December 5, 2020

Adam McHugh: A Tale of Two Roads


Note from CM: I am so happy to announce that Adam McHugh will be writing a regular monthly post for us here at Internet Monk. Adam has been published in The Christian Century, The Washington Post, Leadership Journal, RELEVANT Magazine, Psychology Today, and Conversations Journal, as well as in other publications and websites. He is obviously a talented writer, and I have always felt a kindred spirit with him through his writings and our common ministry experiences. Check out his blog at Adam S. McHugh.

Recently, Adam had quite an interesting personal journey. Please welcome him to the IM community as he shares it today.

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Adam McHughA Tale of Two Roads
by Adam McHugh

This last season of my life is best captured by two roads. It sounds like a tired metaphor, except it’s not a metaphor. I have in mind two actual paths. One you drive and the other you walk.

The first road was a way of salvation for me for many years. In my spiritual life, the Damascus Road or the Road to Emmaus do not hold a candle to the 101 freeway. No one who has ever driven on the 101 near the 405 interchange would ever call it the road less traveled. But every few weeks, when the work of ministry had taken more than it had given, I would sneak off to the 101 North and drive up the California coast to the Santa Ynez Valley, the wine country just past Santa Barbara.

There is a point on the 101, right around Ventura, where your car emerges from the gripping congestion of greater L.A. and you are greeted by the Pacific Ocean lapping the central coast of California. As the road opens up, so does the landscape, and with the blue ocean on my left and the emerald hills on my right, my soul would take a deep breath. I called these jaunts “wine retreats,” though admittedly at first they weren’t particularly spiritual. I was parched from ministry and I hoped some good Pinot Noir would quench my thirst.

Over time I began to apply different language to these adventures. I started to call them “pilgrimages,” allying myself with ancient wayfarers who trekked to holy places and usually stopped along the way at monasteries for food, rest, and a glass of estate wine. The vineyards became a “thin place” for me, one of those hallowed spots in the Celtic tradition where the clouds that separate heaven and earth part and the sun of God’s presence shines brilliantly.

With each trip, the whisper in my mind became increasingly louder. One day I would make the drive up the 101 and never return. I would disappear into wine country. I would work in wine, write, and lead a quiet life in a small town. It felt like the glory of God had up and left Los Angeles and landed in the Santa Ynez Valley.

Last April I did it. I left professional ministry, which had not felt like a good fit for some time, and I moved to wine country. For 6 months I wrote in a local coffee shop attached to a local bookstore in the mornings, and worked in wineries in the afternoons and evenings. At night I hung out with the locals at their watering holes.

I hated it.

When I wasn’t working, I was bored. When you travel to wine country you expect to eat great food and drink great wine. When you live in wine country, you realize there isn’t much to do there besides eat food and drink wine. When I asked people what I should do on off-days, they said “Go hiking!” To which I replied, “Okay, but what do I do the other 29 days of the month?” The residents, who proudly announced which generation of the Valley they were a part of, were friendly but not terribly interested in newcomers. I was a raging liberal compared to these well meaning but heavily armed folk. There were about 8 radio stations and 5 of them were country.

I languished in wine country. I was disappointed, lonely, heartbroken. Always a dreamer, I started to give up on dreaming dreams. My holy place had become a desert place.

0807 labyrinth_gardenThat was when I discovered my second road. Across the street from the second winery I worked at was a beautiful Episcopal church with a bell tower and an open chapel. Often after work I would sit in the chapel and listen, wondering if God had anything more to say to me. He usually didn’t.

That quaint Episcopal church also had a labyrinth on its campus. Even though I knew about the spirituality of a labyrinth, I had never walked one. A labyrinth is an ancient prayer tool, which some say was used in the middle ages as a substitute for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It is a circular path that gradually winds its way into a center, and it symbolizes a pilgrim’s journey to the holy land, and more, a seeker’s movement toward God. As you walk the path you release those things, attitudes, and burdens that encumber your movement toward the awareness of God.

The first time I walked the labyrinth was a Saturday after work. It was an oppressively hot July evening, but work had been so depressing that I was desperate. Already sweating as I stepped onto the church grounds, I started to walk the path, thinking that it would just take a few laps and I would be in the middle. That’s when I realized that a labyrinth is not a spiral, gradually moving the pilgrim to the center. It’s not a straight line that has been bent into circles to save space. The path winds and teases, drawing you tantalizingly close to the core, and then veering off. I was frustrated and hot, but I was determined. I kept releasing my hurt, my sense of failure, my lost dreams, my desolation.

My face dripping with perspiration, I made it to the center. I turned and faced the church. Before I even had a chance to ask for anything, a voice sounded in my head: “I LOVE YOU.” All the other voices fled before this Voice like the waves of the Red Sea. From experience I knew that it was the voice of God, because it was short, declarative, unexpected, and exactly what I needed to hear though I didn’t know it. I can tell God’s voice less by the words that come and more by the impact they make on me. The tears streamed down my face.

