Backyard pilgrim plans trip of a lifetime

Phil Volker has walked about 500 miles, the length of El Camino de Santiago, on a trail on his property.  - Natalie Martin/Staff Photo
Phil Volker has walked about 500 miles, the length of El Camino de Santiago, on a trail on his property.
— image credit: Natalie Martin/Staff Photo


Earlier this month, Volker completed 909 laps on the trail, effectively walking the distance of El Camino de Santiago, a famous Christian pilgrimage in Spain. If his doctors give the final approval, this summer Volker will go from backyard pilgrim to actual pilgrim when he flies to Spain to set off on the popular trek.

“I wanted to experience it … but if I don’t get to go, I’m going to be happy with what I got here,” Volker said. “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, or more specifically the St. John Vianney church. At the local parish, Volker, a longtime islander who owns a construction company and is a veteran involved with the American Legion, says he’s found meaning, support and friendship as he battles cancer.

“Having a life-threatening obstacle, it straightens your priorities out,” he said.

Though El Camino de Santiago is popular in the Catholic church, it was actually through a movie that Volker first learned of the walk. Volker was given “The Way,” a 2012 film starting Martin Sheen and featuring El Camino de Santiago, as a Christmas gift and was hooked.

Commonly called el Camino, the ancient path across northern Spain became Volker’s third “C.” Translated as the Way of St. James, the 500-mile trek ends at what is believed to be the burial site of the apostle James and has been a popular Christian pilgrimage for over 1,000 years. In recent years the path, dotted with historical sites, picturesque views and small towns with hostels, has become a destination for travelers of all backgrounds. It now draws over 200,000 walkers a year.

“It’s become an international phenomenon. … You’re walking in the footsteps of millions of people who have come before you,” Volker said.

It was a phenomenon that Volker, though drawn by the trail, first thought he would never experience himself. Believing he was too ill to travel and walk such a long distance, Volker, who is also a hiker, woodworker and avid hunter, set about recreating the walk closer to home.

With help from a friend who is an engineer, Volker eventually mapped out a half-mile path on his 10-acre property. And last December, after the trail was blessed by Father Marc Powell of St. John Vianney, he began to walk.

“Being an islander, we tend to come up with our own solutions for things,” Volker said.

Walking the trail again last week, Volker, who raised two children on Vashon with his wife Rebecca Graves, frequently passed posts with scallop shells — the symbol of the Camino. He walked 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 approached the fence, he promptly produced a treat from his pocket.

“It seemed to be different every time,” he said of the walk.

And it was, in part because Volker was often not alone as he did 909 laps on his trail. Over 100 friends, family members, acquaintances and even doctors from Swedish Hospital accompanied Volker on various legs of the walk. Volker kept careful records in a log book, daily recording how far he walked, who he walked with and where he would be on the actual Camino. As he increased how far he walked at a time, eventually walking as many as 6 miles a day, he says he also built relationships.

He walked with members of the Vashon Episcopal church, where he gave a talk. And he even convinced the author of a book about the Camino, Annie O’Neil, who is also featured in a popular documentary about the trail, to come to Vashon to walk with him. It poured the day she came, he said, but the two still had a great time.

“A lot of great conversations were had here,” he said.

The walking was not only good for the soul, Volker said, but also seemed to be good for his health, as his strength gradually grew. His exercise was constantly monitored by his doctors at Swedish, who have been impressed at how well he’s handled chemotherapy.

“It’s a rough process, but I seemed to have sidestepped all sorts of pitfalls,” he said.

“Everyone is totally on board at Swedish,” he added. “I’m kind of a feather in their cap.”

In recent months, Volker’s cancer has stabilized, and several recent scans have come back clean, meaning the cancer hasn’t spread since previous scans. While this doesn’t necessarily mean much for the future, Volker says, it does bode 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 Camino.

“I’ve got one doctor that keeps me alive, and one that puts me on the map,” he said. “I like to think of it that way.”

Volker will be joined on the trail by two friends from St. John Vianney. One of them, Kelly Burke, recently lost his wife to cancer.

“It’s exciting and wonderful, and I’m scared to death,” Burke said in an interview last week.

The two men, along with islander Rick Paquette, are already training for the trek, where they will live for four weeks out of backpacks and walk about 12 miles per day on roads and dirt trails. The trek will begin in the mountains on the border of France and Spain, cross through flat farmlands and end in on the northwest coast of Spain, a place Volker compared to western Washington. In between, the group will stay in hotels and hostels that at some places could have up to 100 people in a room.

“It’s not a race, it’s a walk,” said Burke, who has known Volker for years. “We’ll do what we can do, and if we need to take a day off to rest, that’s what we need to do.”

Burke plans to finish the length of the route, but Volker, who doesn’t have as much time to spend in Spain, will skip some legs in order to see the entire trail. “God willing and doctor willing,” Volker said, he will walk the final 100 kilometers to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, a stretch required to receive a certificate of completion.

“I think it’s going to be a wonderful time to reflect on life,” Burke said, “thinking about our busy life here and what’s really important in living. I think I’m going to be changed when I come back, and I think Phil will, too.”

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,” he said. “My life has never been richer than it is right now.”

Coming to the end of last week’s walk, Volker bent down to pick up a stone and tossed it onto a large pile of rocks in front of his home. He explained that each rock represents a prayer said by either him or a guest after finishing a walk, similar to a tradition on the real Camino.

“All of these things got prayed for,” he said. “Maybe there are miracles in there that happened.”

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