Today I found the tree that weeps for me.

It’s hard for me to write this post, but not because the story pains me to tell – in fact, I love this story and it’s one of my favorites. It’s hard for me to write because how do I even begin to share the experience with you?

Two poems I have already written about it; two poems – one private, another even more private. I have posted briefly on Instagram about it just to say it is special to me. The poems are too vague, the prose too frank.

So I’m going to share some of the adventure of finding this tree and leave the rest up to the wind. This is fitting because when I found it the first time I too was missing much of the story.

When I found it I was lost (returning on my bicycle after an adventurous day) and didn’t know where I was. It was for this very reason that I found it. The morning ride outward was full of sunshine and the path was straight, but the ride home was rainy and meandering. You shouldn’t blame me for this because the Kaiserstuhl mountain area where this story takes place is distractingly pretty with its terraced vineyards and ancient stairways overgrown with plants and unexplained huts dotting the hills.

Panoramic view of a wheat field at the base of the Kaiserstuhl mountain in Germany. The hills in the background are lined by terraced vineyards and the peak of the Kaisterstuhl itself is made visible by the memorable shape of the radio tower at the top.

The purpose was a visit to the Octagonal City – Neuf Brisach – across the Rhein. With warm baguettes and an impressive defense work it is quite an understatement to say it wasn’t a let-down. “New Breisach” stares across the Rhine at (old) Breisach which France conceded as part of a treaty.

View from the top of Breisach looking eastward over the Kaiserstuhl towards the mountains of the Black Forest. In the foreground stands an eager for-pay telescope and an old wall.

So it’s been a wonderful day and time to get back to Freiburg before nightfall. The cycling paths through the vineyards have some surprising winds in them. At least I know generally which direction is East so I won’t get too lost, but I didn’t know where I was. Coming down the mountain was encouraging but counter-intuitively the closer Freiburg came the more lost I became. This oddity comes from the fact that when we are far from our goals it’s easy to orient ourselves because the details haven’t yet materialized; as we approach them those details appear and can create a puzzling maze of distractions and dead-ends.

It was raining and I was wet and cold. It was too wet to pull out the map and I can’t remember why it took so long to find a dry place to do so – my memory of all the events are fuzzy. Eventually though a town appeared and on its end a bridge, and on its end appeared a tree, and under its branches a respite from the rain. There is a frustrating feeling after having worked hard all day, tired with weary muscles, sweaty and hungry, exhausted, but knowing you still have an unfinished task. It’s the feeling you get when the first eight hours of a drive collide with the fact that you still have an hour to go and that hour somehow feels longer than the other eight combined. At the moment I came to find shelter under the tree I only wanted to be home in bed, dry, and asleep. I ached and the tension in my body was shouting.

Showing the tree and the intersection of the bike path and bridge which it guards. The boughs weep and a cornfield colors the background. Not shown is Belchen in the distance, a fact I didn’t remember having seen.

Under that tree I found my true bearing and the direction for which I so deeply yearned.

My wits weren’t about me otherwise I would have done things more carefully and intently. I didn’t even truly know where I was or stop to verify it. Reason should have given me more caution but I don’t remember thinking through any logical steps. In a rare moment for me I just was and I simply acted. Details of that place are locked in my memory – I knew, for instance, that there was a tree, that it was at the corner of a bike path and a bridge, and that from that point I could see some kind of tennis courts or baseball fields, I can still feel the drops of rain, the feel of the wrinkles in the blue jacket purchased in the discount bin at Aldi, the strange sensation in the lips of being somehow smoother after being cold and wet for so long, the rush of certainty and hope that I found when I learned the way home – while other details are completely lost – how had I gotten lost in the first place? Why didn’t I ride through town which would have not only given me a full picture of my location but also provided a bus I could hop on? Why did I forget that Belchen was in view from that spot – was the sky too obscured by the rain for me to see it back then?

