Travel Note: View from the Peak
It’s the last day of my trip to Germany and I’m sitting in a café in Munich, battling the simmering heat with an iced coffee because we Germans still don’t believe in air conditioning. I spent one week with my family in my hometown Tübingen and at the Ammersee south of Munich. This was followed by a couple of days in the Bavarian Alps. I was hoping to find some much-needed distance, rest, and, ultimately, clarity. And indeed, I felt blissfully disconnected from social media and markets. And yet, the end of my journey was anticlimactic.
On the final day in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, I planned to visit the Zugspitze, Germany’s tallest peak (really shared with Austria). From the observatory I would let my gaze drift across a landscape of endless meadows and forests dotted with red roofs and the occasional speck of a lake.
This majestic view, I imagined, would be the outward reflection of inner clarity gained during my trip. There would finally be a grand plan, a vision, orderly and pretty like an Alpine village welcoming the season’s first tourists.
That day I stepped into the Seilbahn, a cable car headed to the Zugspitze Observatory. I was excited. The trip had been a great success so far. I reconnected with people in my family I had barely seen in a decade, people dangerously close to becoming strangers. But what little alone time I had, I filled with journaling before crashing into a deep sleep. I was barely thinking about my work, nor had I spent much time with the books I’d brought along. The much desired eureka moment was nowhere to be seen. I watched the forest float by below me before the car ascended a near vertical wall of jagged rocks. Until, finally, everything turned white. The peak was shrouded in clouds.
Imagine my disappointment as I stepped out of the gondola onto a terrace, Wagner’s Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla blaring in my earphones, and found myself wrapped in a dense fog. From up here I could see no further than from my desk in Manhattan’s east village.
I took a second smaller cable car, the Gletscherbahn, down to the glacier. This is where the ski lift drops off experienced thrill-seekers every winter. In the summer the glacier is an extended plateau of rocks and debris populated by tourists such as me posing for Instagram.
But at least it was below the peak and the view was starting to improve.
While wandering around aimlessly, groups of tourists caught my eye. They were veteran hikers with tanned faces and worn boots who carried trekking poles and even rope. They made a beeline towards the mountain and slowly ascended the slope, methodically placing their feet among the loose rocks, before reaching the ridge that led to the peak.
As I watched them turn into dots barely visible against the sky, it dawned on me that I had it all backwards. I let technology lift me up effortlessly. The cable car to the peak was a shortcut. A bag of potato chips, all empty calories. In comparison, their arduous climb was like a home cooked meal. It required effort, preparation, and experience. But the reward was lasting and rich in taste. The cutting, washing, and waiting was a meditative journey inward. The view was merely the visible reward after hours spent in sweaty concentration. The upwards climb was the real bounty: a focused effort for the body that released the thinking mind.
Unfortunately, I was completely unprepared for such a hike and took the Gletscherbahn back to the peak. The clouds had lifted and the observatory offered gorgeous views, just as advertised.
But I had learned that it was not about the view, which remained flat, like buying a postcard of a place you’ve never visited. Meaning requires engagement. It gets created in motion, through effort, with curiosity, by doing something difficult, or over the course of shared experiences. Otherwise we have nothing but a picture for social media. What could have been a meaningful experience is reduced to a mindless attempt at social signaling.
I still fondly remember the remainder of that day. The short and, for me, nerve-wrecking climb to the nearby Gipfelkreuz. And the long hike around the Eibsee through quiet woods, listening to the gravel crunch under my boots. My mind finally went quiet when I dipped into its turquoise water.
But mostly I remember that unexpected realization, ‘oh, that’s what it is all about. Duh!’ Insights may reveal themselves suddenly, like wind ripping apart the clouds. But they are earned when we engage and immerse ourselves in the world. They emerge from a balance between effort and letting go, between movement and stillness, connection and solitude. Clarity is not found in a single moment but formed over the course of the journey. It is not revealed in a sweeping view but shaped with each step.