I’ve heard people say this world is in the outhouse. The newspapers, for instance, claim civilization is in big trouble.

Georgiana, Alabama—Kendall’s Barbecue joint is not just a barbecue joint. Inside this tin-roofed place is God’s own kitchen. The pulled pork here is nothing short of Biblical.

And today I need a little pork. I’m on my way to a memorial service.

I pull over for lunch. Large pulled pork. Extra pickles. I’m eating in my truck with windows down.

It’s hot outside.

A young couple in a Taurus pulls in. Dirt on the fenders. The boy is tall and skinny. His pants are too big. She’s pregnant.

There are three kids with them—all redheads. God help those children.

The young man is covered in sweat and dust.

They get their bag of food and head toward the car. He helps kids into carseats. He kisses each on the forehead.

The woman says to him, “Hurry, come quick! Feel him kick!”

He comes to her. He presses an ear to her swollen belly. His face lights up. He kisses her.

Then, they share a look.

After they leave, an older man orders at the counter. He has white hair, overalls, sweat spots on his shirt.

When he gets his paper bag, he takes it and walks to his truck. There is a dog in his vehicle.

While the man eats in his driver’s seat, I see him through his window. His mouth is moving, and he’s smiling.

I’ll be dog if he isn’t talking to that pup.

When he finishes, he stuffs a tobacco pipe with his thumb, cracks the window, and lights it. The dog gives the man a lick on the cheek. This makes the man smile.

Which makes me smile.

Next: a heavyset man orders food. He has broad shoulders and thick arms. He is with an elderly woman who uses a cane.

He orders. She sits in the shade.

“Mama,” he says to her. “You want tea?”

She does.

He helps her to a…

You, in a Cracker Barrel. You, tending bar, or walking in a shopping mall, or teaching second grade, or in a wheelchair, or mopping floors at Wendy’s.

I wish I had the right words, but I don’t. I wish I could tell you how I feel about you, but we don’t know each other. You’d think I was weird.

So I’m writing you.

Two weeks ago, I saw you in a grocery store, in Texas. You were in the produce aisle. You had a son. Your son was bald, wearing a surgical mask.

He was riding on your shoulders, right in the middle of a store. You were giving him an airplane ride.

We talked. You probably don’t even remember me.

You told me, “I don’t take any moments for granted anymore. My family has really started living, we don’t wanna miss out on a single second.”

Before I left, your son high-fived me. He said, “Cancer sucks!”

He said it with a laugh and a smile. At least I think he was smiling—it was hard to tell beneath his mask.

Anyway, you’re why I’m writing this. You, and people just like you. You are the

reason.

You—the woman in Cracker Barrel. I’m writing to you because I saw you. You were feeding your mother who sat in a wheelchair.

Your mother couldn’t move anything but her jaw. You helped her, spoonful by spoonful. She had fiery red hair—so did you.

You were there before I arrived. And you were probably there long after we left. You never touched your plate of food. You were too busy helping Mama.

I’m writing to the man I met yesterday, at a brewery. He was serving a crowd of young people at the bar. The man had a tattoo on his arm, I asked about it.

“This tattoo’s for my wife,” he said. “These are angel wings. She loved angels. We really miss her.”

She took her own life. She had a three-year-old son at the time.…

I’m watching my dog run on the beach. She’s running alongside the waves. She stops every few moments to stare.

She’s not, too sure about waves.

It’s Father’s Day, and I’m a father—well, almost. I have a fifteen-week-old bloodhound named Thelma Lou. That’s almost like being a father. The only difference, of course, is that human babies don’t chew your wallet then poop inside your boot.

You read that right. My dog didn’t poop ON my boot—as in: the exterior. She did her business INSIDE my boot. The basic physics behind this acrobatic marvel are astounding. I only wish I could’ve captured it on video, it would’ve been worth millions.

So poop in a boot, that makes me a father. At least this is what I’m going with.

People without kids, like me, still have the same amount of love parents have. That love has to go somewhere. That’s where dogs come in.

My first dog was a border collie. My father bought it. We named it Pooch. Pooch

was bred to herd sheep, but since there were no sheep around, he herded redheads.

When my mother yelled my name, Pooch would dart off the porch like a bullet. He’d circle me, yelping, nipping. When he died, I thought a piece of me died.

My next dog was Goldie. A retriever. Long, pretty hair, happy face. I raised her from a pup.

Goldie was Hell on Wheels. She lived beside me. She slept while I did homework, she chased baseballs. In the woods, when I was busy with little-boy things, like catching frogs, or swinging limbs, she watched over me.

