The Art of Wandern: In the Footsteps of Strangers


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My experience helped me realize that sometimes experimentation can go wrong.  Yes, of course it is good to try new ideas, but it is also important to look at what people have done before you.  Sometimes, the well-worn path really is the better option.

I already knew that, of course.  I was homeschooled until high school, and I interacted a lot with adults as a child.  Because I enjoy being with people, I didn’t mind listening to the stories that elderly folks wanted to tell me, and they were happy to share wisdom with a younger person.  I usually internalized their lessons and think about them even today.  Despite my independent streak, I value the experience of those who have already gone ahead.

A view of Oberau (a section of Freiburg)

A view of Oberau (a section of Freiburg)

But my “failed” climb helped drive all that home in a very concrete way.  Sometimes self-made paths end up being dead-ends.  Sometimes the cost of picking up the pieces afterwards just isn’t worth the thrill of “my way.”  I felt a little stupid.

But as I continued walking along the more defined path, I resolved that my hikes didn’t always have to end with some sort of amazing find or epiphany.  My climb wasn’t a failure: I still learned something, and I still had time to hike a bit more.

I eventually found a plaque.  I took a picture and resolved to look it up later. 

Dr. Hoffmann's plaque

Dr. Hoffmann’s plaque

After nearly two years, I finally did so last week.  At first, Dr. Christian August Hoffmann was not easy to find.  The only Google result that seemed to match was a Christian August Siegfried Hoffmann who lived about a generation prior to my commemorated friend.

But finally, I found an article in the local newspaper about the man, the journalist’s attempt to track him down, and her eventual contact with his descendants in America.  I shortly also found his descendants’ account of the interaction, which verified the journalist’s story.  In the descendants’ detailed description of Dr. Hoffmann, I noticed pictures of two buildings connected to him.  I actually recognized them!  I was astounded.  Even though I had had no idea who he was, I had come across his plaque and walked past his granddaughter’s house.  Because this realization encompassed my present time learning about all of this history, my past time in Germany, and the first half of the 19th century, I was somewhat overwhelmed.  I had partially walked in the footsteps of this stranger and his family who lived two centuries ago.  The story that is Me is so very small, a thread in the larger quilt.  And as humbling as that realization is, it’s also comforting.  It’s nice knowing that others have gone before you, leaving behind their words of wisdom to guide your way.

A shy red squirrel

A shy red squirrel


The Art of Wandern: A Road Less Traveled


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If my previous post lead you to believe that success is always at the end of a journey, I must hasten to warn you that it is not.

As you may recall, my fellow Stetson students and I arrived in Freiburg and stayed in a hostel while we waited for our dorm to open for the semester.  Our first night there, I tripped down the stairs and sprained my ankle.  Although I wasn’t seriously injured, I had to be careful the following week how I put pressure on my foot.

With a full night of sleep and morning-person superpowers, I woke up just after dawn on the third day of our stay in Freiburg.  Matt and Sarah were still asleep, and after years of sleep-over experience, I knew they would be for many more hours.  The world outside lifted a finger of chirping birds and beckoned.

New Flowers

New Flowers

Fully bundled, I trudged outside and up a steep flight of steps.  The sudden hints of green were like the first full breath you take after being asleep.  It seemed as though spring had arrived overnight.

My entire time in Kandern, the trees had been brown and leafless.  I honestly was a little disappointed, since I had heard so much about the Black Forest, and it seemed much drabber than I had expected.  But now, seeing the green buds on trees and flowers on vines, I realized I was completely silly.  If I had a dog, I would have informed him that we weren’t in Florida any more.  Here was a strange world with dramatic seasons.  Usually people who move to Florida say that they miss the fall colors.  I had no idea that Florida just couldn’t capture spring colors, either.

Anyone care to identify these flowers?

Anyone care to identify these flowers?

My ankle hurt a little bit, but if I walked on it correctly it wasn’t a problem.  Exhilarated with the new world to discover, I decided to be more adventurous.  The main dirt path continued in front of me, but a narrower, grassier path curved up.  I could hear people nearby, but not in the direction of the path.  Robert Frost’s oft-quoted poem, “The Road Not Taken,” captured my thoughts exactly: the second path had “perhaps the better claim/ Because it was grassy and wanted wear.”   Though the trail was steep at times, I once again decided to not turn around until I found something exciting.

Stubborn, I pushed my way up, sometimes grabbing saplings for leverage.  Finally, I reached a rock face, and the path disappeared.  I was disappointed.  After my experience in Kandern with the castle, I expected every path to have something interesting at the end.  I wanted the less-traveled paths to yield secrets that only the brave few could share.  But here I was on the steep slope of a hill; I would have looked ridiculous if there was anyone around.

