Andrew McCarthy, WALKING WITH SAM: A Father, a Son, and Five Hundred Miles Across Spain

Andrew McCarthy, WALKING WITH SAM: A Father, a Son, and Five Hundred Miles Across Spain

Zibby interviews actor, award-winning travel writer, and New York Times bestselling author Andrew McCarthy about his intimate, poignant, and funny new memoir Walking with Sam: A Father, a Son, and Five Hundred Miles Across Spain. Andrew reveals why he walked across the endless Camino de Santiago with his 19-year-old son: he wanted to have a meaningful relationship with him. He shares all the details of this life-changing experience with Zibby and then discusses his transition from acting to writing and how it all relates to his profound love of travel.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Andrew. Thanks so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your latest book, Walking with Sam.

Andrew McCarthy: It’ll save everyone the trouble of reading it if they don’t have time for it.

Zibby: Skip the whole thing. Just listen to this. No. Run out and buy the book. That’s the whole point. I loved the whole premise of this. I have four kids myself. My oldest are twins about to be sixteen. The thought of any of them eventually coming around and being like, “Yeah, sure, I’ll go on a walk with you for a month,” as opposed to the walk to the deli, I thought that was so great. Sam was like, I thought you meant you wanted to go for a walk around the corner. Why don’t you tell listeners a little about the book and the whole setup of it and how you got to the walk and how you made it a book?

Andrew: It’s called Walking with Sam. It’s about a five-hundred-mile walk I took with my nineteen-year-old son across Spain on the old Camino de Santiago, which is an ancient pilgrimage route that was found in the eighth century. It began as a Catholic pilgrimage. Over the centuries — it still is a Catholic pilgrimage, but it’s evolved where people from all denominations and walks of life walk it. It was something I did first back in the early nineties. It was a real life-changing experience for me. I walked it. It stayed with me. It had changed my life when I walked it the first time. I’d always wanted to do it again. Then as my son was cusping manhood and thinking about moving out of the house and all that stuff, I was afraid that my relationship with my son would end when he left home the way mine did with my dad. I was seventeen years old. I moved to New York City. Really, that was the end of it. I never had any kind of adult relationship with my dad. It’s been one of the biggest regrets of my life. I just didn’t want that to happen. I didn’t know how for it not to happen because I had no template for, how do you have an adult relationship with an adult child? I didn’t have one.

I thought walking the Camino might solidify that in some way. I just had this hunch. I knew that it would give me the ultimate luxury that you have with an adult child, which is time. So much of the time, my son’s running. Hey Sam, you want to go out for dinner? All right, I’ll see you later. That’s that. To just walk beside him for five hundred miles for a month across a country was really an amazing opportunity. I’m forever grateful that he said yes. He did kind of want to change his mind at certain — on day two, he turned to me and said, “What’s the point of this f-ing walk?” He didn’t say f-ing. Then the last days, we arrived in Santiago de Compostela. He said, “Dad, that’s the only ten-out-of-ten thing I’ve ever done in my life.” There’s something about the walk and walking in general and walking such a long way that has a real profound effect on us, especially in our culture and society now where it’s a mile a minute. We’re defaulting to our phone every three seconds and all that kind of stuff. To just let that all fall away for a while and feel your own rhythm and feel the person next to you and really give each other space and receive each other was a big experience.

Zibby: It’s so true.

Andrew: I guess the book came out of .

Zibby: Keep going. It’s great.

Andrew: The Camino, you walk to Santiago de Compostela, which is a city in the west of Spain. It’s near the coast. That’s where the official pilgrimage ends, but there’s a walk for three days beyond it to a place called Finisterre, to the coast. Many pilgrims feel the need, the pull to keep walking all the way to the coast. I did not. I was like, I’m going to hopefully make it to Santiago, and that’s enough for me. My son said, “I’m going to go to Finisterre. Why don’t you come with me, Dad?” I said, “No, Santiago’s enough for me, but you go.” The low-hanging fruit of the metaphor of our children, my son going beyond what I’ve done, was too much for me to resist. I knew there was a book in it at that moment. That’s the idea, right? We raise these kids, and hopefully, they’ll be the first one to go to college or become a lawyer or whatever it is and to carry it further than we did. When my son wanted to go do that and did go do that, I was thrilled for him. I was thrilled to get to sit down for a couple days alone. take a cab to the end to Finisterre to meet him and watch him come marching up the street. I’ll get tears in my eyes now. To be able to receive him there and for him to allow me to receive him was a wonderful moment.

