a detour through hot springs

So a giant boulder, the size of a mobile home, fell down on Interstate-40 near the North Carolina-Tennessee border and the road, which is the main artery going east or west in the central Southeast United States, is closed, not for a few days, not for a few weeks, but for the foreseeable future.

Our older daughter attends a small college in Alabama, it actually takes about six hours to get there, it is a wonderful school but farther away than I sometimes wish, so I try to see her play volleyball, which is her college sport, whenever I can. Which turns out to be about three times a year. Their end of year league tournament was held at another small college in Maryville, Tennessee,  Maryville College, near Knoxville.  We have a cabin near Asheville, and in normal circumstances it is less than a two-hour drive from our cabin to Maryville. But, as I noted earlier, these are not normal circumstances.

So I began to inquire about an alternate route to get there---I was determined to get there---and there really is no good way to get there. After all, this is the part of the country that includes the Great Smokies and the Appalachian Trail. There are rivers and mountain ranges, at least by east coast standards. And thank God for all of that...until you try to get across, to the other side. 

I settled on a plan.  I would drive up Highway 209, from Lake Junaluska to Hot Springs. I actually love Hot Springs, although, to get to Hot Springs you must have a high degree of motivation, and really good brakes on your automobile for the switchbacks.  It is I am guessing a forty-five minute drive from Lake Junaluska to Hot Springs.  The first 15 minutes are idyllic, and Friday happened to be a perfect fall mountain day, absolutely beautiful. The next 15 minutes were a challenge. And the last 15 minutes were most demanding of all. Just a perpetual zig-zag, and a constant prayer that one would not meet an out of control trucker having a bad day, coming from the opposite direction. 

As I said, I really do love Hot Springs. I have been there on a number of occasions, but three stand out. For years I was a part of a lectionary group that met each year for a few days prior to Labor Day and we worked on sermons for all of the Sundays leading through Christmas Eve and Epiphany. The group ranged in size from six to ten, I suppose, we stayed in a friend’s place in Wolf Laurel, near Mars Hill.  My friend is now a District Superintendent, and I think that led to the demise of our group--his becoming a District Superintendent, I mean. The first clue there was his giving all of his commentaries away to one of the younger members of our group. There were men and women preachers among us, and we did not all see the world through the same lens. But that was fine. When I left I had a huge head start on every sermon that fall. And I had gotten into the Hot Springs, which itself is like a sedative. I recommend it. 

A second memory was taking groups (on two different occasions, I think) to the Jesuit House of Prayer in Hot Springs. I love the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius, although in recent years my taste in Catholic spirituality has gone toward the Benedictine side, and I would ask Father Vince to lead our group through the section on discernment, which I still think is a very profitable way to make a decision, if God's will is an important consideration for you. I also recall that we shared Holy Communion together, he asked me to be the celebrant, and he took the bread and the wine with us. I hope I do not get him into trouble by writing this….

And the third occasion was simpler, but no less important: we had just purchased our cabin in the mountains, and my wife was deeply into decorating it, putting her stamp on it. It seemed to everyone get the girls away from all of that, for a day, so I volunteered to drive them to Hot Springs. Since the Appalachian Trail literally goes right through Main Street, we would park our car, take our picnic lunch and hike an hour or so into the AT. There we would find a place to sit, take out the food and eat it. And this is what we did.  

So last week I made a virtue out of necessity, stopping by Hot Springs. I parked, and this was out of my need to get some measure of tranquility after the drive. I went into the Outfitter's Shop. It was as I remembered it: a mecca of ourdoor gear, a gathering spot for hikers dying to talk to someone, anyone, after the solitude of days on the trail. Really friendly people, all the way around, sort of like the people who populated the "Northern Exposure" series.  The saleswoman/proprietor asked me, "are you here because of the detour?" and I responded, "well, yes, i am on my way to Maryville, but I have been here before, on purpose".