Last month, Phil Volker completed 909 laps on a trail, walking the distance–a 500-mile trek–of El Camino de Santiago, a well-known Christian pilgrimage in Northern Spain. Except that Phil Volker lives here, on Vashon Island in the Puget Sound, where he walks most every day around a well-worn half-mile path through his 10-acre property.
One other note: Phil Volker has stage-four cancer.
And this: his story makes my heart very glad.
If his doctors give final approval, this summer Volker will go from backyard pilgrim to actual pilgrim when he flies to Spain to walk the real deal.
“I wanted to experience it,” Volker said “but if I don’t get to go, I’m going to be happy with what I’ve got here. It’s more than I thought I could do.”
Volker’s journey began three years ago when he was diagnosed with colon cancer, something he now calls the first “C” in his life.
The diagnosis led him to the second “C,” the Catholic church (more specifically St. John Vianney here on Vashon) where he’s found meaning, support and friendship.
“Having a life-threatening obstacle, it straightens your priorities out,” he says.
Volker first learned of the walk after he was given The Way (a 2012 film featuring Martin Sheen and the El Camino de Santiago). I remember the first time I watched the film. It hooks you where you least expect it. “The Way” is a poignant and inspirational story about family, friends, and the challenges we face while navigating loss, including the loss of our expectations and dreams. Martin Sheen plays Tom, an American doctor who comes to St. Jean Pied de Port, France to collect the remains of his adult son Daniel (played by Emilio Estevez), killed in the Pyrenees in a storm while walking the Camino de Santiago known as The Way of Saint James. Rather than return home, Tom decides to embark on the historical pilgrimage to honor his son’s desire to savor the journey. What Tom doesn’t plan on is the profound impact the journey will have on him and his “California Bubble Life.” In flashbacks, we learn that his son died estranged, embarking on a life Tom called wasteful and frivolous. In one scene Daniel tells his father, “That’s just it Dad. You don’t choose a life, you live one.”
That’s why Volker’s story resonates. He’s living life. Even as life turns left.
Life seems to ignore the script we have in our mind. And when that happens, we walk. We walk toward, or we walk away. Either way, we begin a journey–a pilgrimage to find or restore or forgive or heal, or to forget or bury; or perhaps, just to have the deck of our world shuffled.
Phil Volker is walking toward. And El Camino has become his third “C.”
“It’s become an international phenomenon,” Volker says. “You’re walking in the footsteps of millions of people who have come before you.”
Believing he was too ill to travel and walk such a long distance, Volker (who is also a hiker) set about recreating the walk closer to home. Last December the trail was blessed by Father Marc Powell of St. John Vianney, and Volker began to walk.
Walking the trail Volker frequently passes posts with scallop shells–the symbol of the Camino. He walks by hanging bird feeders, well-worn hunting targets in the woods and a small steam with a line of rocks to cross it. When a dog in a neighboring yard approaches the fence, he promptly produces a treat from his pocket.
“It seems to be different every time,” he says of the walk.
There’s a reason. Volker is seldom alone as he walks on any of his 909 laps. Over 100 friends, family members, acquaintances and even doctors from Swedish Hospital have accompanied Volker on various legs of the walk.
Volker keeps careful records in a logbook, daily recording how far he walks (as many as 6 miles a day), whom he walks with and where he would be on the actual Camino.
The walking is not only good for the soul, it seems, but also good for his health. Because recent scans have come back clean, Volker says, it bodes well for his trip to Spain. If two more scans come back clean, doctors will give him the okay to skip one chemo treatment and spend four weeks in July and August walking the El Camino; where he will walk the final 100 kilometers to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, a stretch required to receive a certificate of completion.
Yes, Phil Volker is looking forward to what the Camino will hold, but at the same time says he’s already been changed on his own backyard journey.
“It’s really enriched my life. My life has never been richer than it is right now,” Volker says.
I marvel at stories about people with fortitude or stamina. My friend Jinks tells me that it is our place of “bright shadow.” Those places of beauty, creativity, resilience, imagination, courage and humor. Those places of unrecognized beauty.
