If there was a single place on the entire Camino de Santiago that best captured the medieval feel, it was the old pilgrim’s bunkhouse in Roncesvalles. Dark, dank, and mysterious, with a strange hospitaleiro to boot, it is just the right atmosphere for about the late-tenth century. One could almost imagine cries of help emanating from down in the dungeon, along with sounds of belts lashing, charges of heresy, spies, intrigue, escape attempts, waterboarding, deathbed conversions, sacred chants, and even a profound hush… From The Best Way, El Camino De Santiago by Bill Walker (Skywalker).
During the relatively short time since I published my book and began writing this blog, I have met some interesting and fascinating people. One person in particular has not only walked the Camino de Santiago in Europe, he has thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail (AT) and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in the United States. If those weren’t amazing accomplishments enough, he has written books that feature each journey. Since my favourite activities include hiking and long-distance walking, he was the first author that I approached to be interviewed. I was very happy he accepted, and now I’m honored that author Bill Walker, Skywalker, has joined me for the first interview on Camino My Way.
Solvitur ambulando (Walking Solves All), St. Augustine.
RSG: Bill, you came from the fast paced world of bond trading and discovered hiking later in life. How did you get started with hiking and long-distance walking, and what interested you about it?
BW: To be honest, it seemed just the opposite type of endeavor from the frantic, cutthroat world of the trading floors in Chicago and London where I worked for fourteen years.
RSG: : You have walked, and wrote about, the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Camino de Santiago, an amazing accomplishment. Tell us a little about your journey on each.
BW: The Appalachian Trail is America’s trail of the masses. Literally millions of people walk on some part of it, large or small, each year. It is possibly the best way to see America and was only logical that I begin there. Also, I am from the state of Georgia where the trail begins.
The Pacific Crest Trail is America’s other great national scenic trail. It is actually 489 miles longer than the Appalachian Trail, running 2,663 miles from Mexico to Canada. Its signature characteristic is its stunning beauty, between the saline austerity of the desert and the ethereal majesty of the ‘High Sierra’ in California and northern Cascades in Washington state.
The Camino de Santiago is Europe’s great trail of the masses. People from all over the continent swarm to its environs each year. The daily lifestyle of a pilgrim, from walking to taking coffee breaks, to looking for albergues, waiting in line for showers and laundry machines, eating and drinking at restaurants, makes it very easy to develop camaraderie with your fellow pilgrims. Asians and Americans are just now discovering the Camino in serious numbers for the first time. Believe it or not, in medieval times, 500,000 people per year, mostly indigent, illiterate peasants, did the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Many died along the way.
RSG: I’d imagine the Camino was far different than the AT and PCT. Which is your favorite route?
BW: The Camino was my favorite route. I’ve done it three times now, and just love the drill. The daily routine is very balanced between struggle, rest (siestas), food, wine, socializing. Having said that, I actually value the journeys on the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail more.
RSG: Why is that?
BW: Because they were much greater struggles in which I had to dig deep.
RSG: You have just come back from hiking in Nepal. That must have been beautiful and very rewarding. Where did you go and can we expect a new book from your travels?
BW: Nepal, of course, is a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. Just consider one fact —14 of the 18 highest mountains in the world are in this relatively small country which lies right in the heart of the world’s greatest mountain range, the Himalayas. Better yet, there is a footpath—the Annapurna Circuit—which is the most popular walking trail in Asia. It goes to 17,800 feet, which is well above any altitude I have ever reached, or probably ever will ascend to again. And yes, it was a compelling enough journey that I have been working assiduously on a narrative.
RSG: Very similar to how I walked the Camino de Santiago in memory of my mom who had passed away only months earlier, you walked the Appalachian Trail in memory of your recently departed father. Tell us a little about your father.
BW: My father was a traditionalist. He worked as a family doctor, and warmed slowly to ‘new ideas’, such as thru-hikes. As I said in my book’s dedication, he would have thought trying to hike the entire Appalachian Trail was a nutty idea, but he would have been my biggest fan anyway. What more could I ask?
RSG: How much did you think about him on the AT? Did you feel his presence?
BW: Sure, I thought about him a lot. I’m a Christian, but not a fundamentalist Christian. His memory really did inform some of my daily actions while on the AT. That is what I mean by life after death. Not to be too controversial, but that seems a much more significant form of afterlife than anyone’s actual body having an afterlife.
RSG: The difference between walking and hiking is often based on someone’s experience or fitness level. How would you distinguish between the two and which do you enjoy more?
BW: There is something about strapping on that backpack and setting a fixed destination, however far. The adrenalin immediately begins to flow and, at least in my case, I harbored a persistent determination over a period of months like I’ve never had before. But that’s certainly not to say that leisurely walking is without value. Solvitur ambulando (walking solves all), St. Augustine famously wrote.
RSG: Not including the obvious gear such as a backpack and boots, what is one item that you carry on your journeys that you can’t live without?
