S2, E14: Would You Hike 500 Miles With Your Teenager? Andrew McCarthy Said Yes.
In this week’s episode of Unpacked by AFAR, we talk with actor and writer Andrew McCarthy, author of the new book Walking With Sam, about his 500-mile Camino de Santiago pilgrimage with his teen son in tow.
Hiking Spain’s Camino de Santiago is one of the world’s great pilgrimages. And actor, writer, and director Andrew McCarthy has done it not once but twice. In this week’s episode of Unpacked, we chat with Andrew about how his second pilgrimage—with his teen son—inspired his latest book, Walking with Sam.
Andrew McCarthy: For me, travel has been the university of my life. And I think that I’ve learned about who I am, being on the road. And the farther from home I got, the more at home in myself, I’ve felt.
Aislyn Greene, host: That’s writer Andrew McCarthy, author of the new book Walking With Sam, a memoir about Andrew’s five-week pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago with his teenage son.
And I’m Aislyn Greene, associate director of podcasts at AFAR, and this is Unpacked, the podcast that unpacks one tricky topic in travel each week. Some of you may know Andrew from his work in film and TV—he starred in such ’80s classics as St. Elmo’s Fire and Weekend at Bernie’s, and more recently he’s directed TV shows like Good Girls and Orange Is the New Black—but I’m more familiar with his work as a travel writer and editor. As a young man, Andrew picked up Jack Hitt’s book Off the Road, a memoir about walking 500 miles of the Camino. Shortly after, Andrew was on a plane, following the same route. It’s not an overstatement to say that pilgrimage changed his life—and turned him into a traveler.
Since then, he’s written four books. He was the editor at large for National Geographic Traveler for a dozen years and guest edited the Best American Travel Writing anthology. And, in 2010, he participated in one of AFAR’s first Spin the Globe trips. That year, we spun the globe and sent Andrew to Ethiopia with less than 24 hours’ notice. Check out our show notes for that story . . . including how he got himself arrested.
Andrew’s latest book, Walking with Sam, came out May 9th. As his son took his first steps into adulthood, Andrew wanted to recreate his own first Camino walk—and cement their bond. As they walked (sometimes together, sometimes apart), they faced blisters and hours in the baking sun, the paradoxes of solitude and companionship, and the transformative power of the Camino pilgrimage. Let’s get into our conversation.
Aislyn: Well, um, Andrew, thank you and welcome to Unpacked. We’re so happy to have you here today.
Andrew: Good to be with you.
Aislyn: We are here to talk about your new book, Walking with Sam, which I have savored over the past couple of weeks.
I’ve only read excerpts of Jack Hitt’s Off the Road, but that kind of combination of frankness and humor that he weaves together is also such a hallmark of your new book. And I was just curious—you know, it made me laugh, it was poignant and realistic, it felt like a real travel memoir and, you know, it made me constantly reflect on my own family dynamics—and I was curious how did you hold and balance all of those aspects while writing the book?
Andrew: Well, I mean, I have been, um, a travel writer, I guess for the last 20 years or so, and so it’s a place where I easily and happily find myself on the page. There were three aspects I wanted to weave together. What I was doing was—one was the travel, the physical journey, the literal journey of that, and weaving in, then, the emotional experience of what happened with, uh, my son walking across the Camino and the emotions that went on internally there and, and recollections of my own father, cuz in many ways it’s a father-son book, uh, and parenting sort of memoir. And also then tapping and tying into the history of the, uh, Camino and sort of braiding those three things together—they’re separate strands—hopefully into one and one would sort of feed into and launch into the, the other.
Aislyn: Well it came through beautifully. Um, I don’t wanna steal too much of the premise because you know, of course, we want listeners to read the book. But for listeners, could you briefly explain why you decided to embark on a second Camino pilgrimage?
Andrew: Yeah. Well, should we explain at all what the Camino is—or, I guess everyone would know what the Camino is, but um—
Aislyn: Yeah, go for it.
Andrew: I did first hear about the Camino when I read Jack Hitt’s book, uh, Off the Road, and it was about his, you know—it’s a, the Camino’s an ancient pilgrimage route.
It, you know, dates from the eighth century when the Catholic Church said that the bones of St. James the Apostle been found in the westernmost reach of the Iberian Peninsula, and anybody who marched there would, uh, get half their time in purgatory knocked off, which is a good deal, right? I think what it primarily really was about though was, uh, real estate, in that Islam had taken over the Iberian Peninsula and the Catholic Church wanted it back.
So I—what they were saying in essence was: “While, while you’re marching across Spain to get your almighty soul cleansed, why don’t you kick out those damn Moors,” you know? And so it was about the Christian reconquest of Spain. It started the Crusades and you know, the Knights Templar and all that good bloody stuff.
So it really was, um, I think much more about that. And frankly, I mean the Catholic Church has walked back everything about St. James and that he doesn’t probably wasn’t even ever in Spain.
But [the Camino] has an interesting history, a fantastic history. And, you know, along the way there are all the great churches, those old Roman churches dating from the eighth, ninth century that are fantastic.
Um, and so what was the question though?