Cody was next. She was my father’s dog. She was a chocolate Lab who loved my father. I can close my eyes and see him strolling from the barn to the shed, Cody trailing two feet behind him.

When he…

Once upon a time, I enjoyed the idiot box. I don’t anymore. The faces on television talk too much about the gruesome and repulsive. They make commentaries only on things they hate.

My mother-in-law is watching television, sipping a milkshake. I’m sitting with her.

She’s slurping so that I can hardly hear the television.

It’s just as well. The folks on TV are hollering at each other about political issues, mass shootings, patriotism, and weather conditions.

My mother-in-law changes the channel and slurps louder.

Different network. Different newscasters. Same five-dollar issues. She changes it again. More shouting. More shameless slurping.

She flips the channel.

The Home Shopping Network advertises commemorative American-flag lapel pins made from recycled cellphone batteries. Only $19.99. Call now.

My mother-in-law turns the television off. She slurps her milkshake so hard the ceiling is about to cave in.

“You know,” says Mother Mary—the sophisticated voice of 1958, and all-around model American. “TV sucks.”

Truer words have seldom been spoken.

Once upon a time, I enjoyed the idiot box. I don’t anymore. The faces on television talk too much about the gruesome and repulsive. They make commentaries only on things they hate.

I wish more people talked about things they loved.

Like daisies. Why aren’t folks talking about those?

Earlier

today, I pulled over to pick some. I got carried away and picked a whole armful. I wrapped the bundle of stems with duct tape and tossed the bouquet onto my dashboard.

I don’t even know who I picked them for.

You know what else I love? The late great Don Williams. I heard him singing about a woman named Amanda on the radio. I turned it up. The lyrics made me think about a woman I love.

A few more things I love: Kathryn Tucker Windham, bottle trees, Magnolia Springs, the color yellow, anything made of oak, slow-moving trains, Hank Williams, American buffalos, and breakfast.

I love the box of family photographs in my closet. Sometimes, I look at them and revisit black-and-white ancestors I never knew.

I love coffee—black and strong. Hashbrown casserole from Cracker Barrel. And…

I am getting close to my home. The county in Northwest Florida that sits sandwiched between the Alabama line and the Choctawhatchee Bay I learned to sail on. There is a man, burning trash in his front lawn. There are manmade bass and bream ponds.

It’s morning in Alabama. I’m driving. There is green everywhere. Live oaks that are old enough to predate the Stone Age. Tin sheds. Peanut fields with perfect rows that run for miles in straight lines.

American flags are hanging from most mailboxes, horse trailers, workshops, treehouses, and semi-truck garages.

There are plenty of curves ahead, winding through the landscape. They will take you past Faith Chapel Church, Providence Primitive Baptist Church, New Chapel Baptist, First Assembly of God, United Methodist Church. And a heap of other three-room meeting houses with well-kept cemeteries.

There’s the Perry Antique Store—which used to be a gas station one hundred years ago. It sits on approximately thirteen million acres of flat earth. Old men sit on its porch, chewing the fat. Watching traffic.

There are ancient mobile homes with brand new Fords parked out front. There are brand new mobile homes with ancient Fords.

I pass red-dirt-road offshoots that lead to God-Knows-Where. Horses in front yards. Cattle in backyards.

Weathered brick chimneys, standing in empty fields.

Telephone poles with fading signs that read: “Elect

Twinkle for governor, for a brighter Alabama.”

I pass small towns, small communities. Brantley. Pine Level. Elba. Kinston is about as big as a minute, but they have a nice baseball field. Baseball is serious business in Kinston.

“Now entering Geneva County.”

I pass bumpy creek bridges—I have to slow down to drive across. There’s a crumbling red house—probably older than the late great Kathryn Tucker Windham.

Bass boats sit by the highway with for-sale signs. Farm-implement graveyards stretch clear to China.

I am getting close to home. The county in Northwest Florida that sits sandwiched between the Alabama line and the Choctawhatchee Bay.

There is a man, burning trash in his front lawn. There are manmade bass and bream ponds.

Dead corn fields. Overgrown yards with rusty swing sets and children’s playhouses, with wood rot.

Rusty mailboxes with flags…

At the end, we were finally regurgitated into the Meditation Garden, the last stop on the Mansion Tour. This is the resting place of the King himself. It was magnificent.

Memphis, Tennessee—I’ve just seen Graceland. Pinch me.

My wife and I showed up on Elvis’ property around lunchtime and bought passes for the Graceland Mansion Tour. And I’ll admit, we were both excited to see the Hall of the Great King.

Elvis, you see, was a household name in my childhood home.