Zibby: It is. It’s really beautiful. I love how you’re very open about how hard it was on your body at this age, too, and how you’re always propping your feet up against the wall. I’m thinking to myself, how is he even doing — I walked six miles around Charleston, and I had to sit down for a week.

Andrew: At the end of every day, I collapse onto the bed, put my feet up the wall, rub lotions all over my feet. Sam , “I’m going to go out and check it out.” He’s gone. I’m like, oh, my god. That’s the difference between nineteen and middle-aged.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. It’s also so great to get the ten-out-of-ten score when you so clearly outline all the skepticism that he felt at the beginning and all of the, not complaining, but when he asked if the airport .

Andrew: Oh, no, there was complaining. It was complaining. Where’s the airport?

Zibby: Where’s the airport? That was so funny. I could totally see my kids saying that. My kids don’t even want to walk to the garage, which is two blocks away. Then to remember they complain about everything — I think this is one of those parenting things. Just because they complain doesn’t mean it’s not going to be great or worthwhile. Having to push through all the complaining I think is the secret to getting any good experience with a child because they’re always going to push back. I don’t know why.

Andrew: All my kids always start with, “No, I don’t want to do that.” I’m like, “Okay. Anyway, get your shoes on. Let’s go.” Then they’ll be having the greatest time ever. You’re like, can we home? I’m exhausted. It’s funny. I’m glad to hear your kids are like that. Mine are too. No is the first answer to everything. One of the nice things about the Camino is you start to see your own patterns of thinking, your own emotional cycles, and theirs too. To just not react to them, it’s the key to parenting, isn’t it? Just don’t react. They push those buttons. They poke the bear and all those sayings and whatever, and to just not react.

Zibby: Especially when — you wrote each morning about how you had all these different strategies for getting Sam out the door. Would you just put the time later? How can you just get him going?

Andrew: We were walking in August, which in Northern Spain is blisteringly hot, so you want to be off the road by midafternoon. You don’t want to still be walking at two, three in the afternoon when it’s 110 degrees in the sun with no shade. My son, being nineteen, wants to sleep until noon. I’m like, dude, this is not going to happen. I also didn’t want to go . It’s like, I’m not waiting. I’m leaving. I didn’t want to walk without him. The whole point was to walk together. As a parent, you’re left with that, I want to teach him a lesson. I’m not going to let him rule my life. Yet I’ll miss him if he’s not here. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Zibby: It’s so true. I love how it all just played out. It played out in life because you took everything else away. You left all of the real meat of the relationship when you take out all the distractions and just put the open road. You have to work it all out.

Andrew: That’s true. You take away all the distractions, but you’re still you. The relationship is still the relationship. There is space for it to have a little bit more affection, too, in a certain way, to have a common goal. You do realize this is hard. It’s hard. How are you doing? I’m tired. How are you doing? I’m okay. There’s some kind of solidarity in that. You sit my son down to talk, you’re not going to get anything out of him. You get him moving — it’s like often can talk to their kids when they’re in the cars because you’re going somewhere. You’ve got a focus. You don’t have to sit there and look at each other. Walking is the same kind of way, except you’ve got the physical happening, which is so great, that physical rhythm of walking. Walking does something to our brains. It really relaxes them, ultimately. We’re both doing the same thing, is kind of great. How many times in our life are we doing the same thing with our kids? I had the notion at the beginning of, I have to take care of him now, even though I didn’t. He’s more capable than I am. That’s still the historical relationship, that I’ve got to take care of him. To realize at a certain point he’s kind of helping me now — at the beginning, he’s sort of uncertain where to go. I’m like, let’s do this. This is what we do. Then at a certain point, we’re just marching along together. One time, I write in the book where I fell and tripped. I was like, wow, that really was scary. He helped me. He’s going beyond me. All the cheap metaphors all work.

Zibby: Also, when you were lost for a second, and he was like, no, I’ve been following along on Snapchat the whole time. You’re like, what?

