By Tom Ehrich
TOWNSEND, TN -- My long weekend at a cabin beside the Great Smoky Mountains came to a close with a jam session of mountain musicians.
Coming out of the hills to a dulcimer shop on Route 321, fifteen men and women brought their lap dulcimers, hammered dulcimers, banjos, guitars, fiddles, string bass and recorder. They sat in a circle. After extended rituals of tuning their instruments and checking in personally, they launched spiritedly into songs like "Wildwood Flower" and "8 Miles from Louisville."
They took turns picking the songs from an extensive list on a whiteboard. If you picked it, you had to signal the ending, too, either by kicking out your leg or giving a "whoop!"
They offered me a guitar, but I know when not to make a fool of myself. So I sat behind my friend Mickey, who was playing banjo, and just listened to the wonderful music.
My dad played the guitar. He loved to sit around and sing the "good old songs," like "I want a girl," "When you wore a tulip" and "Down in the valley." I learned enough guitar to lead preschoolers in song, but that was all. I just love the music.
This jam session was the perfect end to a relaxing and productive weekend. Under no pressure to drive 200 miles each day and find a hotel before sundown, I wrote extensively, went for walks, watched "Blue Bloods" online, read, and visited with my friends.
I am back on the road today, heading into nasty weather and ready to be home. So having finished my "two-lane theology" writing in eastern Tennessee, I will now "put the pedal to the metal" on Interstate 81 for the final 800 miles.
Or, just as likely, snow and freezing rain will force me off the highway to hole up in a hotel.
This final leg will be just as important as earlier legs, but quite different. Up to now, I was driving roads and towns I had never seen before. Now I will be crossing countryside that I know well. It is filled with the memories of family drives to New Hampshire, "Prairie Home Companion" on tape, and discovering peanut butter pancakes in Frackville, PA, as well as memories of college drives home to Indiana.
The question on my mind will be: What is this familiar terrain to me now? And who am I now? I know I am no longer the insecure 18-year-old who traveled east for college and fell in love with New England. Or the young husband and father bringing my family to a beloved family farm in New Hampshire -- and, in the process, escaping for a month the relentless stress of parish ministry.
So much has changed, with the passing of years and changing of careers, even more with the easing of gotta-make-it-big stress.
It wouldn't surprise me to discover that this final leg is the most jarring of all. Discovering the new is one thing; working with God to let the old become new is something else entirely.