Last month, I drove south on the 101 and returned to Los Angeles. I no longer think that my salvation lies on a road that points north. My path will draw me in and cast me out, pull me close and let me drift. I will let go and be held tight. There will be seasons when I am walking a straight path to the center and there will be seasons of seeming interminable wandering in the wilderness. There will be blind corners and dead ends. Sometimes I will tremble in frigid, desolate air and other times I will come so close to Glory that I will be burned.

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Adam McHugh is the author of Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture. (InterVarsity Press). He is almost finished with a new book called The Listening Life. He is a writer, spiritual director, and aspiring wine sommelier.


  1. Adam, this has me crying. When you said that as you walked the labyrinth you felt God saying “I love you”, I remembered a similar experience when I’ve walked the labyrinth. A sense of being enveloped in the arms of God and cherished.

    These words and thoughts are so beautiful and are an echo of my own feelings and thoughts.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. The Santa Ynez Valley is one of the most beautiful places that I have ever been.

    Sometimes I think those sorts of places are better left as places to visit. Lest they be stained by familiarity and ..boredom.

    Thank you, Adam.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Re the 101 North from LA:

      Ellen’s Danish Pancake House, Buellton.
      On Avenue of the Flags (old 101), just across the cross-street from the Andersen’s Split Pea complex.
      Best breakfast stop on that stretch of the 101.

      • Adam McHugh says

        I like Paul’s Pancake House better, but Ellen’s is tasty too.

      • Gonna have to try them both, when I head up North next time.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          If you time your departure from the LA area right, you can hit Buellton for breakfast and Central Texan BBQ in Castroville (between Salinas & Monterey) for a BIG lunch. (Best BBQ place on the Monterey Peninsula.) After that one-two punch, you shouldn’t need to eat until well into the next day.

          And if you’re going past Castroville and NOT pigging out at the BBQ, try a small bag of fried artichoke hearts from The Giant Artichoke for the road.

    • Adam McHugh says

      It is indeed a beautiful place. A beautifully boring place. And now it will go back to being my retreat place.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        When I want to decompress for a weekend, I go over Cajon Pass and take the 395 north to Lone Pine. The Old Dow Hotel (built 1920s and being restored) has great off-season rates (starting November 1) and there are a lot of good eateries within walking distance. Just don’t take the stretch between Ridgecrest and Lone Pine at night in the off-season; that road has a reputation as a killer with all the ski traffic to Mammoth jammed onto it; they get a crash or two a night there through ski season.

  3. Steve Moore says

    Weaving in and out in my walk with God seems to be the normal these days. Thank you for the reminder that I am normal (whatever that may mean).

  4. David Cornwell says

    Thanks for the story you tell here. It makes me glad that this is how God chooses to deal with us. When we end up talking about His presence in our lives, it is not in the form of a theological treatise, with propositions stating from hence we have come and where we are headed, but being in form of narrative. We always want to write the story ourselves, but in actuality God will end up being in the plot. He may be hidden. He may jump out and scare us. Or make us want to hide somewhere. Or the One who is a gentle companion, the One we sometimes fail to recognize at first.

    It is a good thing that we will be hearing from you each month.

  5. Good stuff, Adam. Your “two path” metaphor reminded me of Jeff Dunn’s September 29th Homily, which he began with this:

    “Consider the work of God: for who can make that straight, which he hath made crooked? (Ecclesiastes 7:13, KJV)”

    So not only are there paths you walk and paths you drive, there are paths which are straight and paths which are crooked. The key is to find God along all of them.

  6. Guy Mcilroy says

    Thank you for being open and sharing your experience of the road , the journeys and esp the labarynth moment. I too found that it a labarynth in the Quiet Gardens in Brenthurst Gardens in johannesburg this year. Please keep writing monthly.

  7. Thank you, Hugh, for being willing to be vulnerable in your writing letting us see and experience some of what your life is like. I, too, was crying as I read this because I could feel your heart and just how much you needed to hear God say that He loves you. I need to hear that so much since my husband and both parents went to heaven almost 4 years ago.

  8. I envy you your visceral experience. It was obviously very purgative and illuminating for you to walk that labyrinth.

    My own experiences walking labyrinths have been ordinary and unremarkable, like walking any other path; perhaps I lack imagination or the ability to let external experiences touch my core emotions, my spirit.

    Maybe I’m on the wrong path; maybe I haven’t reached the center yet.

    Maybe I’m on the road to nowhere.

