It was starting to spit a little snow when Tim Wilson walked out to start packing his pickup for the trip home. Tim was working as a waiter in a downtown Nashville restaurant and had to wait until Christmas Eve morning to start his trek home to Spencer, WV. He wanted to leave the night before as soon as he got off work, but his mother insisted that he get a little rest before embarking on the 7-hour drive home. Spencer, WV is a tiny town nestled among the mountains of West Virginia, about 2 hours northeast of Charleston. Tim had grown up in Spencer and his parents, along with his younger sister, still lived in the small community. Tim had grown up with a love of Bluegrass music and had learned to play the banjo. Like many other aspiring musicians, he moved to Nashville in hopes of making it big with a country band. He was still waiting for his “big break,” but while he “pounded the pavement” of Broadway looking for his shot at fame and fortune, he worked part-time as a waiter to pay his rent and utilities. He hadn’t been home since late summer. He promised his mother that he would be home for Christmas and he intended to keep that promise.
He turned up the collar on his jacket against the biting cold of the winter wind that was blowing through Nashville. An artic blast was covering much of the eastern United States. There was even talk of a winter storm possibly making its way through the region, but most of the weather folks believed it would stay well to the north. “Be sure to fill-up and pack some blankets,” his father had advised, “just in case you get into a situation… you just never know.” Tim had heard that speech a dozen times before and at first, he had blown off his dad’s counsel, but at the last minute he grabbed his heavy coat and a blanket. Afterall, the temperature had really dropped overnight and maybe taking a little extra precaution wasn’t a bad idea.
After loading the pickup, Tim made a couple of final trips in and out of his apartment to grab the presents he had bought for his parents and sister. He made sure they were secure and wouldn’t get squeezed during the trip. With everything ready to go, he fired-up his trusty F-150 and eased out of the apartment parking lot. He checked the time. It was just past 7 a.m., but already 8:00 a.m. in Spencer. With some holiday luck and not much traffic, he would be home by late afternoon… maybe even before dark. Before pulling onto the interstate, he turned into the local Tiger-Mart near his apartment, to fill his tank and to grab a sausage biscuit for the road. Traffic was light and he quickly made his way north of town hoping to get to Lexington before stopping. He found a country station on the radio and sang along with all the familiar Christmas songs of the season.
By the time he got just east of Lexington, the snow began to fall. At first it was just a light dusting, but before long, it became much heavier and soon made travel a little tricky. The old F-150 seemed to handle it well enough, but traffic got slower and slower and Tim began to wonder if he would make it home before dark as he had hoped. By the time he crossed the Kentucky – West Virginia line just east of Huntington, visibility was greatly reduced. Even though it was still early afternoon, the snowfall had started to really pile-up and the traffic got increasingly slow. Tim finally made his way into Charleston well after 4:00 p.m. local time. He stopped and stretched and grabbed a burger at McDonalds. A lot of the local places had already closed because of the weather and the fact that it was Christmas Eve. Tim filled the tank for good measure and called his parents to tell them that he was running late. “Don’t worry about me. I will call back in a while and let you know how I’m making it.”
It was getting dark when Tim left Charleston. On a good day, the trip home from Charleston was about a 2-hour drive, give-or-take a few minutes. But it quickly became apparent that the journey was going to be a long, slow slog through the wet snow. The fact that fewer and fewer cars were on the road, made Tim a little nervous about the weather. He was relieved when he finally came to the Hwy 119 exit. The rest of the trip would be on a two-lane winding road… not the best for snowy travel, but certainly a road that Tim had driven many times.
The weather continued to deteriorate. The winds were howling and the snow was coming down at a very rapid rate. Tim was starting to wonder if he was going to make it home in time for Christmas. Because of the low visibility and snow-covered roads, Tim was only moving along at about 30 miles an hour. There were times he could barely see the edges of the roadway. He sometimes drove for miles without passing another car. The more he thought about it, the more grateful he was for the heavy coat and blanket piled up next to him on the front seat.
