Have You Ever Really Traveled If You Haven’t Broken at Least One Umbrella?

This is a story about my chronic and incurable nerdiness. I think it’s also a story about traveling and adventuring asking What’s the difference, anyhow? because I am now 24/48 days into this trek and the middle of any story is the time to stop and think. And what I’ve been thinking about lately is Why do we travel? What are we trying to accomplish? What different kinds of traveling are there? 

While I’d love to sit down with you when I get back home and talk about these big, spooky questions ad nauseum, I’m planning to leave the rampant philosophizing behind today and to just tell a plain old story about my favorite experience I’ve had as a traveler. I use the word “experience,” but upon calling it that I think it’s better described as a “calamity,” if only because this calamity reached its climax with the tragic and untimely death of my umbrella atop an elevated WWII monument at the tip of a Polish peninsula in the midst of an unruly Old Testament style Baltic sea tempest. 

Luke Williams | Lets Go

Some background: Gdańsk is a seaside town that from roughly 1000-1350 was Polish territory. Around 1350, German crusaders arrived in town and crashed the party and (I’m horrifically simplifying things) Gdańsk became Danzig, Germany for the next 500 years or so. During the half millennium, Danzig would be really wishy-washy about its German/Polish identity crisis and sometimes it would even decide to be its own city-state because Florence proved that can be cool. And even though Danzig’s pubertal self-defining phase lasted so long, merchants from across Scandinavia and northern Europe stepped in and assured that Danzig was going to be one of the richest, most prosperous hormonal cities the pockmarked face of Germany/Poland had ever seen. By WWI, Danzig was one of Germany’s prize pigs, bringing in all the trading money the Kaiser could ever want. But in 1918, American President of Getting in Everybody Else’s Business Woodrow Wilson decided that Danzig should once again be its own city-state and that Poland should have almost total control of everything that happens in said city-state. 21 years later, Hitler said to Poland, “Give it back,” to which Poland very bravely responded by sticking out its tongue and blowing Germany a raspberry, very well knowing the rest of the free world probably wouldn’t be feeling too heroic or freedom-loving until their wallets needed them to.

Upon hearing Poland’s answer to his demand, Hitler decided to invade Danzig because honestly it had worked really well with Austria and Germany just really wanted its maritime money-maker back (and the rest of Europe, surprise!). Part of American President Woodrow “Getting in Everybody Else’s Business” Wilson’s plan to give Danzig to Poland in 1918 stipulated that Poland could only keep a small military force at the city’s port, the mouth of the Vistula River and the “Gate to Poland,” A.K.A. Westerplatte. So, because of APGEEBWW’s inimitable foresight, only 200 Polish soldiers were present when 3,500 German soldiers showed up with boats and really angry faces. 

In one of history’s most incredible and, sadly, forgotten, battles, 200 Polish soldiers held off the German forces for seven days, only giving in to the Germans when they ran out of ammunition. The Polish forces suffered 15 casualties, while the Germans suffered over 300. During the course of the battle, the Polish fort was almost completely destroyed and German boats swiftly sank their teeth into the rest of Poland via its new access to the Vistula River. Before being confined to prison camps, the Polish soldiers of Westerplatte were saluted by the German general for their bravery, and the battle has entered Polish memory as the “Polish Thermopylae.”  End background. Breathe a sigh of relief. 

Almost exactly 80 years after the Polish soldiers’ heroic stand at Westerplatte, I found myself walking north from downtown Gdańsk (so renamed after WWII) toward the ruins of the battle as thunder cracked and a storm brewed overhead. Surrounded by Polish forrest and overgrown abandoned shipyards, I was ten minutes south of the ruins when the first raindrops started to fall. I immediately whipped out my umbrella and laughed triumphantly at foolish nature for thinking it could overcome modern engineering.

The closer I came to Westerplatte, the more I began to feel like nature didn’t want me there. While the rain remained relatively light, the wind grew to hurricanic proportions, raising dust from the dead and spinning it in mad circles like the Tasmanian Devil. Every now and then the wind would play a very cruel trick and send one of the dust-nadoes toward sensitive-allergied me. I would close my eyes and plug my nose and brace my umbrella in front of me like Captain America’s shield, hoping and praying to be saved from the dust as the thunder laughed at my sorry little dumbshow. 