And I think of all the ways we find–whether through life’s chaos or self-doubt or fear–to bury the brightness.
“I don’t know. What’s next?” “I’m afraid.” “I quit.” “I’m done now.”
Here’s the deal: this is why the bright shadow is extraordinary. Because it makes itself known in places of chaos and fragility, times when our world is rocked, times when we are sure we will break.
I get email blasts daily inviting me to learn a new skill that will kick-start my life. Assuming that my life is missing something right now. Because Lord knows it’s missing something. After all, the emails tell me so.
Often with a hook: If you do this – say, walk the Camino – there’s a payoff.
(I confess to an odd proclivity–okay, addiction–to watch infomercials at 2 or 3 in the morning on sleepless hotel nights, impressed at the fervor with which they hawk their life improvement wares.)
It’s just that when I’m looking for a payoff, I miss the bright shadow in its full glory.
The rich industrialist from the North was horrified to find the southern fisherman lying lazily beside his boat, smoking a pipe. “Why aren’t you out fishing?” asked the industrialist.
“Because I have caught enough fish for the day,” said the fisherman.
“Why don’t you catch some more?”
“What would I do with them?”
“You could earn more money, industrialist replied. With that you could have a motor fixed to your boat and go into deeper waters and catch more fish. Soon you would have enough money to own two boats – maybe even a fleet of boats. Then you would be a rich man like me.”
“What would I do then?” asked the fisherman.
“Then you could really enjoy life.”
“What do you think I am doing right now?”
Coming to the end of last week’s walk, Volker bends down to pick up a stone and tosses it onto a large pile of rocks in front of his home. He explains that each rock represents a prayer said either by him or a guest after finishing a walk, similar to a tradition on the real Camino.
“All of these things got prayed for,” he says. “Maybe there are miracles in there that happened.”
I’m in my garden most of the month of June. I can’t hide my smile much of the day. “This is outrageous.” It’s what I say out loud as I walk each morning with my coffee in hand. Iris, rose, clematis, Japanese Snowbell–an entanglement of intoxicants. Because of my preoccupation with the garden, I’m behind on many commitments. Because of that I keep asking what’s next. And give myself a healthy dose of grief for being a slacker.
Which is a good way of saying that I’m missing what the garden is trying to teach me: there’s bright shadow to embrace.
I say a silent thank you to Phil Volker for walking toward.
My life has never been richer than it is right now. I raise a glass to the dusk sky.
Notes: (1) I have borrowed a good deal of this story from Natalie Martin’s piece–Backyard Pilgrim Plans Trip of a Lifetime–in the Vashon Island Beachcomber, our local newspaper.
POEMS AND PRAYERS
I am a child of God who believes
that we are all children of God
and we are all part of each other.
May we all know peace.
Thich Nhat Hanh
On Being Called To Prayer
While Cooking Dinner for Forty
When the heavens and the earth
are snapped away like a painted shade,
and every creature called to account,
please forgive me my head
full of chickpeas, garlic and parsley.
I am in love with the lemon
on the counter, and the warmth
of my brother’s shoulder distracted me
when we stood to pray.
The imam takes us over
for the first prostration,
but I keep one ear cocked
for the cry of the kitchen timer,
thrilled to realize today’s cornbread
might become tomorrow’s stuffing.
This thrift may buy me ten warm minutes
in bed tomorrow, before the singer
climbs the minaret in the dark
to wake me again to the work
of thought, word, deed.
I have so little time to finish;
only I know how to turn the dish, so the first taste
makes my brother’s eyes open wide–
forgive me, this pleasure
seems more urgent than the prayer–
too late to take refuge in You
from the inextricable mischief
of every thing You made,
eggs, milk, cinnamon, kisses, sleep.
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half truths, and superficial relationships, so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people, so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation, and war, so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and to turn their pain in to joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can make a difference in this world, so that you can do what others claim cannot be done. Franciscan Benediction