It was after 8:00 p.m. and Tim still had a long way to go. He pulled over to call his folks and tell them what was going on. His mother told him to please be careful and that she was praying for him every minute until he walked into their house. His father took the phone into another room, out of earshot from his wife. He said to Tim, “Don’t press your luck, son. If you find a place and you need to stop for the night, don’t put yourself in danger. We would rather wait and see you tomorrow if it is too dangerous to keep driving.” The problem was that old Hwy 119 had very few small towns or places to stay the night. Tim was going to try to make it if he could.
About 20 minutes later, Tim saw some blue lights on the roadway in front of him. A state trooper flagged him down. “Road’s closed for the night,” he said. There’s too much snow. No one is going to run a plow until morning. You have to turn around and head south again. Sorry.” Time was a little frustrated but relieved at the same time. He remembered seeing a little roadside motel about 2 miles back. He turned the pick-up around and slowly made his way back down the deserted road. Before long he saw the lights and the neon “vacancy” sign out front of the motel. His wheels slid a little on the slick pavement of the parking lot as he eased into a parking space near the front. There were lights on inside and smoke was rising from a fireplace. A couple of other cars were parked next to him, already piling up with snow. The motel was a little Mom & Pop kind of place, called “The Wayside Inn.” It looked a little dated. It had an old-fashioned feel, but from the outside it seemed to be well-maintained, and after all, it wasn’t like he had other options.
A little brass bell attached to the door, rang loudly, announcing his arrival in the small lobby. The lobby was clean and neat and looked inviting. There was a front desk to the left and to the right was a seating area with several comfortable-looking chairs, an undecorated Christmas tree, and a brick fireplace with a roaring fire. The warmth felt nice to Tim as he shook off some of the cold and felt himself relaxing after all the hours of nervous driving. In the corner of the room sat an old record player, which was playing a vinyl record of Perry Como hits. “That’s a little old school,” thought Tim. About that time, a middle-aged man came walking out of an office behind the front desk. “Good evening, young man, welcome to the Wayside Inn. I’m Gabe. What can I do for you?” Tim began to tell his story. “Well I was trying to make my way home for Christmas. I was headed up toward Spencer but the road is closed and now I’m sort of stuck for the night.” “Yeah, that storm really came on quickly. I’m just glad you made it this far. We will be glad to have you for the night. We’ve got plenty of rooms. You’ll be safe and warm here and hopefully the weather will clear and the plows can run in the morning so you can get on your way.”
It was then that Tim noticed the little “No Credit Cards Accepted – Cash or Check Only” sign sitting near the register. “Who doesn’t take credit cards these days?” thought Tim. He said to Gabe, “Mister, I’ve got a problem. I only have about $30 in cash. I was hoping to use my card. If you will let me pay some tonight, I will bring you the rest in a few days when I come back through. I promise I will. I understand if you say no. Maybe I could just sleep in one of your chairs out here in the lobby. I will try to be out of your way first thing in the morning.” Gabe was more than understanding. “Young man, you don’t need to worry about a thing. It’s Christmas Eve and you are going to be our guest for the night. What kind of people would we be if we turned you out on a night like tonight?”
Tim was a little overwhelmed by the offer of generosity. “Mister, I can’t take advantage of you, it wouldn’t be right.” “No worries, son, I insist, or should I say, we insist.” A lovely woman came walking out of the office. “This is my wife, Hannah. We’d love for you to be our guest for the evening.” Hannah extended her hand and gave Tim a warm word of welcome. “Have you had anything to eat? We ate a couple of hours ago, but I have some leftovers you could have.” Tim sheepishly said, “I don’t want to trouble you…” but his stomach was growling and that burger he had hours ago was long gone. “I insist,” said Hannah, and she was off on her way to throw a few things together. Gabe said to Tim, “I hope you like ham sandwiches. Hannah makes a great sandwich on her special homemade sourdough bread. I think you will like it.” Tim said, “That sounds amazing… thank you so much.”
