Stuck behind the wheel of a cramped rental car during a six-hour drive from Paris the previous day, it would take more than the threat of morning showers to keep me from stretching my legs on a Black Forest walking trail. That, after all, was why I was here, in the southwestern corner of Germany: to walk in woods once so dense and dark (before logging) that they were named “black.”
And this would not be mere aimless rambling; I had a clear destination in mind. I wanted to stand in the spot where Martin Heidegger, perhaps the 20th century’s most influential philosopher, did his thinking and writing. “Heidegger’s Hut,” it’s called. (In German, “Hütte.”) To see what he saw, to be inspired by the same pastoral landscape that inspired him, that’s what I wanted.
Not that his dense, sometimes mind-numbing prose had ever inspired me. That he became a Nazi in 1933 didn’t help. But his ideas — especially as interpreted by others, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Hannah Arendt — had, over a lifetime, made an impression. To hell with navel-gazing metaphysics, he seemed to say, when life is about inescapable engagement in a world of here and now.
Dasein. That was the defining word, in one of his signature neologisms, meaning: “Being there in the world.” And the world in which Heidegger wrote — during the tumultuous 1930s — seems ever more relevant to our own.
So it was that I found myself in the village of Todtnauberg (pop. 700), about a 40-minute drive from Freiburg, where Heidegger worked as university professor and, briefly, rector. This southernmost area of the Black Forest claims its highest elevations (almost 5,000 feet) — and so is known as the Hochshwarzwald (“High Black Forest”). That morning, from my hotel perch, as mist rose from the valley below, I imagined wisps of smoke from countless campfires of invisible forest fairies.
For my first hike in Heidegger country, I followed the sound of a stream rushing down the high valley through the village. Soon, I spotted trail signs with the term Wasserfallsteig — a typically compound German word, in this case meaning “waterfall climb.” The trail was certainly steep, so, yes, it would be a climb on my return. But when all around me birds were singing in fields of purple lupine, I shared their unconcern about the future.
Then came a clap of thunder. As it echoed off the surrounding hills, the drizzle began. The clouds themselves seemed to fall from the sky as a fine mist enveloped the landscape. My fisherman’s hat and small travel umbrella hardly helped in the steady downpour, so I sought refuge under the dense canopy of a huge beech tree and debated whether I should keep going toward the waterfall. The answer came in the form of another solo hiker, undeterred by the rain, who greeted me with an enthusiastic “guten morgen” as he strode by. Adjusting his backpack, disappearing into the mist, he began to whistle. I could swear it was the “Happy Wanderer” melody:
I love to go a-wandering
Along the mountain track
And as I go, I love to sing
My knapsack on my back
Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha
It was, indeed, here in the Black Forest — along with the neighboring Alps and England’s Lake Country — that taking a countryside walk for pleasure began to be popularized two centuries ago. With Romanticism’s changing attitude toward nature, walkers were no longer dismissed as poor vagrants or dangerous drifters. Catering to today’s hikers, as well as trail bikers and cross-country skiers, countless well-marked, well-maintained paths crisscross the Black Forest. Most have a gravel or stone base, so they don’t get muddy in the frequent rains. Wooden benches and observation platforms are strategically placed trailside.
Long before I got to the trail’s destination, I could hear water crashing over a granite massif. At more than 300 feet, this was, I learned from a trailside marker, one of the tallest natural waterfalls in Germany. Stubenbach was the stream’s name, rushing down from the high valley to join with other streams, to spill into the Rhine. Somewhat analogous to America’s Continental Divide, the Black Forest feeds two watersheds — not only the Rhine but also the Danube.
Discovery of truth
The next day, when I set out on the nearly four-mile trail called Martin Heidegger Rundweg (“loop trail”), the sun had burned off the morning mists without a hint of rain.
High up on the hills surrounding the village came the soothing sounds of birdsong, cowbells from grazing livestock and gurgling rivulets tumbling downslope toward the Stubenbach. As for actually finding his hut itself, the signs were less auspicious. Its exact location was not marked on any map, and people whom I asked were, at best, polite — but unhelpful. I attributed their vague responses to my rudimentary German. Since it was a Sunday, I couldn’t ask at the tourism office, which was closed.
By the second hour of the up-and-down hike (500-foot rise and descent), my steps became less brisk, more hesitant. Though this was certainly not an Everest-like assault, I still felt somehow ill-prepared — hiking shoes and trekking poles notwithstanding. My comfy hotel base camp beckoned. A tiny chapel came into view, set on the edge of a meadow at the tree line. I watched a fellow walker enter with her dachshund and light a candle. Maybe I should do the same?
Instead, I finished the loop, resigned to failure. Rationalizing, I reminded myself that, as Heidegger himself emphasized, the quest, not the goal, was what mattered. Truth always remained elusive. But less than a half-mile from my parked car, I caught a glimpse downslope of a gray-shingled structure with green shutters. From the Heidegger photographs I had studied, it seemed familiar. Could it be?
In a meadow surrounded by trees, it was all but invisible. No wonder I had first missed it! Unverborgenheit, or “unconcealment,” is a word Heidegger coined for the sudden discovery of truth, as if stumbling upon a clearing in a forest. I left the manicured trail for an overgrown path laced with electrified fencing (to keep cattle from wandering). On hands and knees to duck under one set of wires, I couldn’t help but laugh as I thought of the celebrated Heidegger trope of the woodcutter’s labors seeking to hack out a path to the clearing, to the bright “thereness of what is.”
Next to the structure was a wooden trough collecting spring water, just as described and photographed. There was no evidence of recent human activity; doors and windows were shuttered and locked. “Hut,” I concluded, was an understated description; really, it was more like a cabin or a cottage. Whatever the description, I was happy it had been hard to find; unearned, it would have been no fun at all.
The next day, I went to the tourism office to confirm my finding. There’s no signage, they explained, because the house isn’t open to the public — it’s still in the Heidegger family. “Oh,” I said, and quickly changed the subject. I asked the tourism adviser about other trails to explore and how to access the village swimming pool, for I liked Todtnauberg so much that I had decided to extend my stay another two days.
Soon, I found myself walking the winding, steep street to a small cafe to treat myself to the “thereness” of a cool and creamy Erdbeereisshake (strawberry ice cream shake).