Aislyn: Oh, I was, um, wondering why—if you could explain why you decided to embark on this trip with your son, essentially. Your second—
Andrew: Oh, why, why I wanted to do it the second—
Aislyn: Yeah, yeah.
Andrew: —time. Well, yeah. I did it 25 years ago and it was life-changing for me. I, I found it illuminated for me—um, well, I had a moment in a, in a field of wheat in the—halfway through the, the walk, there’s the thing called the High Meseta, which is this high desert, really a plateau. And it’s days upon days of walking through wheat, and it’s known to sort of wreak havoc with a walker’s mind. And I, I mean, Don Quixote was in the southern Meseta for most of his [journey], so you kind of really understand why he was tilting at windmills. And, uh, I, I had a sort of sobbing fit in the middle of the field of wheat, uh, all those years ago.
And I had a moment of clarity that, um, about how much fear had dominated my life in a way that I had been unaware of until that instant. I was never even aware that fear was a factor in my life until that moment of its first absence when I was in the Camino. And so that really changed my place in the world and the way I walked through the world.
And fear, of course, doesn’t go away the minute you name it, but it can never have its blinding or, or, um, blind power over you the minute you sort of acknowledge those things. So that was a real revelation for me, and that changed my life. That started me traveling the world. That’s what I—why I became a travel writer all, all dating back to that one instant in the Camino.
Uh, so I’d always wanted to walk it again and I knew that I didn’t wanna walk it again right away. And eventually, I thought I probably never would. Time was slipping away and I [thought I] never would. And, but then my son, um, he was 19 and starting to leave home and all that. And I’d say one of the great regrets of my life is that I left home at 17 and never looked back and I had no relationship with my father throughout his, uh, the rest of his life and through my adulthood.
And I think that was a real loss in my life. And I didn’t want that to happen with my kids. So I had no template for then, consequently, how to have an adult relationship with a child of mine. So I—and since the Camino was so, such a grounding and sort of self-revealing moment, the first time, I thought it might be interesting to sort of share that with my son if he was willing to, to do that with me.
And, and he was, surprisingly. Or maybe not so surprisingly. And so yeah, it was, it was trying to set new, um, new footing on our relationship as more of an adult one as opposed to parent-child in that way. You know, I have no interest in being my son’s buddy or his pal. I’ll always be his, his father, his dad.
But one of the results of it was, though, I really, I think I began to see him and he began to see me as opposed to just—you know, it’s, at one point, I think I even say in the book, he talks about it’s really difficult to see your parents as real people, you know?
And I think the same is true with our kids. You know, our kids are sort of like us in some ways. They may look like us, so we think they’re young versions of us and they’re not. You know, one of those things that was really revealed to me on the walk was, like, Sam was responding to situations very different from the way I would, and it’s like, “Oh, he’s his own guy.”
And to see that. And you can’t honor that ’til you can see it. So I think that was one of the things that came from that, was our seeing each other. And in that seeing it creates space and then that space can be filled with a sort of a love and trust, you know.
Aislyn: Yeah, I mean it’s, it’s powerful and I was curious to know how the effects of the walk have kind of bled out into your post-Way life. Like, have you seen changes in your relationship come from these five weeks?
Andrew: Yeah, sure. I, I think, um, I now tend to, instead of advising or telling Sam, I tend to advocate for him to him. It doesn’t mean “take it or leave it,” but this, “I’m, I’m fighting for you in the way that I see best, and you can take that or leave it, and I’m the only one that [will do it this way], you know, cause I’m your father, I’m, this is what I’m doing.”
You know, and so he sees that as what it is, which is advocating for him, whether he agrees with it or not—take it or leave it—but he doesn’t see it as being told or being parented. I’m respecting him by going, “This is what I see and what I guess I would do,” you know, which then leaves him the space to come to me and be like, “Dad, um, so this thing, uh, happened.”
You know, on the Camino I had the greatest luxury you can have with adult children, which is time. Usually my, you know, he’s racing out the door, [and I’m like] “Hey Sam, you wanna go have sushi for dinner? Yep. OK, I’ll see you later.”
You know, and on the Camino it was just time. So, you know, you sit my son down to talk, you’re not gonna get very far, but you get him moving, eventually it all comes out. You know, we would start every day and I would just stay silent ’cause I—and then eventually, whether it was five minutes or an hour later, he goes, “So anyway, I was thinking” and uh, and it starts coming out. He was processing a big thing in his life on our walk and so I would just sort of wait for him to begin.
And to not have to have an answer, to not have to have a fix, to not have to have wisdom or guidance or any of that kind of parental stuff, I think was a great relief to him. And it was a challenge for me to just keep my mouth shut.
Aislyn: I—that was one of the things that I noticed throughout is just the number of times that you were able to bite your tongue to just listen and not say what maybe you were thinking in your head.
Andrew: Oh, often, you know. And it was again, and because I knew I had time. If I didn’t, if I just had 15 minutes of his time, I’d listen and I’d go, “OK, you know what I think, Sam?” And I would, you know, give him some off the cuff kind of thing. And, and to, to just to—knowing that I had the time and the miles with him to just let it, you know, people don’t want to be told. We don’t learn anything that way, you know?
Aislyn: And especially at that age, right? Like you wanna figure out your own sh*t.