    • Robert, not just anyone can have such experiences. I feel the same as you (I think), ordinary slogging through the faith life, not viscerally enlightening experiences, battling the doubts that arise in the minds of the logically inclined mind, sometimes even doubting the whole Bible/God/Church/faith experience. What if? What IF this is just self deception? What IF I have chosen to follow a path that is just true in my own mind…because I WANT it to be true, because the alternative of existential nothingness is just SO depressing? Some people look to me as an example, as a teacher, as a friend, as a Christian. I am a fraud!

      I’m just rambling right now because I am doubting (again) my whole belief system. Hope you don’t mind…

      • Thanks for sharing. I often find myself going through the same thoughts and doubts. I was kind of hoping that I’d “grow out” of it, but I guess it’s a reoccurring battle and I’ll have to just keep returning to my knees.

        I pray the following prayers often:
        I believe. Help my unbelief!
        Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.

      • Oscar,

        Maybe there is no path; maybe there is no destination or center.

        Maybe both the past and future are illusions,
        and the present nothing to be grasped.

        Someone once asked the great Japanese scholar of Zen Buddhism, D.T. Suzuki, if he prayed. His response was something like:

        -Well, there is no one to pray to, and even if someone could hear my prayer they could not help me, since I must travel the path to enlightenment by my own initiative….so prayer is completely ineffectual and useless….
        Of course I pray…-

        Maybe, Oscar, in our moments of doubt, our prayer is like that of the waiter in Hemingway’s short story “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place”:

        “Our nada who art in nada,
        nada be thy name……”

        Ramble on, brother, ramble on.

      • This is me

    • As we share our stories with each other it can sometimes be discouraging if your experience doesn’t match up with someone else’s, if we don’t get the same result or effect that someone else did. I’ve felt somehow cheated because my adult baptism felt just like some meaningless ritual. Also, I was raised to have morning devotions of Bible reading and prayer, and it meant very little to me. As I’ve explored various ways of connecting with God I’ve found that I connect with some, but not with others. So keep trying. You’ll find something that is meaningful.

  9. This post effected me in unexpected ways. I had fallen away because my mother was so strong in her faith that it seemed to be a straight line, and I couldn’t seem to follow it. After many years and my mom’s passing I felt called to start attending church again during Lent, and our Pastor’s Easter Sunday sermon started me back on the journey. He said, “It’s hard, but we are commanded to live Christ like lives. Now let’s go out there and do it.” It was then I realized that my mom was on the same journey. She was just farther along. Can’t wait for the next time the labyrinth comes to my church. Meditative silence is right up my alley.

  10. Randy Thompson says

    I know that beautiful part of Highway 101 well, having moved to Santa Barbara from the L.A. area many, many years ago. It was so long ago that I remember when there were still fields and empty spaces in Santa Barbara, most all gone now, from what I could see on a short visit a few years ago.

    My wife and I made the same sort of move three years ago, moving to rural New Hampshire form suburban Connecticut. What was a vacation place, northern New England, became home. Yet , my experience was different than yours, even though we probably have the same kind of radio stations, farm & country stores, and conversations with neighbors–the latter often touching on such exotic topics as raising chickens for eggs or pigs for meat. We compare bear sittings, too. We don’t have wineries, at least none that I’ve tried yet, but we do have some wicked good brew pubs and micro-breweries.

    I do miss the easy access we had to New York City and the incredible energy surge I always experience there. I miss the hustle and bustle and diversity sometimes. But, moving here has been one of the best things we ever did. We have the constant sense that we really are living a vacation-life where you never have to go back “home” to somewhere less pleasant. (I should confess that we’re only two hours out of Boston, but as much as I love Boston, it’s not New York. Concord isn’t too shabby, as small New England cities go, either.) Each day my wife and I both have a sense of gratitude veering off into worship for where God has put us, and for the fact that we’re here to share this with people through our ministry, Forest Haven.

    We never dreamed that the labyrinth way of God’s leading would bring us here.

  11. Thanks, Adam, for sharing that part of your life.

    Dreaming….reminds me of something the great theologian Bob Weir sang in a lyric;

    “The dream is a lie,
    But the dreaming is real.”

  12. Thanks.

    “From experience I knew that it was the voice of God, because it was short, declarative, unexpected, and exactly what I needed to hear though I didn’t know it. I can tell God’s voice less by the words that come and more by the impact they make on me.”

    I’ve been talking to K-2nd graders lately about how God talks to them. “How does God talk to you?” They are quick and ready and enthuisastic with their responses. —In my heart. In my brain. In my dreams. Cause he made me. He loves me.—We go on to create a list together that includes Jesus, the Bible, mom, dad, animals, the whole universe, helping people, and today one girl added–through witches. (I didn’t argue the theological point, but smiled at the God works through everything point).

    And yes, what you are describing is how God talks to us. Unexpectedly. Sometimes unwelcome. To the core. To the heart. Right in the middle of it all.

    In my own life I am trying not to make the messiness of living fit into some bottle or predesigned package. And I am probably messing up. But I am still listening.

    Thank you