Panoramic view of the mountains of the Black Forest with the twin-peaks of The Belchen in the middle. A bike-path approaches from the corner.
Belchen is the twin-peaked dome-top mountain the very middle of the picture.

Not remembering that The Belchen was in view is the most puzzling omission from my memory. That was the site of my longest single-day hike yet and it involved what is probably my most frightful night ever – the Black Forest is indeed very very dark at night on moonless nights but it’s not silent – a bad combination. Anyway I had been alone on that mountain and thought through many life decisions and it has and will always have a special meaning for me, just like this tree. You might start getting the impression that the Black Forest is not that big. It isn’t. You can see most of its mountain peaks from most of its mountains’ peak and the public transit connects even the most remote destinations.

So on I rode from here back to Freiburg in what must have felt as much of a never-ending ride as this post probably seems to you right now. I hope you are enjoying the journey though as much as I did that night but I doubt it. Thanks for reading this far though – I’m surprised I’ve never written this story out but I have told it in person a few times.

That was a long time ago. I was a student still, if that tells you anything. Over the course of about a year I think I continued to scan Google Maps to try and figure out where it was. I had some guesses, some pretty good ones, but no real confidence. I loved the challenge of finding it though. With just a few details about a place it’s almost always possible to find it again and when you do it’s as if you unlocked some hidden secret of sorcery – at least for me it is.

Over the years I’ve wanted to find it for real though. Why I have been unable to do that is another mystery on its own, for I have been looking for it for a good three summers during my retreat here in Freiburg. Mind you – it’s not a burdensome pursuit to be roaming around this part of the world. On one side you have the rolling mountains carpeted with trees hosting thousand-year-old towns and valleys where the Hexen lived and on the other you have the Rhein River and the vineyards and hot-springs that brought the Romans to this area two millennia ago. There’s history and beauty here.

But just as the very existence of this blog post implies, I finally found my tree on the outskirts of the wine town of Waltershofen.

You can imagine that after wandering through the town, pretty sure that I would find my goal there, that things were a bit up-and-down. An early path which seemed to stir some memories led me quickly to a dead-end at an industrial plant of some kind. Some field lights stood above the trees and I thought I might be on to something but actually it was just another random park. Please, dear reader, remember that I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for: I knew there would be a tree, a bike path, a bridge, and some kind of sports pitch in the background. I followed a few bike paths that led off into the distance but they were too narrow for what I had in my memory. A few others led into town and I thought I was sure that I was outside of the town. Thankful for the time to wander I wasn’t entirely confident that I would find it because I couldn’t say for sure it was the right town, or maybe the spot was several kilometers outside of town and I would have no practical way to find it (given the number of paths leading out of town).

Hopefully you can imagine the real surprise and relief I felt when I stumbled upon it. In the end a cyclist led me to it – a path I had bypassed earlier now drew me. I passed some tennis courts and got a little excited, trying to keep my excitement at bay so I didn’t crash in disappointment. Around the corner I saw a bridge leading to a field and a dirt way. Drawing closer still a tree with branches that hung over the corner of the bridge giving just enough cover for about two people to stand under. It was truly only once I stepped under the boughs that I knew I had found it. My journey was fulfilled.

It turns out that this is a weeping tree – a weeping birch according to my best internet search. This detail I didn’t remember either. It stands tall and its trunk is surprisingly large and solid. I found a small footpath down the bridge and sat by the river bank under that tree for a while, listened, watched, and wrote. I was happy to be under its shelter again – what a happy feeling.

After so many years I found it – I came back full circle. I got what I came here for and locked the full memory of the place. There’s a marker in my mind now – I won’t ever forget it. What have you been longing to find over the years? Where would you go if you had one place to find? What story would you tell?

It was there – right there! – under the weeping branches of the tree on the left at the end of the bridge – that’s where it all happened. One tree among billions, no clear logical details to lead me to it – just a subtle knowing and a will to find it – I hope you find your tree too if you are lost and looking for your way.

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