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CAMINO/ What "The Way" Gets Right and Wrong

Webster Bull is in his 25th day of the Camino to Compostela and compares his experience with the description of the Camino in “The Way”, the Estevez's 2011 film starring Martin Sheen

Martin Sheen (David Alexanian/Arc Entertainment) Martin Sheen (David Alexanian/Arc Entertainment)

As I've written before, there are precious few American Catholics on the Camino de Santiago this spring. So most of those who have seen "The Way," the 2011 film starring Martin Sheen, have lived this pilgrimage vicariously. But is the film even accurate, or are all these "Way" watchers living a dream? After 25 days on the road to Santiago, I'd answer both yes and no.

Let's see what Emilio Estevez's film—about a father (Sheen) who walks the Way after his son (Estevez) dies here—gets right and gets wrong.

Right: It's beautiful out here. And fun. And funny.

So it's a Hollywood movie, right? So it is all of these things, and this is true. The Camino de Santiago is a breathtaking walk (metaphorically and literally) through north central Spain, where the landscape is even more varied and dramatic than the film shows. And the walk is adventurous and often entertaining, and many of the people you meet are determined to have fun and make your pilgrimage fun too, even when you don't want it to be. (There was the night in an albergue when we almost had an international incident between Italians in one room and a louder set of Spaniards in the next, after a dinner at which the two groups had shared wholesale quantities of red wine.) Estevez and Sheen, who financed their own picture and shot it on a shoestring budget, packed a tremendous amount of entertainment into the Camino de Santiago—a great achievement, and an accurate one.

Wrong: But it's a lot harder than it looks.

People die out here. Every month. Seriously. The film's plot is launched by the death of Estevez's character on the first stage, from St. Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles. So yes, it acknowledges the dangers, at least of that stage. During the month in which my daughter and I started our pilgrimage, May 2012, at least two people died on this passage of the Pyrenees, and another was lost in fog for more than 24 hours before being rescued. A tip for the unwary: If there's fog over the church in St. Jean, it's clear on the mountain, and vice versa.

But most of the grave markers we've seen are on later stages of the Camino. All along the Way are crosses commemorating those who dropped dead in their tracks, presumably from heart attacks mostly. This pilgrimage is a grind. On day 24 (yesterday), long after I thought I was in trekking shape and had made friends with my pack, I collapsed into bed after an eight-hour marathon that ended with a joint-jarring two-hour trek downhill. Setting our alarm for 5:15 am this morning, Marian and I did not even try to get out of bed until 7:00.

Wrong: All the same, I can't imagine a safer place to walk.

The film's plot turns at a critical moment on the theft of Sheen's pack by a gypsy youth. This incident put me on alert from my first day on the Camino. Would my belongings be in danger? My daughter? My self? The answers are no, and no, and no. I'm sure I could get my valuables stolen if I were intentionally careless. But simple security measures suffice. And as for personal safety, there are countless women of all ages walking the Way alone. For three days, my daughter (24) went off by herself, and I didn't have the slightest concern for her safety.