Tim asked to be excused for a moment… “I need to call my dad and mom and tell them that I’m okay and that I’m stuck for the night. They will be disappointed, but relieved to know that I’m safe for the night. Hopefully I can get home in the morning.” Gabe replied, “Pay phone is out back if you need it.” “Pay phone?” thought Tim, “who uses one of those anymore?” “Thanks, I’ll just use my cell phone, I’ve got a weak signal, but I think I can get through.” “Gotcha,” said Gabe, “I keep forgetting about those things.” Tim wondered, “Who forgets about a cell phone?”
He was able to talk to his parents. “I’m fine. I’m just stuck. I found a little motel on the side of the road. They’ve got a room for me tonight and the owners are really nice. They have even offered to make me a little supper. I’m sorry I will miss Christmas Eve, but hopefully I can get there before noon if the snow clears.” Tim spoke with his parents for just a few more minutes. His dad said, “I don’t remember even seeing a motel along that stretch of road, is it new?” “No, nothing like that… in fact, it looks like it has been here for a long time. I almost didn’t see it myself when I first passed by.” They talked for a few more minutes before hanging up for the evening.
“I got a hold of my parents on the phone. Everything’s good. I told them I would see them in the morning,” said Tim to the owner. “That’s good,” replied Gabe. Now let’s get you settled in your room while Hannah fixes your dinner.” Gabe led Tim down a short hallway to the first room on the right. He opened the door for Tim and handed him the room key. The key was attached to a large plastic key ring with the room number engraved on it. “I’ll give you a minute to get settled. Come on back to the lobby when you are ready.”
The room was small, but very cozy and clean. The television was not the latest model and the bathroom fixtures looked a little dated, but all in all, Tim was very thankful for a decent place to stay the night.
When he got back to the lobby, Hannah had set up a little card table with Tim’s dinner. She had spread a cloth on the table, along with a nice place setting, and a Christmas candle. “This looks great!” said Tim. “I just wanted you to feel at home,” said Hannah. Tim, along with Gabe and Hannah sat down at the table while Tim ate. They chatted and learned more about Tim’s family and his dream of playing music. Finally, Gabe said, “I do have one favor to ask when you finish up.” “Sure,” said Tim. “What can I help you with?” Gabe said, “One of our Christmas Eve traditions here at the Wayside Inn has always been the decorating of the tree. If you don’t mind, could you help me get the decorations out of the attic and maybe string the lights?” “I’d be glad to do so. Just show me the way.”
While Tim and Gabe fetched the decorations, Hannah reset the table. She put on a coffee pot and another pot for spiced tea. She also put out some gingerbread cookies and some slices of homemade pie. Tim was just amazed by it all. Hannah said, “I’ve told the other guests to join us, if they would like to do so, for some refreshments and maybe a few Christmas carols.” “Sounds great,” said Tim. Within a few minutes, a couple of other folks made their way into the lobby. They all took turns hanging ornaments on the tree and telling stories of Christmas. From time-to-time, Gabe would change out the record on the record player. He had some vintage Nat King Cole records and a few albums by Andy Williams. The old records just seemed to fit the “vibe” of the old motel.
Hannah stood to her feet and announced it was time for some caroling. The small group seemed to enjoy each other’s company and folks seemed eager to sing along. Gabe looked at Tim and asked, “You didn’t happen to bring that banjo with you, did you?” “As a matter of fact I did, but I’m not sure a banjo solo would sound too much like Christmas.” “Just go and get it,” said Gabe. Tim went back to his room to grab his instrument. He brought it in earlier, not wanting it to get too cold in the truck overnight. By the time Tim got back to the lobby, Gabe was holding a guitar and Hannah was tuning up a fiddle. “What the heck?” said Tim. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. “You guys play?” he asked? “Of course we do,” said Gabe. “I thought we’d play a little bluegrass if that’s all right with you. I mean, who doesn’t get happy with a little bluegrass?” They had just started to do a little pickin’ when Tim discovered that Gabe and Hannah certainly knew what they were doing with their instruments. They were really good. Soon, the trio was playing all the classic bluegrass songs like they had been rehearsing for months! The others in the lobby clapped their hands and tapped their feet. The folks laughed and sang and enjoyed the time together.