Finally, I gave up, partially because I didn’t want to try anything risky alone and with my ankle weakened.  I made my way back down.  At the steepest parts I had to sit on the ground and inch, careful not to slip on loose stones.  I was a little worried and mainly embarrassed.  “Geez, Jenn,” I muttered, “sometimes roads are less-traveled for a reason.”

A gentler path to take.

A gentler path to take.

The Art of Wandern: a Mountaintop Destination


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So what do I make of the castle in the woods?  I had so many conflicting emotions that surrounded my hike.  The castle gave me focus to my walk, but I soon became nearly obsessed with the idea of the goal, then defeated.  I was both stubborn to continue and ready to give up.  I was impatient, elated, and bored all at once.

Over the Hill and through the Woods...

Well, I figure that this was my first literal Mountaintop Experience.  In church once, our pastor described mountaintop experiences as these spiritual highs whenever you felt closest to God.  The funny thing is that in the Bible, these divine encounters were always coupled with the most embarrassingly human reactions.  God appears to Moses on a mountain and gives him the Ten Commandments; but when Moses discovers the Israelites worshiping another god, he immediately throws down the tablets in a fit of rage and breaks them.  After all that work, God was gracious enough to get another set made.  Similarly, thousands of years later, Jesus meets with Elijah and Moses on a mountain; his follower Peter is overwhelmed by the momentous occasion and offers to build tents for the three of them.  Tents.  That’s like offering the President of the United States a free stay at a motel, even though he never even brought up the issue of lodging.

What I learned from that sermon was that humans can be pretty clumsy.  Even during our moments of epiphany or spiritual clarity, we still blunder through.  Sometimes we hate ourselves for it.  We want to be wise and elevated, but time and time again we just end up being awkward (I am so describing me right now).  But I think that’s the beauty of humanity.  Moses and Peter were extremely close to God, and despite all their mistakes, God used them to change the world (no exaggeration here).  God’s power shines clearest when our pride and talent don’t get in the way.

Often, spiritual mountain top experiences are like my literal one.  You push through life exhausted and not entirely sure what you’re looking for.  Even if you have a goal that you’re passionate about, you start to wonder whether it’s worth it.  When you finally accomplish that goal, you’re numb, relieved, and feel like you can take on anything.  You can see how you got to where you are and see where you are going; the painful things in your life fall into place or unexpected opportunities open up.  Maybe God is closer than you’ve ever felt him before.  But when we descend from that mountaintop, we start to forget what it was like.  Things grow ordinary again.  Seemingly pointless troubles resurface.  We immediately start wishing we could be back on that mountaintop and wishing we weren’t so fickle.

A view from Sausenburg's tower

A view from Sausenburg’s tower

But honestly, if I could have turned around right away and climbed that castle again, it wouldn’t have been as magical.  The effort would have been a few feet, and the memory of the first visit still fresh.  The mountaintop would have become mundane and expected.  In search for the sublime, we want to escape the long paths and simple valleys, but the everyday trials are where we develop the strength to find those castles and develop the appreciation for their rare beauty.   Success is so much more precious when it comes at a price.

A glimpse outside.

A glimpse outside.

So why didn’t I write about all this back when it actually happened?  Well, I needed more time to process it.  Finding the ruins was such a profound experience for me, and I wanted to do it justice.  But the more I thought about it, the less I could put into words what I was feeling.  So I put this story on the back burner, hoping that at the end of my stay in Germany I could look at everything with a new perspective.

And so I’m back to the beginning of this story: my reflection on journeys and destinations.  Without the castle in mind, I would not have journeyed as far as I did.  Without the difficult journey, I would not have appreciated the castle as much.

This lesson is even more important to me now.  This May, I accomplished my goal of graduating with a bachelor’s, and ever since I have been working full-time for a non-profit.  This past fall, I applied for English graduate programs, so I know my non-profit job is only temporary.  As a result, I get a little overwhelmed by the barrage of paper and the beige walls in which I can’t quite feel at home.  I keep thinking about the future.  I keep wondering where I’ll be in the fall, assuming a grad program accepts me at all.  I have no idea how it’ll work out; the only thing I do know for certain is that I won’t know until April if I’ve been accepted anywhere. 

Without a solid destination, I feel adrift, just like I first did when I finally reached the crest of the hill and wasn’t sure what I would be looking for in the dark tunnel of trees ahead.  But I need to stop the worrying.  Even though I don’t know my destination yet, God does.  And when he’s ready to reveal my next goal, I will be ready, because he has been preparing me for it all along.  In the meantime, I need to refocus on what I’m doing now and enjoy the journey, because after I’ve arrived at my destination, this journey will be closed to me.  It will be a finished chapter, and I will only be able to return to that path through memory.

An old guardian.