Andrew: Absolutely. Absolutely. You know, I think it’s like I, I would like to think of myself as like a big backstop behind him on a baseball field, on a Little League field. That’s like, “I’m here behind you. You go out there into the world and when you turn around, I’m gonna be right here, and know that I’m here. But you go do your thing.” You know? But that’s an important thing to know that someone’s, you know, got your back in life. I, I didn’t feel that when I was young. I felt very alone in the world. So, you know, I won’t—it’s a fine line of letting them go do their thing and then like, then [saying] “No, but I’m here.”
Aislyn: Yeah. Yeah.
Andrew: You know, there are times you wanted to say, “dude, make a different mistake,” but you know—
Aislyn: Even one of your Camino friends, James, towards the end of the book remarked on that, right? On, you know, seeing what a father-son relationship could be.
Andrew: The Camino’s chock full of metaphor, you know, easy ones, cheap ones. And as you get to Santiago, the, the, the walk is across Spain to Santiago de Compostela in the northwest, and it’s about 50 miles from the sea. And a lot of pilgrims then continue on beyond Santiago to Finisterre, which is the name of this place on the sea.
And I had no interest or desire to do that, um, either time. I just—my goal is Santiago and that’s enough for me. But Sam kind of said, “I’m gonna walk to Finisterre,” which I thought was just, you know, the low-hanging fruit of that metaphor was just fantastic to me, because that’s what we want as parents is for our children to go beyond us, right?
I mean, the goal, if you’ve done your job well, you set them up to go—to exceed you. Whether you’re the first one to go to college, the first one to go to medical school or something, you know, that he went beyond me to the sea during the walk, really, I found very meaningful and powerful. And I, I, I loved that that happened.
Aislyn: Yeah. Yeah. That was surprising. I, I kept thinking that you were going to decide to go with him, and I love that you didn’t, and just he had his own end in a way.
Andrew: I mean, I, I, I, and a part of me wanted to want to go, but a part of me also knew it’s none of my business. That’s his. Even if I wanted to go, I wouldn’t have. And I didn’t, I wanted to sit my ass down, but it was great to just see him go and, you know, I—it was like sending a kid off to school or something because when I, I walked him to the beginning of the trail that morning in the dark when he was going off to finish and walking back to town alone as he was going continuing on, I was just started crying.
It was just like, “Oh my God, I haven’t felt this alone since I was in third grade walking to school.” You know, it’s like, wow. Um, parenting’s a, it’s a funny thing.
Aislyn: How have you seen the effects of the Camino on Sam since then? Because it, it affected you so much for so many years, it seems like.
Andrew: I think there’s a, a, a, a solidity in him, and a knowing in him that I didn’t [see] before. You know, as I mentioned in the book, Sam had a terrible time in school. He was not a student. You know, if you, you’re not the square peg in the square hole in the school, you’re often, uh, dismissed and or judged.
They blame you for it, and they don’t see you. And I mean, that’s all any of us want in life is to be seen, right? And so, he didn’t feel seen in school—the same way I didn’t. And you know, and what they tell you in school, if you’re not fitting in that square peg, they tell you there’s something wrong with you. And, uh, you know, I think that really harmed him the way it harmed me. I still, you know, all these years later, every September, I’m still, “[Thank] God, I don’t have to go back to school.” And I still rail against sort of, um, elite academia.
It bristles me, um, because I feel an insecurity somewhere, you know? But as having said that, I think he then started to feel he was legitimate. He was enough, he was complete. And in something in the physical walking of that, it can’t be taken away, you know? You earn your way across the country and into yourself, and no one can take that away.
And, and then you realize it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. “I did it. It’s mine. I don’t care what you think.” And not in a, in an assertive way, it’s just, it’s, it’s utterly unimportant what you think, because I know the experience I had, and there’s something great in the knowing.
Aislyn: There were several times that you or someone else would talk about walking your own Camino, and I thought that was a, a very interesting way to look at something that so many people have done: is that everyone has their own journey in, in a very collective space.
Andrew: You know, I, I mentioned in the book the first time I walked, I, I got together with someone I, I met on the Camino and she brought a friend of hers who had walked the Camino. I didn’t know [him] very well, but he’d been walking the same days of the same land that I was.
And he showed pictures from his trip and he told stories of his trip and it sounded like he was on a different planet to me, and yet we were on the same terrain and the same days. And I didn’t recognize anything in his stories or very few things in his pictures, you know, so it’s so odd.
Um, it made me really realize in that moment, all those years ago that not just on the Camino, but in life, everyone’s having their own unique experience of, of it. And who are we to judge? And so that’s what it, that’s what you learn. That’s what everyone says. [What] that line “walk your own Camino” is about, it’s like that.
You have no idea what that guy’s going through or why they’re here. You know, people tend to walk the Camino because they’re at some kind of crossroads in their life, whether they know it or not. It’s not something normal in our culture to go off and do that. So, um, it’s, it is, you mind your own business.
Aislyn: Yeah, I mean, that could be on the trail, off the trail, really.
Andrew: Yeah, yeah. No, they’re all, I mean, the metaphors for life on the Camino are just abound, you know?
