Andrew McCarthy on Striving for Sentimentality on a FatherSon Trek Across Spain
Grand Central Publishing

Striving for Sentimentality on a Father-Son Trek Across Spain

In an excerpt from his new book, 'Walking with Sam', actor-turned-travel writer Andrew McCarthy and his son make the final preparations for their 500 mile trek along the Camino de Santiago.

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At the breakfast table beside the modest buffet spread, Sam is staring down, apparently deep in thought … Is he hoping this walk deepens our bond as well? Perhaps he’s gathering himself for the long haul ahead. Maybe he’s visualizing the walk, like a pro athlete might visualize a game he’s about to enter.

Then he hisses, “Look.”


“Look where I’m pointing.” There is very real strain in his voice.

“There’s a black hair on my prosciutto.”

20 years after first doing the walk himself, Andrew McCarthy once again embarks on the Camino de Santiago, this time with his son Sam. 

Courtesy Andrew McCarthy

The look on Sam’s face is so pained, so stricken, that for an instant it feels as if this errant lock has the power to derail our entire journey. I back away from joining him in taking this horror personally. A parent can orchestrate only so much of his child’s experience. Eventually everyone must navigate the stray hairs of life on their own—and this seems like as good a moment as any to start establishing that adult-to-adult relationship.

“Grab something else, you’re going to get hungry.”

“I just want to get going.” He pushes his chair back.

Out on the street, we head to the nearby Accueil des Pèlerins (Pilgrims’ Office). Because we are getting such a late start, the office is empty, save for the lone, smiling volunteer who speaks a Spanish that sounds distinctly like French. I understand little he says, but we acquire our Pilgrim passports—papers that fold like an accordion and must be stamped at each stop along the way as proof of our journey when we reach Santiago. The volunteer also suggests we each take one of the scallop shells off the table behind us—the traditional pilgrim symbol that nearly all walkers carry, often affixing them to the outside of their back- pack. A badge of pride.

I have a surprise for Sam, one I’ve brought from home, something it took me days of obsessive searching to find. And I’ve imagined a touching scene as we are about to set out.

“I have something I want to give you,” I’d say to my son.

“What is it, Dad?” he’d reply.

I would then unwrap my carefully folded handkerchief containing an
old scallop shell.

“I don’t understand,” he might say, a crease in his brow.

“I carried this across Spain on my first Camino, before you were born. I’ve kept it all these years. Would you like to carry it?”

“Oh, Dad,” my son would exclaim and throw his arms around me. But before any of this can happen, Sam turns to the table. “This one’s fine,” he says, and grabs a shell.

My sentimental fantasy fizzles. I say nothing. It is, after all, his Camino, I tell myself. I select a new shell as well and decide to leave my old one buried deep in my pack, unmentioned. In truth, I had mixed feelings about burdening my son with lugging around a relic of my past—the sins-of-the-father are enough without such obvious metaphors. Our next stop is one of the many shops that have sprung up since my last trip, when pilgrim services were scant. Over the ensuing decades, an entire industry has evolved to aid those walking to Santiago—and in turn, the locals. We each choose a long walking stick and are finally ready to go.

The walk culminates in a visit to Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, in front of which Andrew and Sam pose triumphantly here.

Courtesy Andrew McCarthy

“I gotta go poop,” Sam says.

I actually slap my forehead.

Back in the room we make final preparations. I rearrange the weight in my backpack one last time. I urge Sam to get off his phone and get ready.

“Chill, bro. It’s my last five minutes on TikTok.”

Then he’s trying on his new hat in front of the mirror. My son looks so young, his features so soft, his blue eyes sparkling. His wide and crooked grin matches my own. We’re both giddy and nervous with excitement.

I grab a few rushed photos of Sam as he hoists his pack. The shots are blurry because neither of us can stop moving. Despite my poor photographic efforts, the images reveal a young man so innocent, so excited and open and vulnerable–none of Sam’s usual cool demeanor is present in this moment. And we’re out the door.

Adapted from WALKING WITH SAM: A FATHER, A SON, AND FIVE HUNDRED MILES ACROSS SPAIN by Andrew McCarthy, published on May 9, 2023.   Copyright © 2023 by Andrew McCarthy.   Used by arrangement with Grand Central Publishing.   All rights reserved.