ready to plan for our dream. A year abroad, the three of us.

And then it got a bit complicated.

The Camino comes up

In the early 1980’s I had done some walking in New Zealand and Australia. Nothing too serious, but living out of a tiny tent and washing in streams, that sort of thing. While training for that trip, I had read about the Appalachian Trail and thought maybe one day I would attempt that mighty cross continental walk. But in subsequent years, the more I read about the realities of that walk, the less I liked the idea.

I earnestly pursued my career for another decade, continuing to enjoy walking and secretly harbouring the notion of one day taking an epic walk, somewhere, somehow. One night in 1994, the Hollywood actor Shirley MacLaine was on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson promoting her new book. I tuned in just as she was describing a 500 mile walk she’d taken through the wilds of Spain along a thousand year old trail. There was a photograph of her with a backpack and a parasol. She described the walk as both arduous and spiritual.

An epiphany! I would walk The Way.

Then I forgot about it.

The Camino comes up again

Fast forward another twenty years and we’re living in the country raising Henry and taking separate vacations. I was mostly retired from show business, although to keep myself satisfied creatively, I had accepted a directing job out of town, directing a friend in a one woman show. My friend and I spent much time in conversation about theatre and television and film. We inevitably exchanged stories of working with people we admired. I mentioned Martin Sheen (story to follow). We talked about Spain. My friend handed me a DVD she’d just seen. “You gotta watch this – it is beautiful.” It was The Way, starring Martin Sheen and written and directed by his son Emilio Estevez.

I took it home and watched it. Slack jawed, I watched it a second time the following day. Don’t get me wrong, it’s no work of art. And I am not here to write a review. But I will say this, my friend was right, it was beautiful. The scenery that is. The light. The landscape. I also found the whole idea of walking The Way fascinating. And yes I’ll admit, maybe even a bit moving. My long ago fascination, first kindled by Shirley MacLaine, was set alight by Martin Sheen.

An idea took shape.

I would walk the Camino – alone – in such a way as to not disturb our family rhythms. I knew it would take some time and a lot of saving – I would have to work more – but I could see myself rising to the challenge. It would be a great excuse to exercise, and especially walk a lot more – something I have always loved. It was, I thought, a very healthy goal.

But it was not to be.

We moved from the country back to the city so that Henry could get into a good school and have the option of continuing to college where there were programmes for adults with disabilities. We sold seventy-five percent of everything we owned – which took the better part of a year – and moved to Ottawa, capital of Canada.  There was family in town and job opportunities. We settled into our new life. Got jobs. Henry was happy at his high school. A year went by. Then another.

I took to walking at night around the neighbourhood. It was quiet and conducive to creative thought. It occurred to me that perhaps now was the time to start seriously considering the Camino again. I started looking into it. Reading books. Blogs. Learning from folks I met that either knew someone who’d walked or had walked themselves. I covered greater distances on my nocturnal peregrinations. In the spring of that year I came to a decision – I was going to walk my Camino in September, once Catherine and Henry were settled in school. Target: mid-September. A plan was taking shape.

My research accelerated. There was an obsessive quality about it. I became fascinated by all things Camino. I started collecting things I would carry on the journey, based on the dozens of articles I’d read about the do’s and don’ts of packing. I haunted outdoor clothing and hiking stores. Searched through bins at Thrift Shops. I was walking upwards of 10km per day. Sometimes further.

Then I injured my Achilles tendons.

I found myself hobbling to work. Lurching up stairs. Weeks went by with little respite. Physiotherapy barely touched the pain and it was recommended that I lay off the walking until things improved. Needless to say I was not happy. I moped and self-pitied. I buried myself in my writing and teaching work and kept saving.

One night an email arrived from my old friend and mentor, playwright Arthur Milner. He’d written a new play. I asked if I could read it. He sent it along with a note, “If you read it, you have to act in it.” (Which was hilarious because I hadn’t acted onstage in two decades) It was a one man show – something I had never even remotely contemplated doing in my 35 year career. But, having appeared in many of Arthur’s world premieres, I was still excited to read the piece. It was about his mother, Rose, and her end of life request at 94. A true story written in the first person, from my friend’s point of view. Tired of living, Rose wished to pursue assisted dying, and the play follows Arthur’s journey as he learns about the practicalities, the legalities and the realities of this very controversial subject.