As the night was winding down and the final Christmas cookies were being consumed, Tim said to Hannah, “When I stop back by next week on my way to Nashville, I’m going to bring you some of my mom’s cookies. She makes these really good fruit cookies. I know that sounds weird, but you will love them. They’re great. She also makes the best homemade cheese straws you have ever tasted. I’ll bring some of those too.” “That sounds great,” said Hannah, but don’t let her go to any trouble.” “Any trouble!” said Tim, “She will be so grateful for the way you guys have taken me in for the evening. She’ll probably bake a pie as well!”
Tim was packing away his banjo while Gabe was putting out the fire in the fireplace and turning off the Christmas tree lights. “Hannah is expecting you to eat breakfast with us in the morning. She makes a bacon and egg casserole that’s really good. I hope you will join us.” “Of course I will,” said Tim. “Sounds good,” said Gabe, “Hannah will be really glad. Why don’t you come on down around 8 a.m. and then we will see about getting you on your way.”
Tim went back to his room, took a long hot shower, and climbed into bed. As he drifted off to sleep, he thought about the blessings of the past few hours… a welcoming couple… good food… music, conversation, and laughter. It was all so unexpected. Who knew that Christmas Eve was going to be spent in a little Wayside Inn in the middle of nowhere, and in the company of strangers who now felt like family? He quickly feel asleep and rested well all night.
When Tim stepped into the lobby at 8 a.m. the next morning, he noticed that the skies were clear and bright. He also noticed that Gabe had already started a fire in the fireplace. And… he could smell Hannah’s casserole as she carried it out to the makeshift dining table. Tim, Gabe, and Hannah sat down together enjoying the food and each other’s company. While they were eating, Tim heard a familiar “winter noise” for those growing up in West Virginia. It was the sound of a snow plow rolling up Hwy 119. “Give it about an hour for the sun to melt what’s left after the plow and you should be good to go,” said Gabe. Tim simply nodded his head because his mouth was full of casserole.
A little while later, Tim packed up the pickup and said his final farewell to Gabe and Hannah. “I can’t thank you enough. You guys have been so kind to me. Thank you for everything. I’ll be back in about three days with the money for the room and those goodies from my mom.” Gabe responded, “Let’s not worry about paying for the room. You blessed us with your presence and with your music last night. Let’s call it even, but do stop by with the cookies!” They all laughed at Gabe’s remark. After a final hug, Tim started the truck and pulled his way onto the road, headed for home.
For the next three days, Tim spent lots of time with his family in Spencer. There was a lot of laughter, late-night card playing, movie watching, and gift giving. It was good to be at home. Tim’s dad was interested in hearing more about the Wayside Inn. “We’ve been traveling that road for many years, I just don’t remember ever seeing the place,” he said. Tim responded, “Well, it’s a small place and there is really nothing close to it… no gas stations or grocery stores nearby. It looks like it has been there for a while. I guess we just never noticed it before.” Tim filled his parents in on all the details of his overnight stay and how kind Gabe and Hannah had been. Tim’s mother was very grateful for the hospitality shown to her son and she put together a nice basket of things for Tim to drop off on his way back to Nashville. She made a fresh batch of the fruit cookies and put them in the basket. She added a huge Ziploc bag of her famous cheese straws and a couple of fresh fried apple pies. “You be sure these get to those kind folks. I will fix you a bag of goodies for the trip as well, but make sure the basket gets to the folks at that motel,” said Tim’s mother. Tim promised to do as he was told and looked forward to stopping in to check with Gabe and Hannah to give them his mother’s treats. Tim’s dad pulled out a fresh $100 bill and told Tim to insist on paying for his room. “They may not take it, but I want you to offer it.” “Yes, sir,” said Tim, “I will.”
Tim loaded up the truck on the morning of the 28th to begin the journey back to Nashville. His boss from the restaurant had called to tell him they were expecting a large weekend crowd along with a big New Year’s Eve party. Tim was needed, and was excited to learn that he would be making some overtime if he could work most of the weekend. He gave all the members of his family a big hug and began the long trip back to Music City. The weather was clear and crisp… plenty of sun and no precipitation in the forecast. He was grateful for the sunshine and better day on which to travel.