Aislyn: Yes. Well, you talked a lot about the kind of memories and the impressions and, you know, the lessons that stuck with you from your first walk. And I was curious to know, I, I’m guessing it’s been a couple of years since you did the second one. What are the memories or impressions that have remained with you this time around?
Andrew: You know, that’s interesting about memory. First of all, I, I thought I remembered everything about that first Camino and I, I realized I, you know, memory’s a funny thing. Memory lies. And we, we, we morph our memories to suit the narrative that we either consciously or unconsciously need to have in our lives and, uh, to justify things and to understand them, and walking the second time made me really realize that when I would go to places I knew I’d been to before and they were just so different and I’m like, “This is not what I remember.” And I know buildings rise and fall, but it wasn’t like that. It was something else. It’s like, this is not—I, I remembered so little, uh, specific.
And there were a few places that were exactly as I recall them, but others were, many were so different. But what I’ve taken from this one, I, I think, is a sense of that, you know, as mundane as it sounds, is that we can trust our own experience and that it’s enough. We spend so much time sort of unconsciously striving in a certain way or wanting, you know—a little not sure.
And so we compensate and do the—you know, and I think there’s just something in the, in the knowing that, you know, and we forget that all the time, but when you’re on the Camino too, you really start to live the knowing in a certain way. Cause all you’re doing is walking all day long. You’re walking, looking for food and looking for a place to sleep.
And on the Camino, finding food and a place to sleep are not difficult. It’s not like you’re on the Appalachian Trail carrying the world on your back and you have to know stuff. You don’t have to know anything to do with the Camino. You just need walking shoes and [to] go. And, um, so I, I just think we can be trusted to ourselves. So it’s, it’s a big deal.
Aislyn: You know, you’ve traveled so extensively and I was curious if you have thoughts about why walking in particular has such a unique power. And walking long distances, not just like a little stroll, but—
Andrew: Well, I think even a stroll can have very profound effects on us. I think we were meant to move at a walking pace, which we rarely do in life now, and I think our brains work at a walking pace and in a rhythm of walking. That’s why so many writers and people have said all these wonderful, great phrases about how walking is well known to, you know, fuel creativity.
It’s well known to sort of burn away anxiety and all sorts of things. I, I think walking has, um—I used to perceive it as just the slowest way to get somewhere, and now I, I’ve come to believe that walking is actually the event itself. Uh, and I think it’s the natural rhythm of our—and our bodies and minds are, you know, are inexorably linked, you know, and I think it’s one of the things that the Camino gives you is that it, uh, it reveals your mental pattern.
My, certainly my—it would reveal my mental patterns to me and my cycles of thinking and my emotional cycles in ways that, um, you think it’s life happening to you and things like that and, it’s not. It’s just your emotional rhythms and mental rhythms and often influenced by being hungry or tired.
And it’s not the, the, the things that are happening in life. It’s my internal things that’s influencing my perception of the things. Uh, that’s what’s really happening. They’re very few events that are asserting themselves and altering your [experience], you know. They, of course they happen, you know, cataclysmic events, both positive and negative, they can assert themselves into your experience, but most of the time it’s our perception of the experience that is causing our, our reactions to them.
So you, you really see that when you’re walking in the Camino. That’s why you’re never bored. You know, it’s never boring. You’re fasc—it’s fascinating, you know, you know, you’d think, “Oh my God, that sounds so boring.” This, that was never in the equation. Sometimes you’re exhausted and wish you could just quit and go home or whatever, but, um—which you can.
Which is important to realize [that] you can. You can go home, you can hop in a taxi, like Taxi Cab Roger did, you know, but is that what you want to do? Is that what you want to do? “Well, yeah, I wanna go.” “OK, so go ahead, get in one.” “Well, no, I’m not gonna do that.” “OK, then you’re not, then let’s deal with that, you know?”
So, I, I don’t know. I, I ramble, but that’s one of the, also the things that walking does it—walking also allows the mind to ramble and to, you know. I would walk with Sam, we’d be walking some days, we’d have a conversation that might be able to take place in 10 minutes, and it would take place over two, three hours because there are moments of silence. We just had fallen into silence on our own. We got into our own things and whatever, and then suddenly 15 minutes later, somebody would go, “But I don’t think that’s true actually.” And you know, and then we would begin again, and then it would fall into silence again. And you know, only when you’re going a long distance with somebody, do you have the luxury of that happen[ing].
Aislyn: Yeah, it’s kind of like a long road trip and I think, you know, with phones and distractions we, we don’t have those kinds of conversations as much anymore. And it was inter—I mean, you, you guys covered a lot of ground in terms of your conversational topics from the space time continuum to flaming hot Cheetos.
I mean, really.
Andrew: I yeah, no, I—we did, you know, and it’s interesting about the technology. There are people [on the Camino] that kind of leave their phones at home and make an active, assertive effort. “No, no music, no, no [entertainment], your, you know, no going [for distractions], you know.” And we didn’t do any of that. I mean, that’s fine, great, if that’s what you want to do.
And, um, but we didn’t feel the need to do—sort of impose anything like that. But it was interesting to see. Because I also think that my thinking and process is not that precious, you know? Um, so if I need to have, you know, Meatloaf playing in my ear and say, “Bat Out of Hell” to help me get up this hill, I think that’s just fine, you know?
