Finding My Stride

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An image from Sylvia Grove's World War I hike. I had been one of Lynn’s students and teaching assistants, and I know—as many of her students do—about Lynn’s hiking days and how they’ve anchored her point of view of education and culture. I personally am enthusiastic about our trip because I, too, want to understand French history by spending serious, sweat-worthy time with it. But four hours and 11 miles into our journey, I’m already planning my escape.

With each step along the eastern Belgian highway, the weight of my pack—crammed with French maps, water bottles and about 26 travel-sized deodorants—flattens the arches of my feet to the ground. The pain overrides any noble notion about education on the road. Isn’t education supposed to take place in an air-conditioned room while reading a glossy hardcover book? I curl my toes in my hiking boots, trying to push my bruised arches and bruised ego back into shape. The air quivers in the 100-degree heat.

The sound of a diesel engine roars behind me and another bus careens past, stirring the air for one heavenly moment. Lynn points at it joyously. “Sylvia! There’s a bus to Ypres!”

 “Are you kidding?” I shriek. A bottle or two of my deodorant scatters across the gravel. “You really didn’t hear me the first time?”

THE WESTERN FRONT OF WORLD WAR I stretched 496 miles from the North Sea to the Swiss border, cutting through southern Belgium and much of northern France. It was formed in 1914 when French and Belgian troops dug in with a system of trenches to halt the German invasion, and it barely moved for more than two years. The Industrial Revolution had advanced defense technology—flamethrowers, grenades, tanks, machine guns and poison gas—in such a way that gaining ground was nearly impossible for either side, making the western front a gruesome stalemate. Men huddled in the trenches, fighting to maintain whatever ground they had. Repeated battles reduced the countryside to a lunar landscape of barbed wire and mud.

Although the United States participated in the war, our home soil doesn’t show the scars. Our own scars have long since grown over on Little Round Top. The docks at Pearl Harbor have been rebuilt and repainted. For me, therefore, protracted war is a phenomenon that only happens elsewhere. World War I is an abstraction from history class.

I need this trip along the western front because Europe teems with reminders of war. Ypres, for example, was 90 percent demolished during three major battles and painstakingly rebuilt by its citizens. The cathedral in Reims, France, is pockmarked by shrapnel. Aizy-Jouy, a village of 264 inhabitants folded into the green plateaus north of Paris, has a monument to its sons who never came home. These scars mark France’s backyards and appear in photo albums. They are part of Western Europe’s history in a way that I want to understand.

The soldiers of World War I came from around the world to fight—England, Scotland, Morocco, South Africa, Ireland, New Zealand, the United States, Canada and others. They wore wool uniforms and sweated under the French sun, carrying their gear over mountains and through fields. They were homesick, writing home to their loved ones and lovers, and Lynn and I are determined to walk with them.

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