“It is remarkable how easily…we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. I had not lived [at Walden Pond] a week before my feet wore a path from my door to the pond-side...How worn and dusty, then, must be the highways of the world, how deep the ruts of tradition and conformity!” --Henry David Thoreau
Ever heard of Heath, Massachusetts?
Probably not. With a population of just 706 souls, this farming and summer community, 102 miles northwest of Boston, hugs the southern border of Vermont. Heath is the kind of hidden away place that one typically finds only if you are very lost, or maybe trying a shortcut to get from here to there. It is easy to miss Heath if you blink or lean over to adjust the radio as you drive down Main Street, a white clapboard community hall on one side of the road and a simple country church on the other. You’d probably just pass on by. Zoom right through. Skip Heath completely in the rush to get somewhere else.
That is unless you are willing to take a risk and get off the beaten path. Throw away the well worn map book. Disregard the Trip Advisor recommendation. Turn off the GPS and instead explore territories heretofore unknown. Take a long detour and discover an unexpected little gem like Heath.
We are entering the season of road trips here in New England. The leaf peepers will soon be out in droves searching for the perfect foliage, a Mecca of golden yellows and maple reds. The streets of Boston are filled to overflowing with out of town parents and wide eyed college kids, many discovering the city for the first time. This past Labor Day weekend, 35 million Americans took to the roads and drove 50 miles or longer for one last summer journey, a three day jaunt to bid the season adieu.
But here’s the truth about all those millions of miles in travel. For the most part we’ll be all too human and just stick to the beaten path. Familiar places. Well worn roads and oft traveled highways. And we’ll all too easily miss a special place like Heath.
Instead we’ll take the Mass Pike, which will be packed with traffic and then we’ll stand in line with scores of other weary travelers at a rest area McDonalds. We’ll scurry over to Boston’s Faneuil Hall with its tourist kitsch, prepackaged history for the masses. We’ll clog the Maine Turnpike and wait in line at the toll booths, visions of a rocky coast dancing in our heads while the horns honk and patience frays.
That’s travel. That’s life.
To stick to the way we’ve always journeyed, revisit the destinations we return to again and again and again. I’m as predictable as the next person when it comes to making a choice between the familiar or the foreign, the dependable or the surprising, the mundane or the mysterious. Too often I stick to the beaten path, reluctant to set out for parts unknown. I want to know what’s next, what will appear around the bend in the road.
What if I get lost?
Yet the best places I’ve discovered in all my road trips have almost always come about because I took a risk and got off the beaten path. Discovered the best orange sherbert ever at a road side stand in Lake George, New York. Found a perfect front porch to explore at the General Store in Underhill, Vermont, in the middle of a long hot August bike ride. Went down a side street in Manhattan and stumbled upon the Firefighting Museum of New York City.
And in Heath? I met Ruth Johnson, a kind and hospitable trustee of the local historic society. She took me inside the Union Evangelical Church, an 1830’s house of worship. There I stood in a simple wooden historic pulpit, where in the summer of 1943, a theologian and preacher named Reinhold Niebuhr ended his sermon thus: “God, grant us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.” The Serenity Prayer, perhaps the most widely prayed prayer in the entire world: it was born right there in Heath, Massachusetts.
To find this out, I first had to get off the beaten path. Take the exit off the superhighway and trust that the back roads in life would get me to where I needed to go. As we move into a new season of life and the year, may God bless our life road trips and give us the courage to look for places like Heath.
In the words of the New England poet Robert Frost, try the road less traveled. That just might make all the difference.