This past May I was visiting friends and relatives in the Washington DC area. I got to spend a couple of days out in Loudoun County, Virginia, to the north and west out along the Potomac River. I used to own a home out in those parts in a little hamlet two wrong turns off the dirt road. After growing up in Florida and always living near the ocean, suddenly I was inland and living on the first ridge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. I also managed to set up house in a country without a public swimming pool. After I-can’t-remember-how-many years of swimming, I suddenly needed a new sport.
Turns out I was living in one of the great bicycling places in Virginia. The terrain was all rolling hills, beautiful landscapes, horse farms, and almost no traffic. And I lived at the crossroads of countless different ways to ride. I could head back east where is was a little less rolling and just crank out miles. I could head west to Mt. Weather and spend the day climbing and descending. If I went north I was passing through Revolutionary War settlements and some amazing horse country. If I went south it was again rolling hills, steep climbs, and lots of horse farms owned by Hollywood actors, B&Bs for the Washington DC crowd to spend the weekends “in the country,” and lots of Civil War battlefields.
All of this connected by roadways, byways, back roads, country lanes, and throughways across some of the most amazing of God’s green acres… I don’t think there was one bit of road planning involved. I always suspected they just paved over the cattle paths, followed property lines, and from time-to-time were just simply random. I swear that the Taylorstown Road did not have one stretch of straight on the whole thing. If you wanted to go riding out where I lived you needed a county road map.
I bought a map, studied it, and in time began to color code it. The black roads were steep climbs and daredevil descents. The green roads were east rolling hills. The yellow highlights were in between. Some of the roads were marked with big red dots. That meant you were likely to be chased by a dog – so either avoid the road or be prepared to sprint. Soon enough I had explored the entire county and had maybe 25-30 different routes ranging from 30 to 100 miles in length – and knew the way by heart and memory.
Lots of people came out from Washington DC and the Northern Virginia suburbs to ride. My county was an easy place to lose your way. You came across people with maps, standing in a group, pointing in different directions, and someone plaintively lamenting, “I told you we should have…”; should have stopped for directions, taken the last turn, or any manner of “I told you so” commentary. Often they had not brought enough water, overestimated their fitness, and had already ridden too far. Moods had turned sour, backs and bums were sore, and they knew if would be a long, silent slog back to the car. They weren’t prepared for the journey; but the real problems was that they the missed the sights along the way.
Knowing the way is what opens you up to seeing all the surprises along the way. It is like the Taylorstown Road ride. The path ain’t straight, the valleys are definitely not filled, and not one hill on the road is made low – if you don’t know the way. But if you have mapped it out and know the road, the familiar turns and climbs free one to pay attention to what is along the way. Instead of being glued to the handlebars and road, you can take in wonder of the Firestone Ranch, the Christmas decorations in Waterford, and the huge Australian pine dressed out against the early morning sun in all its holiday finery. All the while you are effortlessly shifting into the right gear, taking the best line through the turns, and hitting the climbs with an optimal cadence. The way is almost straight, the hills not so tall, and the rough ways are made smooth.
When I recently visited, a friend and I traveled the Taylorstown loop by car. I remembered every turn, every hill, and every climb some 20 years later. I remembered the spot that had earned a red dot on my map. I instinctively wanted my friend to accelerate past that house. They are all the living memory of a way well trod. I haven’t seen my county road map in years, but I still know the way – and there is newness each time I travel that road.
For me, the Taylorstown loop is a metaphor for Advent. You have to intentionally choose to go there – not once, just passing through, but to return each season. Each time you need to mark the map in black, green, and yellow, with the red dots to mark the rough spots. All these marks are the memories of Advents past and are what helps you to be able to see the wonders along the way each new Advent. An Advent marked by the sounds waves lapping on Madeira Beach. An Advent spent on Mfangano Island in Lake Victoria, many Advents at sea submerged on patrol, the last Advent when our family gathered before my father died, the Advents of my youth when each day we opened the windows on the Advent calendar – all memories and marks on the road map of one life. Each one preparing me for the next one. The way becoming almost straight, the hills not so tall, and the rough ways made a bit more smooth – and there are new wonders along the way.
What do you remember about last Advent? What are your Advent memories? Are you prepared for this journey along the way? Is the way become part of heart and memory?
For it is now the 2nd millennium of the reign of Christ the King, when Francis was Pope, Robert was bishop, and the people gathered at Sacred Heart. Again the voice cries out: “Prepare the way of the Lord” – as it did last year; as it will again.
What will you remember about this Advent? How are you preparing the way of the Lord for this year and the years to come?