Um, which also then triggers all sorts of memories and gets the brain going in certain ways.
Aislyn: You mentioned Taxi Cab Roger, and I wanted to talk about some of the people you encountered, because as I understand it, the Camino Francis, the route you walked is viewed as one of the more social Caminos and you ran into a number of characters along the way, and I was just curious how important that kind of social element has been and was for you.
Andrew: Well, it was interesting because it’s certainly, you know, the most popular route for sure. I mean it’s sort of, I guess the main route, I guess, but, uh, and that’s the one I walked twice. And the first time I walked, and this time with Sam, I found the first—we found the first two weeks—I was pretty, I was solitary and Sam and I were pretty much among, with ourselves.
And then at about two weeks into it, other people just sort of organically became incorporated into our experience to the point where it was, you know, you just meet these people for dinner and stuff and, you know, it was great to have that kind of camaraderie and, uh, it was really, um, a relief in a certain way, in a diversion.
And it was also just really nice to see other people growing along the, along the way, you know? So, yeah, other people are a big, are a big part of it. And you can be as alone or as social as you want to be on the Camino.
Aislyn: Well, the book was, it is such an honest portrait, you know, of both you and your son. Has Sam read it? What did, what did he think of the book?
Andrew: Uh, well, he hasn’t read it. I, I, I—
Aislyn: Oh, how funny.
Andrew: I said, “Sam, I’m turning this book in. You might wanna take a look at this.” And, um, he’s just not a big reader, you know, uh, he read the first dozen pages and only he flipped through and he did read the audiobook with me. So he says all his dialogue in the book.
Aislyn: Oh, he does? He, oh my gosh. How cool. OK. Alright. I’ll have to listen to that.
Andrew: So all his dialogue is, you know, Sam approved. Uh, the rest of it, I, you know, we’ll have to see. I think he’s waiting for the audiobook, like my other books. He’s, he’s listened to the audiobooks on him. He hasn’t read them.
Aislyn: OK. That’s awesome. Um, well, would you do this again with him or with another child of yours?
Andrew: Yeah, if I knew my kids want to do it. I guess I’d have to, wouldn’t I? My daughter would rather go to Paris, she said though. Uh, so—
Aislyn: No Camino for her.
Andrew: But I would, you know, yes, is the short and easy answer. But it, it’s one of the, it’s a funny thing though, because the second—Sam wanted to do it again right away, you know, and I would love to go tomorrow.
And yet what happens, you know, when it was over, you’re filled with such mixed feelings and relief and exhaustion and joy and pride that you made it and sadness, that it’s kind of over, and that that moment’s never gonna come again with my son. You know, we could go do it again, but it would never be the same.
It’ll be something else, but it needs some time between, you know, maybe we do it again. He said, “Dad, let’s do it in 25 more years.” And I’m like, “Dude, we gotta do it sooner than that with me.” Um, uh, I’m sure I’d love to do it again—
Andrew: —with myself or with one of my kids or my wife, or I, I would love to, I, I think it’s a—um, I think you should pick your Camino partner carefully if you’re gonna go with someone.
Andrew: Because it’s a big experience and, um, to, sure, I’d love to, is the short answer, but I, I think I’d want to certainly give it some more time and some years before I did that again, because it takes a long time to process what happened.
You know, the—these revelations sort of come slowly at a walking pace.
Aislyn: Would you say you’re still processing this most recent one?
Aislyn: Interesting. Well, I had wanted to ask what advice you might have for other people considering a pilgrimage like this. And so picking a, a good partner, that seems like a great piece of advice, but any other tips for seekers?
Andrew: I, I would always just say what I say about any kind of travel: Go. Don’t think about it too much. Go. You know, it’s high—it’ll be cheaper walking the Camino than living at home for a month. It costs you no money.
Uh, it’s very, you can live very, very cheap on the Camino. It’s not about money. It’s not, you know, if you can get time off from work, that’s a whole nother issue. But I mean, uh, you know, I often think people don’t travel cuz they’re afraid and that’s fine. But I, I really do think that’s the primary reason why people don’t go.
Um, and the Camino requires nothing. You need to have no sense of direction. There are yellow arrows painted on the ground and on rocks and on trees. They guide you across the whole country. You know what I mean? So you need—you don’t need a map that, you don’t need anything, and you just need a good pair of, like, day [hikers].
And I would tell you—someone—not to wear leather hiking boots. You know that. You just need little day walkers. That’s all you need. And you need, you know, you need to carry nothing. Two pairs of shorts and two T-shirts and off you go. And you can buy anything along the way that you need if you have to. It requires absolutely nothing except sort of a commitment.
You can walk yourself into shape. You don’t have to be in shape and train for the Camino. You walk yourself in shape and you can go as slow as you want to go.
Aislyn: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you mentioned that a couple of times, like the idea of taking a rest day, stopping for a few days. Um, so yeah, that’s, that’s great. I, I would’ve thought you’d need to prepare yourself for a walk of that sort. So that’s, that’s good advice. Um, I was curious about, you know, in a time when travel can be so fraught, we have overtourism, there’s climate change. Why do you think it’s so important to continue to travel?
