All it took was a chance viewing of a Rick Steves Europe documentary to start Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray on a pilgrimage that would change their lives.
Justin happened to watch an episode about the Camino de Santiago, and knew in his “heart...mind...body...and spirit” that he had to try it. But Justin has a neurological disease called MAMA — Multifocal Acquired Motor Axonopathy — which has taken the use of his arms and legs.
He mentioned his interest in the Camino to Patrick, his lifelong best friend, who immediately said, “I’ll push you.” And together, the two men decided to walk the Camino Frances, a 500-mile path from St. Jean, in France, to Santiago, in Spain.
You can join them on their pilgrimage in theaters nationwide on Thursday, Nov. 2, for a one-night-only viewing of I’ll Push You, a documentary about their journey in 2014.
The film becomes a pilgrimage for viewers, too, as we watch Justin and Patrick walk the ancient path along with their friend Ted and strangers they met on the way.
In an interview, Patrick admits that neither of the men originally intended for their trip to be a spiritual endeavor. “What was started out in my mind as a journey of me getting Justin from St. Jean to Santiago turned into a multitude of friends and strangers getting Justin and [me] from St. Jean to Santiago,” he says.
“[I] really had to kind of come to terms with the fact that I can’t do this on my own — I’m not cut out to be at the helm 100 percent of the time. And that [belief is] damaging — that’s not healthy, yet our society and culture often operates from that perspective.”
It’s hard not to find yourself drawn into their story while watching Patrick, Ted, and others struggle to push and pull Justin and his wheelchair up a mountain. There are more complications and mishaps along the way, but at every turn, they seem to find willing help from other pilgrims on the Camino.
In one powerful sequence toward the end of the film, the friends debate whether to go over O Cebreiro, a mountain in Galicia that offers spectacular views of the valley below. A huge group of fellow pilgrims decides to assist Justin and Patrick on their way. It’s a moment of grace as total strangers joyfully carry Justin up the mountain.
“When you deny someone that opportunity to help you, you deny them the joy in life,” Justin says, commenting on the trek. “The joy that I saw in the faces and the demeanor of the people that helped that day, I’ll never forget.”
While watching the film, seeing one friend sacrifice so much so that the other could have this experience, it becomes clear that the pilgrimage I’ll Push You takes us on is the way of love. While at a cross on a hill, Justin contemplates whether he would trade his condition to be “normal.”
“As humans we want that independence, to do what we want to do, when we want to do it, and not be told or handheld through it. …Throughout all of that, I’ve learned that once I let go, love can flourish,” he says.
In our interview later, Justin and Patrick told me the story about how a stranger on the train to St. Jean helped Justin go to the bathroom. That encounter stuck with Patrick.
“The more of those almost divine moments we can embrace in the day-to-day, the less [that] pain has a hold in our world,” he said.
“And we have to embrace that mentality, otherwise we’re sunk. Because we’re plan A, and there is no plan B. Plan A requires us to be completely vulnerable, and invite people into everything that we are, and give them the opportunity to love all of us, in spite of who we are.”
I’ll Push You’s power lies not just in Justin and Patrick’s journey, but in the film itself. It’s beautifully shot, in a way that makes even the most harrowing ordeals look inviting — the film takes its message seriously, but also pulls the viewer into the joy and love of Justin and Patrick’s friendship.
It is worth making the effort to catch it tomorrow night, if it is playing in a theater near you. You will come away changed.
I’ll Push You releases in more than 570 theaters nationwide on Nov. 2 at 7:30 p.m. (all times local), for one night only. In partnership with the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the screening will conclude with a conversation between Justin, Patrick, director Terry Parish, and Grammy-nominated singer Billy Gilman on the theme of living unlimited. The film will release digitally and on DVD in early 2018.