Pilgrim Strong: An Interview with Author Steve Watkins

There are dozens of books written about people’s personal experience on the Camino. Today, a new one will be added to the list, and I’m particularly excited about it.

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This is Pilgrim Strong, by my friend (and tattoo buddy) Steve Watkins.

Steve walked the Camino Frances (St Jean Pied-de-Port to Santiago) in the fall of 2015, setting out just a few weeks after I returned from my own adventures. He traveled to Spain by himself, and he took full advantage of social media and his own storytelling skills, posting almost daily updates, videos, and photos to the American Pilgrims of the Camino Facebook group. He attracted thousands of followers who journeyed vicariously with him through a winter Camino, complete with snowstorms and empty albergues.

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A screenshot from one of Steve’s many videos from his Camino journey, shared on Facebook

Those posts, and the encouragement he got from his growing list of followers, developed into the memoir of Steve’s journey, which releases today.

Steve was kind enough to send me an advance copy of his manuscript for an endorsement. Here’s what I said:

“Steve Watkins has the mind of a philosopher and the heart of a twenty-first-century storyteller, and in his debut memoir he explores the popular Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in a way no writer before him has done. Pilgrim Strong digs past the everyday experiences of walk, eat, sleep, repeat and explores the unfiltered emotional beauty and hardship of walking for weeks on end. Steve invites readers to join his highest highs and his lowest lows, and in the process to reconsider the very meaning and source of human strength.”

What I loved about Steve’s book was that it told a story that traced such a familiar path, and yet was so different than mine. From the seasonal differences, to the fact that he traveled alone and made social media such a major part of his experience, to the places that made an impression on him, to his spiritual outlook – Pilgrim Strong is my reminder that we all walk different Caminos, and that every story is important to hear.

He was kind enough to take a few minutes from his busy travel and book signing schedule to answer a few questions:

 

When I teach publishing classes, I always tell my students that the first step in publishing is to identify your audience: who will be drawn to read this specific book? So…who did you write this book for? Who do you hope reads it?

Oddly, I suppose, this book was mostly written for me. I’ve always been a person who understands his thinking better after it’s written down somewhere. Pilgrimage has the potential for being one of the deepest, most meaningful experiences a person can know, but understanding how it affects you is a long and complicated process. There’s a lot to digest and it doesn’t happen immediately. I felt as though the long, thoughtful process of putting words down on paper would bring the level of understanding I desired, and indeed it did.

But somewhere in the process, I realized there was so much of value to share with others, not necessarily about the experience of walking, but about the things I went there to consider and contemplate. I’m not even sure if this should really be considered a “camino book.” My desire was creating a book that will resonate with average, everyday kinds of people who have experienced the ups and downs of life. The Way just happened to serve as a great canvas on which to paint the story. We’re all on a great pilgrimage no matter where we are.

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“Pilgrimage has the potential for being one of the deepest, most meaningful experiences a person can know, but understanding how it affects you is a long and complicated process.”

Why did you decide to go on the Camino in the first place?

Even from childhood I’ve pursued certain things that pushed my comfort zones, physically, spiritually, and mentally. I heard it said once that “you never know how much you can do until you try something that’s more.” That’s true enough. Pushing our limits makes us better, stronger people.

When you’ve walked 500 miles across a country, it’s not such a big deal when you miss the front-row parking lot at Target. Aside from the physical challenge of walking long distances every day, the day-to-day exposure you get from pilgrimage in a far-away land is a great learning experience, enhanced all the more for me by the history and significance of this place. This was the proving ground where James, the apostle of Jesus, fulfilled his commission to spread the good news of the Gospel. All those things combined made the draw of the Camino irresistible.

One of the things that made my Camino special was that I chose to do it entirely offline. You took the opposite approach. How do you feel like that affected your experience?

Both for the good and the bad. There are mental and physical stresses that slip up on you during an experience like this, and we put certain pressures on ourselves while engaging in social media. I shared my story transparently in real time, and when you put yourself out there like that you should be prepared to take the bad with the good. While most were supportive and enjoyed the storytelling, a few actually challenged my thinking, philosophies, and the way I did some things. One or two were downright hateful. It’s easy to be careless and reactionary when you’re tired, cold and lonely, and I lost my cool a few times. That’s not what pilgrimage should be about, but alas, “it was my Camino.”