At this moment, I felt like an adventurer, not a traveler—walking boldly against the stream, into the wind, the rain, and the eerie island that spawned the largest armed conflict the world has ever known.

By the time I arrived at the beginning of the peninsula, people were running toward their cars like someone told them Whoever makes it back first gets free lifetime access to Jerry’s Gelato Stand! and the ruins were losing tourists faster than a hostel with bedbugs. At this moment, I felt like an adventurer, not a traveler—walking boldly against the stream, into the wind, the rain, and the eerie island that spawned the largest armed conflict the world has ever known. It’s hard to describe, but Westerplatte simultaneously feels cursed and a manifestation of bravery. It feels like every time you visit Westerplatte you should expect a storm for the ages One where the farther you go into the peninsula the more brutal the storm grows and the more ear-shattering the thunder rings. However, the walk into the peninsula is also infectious with the bravery of the soldiers that defended it those 80 years ago. As I marched on past the first ruin—a skeletal concrete guard tower standing in a lonely clearing of trees, looking out into the grey and red sky connecting clouds with lightning—I couldn’t help but don the goofiest grin. It was thrilling, really, in the most fundamental sense of the word. 

Luke Williams | Lets Go

When I arrived at the ruins in the middle of it all, a set of barracks that has collapsed in on itself but is still open for people to walk inside and peek around in, the rain picked up significantly. You could hear it inside the barracks—the tip tap smiCk SmACK SLAP of rain drops pulling a reverse “Jason from Subway” move, getting larger and rounder and faster and meaner, pounding down the walls of the concrete ruin I decided to call home for a quick second. Within the space of time that I huddled in the barracks, I couldn’t help but feel some pale shadow of the soldiers’ fear from 80 years ago. They must’ve huddled alone in the dark with nothing but a gun (read: umbrella) to give them confidence to face unstoppable, elemental opposition. And again, I found my lips curling just the littlest bit, I found myself completely immersed in a piece of abandoned history that, for an instant, came back to life right in front of me—triumphing over any museum, meal, or sightseeing Gdańsk could offer me. 

As soon as I stepped outside, my umbrella folded in on itself and two of its eight metal prongs broke. I stepped back inside. All of the vendors who may have had umbrellas to sell were long gone, and there were very few people who had decided to stay to trek the wet ruins alongside me. Anyway, it was still an umbrella, just a differently-abled umbrella now (we don’t want to hurt the umbrella’s feelings) whose “different” protection of my left side amounted to “no protection at all.”

I continued my walk past the central ruin and finally arrived at the monument hill that signalled the end of the peninsula, a hill that, once climbed, meant I could walk back to the main road and order a very dry, very warm Uber home. 

But first, I had to walk up the hill. And this was a tall hill, mind you, taller than any of the trees surrounding it, so you knew the wind would be unbroken and furious. Unfortunately for me, there had been no straight path up the hill either, just a spiral walkway that takes its sweet, sweet time delivering you to the top. And while I appreciate the symbolic beauty of climbing a spiral pathway up a monument hill to overlook the ruins of the first battle of WWII and a site of incredible braver —my backpack was starting to get wet and my money would be next and then we’d be having some real fun.

Luke Williams | Lets Go

However, there was no way I could turn back without finishing. I climbed to the top of the monument hill and looked over the ruins and was feeling very, very happy to be standing atop the hill alone, not too wet, and triumphant—having made it to the end of the island and having been psychologically pushed to exercise radical empathy with ruins and soldiers that existed as realistically in my head as in the barracks of 80 years ago. And in this moment of blissful unity of traveler and traveled-to, this simultaneous thrill and enriching movement toward adventure, my umbrella literally snapped. 

I jumped back, threw my umbrella reflexively to the ground, and shouted a few expletives into the rain that had already claimed me as its own. 

But then I just stood there. My backpack is waterproof, after all, and my money got very deftly slipped inside. 

I just stood there and let the rain pound against my temples as I looked out into the ruins—arguably the exact place where the world as we know it had been born. A sight imbued with sacrifice and courage exceeding any magnitude I can even relate to.

And I beamed. 

And I shouted: Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage! Blow!

And I knew a little bit more about the difference between traveling and adventuring. 

And let the record show:

That I, more than anything, am a chronic and incurable nerd. 

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