Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Long Night of the Soul (Opal, VA)

There are a number of very small towns where it is hard to find someone to host me. My tactic thus far has been to contact churches in those towns, explain my journey and ask if anyone in their congregation might be interested in housing me for a night. That worked like a charm on two different occasions in New York State. But so far I'm 0-for-Virginia.

One pastor in Virginia did get back to me. He left me a voicemail saying he felt bad that no one in his small congregation could host me and that he would like to arrange for a motel room in the area so I had a place to stay. I took him up on his offer, genuinely touched that he was willing to go the extra mile to make sure I wasn't out in the cold.

That is how I came to be walking up James Madison Highway into the town of Opal on Tuesday night. That part of JMH is a busy industrial thoroughfare. Opal is less a town and more a conglomeration of a few gas stations, a McDonalds, a gun store/firing range and a trucker stop. I trudged past each as semis blew past me in the opposite direction. About 20 minutes north of Opal by foot sat the only lodging game in town - Johnson's Motel. Unfortunately for me, I don't think there is a Howard in this Johnson family tree.

Johnson's Motel appears to be a run-of-the-mill motor lodge. Rooms open on to the parking lot. The rooms have small bathrooms, tissue-thin white towels and mattresses that might have been around since James Madison drove a horse down the highway that now bares his name.

I surveyed the sparse room and decided to count my blessings. I had a place to stay for the night. I had a warm shower. And I had cable. I could work with that. I striped off the bed spread (if that bed spread could talk, I'm not sure I would want to hear the stories) and plopped down on the bed to write some thank you cards and watch ESPN.

It was shortly thereafter I first noticed the occasional bug trekking across the bed. Oh no, I thought. This can't be good. There weren't a legion of them, but they were undeniably there. As much as I saw one and flicked them off, another would appear a few minutes later - a cousin possibly, or maybe a great uncle.

I thought about my options. The office was already closed for the night, so I couldn't ask for another room. This was literally the only motel around. It was dark out and I couldn't walk anywhere. I had no choice but to stick it out.

There was a garden variety aluminum folding chair in the corner. Given that it had no upholstery, I deemed it safe. I positioned it in front of the TV and that is where I sat for the next four hours, eating my Dominoes pizza and watching a Twins-Tigers one game playoff. I would occasionally look over at the bed and survey the white linen to judge the frequency of the little brown bugs aimlessly wandering across it. I knew bedtime loomed.

When 10:00pm came my body was shutting down. I briefly thought about trying to sleep sitting on the chair before realizing that would be even more tortuous than sharing the bed with a couple of bugs. I knew I might need some help with sleep, given the unusual circumstances. I had bought some Nyquil that morning thinking a head cold was coming on. I reached for it and ... it slipped ... pouring out over the already deep red carpeting. I saved 2/3 of the bottle, shaking my head over an ever growing comedy of errors. I cleaned the top and looked at it solemnly as if I was Socrates eying my hemlock cup. Then I took a long, deep swig.

I left the lights and the TV on and lay across the bed sideways, somehow thinking this amounted to a clever strategy. I'm not sure what good it did to have my legs hanging off, other than to make me even more uncomfortable, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. I was awake long enough to redirect a couple of small bugs with a flick of my fingers before sleep mercifully came.

Despite the Nyquil, my sleep was fitful. Every hour or so I would wake up, quickly survey the white sheets and then cautiously lay my head down again. At 10:30pm I awoke to reruns of The Office. At 12:30 my eyes opened to Jerry and George at their diner. When I awoke at 1:30 there was some awful military themed comedy starring Paulie Shore and Andy Dick. If there is a hell on earth,I am almost positive they have a movie library stocked with Paulie Shore films.

By the time my eyes shot open at 3:30 and did my usual bed survey I knew there would be no more sleep for me. I got up, took a long, hot shower and scrubbed my body vigorously. Then I sat on my folding chair and watched Sportscenter from start to finish - twice. It was during those long late night hours - as I learned the intricacies of Bobbie Bowden's coaching status - that my mind tried to convince my soul to cut and run.

This journey has always been a bit of a soul quest. Left to my mind I would probably be back in NYC, comfortable in my same job, secure and somewhat numb in my old patterns. My mind went back to the familiar script, projecting future hardships onto this one instance of discomfort and making its case that it would be easier - so much easier - to wrap the trip up sooner than I had planned.

I knew that I needed to move. I needed to get out of the isolation of that room and hit the road. I was pretty sure those feelings would dissolve in the promise of another day. It was still dark out at 6:00am, but just a day before John Andrews had providentially left me with a orange reflective vest. I strapped it on and walked into the darkness and intermittent rain toward the McDonalds I knew stood 25 minutes down the road.

I waited for dawn in the McDonalds, sipping coffee. At daybreak I returned to the road. The rain ended and the sun broke through the clouds. Within a half hour blue sky crowded out the clouds and a beautiful dawn unfolded. The familiar rhythm of my feet and the feel of fresh air in my lungs made the memory of my night fade into the distance. Like the rain clouds, my feelings of doubt were pushed aside and replaced by the hope of another day. This day held the promise of real human interaction, a shared meal and a bed that I wouldn't have to share with a multi-generation family of bugs.

With each step toward Culpeper my mind was quieted and my soul was renewed.


  1. Garth,
    You survived in a bed of bugs longer than I could. I couldn't sleep any entire evening once when my cat found one tiny scorpion in our apartment. I didn't even see it, but knowing that's what it was freaked me out! So, I give you credit for getting any sleep that evening.

    I'm picturing a wave going up and down, this is something my professors constantly remind us is the normal way to feel about group leadership, relationships, and so many things in life. I'm understand that this is probably a low point on a wave in the course of your journey. I hope your on top of a wave soon! We'll try to help with that when you come to GA!!

    I hope you are well and the rest of the week has gone better for you!
    Take care,

  2. Keep on "TRUCKIN". You can do this You have so much spirital power behind you.

  3. damn the pastor. i cannot believe he did not host you himself. this is not the rural va i know...but, maybe opal is not rural enough to be in my realm.

  4. I pray for you daily and as I prepare to lay down at night. Hang in there my new friend. Remember that the "Shining Star" you see when the sky is clear is my winking at you ;) Hugs & Many Blessings....Susan

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