Andrew: Well, I think it’s the greatest, certainly for kids. I think it’s the greatest gift we can give our children, is to create little citizens of the world. I think it’s the greatest thing we could give them. You know, the Mark Twain line, that travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness says it all.
I think America—my soap box is that America’s a great country. I’m proud to be American. I wouldn’t wanna be anything but American. I love living in America, but America’s a really fearful country and we make a lot of our decisions based in fear. And when you make decisions based in fear—not all my fearful decisions have been bad, but all my bad decisions have been based in fear—and I think we make a lot of bad decisions, um, as a country cuz we’re afraid and you know, we’re sold a bill of goods about the world that isn’t true. And I think people should go out and find out for themselves and come back.
You come back changed by traveling the world. And then I think it’s like that ripple, ripple stone in a, in a pond. Those ripples go out and out and you come back changed by it. You encourage somebody else to go, they go and they come back changed and they go and you tell two people and they tell two people. It’s that kind of thing, you know?
So I do think travel is the last best hope for the world, uh, in a very real way, because that’s the only way we’re gonna sort of see that everybody’s the same. Everybody wants their kids to do well and have, be taken care of and have food on their table. And, you know, everybody pretty much wants the same thing, you know?
And so, and I think on a personal level, for me, travel has been the university of my life. And I think that I’ve learned about who I am being on the road. And the farther from home I got, the more at home and myself, I, I’ve felt. And leaving our comfort zone is, of course, one of the best gifts that we can give ourselves. And asking for help is one of the most profound things we can do for ourselves. And I think all that happens when you’re on the road and the sense of wonder that happens on the road is an amazing thing.
We’re so jaded and cynical and tired and bitter and angry and all these sort of things in our daily lives, and we think we know it all. We got it all sorted out and we know best and you know all that stuff. And you get out there on the road and you realize you don’t know anything and you’re just a vulnerable person and you need to ask for help. There’s something that’s really profound that happens when you say, “Can you help me?” It brings us right back down to the right size.
And I’ve never been anywhere where people have said no.
Andrew: And just going back to wonder for one last second, again, that sense of wonder that it creates—that innocence and that open-heartedness that it creates.
Um, you know, you turn the corner and see the Trevi fountain for the first time. It is—[You] gasp, “Oh my God, look at that.” And you turn and you look in my wife’s eye and see her going, “Oh my God, look at that.” I heard the twinkle in her eye, and suddenly we’re reaching to grab each other’s hands and suddenly, we’re—I’m seeing the young person I fell in love with and she’s seeing the, the awe-filled guy with wonder in his eyes that she fell in love with, too, and not the jaded, tired guy she sits across a breakfast table from, you know, and in that instant of connection. And travel’s all about connection, right? To ourselves and to the world around us and to our loved ones, if we’re with them, or whoever we’re traveling with. And in that connection, there’s great energy.
I came back last week from Botswana with—no, not last week, two days ago, on Monday with um, with my nine-year-old son. I, I was doing a story in Botswana and I took him and it was—[he] had an, you know, amazing experience.
It was uncomfortable a lot of time. It was no pleasure. It wasn’t joy. It was like, “OK, this is, we gotta dig a hole and poop in the ground.” And he’s like, “What? I’m not doing that.” And I’m like, “Well, this is what we gotta do right now, dude.” And him learning to do that and, like, being OK with that. And like, even though it wasn’t fun for him, [it was a] big experience and he, you know, he came back, he gets on the phone and calls his mom. [She asks] “Wow are, how are the elephants?” [He goes] “I pooped in the ground.” You know? That’s a big deal.
Aislyn: That is, that is a big deal. And it’s empowering.
Andrew: And it is, and that’s what travel does for us. We go at home in the world, and the world meets us more than halfway every time.
Aislyn: There’s that kind of sense of delicious disorientation. I feel, you know, when you don’t know. And I, it feels like that can be, it can feel a little unnerving the first time, but then you kind of get hooked on the not knowing of it all.
Andrew: Of course. And that’s, that’s—we’re in a great place when we don’t know.
Aislyn: Agreed. Well, you’ve talked a lot about, you know, traveling with other people, but in your 2012 book, The Longest Way Home, you wrote that solo travel makes you feel at home in yourself. And I was curious to know how your view of solo travel has changed over the years.
Andrew: Oh no, it’s just deepened. I mean, solo travel’s the best thing you can do with your time. I mean, and I, I, I think everyone should travel alone at least once. My God, I, I find solo travel just, uh, it’s like, um, learning about yourself on steroids, you know, it’s—
Andrew: —it’s fantastic. It’s you know, and it’s, it’s not about where you’re going. It’s just what’s—about where you’re being in yourself, where you’re going and learning about yourself. I, I think it, I don’t think we could, um, give ourselves a better gift than to travel alone. And again, people don’t travel alone for, I think for two reasons, for fear of physical safety, which is, you know, OK.