Andrew: At one point, we’re lost. He pulls out his phone. I’m like, “Don’t look at your phone now, Sam. Come on.” I’m doing that. He’s like, “It’s this way, Dad.” I’m like, “What is that?” He goes, “That’s my Snapchat man. The road’s right here. It’s over there.” What? That taps into the whole thing of, we have so much to learn from our kids. We have so much to learn from them. We’re so busy thinking we’re right all the time or wanting to be right and hold onto being right even when we know we might not be. Let them know better sometimes. It’s a great thing for us and for them.

Zibby: How did your other kids feel about this big, special trip between the two of you and even the fact that it’s now a book? Are they like, could I please have something? Are they the age that it doesn’t even matter anymore?

Andrew: My daughter, we’d FaceTime on the . My daughter was fifteen at the time. She goes, “It’s your favorite child calling,” just to remind me. My daughter, I don’t think, would want to walk across Spain. She said, “How about Paris?” My nine-year-old recently — when you write a book, before it comes out, you get a couple copies in the mail. It came. I opened the box. My son was there, my nine-year-old. He picked it up and read a page or two. He looked at it and closed the book. He said, “It would’ve been better if it was about me.” In fact, if one of them wanted to do it, of course, I would go in an instant, but I can’t imagine that my daughter would. My son, we’ll see. I may not be able to make the walk by the time he gets old enough.

Zibby: Even when he finally says, “Okay, yeah, I’ll take you up on this,” literally, the next sentence is, “And then I went in the next room, and I ordered the tickets.” I feel like anytime kids give you just the little doorway of opportunity, you’re like, boom, I have to take advantage of this immediately.

Andrew: Oh, yeah. When my son finally said, “Yeah, I’ll go on that walk with you,” I literally walked in the other room and bought two tickets at that instant. We were in Spain two days later. I said to my wife, “I’m going to Spain with Sam.” She was like, “Okay. When?” “Two days.” “Okay.” I knew he would change his mind if I didn’t. Suddenly, we were in Spain before he even knew what was happening to him. I’m glad we did. Not just our kids, but most people would talk themselves out of this trip like this very easily. I do think it’s the kind of thing, you just go. You just go. People ask me, what do I need to do? I go, you need to go. You need pair of walking shoes and go. You’re not walking the Appalachian trail where you’re carrying your world on your back. You’re in society. You’re in culture. You can buy a T-shirt. You’ll get food. You’re fine. Go. The reason most people don’t go is, frankly, fear. People are afraid. Fear stops us so much. I didn’t want that to be the case.

Zibby: Obviously, you used to be an actor. Not you used to be, but obviously, you started your career as a well-known actor. You found this whole other career as a travel writer and have really leaned into that and done so much great work and also written — this is now your third memoir. Was writing something that, when you were a kid, you were always like, this is what I — when did acting intersect with writing, intersect with travel? How did that all happen?

Andrew: On my first Camino when I had that moment — I had this moment where how much fear had dominated my life was revealed to me. That was a real white-light experience for me. That changed my place in the world. I kept traveling after that first Camino. I kept traveling alone and going far from home. I found the farther from home I went, the more at home in myself I felt. I just started writing it down. Not a journal in any way because I thought it was very indulgent, journaling about me, me, me. I just wrote about what I saw and where I went and who I talked to. I did that for about a decade with just notebooks full of this stuff on these trips I would take. Then one day, I decided I wanted to do something with that. I approached an editor at a magazine and said, “You ought to let me write for your magazine.” He said, “You’re an actor, dude.” I said, “Yeah, but I can tell a story. That’s what I do for a living.” He thought that was a good answer. I also said, “If it doesn’t work out, you don’t have to pay me.” He thought that was a better answer, and so I did.

I became very successful very quickly as a travel writer for two reasons, really. Travel, I believe, is a really valuable thing in our lives. I don’t think it’s about a bucket list or bragging rights or Instagram photos. I think it’s about something that’s profound and can change our place in the world, like it did for me. That’s underneath all the stories that I write, is this feeling that travel — its value. It’s meaningful. Go. Go. Go. The other thing I knew intuitively was just to tell a story. Don’t sell a destination. The two things combined helped me become very — I loved it. I loved travel writing. I loved it the way I loved acting when I started. If you love anything, it shows. The way my acting career started, same way with my writing career. It’s just this accidental thing. I had a passion for it. It just grew of its own accord. The same way, then, I evolved into television directing and directed for shows and things. I follow these nuggets of passion somehow. I’m not a very good businessman. Pretty downwardly mobile to go from being a movie actor to a travel writer. It’s not a career path that many accountants would advise. For me, it’s worked out.

