A walk to remember
Documentary captures cancer patient’s journey to embrace spiritual healing
Phil Volker has quite a story.
A veteran and an outdoorsman living on Vashon Island near Seattle, he’d long wished to undertake a 500-mile pilgrimage along a Catholic holy route from France into Spain called El Camino de Santiago. His dream derailed when, in his mid-60s, he was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer.
Stage 4 is the most advanced, with the lowest chance of successful treatment. He required chemotherapy weekly, which ruled out an expedition—European or otherwise.
It didn’t rule out him creating his own Camino, though. Volker charted a half-mile path through the woods and pasture on his 10-acre property. After each lap, he recorded his progress on a map of an actual Camino trek, marking virtual progress toward the ultimate destination: the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.
Annie O’Neil, who’d appeared in a documentary about the Camino and was writing a book stemming from her journey, connected with Volker via social media. She thought his story would make for a powerful film.
“He thought I was nuts,” O’Neil said by phone recently. “He kept on saying, ‘I’m just a guy walking in the mud; there is no story here.’ I kept going, ‘No, I think you’ve got something good going there, Phil; I think we really could share something with people.’…
“He didn’t see how extraordinary he was. I saw it.”
Now, thousands of others have, too—and more will get a chance to this weekend, when O’Neil brings her documentary, Phil’s Camino, to Chico for two screenings.
Friday afternoon at the Enloe Conference Center, she’ll show the short film that has screened at 25 festivals and participate in a Q&A hosted by Dr. Joseph Matthews, the local colorectal surgeon who sparked the invitation. Saturday morning at Our Divine Savior Catholic Church, O’Neil will premiere a longer, unfinished version of Phil’s Camino.
The new cut runs 54 minutes—the time allotted for an hour-long program on international television—and includes scenes O’Neil said she regretted losing in the initial edit.
While making the film, which came out in March 2016, she also completed her first book, Everyday Camino With Annie. Volker played a part in that work as well, reviewing her final chapters and inspiring the ending.
“Phil jokes [that] I made the textbook and he made the lab,” O’Neil said, speaking from New York the day before a screening. “I think of him as my muse, but instead of my muse being this lovely woman in this diaphanous gown, I’ve got this crusty old Marine walking in the mud.”
When O’Neil brings Phil’s Camino to town, it will be the first time Matthews will have seen it. He asked Enloe to host a screening based on the story alone.
Matthews has experienced the Camino firsthand. He and his wife walked 150 miles of it over 10 days in 2016, then doubled that distance over another stretch last year. He just retired from practice, and in April they plan to cover the remaining span.
Pilgrims choose from several routes; some forgo the part through France. The original path heads from Paris to the Pyrenees into Basque country and ends in northern Spain.
“It’s an amazing trip,” Matthews said. “Everybody who walks this trail walks their own Camino. Everybody is different—they walk it for different reasons, they have different stories and they have amazing adventures.”
He belongs to the Chico chapter of American Pilgrims on the Camino, an organization with 45 groups nationwide. Local pilgrims, as well as those from Sacramento, have RSVP’d for the Chico screenings.
Matthews saw a different Camino documentary—I’ll Push You, about two best friends, one wheelchair-bound—at Tinseltown last year.
“Very dramatic movie,” he said.
He saw the same prospect with Phil’s Camino.
“This gentleman with colon cancer started off with stage 2 disease, which is curable, and then ended up with stage 4 colon cancer, which most likely is not going to be curable,” Matthews said. “His whole philosophy was [that] he knew he wouldn’t be cured but that he would be healed.”
Indeed, O’Neil said, as Volker walked his path, his condition improved.
Added Matthews: “It’s a very fascinating story … a story not so much of being cured by doctors but being healed by the experience.”
O’Neil opted to unveil the longer cut of Phil’s Camino here because of a longstanding positive relationship with the region. She’s never been to Chico, but she was embraced warmly by Sacramentans while helping promote Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago. That 2013 documentary feature chronicled her pilgrimage and that of several others.
It also led her to Volker.
A Facebook post of O’Neil’s about the film caught the attention of Volker’s wife, Rebecca. She wrote to O’Neil about her husband, the women became Facebook friends, and Volker sent a message to O’Neil that ended: “Come walk with me. Love, Phil.”
Coincidentally—serendipitously—O’Neil already had a plane ticket to Seattle for a trip two weeks later.
She walked with him. And the film was born.
“I do hope that the audience is as taken with Phil as I am,” O’Neil said. “In the face of all that [he endures] he decides he’s going to have what he wants—which is to walk the Camino—it’s just he’s going to let it look different than he thought it was going to look like, and by doing that he gets so much more.
“I think that’s a great lesson for all of us.”
It doesn’t spoil the ending of Phil’s Camino to say he turned 70 last month—nor to note that more than 300 people, inspired by his story, have traveled to his home to walk with him.
“Most people who walk the Camino don’t have 300 people come walk with them; they don’t have the world show up at their door,” O’Neil said. “But he has.”