The play was wonderful. I laughed and I cried. After all, I had known Rose – and she had had a certain fondness for me. I had stayed at her house, even worked for her husband, Arthur’s dad Ben. They were nice to me. Hospitable and generous. I always asked after them whenever I knew Arthur was going home for a visit. I was not surprised then, by how emotional I had been after reading the play.

So I read it again.

And one more time the next morning.

I emailed Arthur to tell him I would be interested in helping him with any play development he might be considering. I soon heard back. Would I do a public reading for a small invited audience in Montreal? I said yes.

And the ball was rolling. After that reading came a fully produced show in Toronto – my first time onstage in twenty years. The massive amount of preparation took months. Learning a one person show is a monumental task and needless to say, I was distracted away from my plan to walk the Camino that September. Though I did do a lot more walking as I learned my lines. I barely noticed as my Achilles tendonitis slowly healed. The play is called Getting to Room Temperature and it became a hit. After the Toronto run, we were booked a prestigious festival in Ottawa and drew the biggest audiences in the festival’s history. Then, we booked a tour in Western Canada. Then southern Ontario. And Ottawa again. Eventually the east Coast.

The Camino had to wait.

But not for long

I made up my mind that I would walk the Camino Madrid shortly after the Western Canada tour. I would depart on my late sister’s birthday in early May. To honour her memory. She’d have been enthusiastically supportive. She would’ve gotten a kick out of the movie The Way, and even more from my connection to Martin Sheen.

Okay, now a little Martin Sheen

I’d been a fan of Mr. Sheen’s for many years, particularly for his work in Badlands, The Execution of Private Slovik, Apocalypse Now, That Championship Season and of course, The West Wing. Always really liked him as an actor and heard he was a good fellow as well. I found out for myself when I was hired to act in a made for TV movie about early onset Alzheimer’s called Forget Me Never. I played a partner in a law firm whose indispensable assistant has to leave her beloved job and struggle through early onset Alzheimer’s. The assistant, with whom I had all of my scenes, was played by the legendary Mia Farrow and her husband was played by Martin Sheen. How cool was that?

The day of the cast table read, I arrived early at the hotel – as was my wont , so I could load up on coffee and sandwiches from the craft table. There was only one other person in the room. He came over as I pouring coffee. I poured him a cup and handed it to him. It was Martin Sheen. “Hi, I’m Martin,” he said. “Hi. I’m Robert,” I said. His eyebrows went up. ‘THE Robert?” he said. “In my mind, yes,” I said. He smiled. “Are you the director Robert?” “No, I’m the actor Robert. Playing Mia’s boss.”

He shook my hand warmly then, evidently pleased to be in the company of another actor, and beckoned me to come sit with him. I did. We chatted about the movie, the city (Toronto) our accommodation (I asked if he was in the hotel and he said, “No, Charlie’s coming to visit and he’s no good with hotels.” I nodded sagely) I thanked him for the many enjoyable hours I spent watching his films. He was gracious and friendly and open. Just another actor in jeans and a check shirt. When Ms. Farrow arrived, she insisted I sit between them for the read-through. For much of it, she held my hand. I think being there, on that day, in that way, was one of my happier show business moments. I met two of my heroes, and they were absolutely lovely. No games, no weirdness – as there can be, believe me – just some actors working together at their craft.

Some years passed. I saw The Way and was happy that Martin was a part of the story that inspired my walk. Fast forward to my arrival in Madrid to rest for a couple of days, get over my jet lag and pick up some required documents. Checking in at the tiny, family run hotel in Madrid, I notice a photograph of the owner standing with Martin Sheen. I say, “I know him. Did a movie with him. I am walking the Camino partly because of him.” The owner told me that Mr. Sheen stays there when he is visiting family who live in Madrid.

And she gave me his room, for good luck, you understand.

That’s kind of the end of my Martin Sheen story.

Two days later, rested and jet-lag free, with my pilgrim’s passport in hand and a belly full of butterflies, I set off from Madrid alone to walk to Finisterre – ‘the end of the earth’.

Camino - Robert Bockstael