Zibby: Obviously, this whole artistic piece, it doesn’t always align perfectly with accountants and whatever. That’s what all the glimmers are about. We have plenty of accountants in the world. It’s okay. You don’t have to do everything. Are there pieces that are now glimmering to you more at this point that maybe you haven’t explored as much, like photography? Is there anything else coming out now at this stage of life?

Andrew: I recently acted on a show again, for a season on a show called The Resident. I hadn’t acted in ten, fifteen years much. It was such a pleasure to go back to. I have to say, at the end of the day, I think ultimately, I discovered who I was at fifteen when I acted for the first time in a high school play. That changed my life. To go back to that, it was sort of like breathing to me. It’s like that joke. The two fish are swimming in the water. They pass each other. One says, morning, ain’t the water fine today? The other says, what water? They’re of it. When I started acting, it was just of me. I’m of acting. It was interesting and a pleasure to go back to, so I may do more of that. I’m also continuing to write some stuff. I get kind of bored, so I like doing all sorts of different things. The beauty of writing is, also, you’re not waiting for anyone to give you a chance to do it. You can just sit down and go. There’s something about sitting alone in a room and trying to whip something up that appeals to my temperament. I’m also someone who likes very few votes. The fewer the votes in my life, the better. In writing, there’s really only vote.

Zibby: No negotiation needed. You can never be late. You could just do it yourself. That’s funny. Do you have a go-to writing methodology? Do you like to write at home or in cafés or by hand or computer? Do you have a way you like to write the most?

Andrew: I do not write in cafés. I cannot do that. Nor do I like that. I feel too vulnerable, too distracted. That said, I can sort of write anywhere. I’ve written in the locker room at my kid’s gymnastic classes. I just can’t write in a café for some reason, but I can kind of write anywhere. I write at the kitchen table, and there’s chaos going around me often. Things are falling and exploding. I’m just there. I’m also thinking, when will everyone go out? Can they just please leave? Then when they leave, I’m like, what do I do now? I stumble around doing nothing until it’s like, they’re going to be home in forty-five minutes. Then I sit down and start writing. Then I yell at them in my head. Why are they coming back? I need time to write. I’ve wasted the whole day. That’s what we do with our loved ones, is blame them for our own failings. I tend to do better in the morning. By the end of the day, my brain is mush. I can’t really think. What’s that word?

Zibby: I get it. How about books you like to read? Are you a big travel reader? Who are some of your go-tos for that?

Andrew: Paul Theroux’s books changed my life. They really did, his books like The Old Patagonian Express and The Great Railway Bazaar and things like that. I read The Old Patagonian Express. Someone gave me that. It was basically his notion of, go. Go alone. Go far. Get out of touch for a long time. I was like, wow. I’d never considered that kind of travel. I started doing that. That was a real game-changer for me. I don’t read a lot of travel writing anymore. During the pandemic, I discovered audiobooks in a way I never had before. I’ve been listening to a lot of audiobooks, which I really enjoy, if you get a good reader. You have to have a good reader. I’ve gotten into a lot of true-life spy stuff. The idea of the compartmentalization that people can do of their lives just fascinates me. Spies are doing all this stuff, and they have a wife and kids at home who know nothing about their life. I’m like, how on earth are they doing that? It’s fascinating. It doesn’t work, of course. It always blows up. I’ve gotten into these true-life spy stuff that I just find really interesting. It’s a deep rabbit hole, and I’m in it.

Zibby: I bet. I feel like if there’s one thing that most books that are great have in common, it has something to do with keeping secrets, secrets of, obviously, the spy thing, which is completely obvious, but even the secrets we keep from our kids.

Andrew: That’s interesting. That was one of the things in walking. There was a bit in the book of that. How much of myself am I showing my kid? What am I burdening them with that shouldn’t go on them? They’re not my pal, my buddy. It’s my son here. Yet by withholding, am I really just withholding from them because I don’t want to go there in myself and expose myself and make myself vulnerable to them? It’s a fine line. It’s difficult to know exactly what the right thing is there. If you want them to see you, in a way, again, to move beyond the parent-child dynamic into two adults having this relationship, you’ve got to let them see you. That’s vulnerable-making. That’s a tricky one that we wrestle with. I continue to wrestle with that one. It’s interesting, the idea of secrets and revealing and sharing. What’s the difference between — if you’re not going to share with somebody, they’re not going to feel safe to share with you. On the other hand, that’s not their problem. I don’t know what the answer is, ultimately, with that. You just sort of stumble back and forth across that line in a certain way and go, oh, he didn’t receive that okay. Kids will receive something at one age that they wouldn’t have received two years earlier. Learning that and knowing that, it’s an imperfect science. That’s for sure. At least, I’m pretty imperfect at it.

