The day began at the airport, the great temple to modern travel. Eleventh Busiest Airport in the Country, a placard proudly proclaimed. The masses of people shuffled towards their encounters with the TSA and surly gate agents. So often our pilgrimages begin this way. Our sacred spaces are mapped out on the tiny napkins where Southwest has printed a map of destinations to which they fly. Here Is Where We Can Go.
An hour into the flight, I thought to check the flight monitoring screen, the one with the tiny icon of the airplane superimposed over a map of the United States. We were over Texas—between Abilene and Austin, as it turned out, on our way to our connection in Houston. I remembered my father, who late in life had taken Abilene as his home, and who then in his last months had moved to Austin. He died, there, in Austin, too soon, and I remembered meeting my brother in another airport, the one there in Austin, where we went to my father’s place to gather up his things. To Do What Sons Do. And I remember driving that moving truck full of his things out of Texas and up through the South, to my brother’s house, where we would wait to sort things out. I remembered how it felt like that time deserved a movie to be made about it, a dark comedy, a buddy-brother flick about grieving and the healing powers of the road trip. All of this went through my head, all at once, when I saw the words Abilene and Austin. Memory and Place are a powerful cocktail.
We drove up through the twisty hills of the eastern edge of the southern Appalachians, each mile feeling like a pilgrimage to our past. We had lived here once, this place we were now returning to as visitors. The rental car agent had asked if we needed a map. We did not. We knew every turn, as it now and as it used to be, when we were younger. We told each other stories of those times, when we were not yet married and this road we were on just stopped right here, wasn’t finished yet, didn’t yet reach the other side of the mountain.
And then we found the Wild Goose Festival. It was tucked into the valley called Hot Springs, where the French Broad River bubbles up with some kind of geothermal heat, and where we had paid $5 an hour on college night in the ‘90s to sit in the warm waters and watch it snow. The Wild Goose was here, improbably, in this small town a long way from the Eleventh Busiest Airport in the Country. It was raining when we arrived; we hauled our camping gear to an open spot and set up in the downpour. Wild Goose indeed.
In the distance we heard music. My wife was the one who made the connection; it was one of the anthems of our childhoods, “Mr. Wendell” by Arrested Development. Speech, one of the members of the band, was performing around the corner. We shoved our gear inside the wet tent and struck out to hear him. As we arrived, the stage lights were catching the columns of summer rain falling onto the crowd gathered there, and Speech was telling the story of a song.
The song was about the time when his grandmother had died. (I thought about the time my own grandmother had died.) His family drove to pay their respects and mourn her in the place where she had lived: Tennessee. At the word the crowd whistled and cheered, because this was the song we knew best. We had all been in the seventh grade or something when it came out. His grandmother had died, he said, and then a week later his only brother died too. This song was about the pilgrimage to his grandmother’s place for her funeral, and it was about the journey of grief and loss. “Take me to a better place. Take me to a better land. Make me forget all that hurts me. Help me understand your plan.” They all made much more sense now, those words I had sung mindlessly for two decades. It was a pilgrimage song. It was a song about grieving your grandmother and your brother. It was a song about unexpected journeys. It was a song about cleaning out your dead father’s apartment. It was a song about memory, and the accretions of remembering that come with places we travel often. It was a pilgrimage song.
There are bugs here, my wife says rhapsodically. She is happy to see them, to hear them singing in the trees and feel them alighting on our skin. Bugs feel like home, after so much time away. The mosquitos have found me as I write this, and are feasting on my legs. We forgot bug spray. I don’t mind that much. This day that began in a place boastful of its status in the world of frenzied occupation has ended by a river, with a pilgrimage song and a soggy sleeping bag, where we can feel and hear the bugs and the big drops of rainwater from the trees, and the sounds of music coming from a far-off stage.
This day of pilgrimage is done. We have found the Wild Goose. Tomorrow brings journeys of its own. Tonight I am content with the bugs.
Read all of Eric’s posts from his Wild Goose journey here.
The Reverend Doctor Eric C. Smith is the Minister of Community Life at First Plymouth Congregational Church in Englewood, CO. He joined the First Plymouth staff in July 2007, after serving a church in Asheville, North Carolina, for 5 years. He holds a Ph.D. in Biblical Interpretation from the Joint PhD Program of Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver, a Master of Theological Studies from Vanderbilt Divinity School, and a Bachelor’s degree in English from Mars Hill College. He was ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 2007.