UPDATE: Patrick Gray and Justin Skeesuck will hold a book signing from 7 to 9 p.m. June 15 at Barnes & Noble, 1315 N Milwaukee St., Boise. Their book, "I'll Push You," documents their journey on the Camino de Santiago in Spain.

When Patrick Gray of Meridian requested six weeks off work for a trip to Spain, his boss had one condition for him: Take a film crew with you.

Gray hadn’t even considered that. He just knew he wanted to help his best friend complete a journey of a lifetime.

It was his friend Justin Skeesuck’s idea to trek 500 miles across El Camino de Santiago, a network of ancient pathways in northern Spain and France.

And it was Skeesuck who turned so many heads on the trail. Of the thousands of people making the pilgrimage, he was likely the only one in a wheelchair.

Skeesuck, 41, has progressively lost control of his muscles over the past two decades because of a disease called multifocal acquired motor axonopathy, or MAMA, which causes his autoimmune system to attack his nervous system.

“I feel everything from head to toe, it’s just my muscles don’t work,” he said.

He uses a power wheelchair to get around and needs help with tasks like eating, getting out of bed, putting on a shirt and using the bathroom.

“Very, very humbling stuff,” Skeesuck said.

In 2012, in his mid-30s with a wife and three kids, Skeesuck learned about El Camino de Santiago on a travel show. His gut reaction was that he needed to complete his own pilgrimage. He called up Gray, his lifelong friend.

The two have been close since birth, born less than two days apart in the same hospital in Ontario, Oregon. They grew up exploring together and dreaming of becoming professional skateboarders.

The friends stayed close even as they left for college — Gray to Northwest Nazarene University in Nampa and Skeesuck to Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. They celebrated weddings and the birth of their children. Skeesuck became a graphic designer in San Diego, and Gray a registered nurse.

“There was never a gap, really, or a divide,” Gray said of their friendship. “Even though Justin was 1,000 miles away ... we just made a point to stay connected.”

As Skeesuck’s disease progressed in his 30s, he lost the use of his arms and hands and had to step away from the work he loved.

“I felt like I was made to be a graphic designer,” he said. “That’s a part of who I am as an individual. So I really had to do a lot of looking inward, a lot of prayer. … Those years were a lot of soul searching.”

Skeesuck didn’t know how quickly his disease would progress or how much time he had. He focused on enjoying time with his wife, Kirstin, and their three children. They traveled together and even moved to Italy for three months in 2013. Skeesuck started a project called “The Disabled Traveler,” making guides about the logistics of traveling with a disability.

Meanwhile, Gray had worked his way up to director of spine services at St. Luke’s Health System. He didn’t see his family much in those days, he said.

“My obsession with perfection and my need to do it all on my own ... had hindered my relationship with my wife and my kids, because I was always at work,” Gray said. “(When) I was at home, I was working. I was on call with physicians all the time.”

That’s when he got a call from Skeesuck about pushing a wheelchair across 500 miles of ancient pilgrim routes in Spain.

EL CAMINO

El Camino de Santiago, or “The Way of St. James,” stretches across northern Spain and ends at the tomb of St. James. The route has attracted pilgrims for more than 1,000 years.

“It’s physically, emotionally, spiritually exhausting,” Skeesuck said. “That’s what it’s meant for. It’s not meant for a party every single day. The pilgrimage is meant for you to suffer.”

Gray and Skeesuck trained for the trip in the Boise foothills. They mapped out their 500-mile hike across 35 days.

And, thanks to Gray’s boss, they did arrange for a film crew from emota, Inc. to follow along.

“In retrospect it’s like, we’re glad he had the vision,” Gray said.

A documentary about the journey, called “I’ll Push You,” will be released this fall. The film won the Audience Award at the Newport Beach Film Festival in April.

“People resonate with different elements,” Gray said. “Some people, you know, relate more to Justin’s situation, some people relate more to mine.”

Gray approached the trip with his do-it-myself mentality, determined to be strong for Skeesuck.

“I have to be the one to help, I have to be the one to do it on my own,” Gray said. “I didn’t let people help me very well.”

Skeesuck had already been learning for years to let people take care of him. He had no choice.

“It’s humbling at the very beginning,” he said. “It’s not like a switch you just turn off. It takes work.”

The long days on the trail and the grueling process of getting Skeesuck’s chair through muddy ravines and up steep slopes took a toll on Gray’s mind and body. Friends and even strangers joined in to help.

“To have other people come in and push Justin when my body was breaking down, it was just a lesson that I learned over many days of, ‘Man, I need to let go of control and let people carry me when I can’t carry myself,’” Gray said. “It was life changing.”

Skeesuck, on the other hand, was wrestling with feeling like a burden. Out on the trail, he lost even more of his independence because he didn’t have his power wheelchair.

“It is hard to let somebody help you,” he said.

But he kept coming back to a quote he had heard: “When you deny someone the opportunity to help you, you deny them the joy in life.”

“I learned that by allowing people into my own personal journey, it does make people happy. Why would I want to rob somebody of joy?” Skeesuck said. “It’s scary, because we feel like we have to figure it all out on our own. But we don’t.

“By giving up that independence and allowing people like Patrick to be at the helm, to be by my side — and then other people come in to help us along the way — man, I was able to do more things than I ever thought I could do.”

NEW PATH

Now, almost three years after their pilgrimage, Gray and Skeesuck are traveling the country to speak at events and lead trainings. They appeared on the Today Show, gave a TedX Talk and have been featured by national news outlets.

“The word just started spreading,” Kirstin Skeesuck said. “People really need this hope right now in this crazy world we live in.”

Skeesuck and Gray, who are now both living in Eagle, wrote a book together called “I’ll Push You,” which comes out June 6.

They’re also releasing a children’s book next spring about the friendship between two 11-year-old boys. Gray wrote the story, and Skeesuck designed the artwork using voice-activated software.

“We kind of pinch ourselves that this is what we do, that we are professional storytellers, we’re authors and we’re speakers,” Gray said.

Gray left his job at the hospital a few months after the trip. He’s still thankful for his boss’s insight about the film crew.

The name of the film and the new book, “I’ll Push You,” has a double meaning.

“I’m pushing him physically,” Gray said, “but he’s been pushing me emotionally and spiritually into just a new level of freedom.”

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