By Elizabeth Shepherd; Thursday, October 21, 2021 10:37am
Phil Volker, an islander who undertook a devotional journey that became an inspiration for thousands, died on Sunday, Oct. 10, at the age of 73.
As the subject of two award-winning films, “Phil’s Camino” (2016) and “Phil’s Camino: So Far, So Good” (2018), Volker was known worldwide for his remarkable response to his diagnosis of colon cancer ten years ago: he crafted a winding path, through the woods and pastures of his 10-acre plot of land on Vashon, that replicated El Camino de Santiago, the ancient 500-mile pilgrimage route across Spain.
The films also chronicle Volker’s joy, in 2014, as he traveled to Spain to walk the actual Camino after receiving permission from his doctors — contrasting his treks through the lush landscape of his Vashon path to the open, sun-drenched scenic journey he undertook in Spain.
Annie O’Neil, the director of both films, called Volker a member of her “soul family.”
“Phil became a hero to many of us because he was living so fully with something that looms as a huge fear and feels like it would be such a limitation,” she said.
Volker also established a vibrant community of fellow Camino devotees through his daily postings on a blog he created in 2014, Caminoheads, that is still active today.
In recent years, many of the blog’s contributors as well as his closest friends attended annual gatherings at Phil’s house on Vashon, to walk and pray on Phil’s Camino and also enjoy the conviviality and companionship of one another. The gathering was not held in 2020, but this summer, it reconvened in August. By this time, Volker had entered hospice care.
Volker’s wife, Rebecca Graves, said that her husband’s approach to his disease and impending death was to fully embrace his life.
“He hated the language of ‘battling’ or ‘fighting’ cancer,” she said. “He always said, ‘I’m dancing with cancer.’”
Volker was also known for other accomplishments on Vashon, where he lived for almost five decades.
As a Marine veteran, Volker was the first commander of Vashon’s American Legion Post 159, which he established on the island in 2002. His craftsmanship as a fine woodworker and carpenter is on display in many homes and businesses on Vashon. He was a longtime member of Vashon’s Sportsman’s Club, where he taught hunter safety and archery classes for many years. And as a convert to Catholicism after his cancer diagnosis, he was a faithful parishioner at Vashon’s St. John Vianney Church.
Volker’s close friend, Catherine Johnson, with whom he regularly attended Mass, said that Volker loved saying the Catholic Rosary.
“The Luminous Mysteries were his favorite,” she said. “He would often ask me, ‘What does it mean to be a person of light?’ Catholicism, with its sacraments, rituals and mystical experiences, while never fully answering his question, carried him more deeply and peacefully into the light.”
Volker’s death occurred in a large, four-walled canvas tent, dubbed “The Elk Hotel,” steps away from his house on Vashon’s south end, where he had requested to live as he entered hospice care for his cancer, in July.
The tent, according to his wishes, was decorated by his friends and family to fulfill Volker’s wish to die in the manner of a Civil War general, on the battlefield, complete with period furniture, maps and other adornments of the era.
Graves said that her husband’s declaration of this vision for his death, made to his hospice nurse, had taken both the nurse and her by surprise. The nurse, she said, had taken a deep breath after hearing Volker express his wish, before replying with one word — “Costumes?”
Throughout their marriage, Graves said, she had been surprised by her husband and described him as a complex and ever-evolving person.
Their daughter, Tesia Elani, also said that her father had softened in his later years, as he gained comfort and joy in expressing his emotions and being with other people.
“The things that used to be most difficult for him almost became his specialty,” she said, adding that by the time her father’s life had become centered on the divine experiences of his Camino, he had transformed.
The seed of his success in making this transformation, she said, came from his lifelong way of approaching tasks in a meticulous way — a skill that was evident in the step-by-step construction of his backyard Camino.
“He measured the mileage of it, and matched it to the Camino [in Spain] where all the places would be, and kept a journal of his progress, and who he walked with every day,” she said. “…He was a carpenter so he knew how to build something … so he built something that other people could latch onto — he created a container for this thriving community.”
Volker was born on Dec. 21, 1947, in Buffalo, New York, to Fred and Jean Volker, who came from Prussian, German and Polish immigrant stock. His only sibling, a sister, was stillborn in 1945.
Fred had served as a medic in Okinawa, the last major battle of World War II, and one of its bloodiest. In 1952, a few days before Phil’s fifth birthday, his father was severely injured and witnessed the murder of his employer in a brutal armed robbery in the shop where he worked as a jeweler.
After the crime, which was notorious at the time and resulted in the swift capture and execution of two of the three criminals involved, Phil’s father never worked again, making it necessary for Phil’s mother to enter the workforce to support the family.
Decades later, Graves said, Phil undertook a lengthy and methodical process of forgiving the third criminal, who was never caught and brought to justice for the crime that had so traumatized his family.
After graduating high school, Phil attended Syracuse University for one year — a short college career most notable for the fact that he formed a friendship with an older student, Joseph Biden, who was the resident advisor for his dorm.
At age 19, Phil enlisted in the Marines, serving from 1966 to 1969 at Camp Lejeune, in North Carolina, where he worked in radio communications and as a rifle coach. After military service, he embarked on a cross-country trip in a Dodge panel van with a friend, Geo Sheroke. The pair arrived on Vashon in 1972, in the midst of a snowstorm — a place where the friends both wound up settling down.
At a Vashon potluck in 1976, Phil met Rebecca Graves; she, too, had arrived on Vashon during a snowstorm, in 1975.
Their outdoor wedding, in 1978, was “the hippie-est wedding ever,” said Graves, who added that at the time of her marriage, she thought her husband was a “hippie art student at the University of Washington, with a ponytail.”
“It turned out he was a lot more than that,” she said.
The couple’s daughter, Tesia, was born in 1979; their son, Wiley, arrived a decade later.
In 1981, the family moved to a five-acre plot on Vashon’s south end, where Phil constructed a house around a small cabin on the property. Years later, the couple acquired an adjacent five-acre plot — creating the 10-acre parcel where Phil would later carve out his Camino.
Throughout his life, he worked as a landscaper, carpenter and subcontractor, while Rebecca worked as a preschool and substitute teacher, a therapist and freelance writer. She is now the author of two books, “That One Day in August,” and “Second Time Around.” Currently, she is working on a memoir of her long marriage to Phil, whose luminous last act of life made him a celebrity.
Phil’s final gathering with his admirers came on Oct. 9, the day before death, when O’Neil, the director of “Phil’s Camino,” organized a Zoom meeting, attended by more than 100 people, in which Volker was the special guest of honor.
Volker told the group, “Don’t fear dying. Fear not living every moment to the fullest.”
Phil’s son, Wiley Volker, who now lives on five acres of his family’s property, is now following in his father’s footsteps, walking daily on at least some portion of Phil’s Camino.
“It’s a sacred space,” Wiley said. “You can feel it when you walk.”
A funeral mass for Phil Volker will take place at 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 30, with a Rosary being recited at 10:30 a.m. prior to the Mass. He is survived by his wife, Rebecca Graves, of Vashon; daughter Tesia Elani, her husband, Ramon and their children, Freya and Osian, of Western Massachusetts; and his son, Wiley Volker, and his wife, Henna Volker, of Vashon. Wiley and Henna’s first child will be born in February.
The Volker family has plans to set up a Vashon High School graduate scholarship. Those who wish to donate may contact firstname.lastname@example.org.