Patrick Gray & Justin Skeesuck: Pushing to New Heights
Life is short, live it well.
The Way of St. James
There is a 500-mile trail that runs through the entirety of northern Spain called the El Camino De Santiago, also known as the ‘Way of St. James.’ Every year, thousands of people from all over the world walk the Camino from varying starting points, including across the border in France (i.e. the ‘French Way’).
While their reasons for taking on the arduous 35-day walk are as diverse as their nationalities, they commonly purport to be on a pilgrimage of self-discovery.
Many are drawn to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela where the remains of Saint James the Great, apostle of Jesus Christ, are said to rest.
Others may be struggling with a serious life issue such as divorce, illness or the death of a loved one. They feel the need to disconnect from our hyperactive world, go into the silence of the natural surroundings and rediscover their purpose for being alive.
“The Camino structures your life in simplicity,” explains YouTube filmmaker Hank Leukart. “You wake up, you walk – for five or six straight weeks, you walk – all the rest of life disappears.”
Whatever the reason, countless tales have been told of transformative experiences along the trail and oftentimes, especially on day 3 when the blisters start burning, the thought arises, ‘Why again am I doing this?’
A common answer is: ‘I don’t know exactly why I’m here; I just know I need to be here.’
A Most Unique Pilgrimage
In 2014, two best friends for over 40 years traversed the Camino on their own unique pilgrimage of discovery. In retrospect, Patrick Gray said he needed to be there to push through obstacles and to learn life’s most important lesson – how to love unconditionally.
His best friend, Justin Skeesuck (pronounced Skee-zuck), needed to be there to learn to accept that he was not a burden to others, but instead a potential source of their joy. Due to a progressive neuromuscular disease that has deprived him the functional use of all four limbs, Justin navigates the world in a power wheelchair.
Through the sharply ascending Pyrenees mountains, which began their journey, and well beyond, Gray and a community of new friends pushed, pulled and carried his best friend in a wheelchair the entire 500 miles. Skeesuck described his custom-made chair as “a three-wheeled baby jogger on steroids carrying 250 pounds, including me and all the gear.”
Together they endured long, exhausting days of rocky inclines, muddy pathways, impassable areas, broken equipment, and depended on the loving support of an estimated 200 fellow travelers along the way. Finally, on bittersweet day 34, they celebrated the end of their pilgrimage with their wives and a new community of friends in the square outside the Cathedral de Santiago.
Justin and Patrick were born 48 hours apart in 1975 in the same Idaho border town hospital. Their families were friends and they grew up together as normal kids, “doing fun, crazy stuff,” says Justin. “We lived our lives together from day one,” says Patrick.
Their coming of age tale abruptly darkened at age 16 when Justin was in a rollover truck accident. He walked away from the wreck and all seemed okay, until months later when he began feeling a weakness in one foot. After an extended period of uncertainty, he finally received the diagnosis.
“It’s a rare disease that has similarities to ALS,” says Justin, “and I know my life will be cut short.”
How short, he doesn’t know. As the sinister progression of the disease took more of his lower body, he used braces, canes, a walker and a manual wheelchair for mobility. Yet, due to his talents and inherent spirit of optimism, life moved on with a sense of normalcy.
Living in San Diego post-college with his wife, Kristin, and three young children, he enjoyed a thriving career in graphic design and a deep relationship with his creator. Then, in the winter of 2010, the disease progressed to his shoulder. “After that,” Justin says, “my upper body went fast.”
His entire adult life had been about adapting to the deteriorating changes in his body, learning new ways to do basic tasks to keep going. But without the use of his arms, he worried, the game had changed completely. How would he eat, go to the bathroom, dress, hold his wife and children?
“I’ll be totally dependent, like a child again,” he fretted. “How could I put such a burden on my family?” He seriously considered that it might be easier to take his own life.
One day he called Patrick, who was living back home in Idaho, to give him the news.
“Justin is a ‘glass half full’ type of guy,” says Patrick. “In fact, he’s one of those annoyingly ‘positive all the time’ guys.” But not this time. “I’ve never heard him so down. There was a complete change in his countenance. I knew he was facing something dark.”
A Higher Power
Gray didn’t take his friend’s news well at all. “I became very angry at God,” he says, “which was my own darkness.” As he grew more bitter, angry, furious, at the injustice of what his friend was going through, he distanced himself from his higher power.
Two years later, in 2012, the Skeesucks took a trip back home to Idaho. “Justin told a minister at my church,” recalls Gray, “that even if he could, he wouldn’t change a thing in his life, including his disability. I was amazed. I’d been fighting a battle he hadn’t been fighting. I’d made it all about me.”
It was a moment Gray would never forget.
Relying on his higher power, and his angelic wife and loving family, Skeesuck had come to terms with his disability and determined that however long he had, he was going to make the best of it.