Zibby: I will join you in the imperfect boat. I’ve sort of opted for more sharing than less recently. I don’t know. Who knows if I’m doing it right? There’s really no way to know.

Andrew: I have too. It’s not a big deal because then they know. That’s how they learn from us, is by what we do. They don’t listen to anything we say, god knows. They see me do it. They go, oh, it’s a safe place to do that. That’s how you do that. That’s what I’m always saying to my kids, encouraging them to just talk. Just talk. In the book with Sam, he’d talk about his drug use. I had my own problems with alcohol and drugs. I’m very liberal with talking about it with them. I can’t say, you can’t do this. You do not want to be doing all these drugs. They’re not going to listen. They’re going to shut down and not come to you again. Any teenager and/or young adult, the vast majority are going to experiment with that stuff. To pretend they’re not or to think they’re not or to shut that conversation down is a fool’s errand, in my opinion. It’s a slippery slope everyone has to navigate for themselves. They are experimenting with sex and with drugs and alcohol. To ignore that and/or turn a blind eye to that or to forbid that discussion, I don’t know, they’re going to have it somewhere else then. I’d rather have them go and — I’ll tell them my opinion. I endlessly tell my kids, the only thing that can destroy your life is drugs and alcohol. Destroyed mine. It will destroy yours. Everybody’s the same in that regard. Do what you got to do, but I’m just telling you.

Zibby: I know. I love when you’re like, then my son is smoking, but I made him ask it in Spanish, for a cigarette. I wasn’t going to ask for cigarettes.

Andrew: He’s going, “Bum that cigarette for me from that guy.” I’m like, “No way. You ask him. Here’s how you say it. Now you go ask.” Better that than him sneaking around to go — I got to go make a call, and him running out and sneaking a cigarette. For god’s sake.

Zibby: It’s true. You were like, teach a man to fish, or whatever. It’s so funny. How is your relationship now after all of this and the book? Do you think it all made it better?

Andrew: I don’t know that it needed to be made better. I think it’s made it richer. It’s made me kind of calm down a little bit about feeling the precariousness of it, that he’ll grow and be gone and never see him again. I think it’s helped him trust me a little more. That’s all what we’ve been talking about, by revealing and not trying to know better, but just going, this is my experience, and sharing as opposed to telling. It was great fun. You can’t take it away from us. We did that together. That’s one of the things that travel does so well. It’s an easy and fun way to, remember that thing? Travel returns us to innocence and a sense of wonder that we so often don’t have in our day-to-day life. When you can share moments of wonder with people, that’s wide open for experiencing wonder. There’s room for love to get in there.

Zibby: Amazing. Last question. If you would take your daughter to Paris for her book, where would you go with your youngest? What would that book be?

Andrew: I just took my youngest — we just got back two days ago. We were in Botswana. I was writing a travel story for a magazine. I took him on safari with me to Botswana, into the deep bush of Botswana. That was a pretty intense experience. It was fantastic and great, but it was a lot for — you really realize how much burden of responsibility you feel with our kids and how much of it is real and how much of it is just self-imposed and self-congratulatory in the sense of, you feel this weight of responsibility. When you’re in a place where you really are responsible in a real way, all that grandiosity of responsibility and accountability falls away because the reality of a situation asserts itself. To just be there with my little guy, that was fantastic. Where will our book be? I don’t know. he’s older. It probably won’t be Botswana.

Zibby: Amazing. Thanks so much. Thanks for chatting about the book and everything else. Congratulations. Can’t wait to follow your future travels.

Andrew: Great. Thanks. Really enjoyed it.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Andrew McCarthy, WALKING WITH SAM: A Father, a Son, and Five Hundred Miles Across Spain

WALKING WITH SAM: A Father, a Son, and Five Hundred Miles Across Spain by Andrew McCarthy

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