Almost a decade ago, I was on the road a good deal “preaching out” or what some itinerant ministers have called circuit riding — driving buggy or car from town to town, church to church, in some congregations so small and impoverished that their steepled, white clapboard buildings were only opened up once a month. Sometimes less often, to save heating and air conditioning costs.
Besides my half-time called ministry in the North Georgia Mountains, which meant a regular twice-a-month Sunday, with various administrative meetings and lunches tacked on, and some Wednesday small groups before choir rehearsal, I traveled bimonthly to Jackson, Mississippi, a six-and-a-half-hour drive out highway 20 from Atlanta, to be their consulting minister, nowadays called a developmental minister. Routinely, I would stop at the Mississippi Welcome Center to use the bathroom and down the lukewarm cup of Diet Coke they so faithfully offered.
At twilight on Friday, I would arrive just before the board meeting, sit through the several hours, then drive to the home of the then president of the board, with whom I would share a glass or two of Yellow Tail merlot (an inexpensive Australian brand which I had never tried before), some pasta, lots of UU shop talk, and over the years more personal stories and confessions. There would be more meetings, some pastoral visits, a Sunday forum, a Sunday service, more meetings, and then I would head home in whichever compact car I currently was driving (after a while I took to renting one from the local Hertz franchise), listening to books on CD or NPR — This American Life in particular. Something about finding a public radio station in the middle of Deep South farm country was beyond comforting — it was positively patriotic.
Besides Dahlonega, Georgia, and Jackson, I was invited to other small to medium UU communities in Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama, as well as the Oxford congregation in Mississippi: sometimes coming in on a Saturday night, sometimes just driving straight through the morning of. In fact, the longer stretches I could manage and the fewer stops the better as I even switched the dial to find country stations that also are found in California, from where we had moved, but which I would have never selected.
Taking a ministerial position in one of the largest UU congregations (the largest in the South) limited the time and energy I had to keep doing these road trips, restricting me to an occasional guest opportunity closer to home. The almost decade away from this showed last weekend when I set out for Oxford again: I was more anxious starting out, even with freshly changed oil and filters, a rotated tire, and just replaced wiper blades. The route that had been nearly automatic in years past: the always torn up highway between West Georgia and Birmingham, the confusing highway shifts and exits, the slowed to almost a halt traffic between there and Jasper, Alabama, the monotonous scenery, hilly but bland, from there to the Natchez Trace just outside Tupelo and Elvis Presley’s childhood home.
It didn’t feel intuitive, this mid-February journey. I had Map Quest directions and back up instructions on my phone, but did not anticipate that Highway 78 — a familiar, well-trod, if dowdy stretch of highway — had been resurfaced, expanded, and renamed Alabama Interstate 22.
When I only saw these markers for 10, 20, 30 miles out from Jasper, I panicked, enough to pull over on the shoulder and give my Oxford hostess a call. Am I lost? I asked her. This doesn’t feel right (the same).
You are doing fine, she reassured me.
This feeling of being completely off track and turned the wrong way was not the frame of mind of that 10 years younger in age and ministry woman who was so totally OK with riding around the South. It was more tiring, more disorienting.
Quite possibly the season for this kind of adventure is past.