As he made his way south on Hwy 119, he remarked how different everything looked in the light of day. Most of the snow had melted over the past couple of days and there were more cars on the road. When he got closer to the mile-marker where he had discovered the Wayside Inn, he slowed to let a couple of cars pass so he could watch carefully for the motel entrance. He thought it was odd that there was no sign or advertisement along the road about the motel. “I guess it’s been there so long that the folks around here just know about it,” thought Tim. And yet he had trouble finding the place. In fact, he knew he had gone a little too far and so he turned around and headed back North. He finally came to a spot in the road that looked familiar from the snowy night, but all he saw was what looked to be an old, abandoned parking lot where something used to be.
He pulled into the vacant lot. He saw what appeared to be the foundations of an old building that was long gone. He got out of his truck and looked around for a moment. Things just didn’t make sense. He was pretty sure that he was in the right place… but there was no motel… no neon vacancy sign, no lobby or rooms… just an overgrown lot with the remnants of a building’s foundation. He walked around for a bit, trying to collect his thoughts. He noticed a smooth section of concrete in front of what looked to be an old doorway. In faded letters painted on the sidewalk, he could barely make out the words, “Welcome to the Wayside Inn.”
Lots of questions raced through his mind. “Am I even in the right spot? Where is the motel? Where are the people? None of this makes any sense. I was just here 3 days ago.” While he stood there trying to sort out his thoughts, a state trooper’s vehicle pulled into the lot. An officer stepped out of the car. Tim recognized him as being the same officer that had stopped him a few nights ago and told him that the road was closed. “Hey, I recognize you,” said the Trooper. “Actually, I recognize your truck. You’re the young man caught in the snowstorm on Christmas Eve. I wondered later if you made it to a safe place for the night. I’m glad to see you are ok.” “I’m okay,” said Tim, “but I’m a little confused.” He told the officer about finding the Inn and spending Christmas Eve with Gabe and Hannah. He told him about the kindness of strangers, the decorating of the tree, and the great time of playing music and laughing the night away.
“Well, I don’t know where you think you spent the night, but it wasn’t here,” said the trooper. There hasn’t been a motel here in a long, long time. There used to be a small hotel, but the folks who ran the place retired to Florida and moved away… maybe 20 years or so ago. I guess they still own the property, but it’s been like this for years. The old place finally rotted down to the ground.” Tim didn’t know what to make of what he was being told. He just stood there, lost in his thoughts. The trooper climbed back into his car. “You okay, son? You look at little dazed.” “Yeah, I’m fine… I think,” said Tim. The trooper sort of chuckled and said, “Maybe you were a part of a Christmas Eve miracle. I mean, it’s happened before. You hear stories sometimes about people getting helped in times of trouble.” The trooper cranked his car, and rolled down the window. “Maybe God was responding to your mother’s Christmas Eve prayer for your safety. The prayer was answered, right?” The thought just lingered for a moment in the air as Tim turned to walk back to his truck. And then the thought hit him, as he suddenly turned around to ask, “How did you know my mother was praying for me? I don’t remember telling you about that…” But just like the Wayside Inn, along with Gabriel and Hannah, the trooper and his car had seemed to vanish. Tim scratched his head, leaned up against his Ford F-150, and started eating one of his mother’s fried apple pies…
I can’t always explain the mysteries of God. But I do know there are times when God intervenes directly in the lives of people, rescuing them from harm or protecting them from some danger. Our prayers are sometimes answered with stunning clarity and miraculous intervention. Maybe someone’s prayer for you kept you safe when you needed to be protected. For nearly 400 years, the faithful people of God had waited and prayed for a light in the darkness of their world. They prayed that The Messiah would come and their salvation would be manifest. And their prayers were answered in a most unique way. The King came in the form of a baby, born in a stable behind some wayside inn in the little village of Bethlehem. The evening sky was filled with light as a thousand angels sang praises to God. As you celebrate Christmas this season, may you we amazed by the wonder of it all, may your heart be full, and may your life be protected as if by the angels themselves.