Andrew McCarthy, part of the 1980s era Brat Pack with signature films like “Pretty in Pink” and “St. Elmo’s Fire,” found himself in a career funk in the 1990s.
He read Jack Hitt’s “Off the Road” about Spain’s Camino de Santiago, also known as the Way of St. James. It’s a renowned 500-mile pilgrimage of medieval origin where pilgrims journey to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia across the northwest part of Spain. Intrigued, he called the author and soon after, jumped on a plane to embark on the trip solo.
“I needed a grounding in my life, to walk myself into myself,” McCarthy said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I was a disaster after that early fame. I was looking for something and I found it.”
McCarthy, a quarter-century later on the edge of 60 years old, repeated the trip with his 19-year-old son, Sam, and turned that adventure into his fourth book, which just came out: “Walking With Sam: A Father, A Son and Five Hundred Miles Across Spain.” He will be discussing that book and anything else the audience wants to talk about before screening the classic John Hughes coming-of-age comedy “Pretty in Pink” at the Plaza Theatre on Tuesday at 7 p.m. Tickets are $30 with a book.
McCarthy said the revelations he received while doing the walk in his early 30s transformed him.
“In the middle of a field of wheat, I broke down and had a sobbing temper tantrum,” he recalled. “I had kind of a white light experience. I realized how much fear dominated my life to such a degree that I wasn’t aware of it until its absence. It changed my life. It had been a slog going across Spain up to that point. From then on, it became a skip.”
He embraced travel writing as a career, working for National Geographic Traveler for a dozen years as editor-at-large. “An accidental second career,” he dubbed it. (He also directs movies and TV shows such as “Orange Is the New Black” and “The Blacklist” and still takes occasional acting gigs like a stint as a doctor on Fox’s “The Resident” shooting in Atlanta, where he resided in the Virginia-Highland neighborhood.)
Many years later, McCarthy wanted to do the Spain trip again — but with his son Sam. “I left home at 17 and my relationship with my dad essentially ended there,” he said. “I did not want that to happen with my kids.”
But he was never quite sure if Sam would ever say yes.
“So he had broken up with his first love and was depressed,” McCarthy said. “I caught him at a weak moment and I said, ’You want to walk?’ And he said, ‘Yah, okay.’ I literally went into the next room and bought two tickets and two days later we were in Spain before he knew what hit him.”
This go around, McCarthy spent 31 days and 484 miles bonding with his son in a way that he otherwise would never have.
“I had the ultimate luxury you rarely get with the adult child, which is time,” he said. “That was really the point of this whole thing: to see him as an adult. And he said it in the book: that it takes a long time for children to see their parents as real people. The trip gave us a chance to see each other. I think that’s all we ever want in life: to be seen.”
Sam, he noted, was not feeling it at first but eventually embraced the journey.
“By the end, he said, ‘This is the only 10-out-of-10 thing I’ve ever done in my life,’” McCarthy said. “He now feels a certain at-homeness with himself. And we felt more at home with each other.”
At the end of the pilgrimage, some walkers go several miles beyond the final destination and reach Finisterre on the ocean. “My son wanted to walk there and he asked if I wanted to go,” he said. " I said no, I had to sit my body down. The fact he was going to go beyond what his father had done was too low a hanging fruit of a metaphor to resist. In that instant, I thought, ‘I have a book here!’”
Amusingly, he said his son didn’t bother reading McCarthy’s entire manuscript. He did help out reading his dialogue for the audio book but didn’t provide his dad with any changes or requests to censor anything.
Despite his relatively advanced age, McCarthy managed to make the 1.6 million steps without any serious injury. “At the end of every day, I was just wrecked,” he said. “I’d lay with my feet up against the wall for an hour and watch my feet throb till I got my senses back. By the end, I was wearing down. I was ready to be done. Sam started sluggishly. By the second half, he could have walked across two more countries.”
McCarthy said doing this book tour is a fun excursion in and of itself. He is looking forward to checking out the Plaza Theatre for the first time and meeting with fans.
“I am an avatar of a certain generation’s youth,” he said. “I’ll take pictures, questions, all of it. I’m totally game.”
IF YOU GO
A Capella Books Presents: Andrew McCarthy Walking With Sam: A Conversation, $30, 7 p.m. Tuesday, May 16, the Plaza Theatre, 1049 Ponce de Leon Ave. NE, Atlanta, www.plazaatlanta.com
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