When I discovered the documentary short film Phil’s Camino (http://philscamino.com/) on the program of Austin’s South By Southwest Festival I knew not only that I had to see it but that I wanted to meet the people involved.
Reaching out to the film’s publicist Nadine Jolson, I arranged an early interview with producer/director Annie O’Neil who was one of the pilgrims profiled in the acclaimed 2013 feature documentary Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago and is the author of Everyday Camino with Annie (http://www.everydaycaminowithannie.com/). I would also meet co-director Jessica Lewis who with cinematographer Todd Pinckney captured the images from Spain, executive producer/supervising editor Doug Blush, and other members of the production team. Most of all I had the privilege of meeting the remarkable subject Phil Volker, an encounter that brought back what the Camino, the Way of St. James, had meant for me as I walked it in 2013.
Phil is a veteran and woodworker by trade living on Vashon Island near Seattle. When diagnosed in middle age with stage four cancer in his liver and lungs, his response was one of body and soul. A man of deep Catholic faith, he was aware of the Camino through Spain and had been inspired by the movie The Way with Martin Sheen. However, the rigours of cancer treatment ruled out any such travel. So Phil created his own path, a circuit of just under a kilometre, in the woods and pastureland near his home. He began walking that daily, often saying the rosary, recording his progress in a journal as if on the Camino to Santiago. In six months he walked it over 900 times.
After seeing Six Ways to Santiago Phil contacted Annie by letter in early 2014 and invited her to “come walk with me.” The letter arrived just as she was due to go to a conference in Vancouver. Intrigued, she made a side trip to see Phil, a meeting she describes as “transformational,” and the first step in an extraordinary collaboration.
An important break came when Phil’s doctors gave him a “holiday” of 28 days between chemotherapy treatments. He was prepared for pilgrimage. He had a spiritual adviser, Rev. Tom Hall, a retired navy chaplain, and a letter from his parish priest. With no time to lose he literally went from the hospital to the airport to start walking the actual Camino to Santiago, accompanied by several close friends through different stages.
So we follow Phil as he makes the most of the blessing bestowed by this interval, crossing the Pyrenees and taking to the path in which “everything seems more intense.” The film beautifully conveys the meaning of Phil’s walking, which is not without challenges — as when the camera captures a dramatic moment in which he faints during a mass, probably due to heat exhaustion. Reaching Santiago de Compostela was an emotional high point but in no way an ending. Phil returned home to resume his walking and welcoming others to walk with him. (You can follow his blog at: http://caminoheads.com/)
The film doesn’t set up Phil as a saintly figure. We see him in a family setting of ordinary joys and sorrows. His son Wiley candidly observes that his dad used to have a rather “authoritarian outlook.” What his Camino has achieved most importantly are not destinations but openness to the everyday epiphanies of a journey as much internal as physical. The Camino is not something to be conquered but to be accepted in the act of walking. Phil speaks of “the difference between being cured and being healed . . . of being reconciled with God and in all the important things.”
That is the life lesson coursing through Phil’s Camino. In describing her encounter with Phil to me, Annie spoke of the “depth of receiving” the gifts of his experience that are shared in this soul-stirring film.
As Phil’s example shows, the Camino is above all a way of living. And it’s never too late to make yours. As written on the T-shirt Phil gave me: “Wherever you are, just keep walking.”