Finding My Stride

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LYNN'S MANTRA while walking is “it’s about the process, not the destination.” Since my graduation from Susquehanna, I have become an English teacher, someone who strives to use every second constructively. I eat breakfast at my desk; teach seven different classes a day; and manage the school newspaper, literary magazine, and choir. At any given moment, I am worried about at least one of these responsibilities.

I do not know how to walk, figuratively or literally, with an appreciation of the process. Through life, I run, eyes fixed on the destination so I can move on to the next task. Is it selfish of me to go through life at break-neck speed when I’m surrounded by so many reminders of lives cut short?

I think about this as we face a road that disappears before us up a mountain called Kimmel. The climb looks long and ominous. “It’s about the process, right?” Lynn asks, and we begin. The incline strains our calves, our heavy footsteps crunch the gravel, but when Lynn gestures toward the side of the road, we stop. Behind the young trees is a silent brick mansion, complete with a wrought-iron gate. It is charming, just as you would expect a European mansion to be. We smile. Lynn says, “Focused on the destination, you never know what you might miss.”

Two weeks later, in a museum near Compiègne, we see a photo of Mount Kimmel during the war, with a gravel road disappearing into cold white fog. Only the stumps of trees are standing.

On JULY 11, Lynn and I begin climbing the Chemin des Dames, a strategic plateau west of Verdun in an area so desolate, it will be nearly impossible for us to reach on foot in the time we have left for our trip. We want to see it because the extremely poor conditions for soldiers had resulted in mutinies along the ridge. Some 15.5 miles away is the Dragon Cavern, where fighting took place in underground stone quarries. Further east is the California Plateau, named by Americans who fought there.

“Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall,” I howl as we trudge uphill. Lynn joins me in French: “Quatre-vingt dixneuf bouteilles de bière—”

We are alone except for the sunlight that seems to boil even in the shade. The soldiers once were here, climbing this hill.

“Eighty-one bottles of beer—”

After 30 minutes, we are still marching slowly through every mismatched breath, but I find that I don’t mind. I’ve learned that when I slow my life’s rhythm, the course of history that I can change is my own.

With about 50 bottles of beer left on the wall, Lynn and I reach the top. The plateau stretches before us in unbroken fields of corn and wheat. We are nowhere near a pharmacy, bakery or grocery store; there will be no shade for the next 20 miles. But as we look at the road behind us and the one ahead, these comforts seem unnecessary. We’ve taken time to experience history, and victory is ours.

Sylvia Grove is a teacher and freelance writer from Harrisburg, Pa.

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