“We should go to Ulm,” Becca says, planning our Germany trip. “It has the tallest church steeple in the world!”
“Really? How many stairs is it?” I ask, because this is how I measure building height now.
In America, I would have asked, “How many floors is it?” which is really just another way of wondering, “Which button on the elevator do I need to press?” Now, I’m starting to wonder if the modern elevator ever made its way to Europe. Any time we want to go to the top of a building, it’s stairs. Endless, stone, spiraling staircases, with no lift in sight.
But after a while, I can’t imagine ever using an elevator again. When you’re forced to climb 846 steps to reach the top of a church, you can’t help but run your hands along the walls or look outside and realize that the carved facade you’re admiring were carved by someone hanging precariously outside, dangling over a drop that could easily cause their death. There’s a new appreciation when reaching the top, because the people who built this place didn’t even have the luxury of the knee-high railings that are the only thing between you and the very distant ground. They earned this view, just like the people who climb the same steps to get here. Stepping inside a metal box that takes you right to the top just doesn’t capture the feeling.
I came close to danger all over Europe, but I saw things that railings, regulations, and apathy might have prevented me from seeing. In the mountains above Loch Tay, our group leader described how the day held perfect conditions for avalanches. We silently walked around giant snow banks, staring up at the silent mountain that could fall at any time.
In Perthshire, we went to an abandoned copper mine. We got to go inside, and explore the crumbling walls, and remnants of forgotten tunnels. We peered down old mine shafts, watching new waterfalls bring green into old stone.
And in Wangen, Germany, we watched a witch burn.
When we first approached the giant pyre, I thought it was a small hill. At the top, a straw witch sat atop a broomstick, swaying in the night air. It took almost twenty people stationed around the pile of wood to set it alight, and it nearly half an hour the whole thing was finally in flames. The fire was the town’s old tradition of burning away the winter to welcome spring. I was so close to the towering blaze that embers landed on my sleeves, and I could see the faces of people on the other side through the smoke.
Of course, safety is important. But so is challenging yourself. We might have fallen, but we saw a breathtaking view. We might have been buried in snow, but the beauty of the winter world around us was worth it. We might have slipped in an old mine, but we touched a piece of ancient people’s lives. We might have caught fire, but we certainly welcomed in the spring with a bang.
Photos by Rebecca Downs ’18