The flip side is that it created an international community of friends with whom I still engage. I think it was upwards of 3,000 people who sent congratulations when I reached Santiago de Compostela that Sunday afternoon. While the Pilgrim Strong release has always been targeted for November 1, a few dozen folks inevitably discovered the Amazon link and bought the book early. During the last few weeks many people in that “virtual community” have sent photos of them holding the book in places all around the world. That is so humbling and nice for readers to make such kind gestures.

If you had to do it over, would you make the same decision?

In the same set of circumstances, all things considered, yes. My entire professional life is invested in the field of mass communication. It’s irresistible.

How did you decide what scenes and stories to share in your book?

In recent years I’ve come to think of myself as a missionary journalist. In just about anything I write, you’ll see simple stories that have a deeper potential to teach and convey lessons about life. So the writing is metaphorical, even parable-like. Trudging through a snowstorm has the potential to teach us about hardship and determination. Feeling lonely in a group of strangers where you don’t know the language can become a lesson about prejudice. Meeting someone who just came to walk a few miles for fun, then shifted her thinking to actually making it to the finish suddenly becomes a story about the power of arrival and the realization of pursuing something higher, something more. The beauty of all this is that the most mundane situations can have extraordinary teaching power for average, everyday people. Everyone loves a good story, and people most enjoy stories about other people. The best thing about this kind of storytelling is that it’s broad, diverse, and the reader never really quite knows where it’s going.

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Steve and his wife, Dana, last weekend at a book launch event

Let’s talk about Dana. You share online all the time how blessed you are to be married to Dana. What was it like to walk the Camino without her?

First, you are correct about my feelings toward Dana. The thing I have always wanted most in life is to have a great marriage – not a perfect marriage – but one where there is trust, loyalty, dependence, and where both partners want the best for, and cheer one another on. Having that is my greatest blessing and an answer to prayer. Dana stood by me when I was broke, she held me when I was depressed, and she encouraged me when I had a dream. Every man should know the love of a woman like her.

As much as we like spending time together, she also knows I’m a better person experiencing things like pilgrimage, or running a marathon, or traveling solo in a foreign land. I need those things and I’m a better person all-around experiencing them. She knows this about me and supports it. There is, in fact, a Pilgrim Strong chapter dedicated to this very topic. Forty days away is a long time and I missed her a lot, but the experience was so great I took her back to the Camino Frances last year and we lived it together.

I never like it when people ask me for my “favorite” part of the Camino, but I do think that there are “shimmering images” – specific bright moments where everything clicks, and you feel the sensory experience for the rest of your life. Can you tell us about one of those?

Indeed. My “Camino family” came together in El Acebo randomly meeting up with a teacher from California and a hospitality industry professional from Barcelona. After a week of walking together as a team we experienced something amazing on the stage from O’Cebreiro to Triacastela, and it’s a day that will live in my heart forever.

It is no exaggeration to say we walked together through a Galician blizzard for eight hours that day. With white-out snow conditions and winds exceeding 35 miles per hour it was bitter cold and miserable, but we did it together and felt as though we’d really conquered something that day. I’ll never forget after eight hours we’d descended far enough that the weather cleared up and became spring-like, and as we looked back up into the elevations the storm was still in full fury. It’s worth mentioning that I had no pants on the trip and wore shorts through it all.

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“With white-out snow conditions and winds exceeding 35 miles per hour it was bitter cold and miserable, but we did it together.”

Anything you want to share that I didn’t think to ask?

Yes. About two months before Pilgrim Strong was finished there was a strong sense that returned. A “what’s next?” kind of feeling. To make a long story short, there is a unique opportunity next year to partner with the Mississippi River Parkway Commission and serve as their “storytelling ambassador” for several months while walking the Great River Road. This scenic byway runs alongside the Mississippi river for 2,069 miles from its source in Lake Itasca, MN, to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s a unique opportunity to tell the story in real time on an even bigger social media platform and then write a book about the experience focusing on the people, history, and culture of life along one of the most amazing natural phenomena in the country. It has amazing journalistic potential, not to mention another adventure closer to home. I’m now in the process of deciding if I can commit to it mentally and physically.

That’s fantastic!

Follow Steve’s blog to find out what happens with this new project.

Steve’s book is now available wherever books are sold, including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million.

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