I’ve written about this multiple times before, but I’ll write about it again: those two weeks in July 2010 when Lynn Palermo and I backpacked in western Europe in order to follow what had been the Western Front of World War I.
Those fifteen days beneath France’s cloudless skies still rank among some of my most eye-opening and humbling experiences. Lynn and I had begun our trek in Dunkerque, France (after not having seen each other for a year or so), then carried on to Ypres, Belgium (a city that was 90% destroyed in battle), and entered back into France by foot. From Amentières to Reims, we carried our packs along shadeless highways and between beet fields, zigzagged from village to village by following the church steeples, and stumbled over cemeteries tucked in forests and chapel yards.
We took the train whenever it was most logical, washed our clothes in hotel sinks, asked for directions and occasionally got lost, spent hours in silence only to pass hours more by singing, and cooled off in the dairy sections of grocery stores whenever the heat got too intense. We talked with strangers, slept in the shade, biked through forests, and wandered around public squares.
And I fell apart.
I wish this post was about the lessons I learned amid the grass-grown trenches, the damp caverns, or the threadbare villages with memorials to their fallen sons — although those places did provide strong, tangible evidence toward the pointlessness of war. (A discussion on peace merits a different post.) Instead, the greatest struggle for me during this trip was the seeming aimlessness of our wandering by foot, day after day, for hours on end, not knowing exactly — although this was the point — where or when we would land.
It was in Compiègne, France (where the Armistice was signed) when Lynn asked me what was wrong, and I blurted out that I really wanted to make a plan. Did she have any expectations for dinner? Did she wanted to remain in Compiègne for two nights or did she want to leave tomorrow? Where were we going afterward — was it Reims, or had I heard her say something about the Chemin des Dames? Was there a bus or train to either of these places? Had either of us checked the weather?
Lynn was genuinely surprised. “For me, it’s about the process, not the destination,” she said. “I’d rather not plan because then you’re open to whatever happens.”
In my life, I almost always curse the process. The training that goes before the half marathon. The schooling that comes before the degree. The climb before the summit. Too often, I brush off these moments as time wasted — obligatory dues to be filled before I can attain that which I feel I merit.
However, Lynn was suggesting that the process is almost more important than the place you end up. In other words, can the pain of the run be more important than the finish line? Can I look at the fatigue of grad school and realize that these days are actually moments to be treasured? Is it possible that I’ve already attained what I’ve been waiting for?