During a different life, a million years ago, or maybe just a couple of decades, when I lived in a different world, or maybe in an apartment in a city with no chickens and no dairy cows and no gaggle of sons, I got lost. This was before I had a smartphone in my pocket that carried all the answers to all the questions. This was before cars came equipped with navigation. Then, a paper map rode in the glove box if you had a paper map and if you didn’t, you printed out directions before you left on a trip if you were responsible.
I wasn’t particularly responsible a million years ago. I was young and distractable, prone to start road trips and make life choices without much forethought.
It was October, a random weekday when I got lost. I was making a long trip, and I didn’t bother printing the directions because I was sure I knew the way. It turned out I didn’t know the way, and I drove a solid sixty-something miles in the wrong direction before I realized my mistake. You may wonder how a person could possibly get so far in the wrong direction without noticing, but I told you, I was young and distractable, and it was October.
I was supposed to follow a stretch of i-40 from Knoxville to Nashville and then on home to Arkansas, but the leaves flanking the freeway were in the peak of their fall color display. All I remember was weeping tears of awe-struck wonder at the rich blaze of color flashing by my window. The next thing I knew, I took an exit to follow a sign, golden arches suspended in the sky. I was in the drive-thru grabbing a Dr.Pepper (remember, this was a different life before I was a health-conscious farm girl) when I spotted the headline in a newspaper dispenser which read something along the lines of “The Chattanooga Gazette.”
Chattanooga is a far cry from the route I was meant to follow, but I wasn’t remotely distressed by my thwarted course. In fact, I simply went into a gas station, bought a paper map and planned a new way forward. It took me three hours longer to arrive, but I counted it a blessing to get to spend three more hours marveling at the leaves.
Yesterday, I drove through Appalachia, Eastern Tennessee and down through the western side of the Carolinas, to be exact. It is October. I’d made a four and half hour trek up to nearly Virginia the day before to pick up a standard poodle puppy. Her name is LuLu, and she is a much-anticipated addition to our family. After spending the night at my friend’s farm just north of Knoxville, and sticking around long enough for morning chores, I plugged my home address into my iPhone’s GPS to make it back before my sons got out of school.
I wasn’t paying much attention to the route. I didn’t realize I wouldn’t be following the same interstate that carried me into Tennessee back home to South Carolina. I’m not sure why, maybe a wreck on the freeway, maybe construction, but I was sent the longer route through the mountains. I followed without thought, distracted, I guess, and I guess though I cannot claim to be particularly young, distractable is a word I won’t escape, no matter how many grey hairs I grow.
The next thing I knew, I saw signs for a national park and a scenic road, and I was in the thick of the most beautiful display of fall color that I’d ever seen.
Of course, I’ve always known how moved I am by the leaves changing. I learned that a million years ago, when I lived a different life, when I got lost one October day in Eastern Tennessee. I’ve come to call the week when the leaves peak “Burning Week.” I anticipate it, look for the early signs of turning, and even if I have no errand that demands it, I’ve always found to take a long country drive to take the beauty in.
I love Burning Week. I love the way it makes the world feel on fire, the way it tinges the very air golden and gives the impression that every bush is a burning one. When the leaves peak, it screams a message to my heart that every bit of this lovely earth I live on is holy ground. Burning Week moves me so deeply, but my farm is surrounded by pine forests. Though I am thankful for the way the pines cling to their green through winter, saving me from the torture of a grey and dying season, they do not burn in fall. Because of this, it’s nearly November, and I hadn’t really thought much at all about the leaves changing.
Then I got the notification about LuLu, made an impromptu trip, found myself amid Appalachia during Burning Week, and I was undone. As my car snaked through winding roads with steep drop-offs, crimson and gold surrounded me. The warmth of those trees reached into my most deep and secret places. My heart turned over and my directions stopped loading and my music stopped playing because cell service didn’t reach that deep into the mountains. I rolled the windows down and slowed my speed, craned my neck to gaze up embankments painted in deep reds and brilliant yellows and rich orange.
I took a sharp turn in the wrong direction, only hoping I could get a little lost in that holy place, then saw a parking pad next to the road, a couple of trucks with fly rod holders strapped to the top. The gravel crunched beneath my truck as I pulled off. Lulu and I got out and headed down to the bubbling mountain trout stream. We walked a distance beside the water, her weaving through my feet, brave enough to put a paw in the cool, running stream for a moment but then leaping and bouncing away the next. And there, I cried.
I stood in that spot, carved out of mountains painted with the most vivid hues of warmth, and I wept. I raised my hands up there, unaware and unconcerned with nearby fly fishermen, and my heart burst open violently with thanks. I’m not sure what exactly for, maybe for anticipated poodles and unthinkable beauty and for a design that makes the passing away of lush summer so lovely, for mountain streams and deeply rooted peace, for provision to make impromptu trips and most of all, for the fact that when I forget to make margin for something I love, something that moves me so personally, God somehow makes a way despite my own distraction.
I praised there, poured out worship because He took me on a drive to show me the leaves, and in that moment, He might as well have made them change for me alone.
After what felt like a million years but was probably only twenty minutes, I headed back to my car. I loaded LuLu up and got back on the road, headed the direction I assumed was out of the deep mountain woods, back to cell phone service and my directions home.
I made it to the freeway, made it to the pine forest and the farm surrounded by green. I introduced the boys to their new puppy and made dinner and edited a video and laid down in bed with my husband to watch an episode of our favorite show. I stepped back into my routine, lovely as it is, but inside me, something was burning and is burning still.
This world is full of burning bushes you see, exploding with beauty and full of unassuming moments just waiting to be extraordinary and I am certain of this: it’s all holy ground.