BW: On the Pacific Crest Trail, my headnet was absolutely the most critical piece of equipment because of the horrific bugs during the snow melt up in the High Sierra. On the Appalachian Trail, I’m tempted to say my emergency space blanket, which bailed me out on some dreadfully cold, wet nights. Incidentally, I was one of the few pilgrims who carried a tent on the Camino de Santiago for the simple reason that I knew it would be difficult to fit in many of the albergue bunks.
RSG: Bill, what were the challenges that you encountered?
BW: On the Appalachian Trail, I struggled with bad weather, cold nights, and weight loss. I’m just shy of 7-feet tall, and sport a lean frame. If your average person (5’10” 190 pounds) loses 30 pounds, he probably will be strengthened. But if you start off at 6’11”, 210 pounds, and drop 40 pounds, you are probably going to be weakened in some basic ways. And your body insulation will ebb.
RSG: What did you learn most about yourself?
BW:That the outdoor lifestyle has a magic to it. Here’s the great irony—it both narrows your options and yet enlarges you at the same time.
RSG: Let’s talk about bears. Chapter 1 of Close Encounters On the Appalachian Trail starts off with a close encounter with a bear. I assume you’ve had a few similar situations by now. Were bears your greatest fear while walking the AT and PCT?
BW: Bears started off as one of my principal fears, along with cold, wet weather, and getting lost. Eventually I developed some level of comfort knowing I could encounter one at any time. However, I disagree with those who nonchalantly said, “No worries. All you’ll ever see is the backside of them as they’re running away.” They are too unpredictable, to say that. Just read about the bear account I had in the desert—yes, the desert—on the PCT. One thing you can say for sure is that they are trying to steal your food at any opportunity. Caveat. Tales abound of this.
RSG: For me, there’s no feeling quite like coming across a bear on a trail. At 6 foot 11, bears must take off in a panic when they see you.
BW: Hardly. But they do say you should try to wave your hiking sticks in the air to make yourself appear more formidable. But who really knows.
RSG: What fears did you have, if any, on the Camino? I think for me, it was bedbugs or getting hit by a car, especially on the Camino Del Norte.
BW: Pilgrims face the triple threat of chinches, ampollas, and roncadores. Bedbugs, blisters, and snorers. Any of the three has the potential to ruin your day. But they will not ruin your entire trip!
RSG: Let’s talk about the writing process. How do you keep track of all your thoughts, information, people that you see, and everything else that you encounter while walking or hiking?
BW: Yes, I take notes. But I honestly try not to take too many. In fact, that is often the bane of narratives–that they devolve into a diary format. Readers want a tale with undulations. Fortunately, it is usually such a rich journey, you have plenty of tales to tell.
RSG: Do you walk with an intention to write a book?
BW: The first book I didn’t. In fact, when I returned from the Appalachian Trail absolutely bursting at the seams with ‘hikeritis,’ people began suggesting that I try to write about it—perhaps just so I would shut up about it. I had wondered if I, in fact, could write an entire narrative. But it was such a rich experience that after the first draft, I had 145,000 words. I had to agonize on how to cut the manuscript down to manageable size.
RSG: What have you learned since your first book, Skywalker, Close Encounters On the Appalachian Trail, through Skywalker, Highs and Lows on the Pacific Crest Trail, and El Camino De Santiago, The Best Way?
BW: I believe it is essential that writers perform one major task—handle hot potatoes. Who wants to read somebody who sounds like a politician. “I want it all,” my favorite writer, Pat Conroy, writes. “That’s all I ask. All.”
RSG: Are you changing or developing as a writer?
BW: Sure. I’m more comfortable doing it my way, and not trying to be Bill Bryson, Paulo Coelho, or someone else. Also, you learn to relax and not overuse adjectives and adverbs, as new writers are tempted to do.
RSG: What has the writing process taught you?
BW: You use your mind more when reading than watching television. And you have to use your mind more when writing than reading.
RSG: What are your challenges with writing, publishing, and marketing your book?
BW: I’m a bit of a technophobe. My first book I had a traditional publisher who handled everything, including, unfortunately, the money. They went broke, leaving me high and dry. I have self-published ever since, which gives great flexibility. But you really have to be careful about the details.
RSG: What advice can you give to anybody writing a book in this fast-changing, and somewhat crazy, publishing world?
BW: “If in doubt, write.” James Thurber. “You haven’t got much to lose.”
RSG: I have talked enough about my journey on this website, tell us about yours and what you have learned along the way. Where do you hope it will lead?
BW: The two things that a person should most logically write about are 1. Something you have great passion for. That would be the case of their outdoor narratives. 2. Something in which you are an expert about. I am not working on a book on the subject of height. I never really wanted to be this tall. But it’s been a major factor in my life and now I want to tell about it.
Thanks so much to Bill Walker for joining me on my first interview on this blog. I really appreciate his time, and well-thought out responses and insight. My next interview will feature a brilliant young singer with a promising future ahead of her. Please join me.
Please visit Bill on his websites: Skywalker
On Social Media: