/ On the Couch with Walk & Write's Stephanie Dale
Walk and Write Along the Camino
Experience the famous pilgrim's trail with published author Stephanie Dale
Stephanie Dale is an award-winning journalist and author with a passion for pilgrimage. She is a pioneer in the writing for wellbeing field and the founder of The Write Road, a writing for well-being initiative that takes writing and communications workshops and training to people who live in isolated places, encouraging people to tell their story, their way.
Back on home soil after our April Walk & Write Camino trip
that saw her escort a group from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela, and a 'Writing for Wellbeing' UK tour, we caught up with Stephanie to talk about her three biggest passions - walking, writing and Europe - and her plans for the future.
Writing workshop in a cosy pub on the on April Walk & Write Camino trip
Which came first, walking or writing?
Walking. Definitely walking. I was young when I had my first child and I couldn’t bear being alone inside the house with him all day, so we walked. Regardless of the weather, we’d walk out the door after breakfast, him a baby all snug in his pram, and we’d return for dinner. It’s curious to me that both my son and I turned out to be big walkers - my son and I walked the Camino together in 2005 and two years later he walked 7000kms from Canterbury to Jerusalem. Of course this was an opportunity too good for me to pass up, so I met him in Rome and walked with him across Italy and through the Balkans. As for writing, it was a longing buried deep for a long time, until one day in my mid-40s I’d had enough of avoiding it and it became my life.
When did you first realise that the two complemented each other?
On the Camino. I walked the whole distance with a notepad and pen bouncing in and out of my pocket, capturing life and landscape, past and present, small streams of words that effectively became my photographs. There is something deeply connecting and enriching about writing and walking. As well as capturing beauty, and insight, it’s a wonderful way of working through situations.
St Augustine is credited with saying ‘Solvitur ambulando’ - it is solved by walking. I’d add ‘and writing’.
Which is your favourite long-distance trail so far?
I do love the Camino, for its heritage and mystery. That said, I also loved walking with my son across Italy and through the Balkans. We undertook this walk before internet and smart phones and even easily accessible walking-scale maps, so we made it up as we went along. It was challenging and funny even when it was not funny, like walking out of Rome along the crazy freeway, like having no accommodation nearby so making our beds in the corner of farmers’ fields, like getting lost on goat trails and having absolutely no idea whether to go left, right, up, down, back, forward.
And then there were the moments of sublime human kindness - the restaurateurs who invited us to pitch our tents on their verandah beside their diner (we tied our tents to their pot plants), the bar owner who thought we needed vitamin C and peeled us a pomegranate, the woman driving with her three children who came upon us in a forest and invited us to lunch in her home in the next village - Italy, Bosnia, Croatia in that order. Only one of these three spoke English. There is walking the land. And then there’s the human experience of that land.
How do you train for long distance walks?
To be honest I don’t ‘train’, not in any specific way. Life is training enough. I maintain a good sense of everyday strength and wellbeing that includes walking. For those with sedentary lives who’d like to go on a pilgrimage or other long walk, I’d suggest starting their training by leaving the car at home. Begin by wandering. It’s amazing how much more you see in a neighbourhood when you walk. The world opens up. You build relationships not just with people, but with trees and plants and animals.
One foot in front of the other; one word at a time.
What do you love most about escorting people on the Camino de Santiago?
The anticipation of pilgrimage. And then the point of arrival. When we first gather people are full of what they do and don’t expect, what they do and don’t like, what they will and won’t put up with - and then the pilgrimage begins. We walk. We write. We meet our small complaints. We trade them for the greater things life has to offer. And then we salute the journey on that final meal together in the shadow of a great cathedral. It’s transformative, and a beautiful journey to share with others.
What lessons have walking taught you that you’ve been able to apply to other areas of your life?
That’s a wonderful question. Pilgrimage changed my life. It coded into my bones a series of basic lessons that are akin to a spiritual pathway. Lesson #1 of the road: keep going. Lesson #2 this too will pass. Lesson #3 don’t look back. Lesson #4 there is no ‘there’. This last one is fascinating to me - I learned this on the Camino on a day that was a real struggle. I realised the destination, in this case Santiago de Compostela, was irrelevant if I did not pick up my foot and put it in front of the other. Then I understood that’s all I had to do, in this or any other moment.
It applies to writing as much as walking. One word. All I have to do in this moment is add one word. That’s all. One word. I can do one word. I can do one step. One breath. It applies to building a business or meeting the daily demands of a family. I met a man recently who had just walked 1200kms on pilgrimage. I asked him for his top takeout and he said: ‘getting over myself’. I roared with laughter. Sums it all up really: pilgrimage teaches us to get over ourselves. It’s liberating!
Pausing for reflection on the Camino trail
What can people expect to gain from Walk & Write trips? How do these trips help people grow and evolve?
People can expect landscapes and laughter, feasts and firesides, challenge and rest. Walking and writing put us in touch with our deepest well and this cannot help but evolve us. Everyone’s experience will be different. Whatever ‘the thing’ in your life, the bit that keeps popping up, the hurdle or obstacle that seems to emerge just when it’s not needed - whatever it is, we meet it on pilgrimage. Can’t go over it, can’t go under it, can go around it, can’t close our eyes and avoid it…small or swallow you large, we can only meet it and move through.
These pilgrims are, without exception, surprised that a) they can write, b) they have something to write about and c) they say that the writing gave the pilgrimage deeper meaning than it would otherwise have had. What might have been a transformative adventure has become a deeply personal encounter with self and others. The writing adds comprehension to feelings. It gives language to the ethereal and resonance to the experience.
What’s on your Walk & Writing wish list for the future?
More Caminos, that’s for sure. The Camino is iconic as a pilgrimage and it’s a treat to be able to share it with a merry band of walking writing companions. I’m also looking forward to introducing walking writing pilgrims to the final 10 days of the Via Francigena in Italy next year. There’s something so special about walking into iconic cities, where humans have been passing the city on to each other for millennia. We meet the city at the edge, comb the fringes, then we move in, meet the old city wall and then we’re on the inside, wrapped up, enclosed by the ancients, strangers in time and place yet part of the whole. What’s not to love?
All smiles after walking 115km from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela
Click here to join Stephanie on the next Walk & Write Camino tour on 5th September 2020.