“Years ago, when I realized I wouldn’t walk anymore, that I’d be living my life in a wheelchair,” he says, “I made a fundamental shift in my thinking. I gave it away, shifted the burden to God, and asked to know what direction I needed to take.”
As it turned out, the direction was the El Camino in northern Spain.
The Walk of a Lifetime
Not long after, Gray’s family came to San Diego for a reciprocal visit. While watching a Rick Steves travel video about Spain, which touched on the Cathedral de Santiago and the El Camino pilgrimage, Skeesuck wondered out loud, “Why can’t I do that?” He turned to his best friend and asked, “What do you think?”
In 2013, the Skeesucks moved to Idaho so Patrick and Justin could prepare for their journey. Patrick focused on endurance training and learning to assume Kristin’s difficult caretaker role. In addition to the pushing, he’d be handling all of Justin’s personal grooming and other needs for the five weeks they’d be living in the wild. They had the custom aluminum chair designed and built while putting together the rest of the gear they’d need.
In May 2014, as they were getting ready to depart for France, Justin asked his friend, “Are you sure about this? Do you know how hard this is going to be?”
Patrick was sure because he’d checked with his higher power.
A Higher Vision
Once they were all in, Gray and Skeesuck considered the uniqueness of their commitment and put on their entrepreneurial hats. Reaching out to sponsors to help defray some of the trip expenses, they ran into only skepticism and polite rejections.
By now though, these adventurers were God-driven and powered by a higher vision. They sensed a calling and believed an important mission was unfolding that was bigger than the two of them. With God’s help, their imminent journey was leading to something more meaningful and universal.
Hoping to inspire others who are struggling and looking for a new life direction, they invited documentary film company, Emota, to come along for the ride. Usually, documentaries are made about feats already accomplished, but Emota was attracted to the blank landscape, the yet-to-be-written story, and jumped in.
Over 34 protracted days, Gray and Skeesuck, along with the Emota team, and with the spontaneous support of an estimated two hundred fellow pilgrims along the route, conquered the grueling St. James’ Way.
“Without Justin inviting me in,” Gray says, “I’d have missed this entire opportunity of self-discovery. Because of him, I’ve dropped the fear and embraced the opportunity to have more people be a part of my story.”
To that Skeesuck says, “I was able to do this pilgrimage because my best friend said ‘yes’.”
Neither Gray nor Skeesuck could possibly have imagined the immensity of their vision – just how many people would be inspired by the story they’ve told.
Inspiring Others to Love
Since their return to America, they’ve been even more industrious than the walk itself.
First, their story appeared in several global periodicals, which fueled numerous invitations to appear on national television programs. When they humbly discussed their experiences and the larger meanings, audiences across the world were inspired to tears and wanted to hear more, which fueled a national speaking tour.
Then, in 2017, their multiple award-winning documentary film I’ll Push You was released, which only increased the demand for their inspirational talks. They’ve built a thriving promotional and training company around the ‘I’ll Push You’ brand, released a book by the same name, and a children’s book, The Push, to spread their message even wider.
Their Resonant Message
If one wishes to attain the highest sense of purpose and a joyful life, one must connect with others and contribute to improving the world condition. This is a fundamental human need that Gray and Skeesuck have identified, and they are on a mission to help people do just that.
Their resonant message for audiences is to stop settling and instead push for more meaningful relationships. You do that by “being more open, honest and vulnerable,” they say.
Offer your support to others – and ask for their support. Most people want to share burdens, to lighten loads. We all want to feel needed.
“Most people are inherently good,” says Skeesuck. “Our biggest barrier is saying ‘yes,’ allowing people to help us. That was especially true for me. But when you deny someone the opportunity to help you, you deny them the joy in life.”
On their ‘I’ll Push You’ speaking tours, they’ve seen the vast loneliness in the country. “Put away the electronic devices,” they advise, “open up and invite people into your lives.”
Whether it’s walking the Camino, or dealing with all the challenges in our lives, including severe disability, Gray says, “We can do nothing alone. We’ve all been pushed by others to overcome our limitations, and there are people in our lives who need that same push from us.”
Gray further says, “When you unplug from life, get away from the frenzied modern world, a whole other world of human connection opens up – one with an abundance of kindness, love and support. God created us to be in communities.”
From one best friend having the courage and humility to ask the question, and the other best friend, without hesitation, saying ‘yes,’ these two extraordinary men have discovered the bigger purpose in their lives. They’ve found the joy and are now sharing it with others.
Simply, it is this: “The world is a broken place and the only way to heal it is to love one another. Let people be all of who they are – and love them anyway. Our purpose is to love and care for each other. If we’re not doing that, then we have no real purpose.”
Who in our lives needs a loving push today? What are we waiting for?