Former Hollywood backpacker Andrew McCarthy’s life changed forever while walking the Camino de Santiago. In an extract from his first book, he describes how that led to a second career as a travel writer
I was in a bookstore, gazing at a girl across the display table. She had sandy hair pulled back in a loose ponytail and wore a tight blue-and-white striped shirt – the kind the girls wore in French new wave films. She had my full attention.
Eventually feeling eyes upon her, the young woman looked up and caught me staring. I panicked and grabbed the first book on the table in front of me.
“Here it is!” I shouted, and ran for the checkout counter like an idiot. Still flustered, I bought the book without thinking. Once out on the street, I recovered enough to take a look and see what I had just purchased. Off the Road, the title said. And then below it, A Modern-Day Walk Down the Pilgrim’s Route into Spain. Nothing could have interested me less. I took the book home, put it on a shelf, and forgot about it.
A few months later I was taking a trip to Los Angeles, and halfway out the door, I grabbed the book for something to read on the plane.
It was about a man who had decided to walk the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. He walked from the south of France, over the Pyrenees, for 500 miles to Santiago de Compostela, where, according to Catholic lore, the bones of Saint James had been discov-ered. In the eighth century, when this was news, thousands flocked across Spain to receive a plenary indulgence and get half their time in purgatory knocked off. The trail had fallen out of fashion in the last half dozen centuries, yet something about the author’s tale of his modern-day pilgrimage spoke to me. I was looking for something, I just didn’t know what it was.
Two weeks later, on a bright and hot early summer morning, armed with a backpack and new hiking boots, I was crossing the border from France into Spain, high in the Pyrenees. By mid-afternoon I arrived, starving, with a blister forming on my right heel, at the monastery of Roncesvalles. Others walking the trail had already arrived, and we lodged together in a dormitory. Tentative allegiances were made and the next morning informal walking groups formed. I ended up with a Spaniard who was dressed in the costume of a pilgrim from centuries ago. He wore a draped brown robe and carried a long staff with a gourd affixed to the top. He looked like a seasoned Halloween trick-or-treater who knew where he was going and I followed close on his heels. He spoke no English and my schoolboy Spanish was hamstrung by self-consciousness. After three days of silent walking, my blisters became so bad that I had to stop in Pamplona for a week of rest, and my costumed guide left me behind without a word of goodbye.
I was miserable, lonely, and anxious. My long-established habit of solitude had left me completely isolated and without the resources to reach out. My worst fears about myself – among them that I just wasn’t man enough to handle this – were proving to be true. I had come to Spain, I now saw, to determine whether I could take care of myself. As I sat in the Café Iruña on the Plaza del Castillo, the answer that was coming back to me was not good. I sipped coffee where Hemingway had sat and decided I would go home, my inadequacies of character and strength laid bare.
But the longer I sat, looking out on the plane trees that lined the square, the more I came to see how failure in this endeavour would later come to haunt me. This was a turning point and I knew it.
Andrew McCarthy on his travels
When my blisters stopped bleeding, I bought a pair of red Nike walking shoes, left my boots beside the sleeping figure of a homeless man who lived in an alcove of the ancient wall that still surrounded parts of the city, and walked on, alone. At night I often shunned the refuges where the other walkers gathered, choosing instead small inns or hotels where I could be by myself. When I did stay in the pilgrims’ hostels, I felt a great distance between myself and the others, as if a giant wall had been erected, with me on one side and the rest of the world faintly visible but untouchable on the other.
It was just such a barrier that I had once dissolved through drinking, but now, having been away from alcohol for a few years, my natural tendency toward isolation had me in its grip and I was trapped inside myself. I trudged on, hating every step.
A few weeks later, I was in the high plains of north central Spain, outside of the charmless village of Hornillos del Camino. The July heat had taken hold. The sun bore down as I marched mile after mile through low and sickly fields of wheat. The earth was parched and cracked. Sweat poured from my face and down my back under my heavy pack. A black raven circled overhead and then flew over the rise; I cursed the ease with which he covered a distance it would take me a day to accomplish. And then I was on my knees, weeping, sobbing, and then screaming – at God. I literally shook my fists at the heavens and demanded that this suffering stop. I insisted that someone come and pick me up, get me out of this – why couldn’t it just be OK, like it seemed to be for all the other walkers? I cursed my isolation. Why did I feel this burden of separation? I sobbed some more; snot ran down my sweaty face.
I picked at the hard-caked ground, embarrassed in front of no one but myself; looked up into the cloudless sky; and saw the raven had returned. He circled high above me twice and flew back over the horizon. I rose to my feet, retrieved my pack and stick, and shuffled after him.
In the sad-sack village of Castrojeriz, I found a room and fell into 12 hours of dreamless sleep. When I awoke, I ate with appetite and set out again. The withering wheat I had marched through for days was behind me, and signs of life were beginning to return to the camino. After an hour I stopped, without reason, by the side of a barn and sat on an elevated plank. It was too early for my mid-morning break, and yet I sat. Since breakfast I had had the feeling that I was forgetting something, that my pack felt lighter. I looked off toward the horizon, the distant spire of a church indicating the next village was nowhere in sight. I swilled some water and then began to feel a tingling between my shoulder blades. And suddenly I was smiling. It was the first time I could remember smiling since I had left New York. And then I knew what was missing, what I hadn’t carried with me that morning.
Fear. The fear that had calcified between my shoulders was suddenly not there – fear that had been my centre of gravity, fear that had been so ever present in my life that I was unaware of its existence until that moment of its first absence.
The tingling between my shoulders continued and grew. Soon my entire body felt as if it were vibrating. I felt physically larger, as if I had grown – or was growing. I breathed deep and spread my arms. I tilted my head back and began to sing. The Who’s Getting in Tune spilled from my lips. I had no recollection of ever singing it before and yet I knew all the words and sang without restraint.
The next two weeks went by in a blaze. Every step took me deeper into the landscape of my own being. I was in sync with the universe.
I arrived at my chosen destination just before a downpour. I slept in and missed the pack of wild dogs that terrorised the early walkers. I met people I found fascinating. Where had they been hiding? I grew physically stronger each day, and by the time I strode into Santiago in late July I felt the way I always wanted to feel yet somehow never quite did. I needed no validation, no outside approval – I was myself, fully alive and satisfied in simply being.
Santiago de Compostela cathedral. Photograph: Valischkaphoto/Getty/Flickr RM
I returned home changed by my experience. The acute euphoria of my trip faded, but my sense of self lingered and went deep. And so I began to travel, not for work, but for travel’s sake. I returned to Europe, to the cities I had been to before, rewriting my drunken travel history and giving myself clear-eyed recollections. I began to take longer trips, to south-east Asia and then Africa. Always alone. Often I arrived with no plan, no place to stay, knowing no one. I wanted to see how I would manage, if I could take care of myself, and inevitably found myself walking through fear and coming home the better for it. Through travel, I began to grow up.
For me, it’s often not even about a particular destination. The motivation is to go – to meet life, and myself, head-on along the road. Because I spend so much time alone when I travel, my fears, my first companions in life, are confronted, resulting in a liberation that I’m convinced never would have happened had I not ventured out. My internal wiring relaxes and finds an ease of rhythm that it rarely does when at home.
At some point in my travels I began to jot down notes. I had tried to keep a journal, but I found my reminiscences indulgent and silly. I found no joy in writing them and was embarrassed rereading them.
One day I wrote a scene of an encounter that I had with a young man who offered me a ride on his moped in Saigon. Then a woman I saw behaving rudely in Laos shed light on my experience of that silent city. On New Year’s Day in Malawi, the image of a small girl carrying a large umbrella in the sun stayed with me. I wrote it all down.
When I came home I put my notepads in the back of a drawer and didn’t look at them. But the idea grew.
I knew someone who knew someone, and I met a man named Keith Bellows, the editor of National Geographic Traveler magazine.
Keith is a barrel-chested lion of a man with a mane of silver hair – exactly the kind of man who had intimidated me in my youth. He agreed to meet me in a bar in New York’s East Village, where I told him of my desire to write about travel for his magazine.
He looked at me funny. “You’re an actor.”
“I know that,” I said. “I also know how to travel, and I know what it’s done for me.” I was forthright in a way that I never had been able to be when talking about my acting.
“Can you write?” He still wasn’t giving the conversation much weight; he was looking at a young woman down the bar.
“I can tell a story.” This got his attention. “That’s what I’ve been doing for 20 years as an actor.” I shrugged.
It took another year of cajoling, via email, on the phone, and over dinners, during which we became friends. Finally, after a meal at a restaurant in SoHo, Keith looked at me and said, “I still don’t understand why you would want to do this. You’re not going to make any money. There’s no glamour.”
I shrugged and offered up a vague “It’ll be fun.” As with my first acting role in high school, something was calling me, and I kept that knowledge to myself. I had no way of knowing where it might lead; all I knew was that it made sense to me.
“Where do you know well? What place speaks to you?”
“Ireland,” I said quickly. “The west. There’s a place in County Clare … “
“Then that’s where I’m sending you.”
And so a second career began, travelling and writing about those travels.
Andrew McCarthy’s first book, The Longest Way Home, is out now, priced £10.99. To order a copy for £8.24 including p&p, visit the Guardian Bookshop (guardianbookshop.co.uk)