But I often feel, you know, you may be as safe on the streets of Paris or London or Rome as you are in New York City where I live, you know? And I think the other is fear of loneliness. And uh, I think that’s unfortunate because alone is something we are an awful lot and we ought to learn to reconcile ourselves, with ourselves, you know? And people make a lot of bad decisions because they don’t wanna be alone, so they just latch onto people and things that they maybe shouldn’t. So I think, uh, it’s OK to eat alone in a restaurant. You know, no one’s looking.
Andrew: You know, we think they are, but no one is.
Aislyn: Yes. Uh, having a drink [while] reading a book and eating dinner is one of my favorite things to do.
Andrew: My God, that sounds like heaven, doesn’t it?
Aislyn: I know. Like, get away, other people. Just leave me alone.
Andrew: That’s the introvert and you’re talking, but—
Aislyn: Oh, yes.
Andrew: —I, you’re, you’re preaching to the choir there, but, uh, but yeah, no, I, I think traveling alone is where it’s at. Of course. But, you know, don’t tell my family, you know?
Aislyn: Of course. Well, it sounds like you balance it very well. What, what was the most recent solo trip that you’ve taken?
Andrew: [Silence] There you go. That’s how bad it is. And that’s how bad it is. Um, no, I haven’t in a while.
Aislyn: Yeah, sounds like you might be due.
Aislyn: Well, you were also an editor at large for National Geographic Traveler for years, and you obviously still continue to, you know, travel and write, and where are you at in your travel writing journey?
Andrew: I don’t write near as many articles for, um, things. I, I sort of started writing more books, which I’ve enjoyed very much. Um, and you know, I’m someone who likes as few votes as possible in my life. And when writing books, there’s really only one vote.
Andrew: And I, I appreciate that. Um, good or bad, it’s my fault. Uh, but also, you know, I think travel magazines have sort of gone the way of the dinosaur in many, you know. AFAR is one of the last excellent magazines there are. So many of the other ones are just sort of now lifestyle magazines, you know—very few travel magazines and travel sections and newspapers exist.
I got into travel writing in 2004 and sort of the, that 10-year period there, that was sort of the last hurrah of that in a very real way, it feels like to me. But I do, I do, I mean, I, I love traveling. I love writing about travel, so I, I will, yes. I still enjoy doing it. I don’t chase it as hard as I did. I mean, I, I found, when I got into travel writing, it was a real creative rebirth for me in a way I’d struggled with.
Aislyn: Oh, interesting.
Andrew: Uh, my acting career had sort of blossomed very quickly when I was young and then sort of plateaued in this way that wasn’t that interesting to me.
So when I discovered travel writing, um, because traveling had been so profound in my life and to then to be able to write about it, and I intuitively knew two things about about travel writing, which is what we were just talking about, that travel’s meaningful and it changes your life and it’s important.
And the other thing I knew intuitively was, tell a story, don’t sell a destination. And I knew that just, I suppose from all the views of acting and directing, of telling story, focus on story, what’s the, what’s the focus? Like when you’re directing, it’s like, what’s the, what’s the story of the episode of TV [show] you’re directing? What’s the story of the scene? What’s the story of this shot? It’s always, what’s the story? Always. And so I knew that.
And so whatever destination I’m writing about, it’s like, what’s the story you’re telling about it? Because you’re never writing about a destination. You know, this book on the Camino is like, it was a perfect hook to do the emotional story I wanted to tell about parenting and fathers and sons. And so the Camino was a perfect vehicle for that. And I knew that each would feed the other.
Aislyn: Yeah, yeah. Um, are there other travel writers or travel books or, I don’t know, just writers in general [that move you?]
Andrew: Well, Theroux’s books really, um, changed my life. You know, his travel books are particularly—um, I first remember was The Old Patagonian Express and someone gave me that. And the idea of go, go far, go alone, don’t come back for a long time, get out of touch, was— that was a revelation to me. And so that’s what I started doing.
And you know, that, that led me to sort of do the first Camino in a very real way, as much as Jack Hitt’s book did. And then, uh, then that philosophy carried me through, sort of then traveling alone, you know, many places. I, I think that his books are, uh, really impactful to me. And, uh, Pico Iyer is a lovely travel writer. But I don’t read that much, uh, travel.
Aislyn: Yeah. Um, well, thank you so much for joining us and it’s been a real delight to chat with you. And yes, again, congratulations on the book. I, I really enjoyed it.
Andrew: Oh, thank you. Thanks very much. It’s really nice to talk to you. It’s, it’s always fun and energizing to talk about travel.
Aislyn: Yes, yes it is. I know. I’m like, I need to leave today.
Andrew: I know. But yeah, the only thing better talking about is doing it, right? Yeah.
Aislyn: I know. I’ve had, I actually have had itchy feet recently.
Andrew: Where are you going?
Aislyn: I’m actually going to France in June and then Wisconsin for a panel. Um, and then actually my, my dream for this next year was put on hold because of COVID, but I want to walk the, um, the Kumano Kodo in Japan, that pilgrimage trail. So that is—
Andrew: How long is that?
Aislyn: It depends. You can kind of make it your own. I think some people do [it] in like a week. I’m hoping to do maybe two weeks, um, and spend three weeks to a month there total in Japan. So, um, but yeah, I, I can’t wait.
Andrew: Fantastic. Yeah, I have to say about the Camino, a lot of people walk the Camino very, um, they pick it up along the way and most people probably walk just the last five days.
Aislyn: Yeah. Yeah.
Andrew: You get your compostela, this sort of badge that you walk the Camino if you walk a hundred kilometers. But, um, I, I found the longer the [walk], the rewards come in, the sheer attrition of wearing down.
Andrew: The longer you can walk, the better. You know, these people that come and walk for the last five days, OK, great. That’s all you can get away for, cool, that’s great. And more power to you. But I do think the, the sheer wearing down of your defenses is where it is at. That’s where the gold is.
Aislyn: You know, I, I really did feel, finishing your book like, I, I would like to go walk that and, and have that do the long, you know, the five-week, 500-mile version and I haven’t previously. And so thank you for that inspiration because I, yeah, that kind of wearing down and seeing where your mind takes you and your emotions take you, it, it’s appealing, intriguing.
Andrew: And it, and it builds you back up in a way that’s so solid, so welcome, and so attractive. You know what? I would see the other pilgrims that, like, as they’re nearing the end particularly, there’s a point when you’re about a hundred miles out where you’ve really hit your stride and you’re not close enough to the end to start having anxiety about what’s gonna come next, you’re really in the flow of it. And everybody—it’s just, I would see these people that I’ve been seeing for a couple weeks now, they’re just sort of blossoming and just, it’s a really attractive feeling and, uh, and, sensation and, and, uh, yeah, a real pleasure, right? When you get to about León and just after that it’s really, uh, you know, wonderful. God, you make me want to go again.
Aislyn: Well, good. All right. Well, you also owe, I felt like you owned that, um, the, the credit, the “credit card pilgrim,”—
Andrew: Oh, well that’s an interesting thing. The credit card notion of, you know, along the way in the Camino there are these albergues and these sort of, um, dormitories usually. Initially they were built and run by the churches in every town cuz it was a religious pilgrimage.
And so they would have, you know, big rooms with bunk beds, whatever, and you could sleep for a dollar or two, a euro or two a night. And they still exist. But you know, I’m 60 years old now and—which is shocking. That’s a whole nother story—but, um, I, I, you know, I didn’t need to have people climbing over me to get to their top bunk and waiting in line for the bathroom.
Aislyn: Uh, yeah.
Andrew: And I’m like, you know, “Why am I doing this? I got nothing to prove in this way. I’m just walking you know?” And so to sort of accept that and kind of go, “I’m gonna stay at this nice little pension for 20 euro a night and have my own bathroom, you know.”
Andrew: There were certainly nights where we did stay in albergues with people. It’s lovely and fun and you don’t sleep near as well. And, uh, but yeah, this, uh, letting go of all that kind of stuff for me is like this, what has to be done this way? Nonsense. Nonsense. There’s many ways to do it as there are people, you know.
Aislyn: It kind of opened, because I think that was part of maybe my early resistance to, as I feel I’m past—I’ve, I did a lot of hostel travel. I know. You know, and I, I honestly, I don’t want to do it again. So there was a sense of like, “Oh, there’s another way. You know, there’s way to do it.”
Andrew: I’m with you there, sister. I’m with you there. I, I to prove here. I’m not 22. I don’t need hoofing in doing this for—you know. Yeah.
Andrew: It’s not what about. That’s not what it—if that somehow feels good to you, great. You know, but it’s not where it was about for me.
Aislyn: No, that was, it was a nice little reminder of so many different ways we can go about having adventures and learning about the world and learning about ourselves and yeah.
Andrew: You know, and the people that are gonna judge you for sleeping in a nice little pension in your own bed as opposed to an uncomfortable dormitory, those are not people you wanna be hanging with anyway.
Aislyn: Definitely not. Well, thank you so much. Um, is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Andrew: No, I could just rant on for hours, but no, I’m good. Yeah, great. Thank you.
Aislyn: Well, thank you, Andrew. Yeah. And I am going to listen to the audiobook now just for your and Sam’s dialogue alone.
Andrew: All right.
Aislyn: But yeah, congratulations and best of luck with your travels.
Andrew: Thanks. You too.
Aislyn: I gotta admit I left that conversation with a real itch to walk the trail myself—the full version. I’ll let you know if I actually do it. As for Andrew, we’ll link to his new book, as well as his previous books and his Spin the Globe for us in the show notes. You can read more of Andrew’s work on andrewmccarthy.com, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @andrewmccarthy. (Instagram in particular has some fun photos from Andrew and Sam’s Camino walk.)
And if you, too, feel inspired to take a big walk, we’ll share a few resources in our show notes.
Ready for more unpacking? Visit afar.com, and be sure to follow us on Instagram and Twitter. We’re @afarmedia. If you enjoyed today’s exploration, I hope you’ll come back for more great stories. Subscribing makes this easy! You can find Unpacked on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast platform. And be sure to rate and review the show. It helps other travelers find it. This season, we also want to hear from you: Is there a travel dilemma, trend, or topic you’d like us to explore? Drop us a line at afar.com/feedback or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
This has been Unpacked, a production of AFAR Media. The podcast is produced by Aislyn Greene and Nikki Galteland. Music composition by Chris Colin.
And remember: The world is complicated. We’re here to help you unpack it.