My father was an Elvis fan, my mother was a fan, and I had a cat named “King.” We had decorative Elvis ceramic plates hanging in our kitchen. My father knew all the words to “The American Trilogy” from the “Aloha from Hawaii Via Satellite” album.

I myself once dressed up like the King for Halloween.

Though, my costume left something to be desired. My mother believed in saving money and making costumes from household items.

Thus, I wore my mother’s satin bathrobe with sequins sewn on it, and she had rubbed black shoe polish in my hair. Her original idea had been to send me trick-or-treating with a guitar, but we had no

guitar. So my father gave me a garden rake instead.

When I knocked on my first door, I played a C chord on my rake, then twirled the belt of my mother’s robe.

Our neighbor, Mister Jimmy, almost swallowed his tobacco.

So for the Graceland tour, we joined a clot of people who were buzzing with our same enthusiasm. We were all poised and ready for the touching, profound, and purely American, once-in-a-lifetime experience—a self-guided iPad tour narrated by former Full House supporting actor, John Stamos.

We toured the first floor of the ten thousand square foot home of Elvis Aaron Presley, listening to our headphones. And this house has it all.

The Trophy Building—a room filled with gold records.

The Racquetball Building—a full bar with a racquetball court attached.

The Pool Room—a full bar with a pool table attached.

I’m no poet—as you can tell. In fact, the best poem I ever wrote was about ice cream. It was more of a song, actually, written to the melody of “The Chicken Dance.”

I’m eating ice cream. There’s a train rolling beside my car while I drive through a bright green Southern Missouri. The highway runs alongside miles of railroad.

God, I love trains. Always have. As a boy, I used to imagine they were giant monsters.

My bloodhound, Thelma Lou, stands, staring out the window.

I hit the gas and race the train. It doesn’t take much to outrun it—the train isn’t moving fast. But when we overtake the engine, Thelma Lou goes crazy.

So this is our Great American Road Trip. For weeks, I’ve been seeing the best of the Lower Forty-Eight.

Missouri, for instance, is magnificent this time of year. I pass farmhouses, oaks, crooked creeks, and hayfields which stretch toward the horizon.

We eat lunch at a roadside place called Uncle Rooster’s in Seymour. There is a ten-foot tall chicken in the parking lot. The waitress calls my wife and me “Sugar.”

When I’m finished, I feel like I’m digesting a few bricks.

After lunch, an antique store. My

wife and I walk the aisles and sift through trinkets, belt buckles, snuff tins, and model trains. A cat named Henry Ford brushes himself against my legs.

“Why’d you name him Henry?” I ask the old man behind the counter.

“Why the hell WOULDN’T I name him Henry?”

Welcome to Missouri.

I drive another hour. Then, pull over to play with my bloodhound in an alfalfa field. Hide and seek is our game. She barks while I chase her.

And we drive more.

We get carried through towns that have dried up. Mountain Grove is one such community. The town square is there, but most of the storefronts sit vacant.

I pull over to buy some more ice cream at a McDonald’s.

And suddenly we’re in Arkansas. I lift my legs when we cross the state line into…

And as it happens, I haven't visited this place in a long time. Not since the trip Mama took us on. On that trip, I saw some of my heroes take the stage. Namely: The Oak Ridge Boys.

Branson, Missouri—I’m eating bacon and eggs in the hotel dining room. I’ve been on the road two weeks, and have another week to go.

I’m not visiting Branson, I’m only passing through. I don’t care for this glittery town.

There is a woman next to me. She is frail, early eighties, and she’s from Oklahoma. Her name is Miss Carol and she’s all alone.

“I’m in town for a few days,” says Miss Carol. “I’m celebrating my sixtieth wedding anniversary. Gonna go see the riverboat dinner show.”

Before I can congratulate her on the anniversary I notice she has no husband.

“He died,” she explains. “Two years ago.”

Miss Carol and her husband were going to celebrate their big day here, they’d planned on this for years, but cancer doesn’t care about riverboats.

“We loved Branson,” says Miss Carol. “So much that we woulda moved here.”

Well, I don’t exactly love Branson. This town is what Disney World would look like if Bill and Gloria Gaither called the shots.

But.

I once loved this town when I was a boy. My mother took us here during the months after my father’s funeral to help us forget bad things. Back then, it was our kind of town.

Branson, you’ll note, is not suited for the sophisticated traveler who rolls their “R’s” and wears a turtleneck. Branson is for those who cried when Dale Earnhardt passed.

In this town, anyone who owns a guitar and a can of hairspray has their own show.

You have gospel shows, bluegrass shows, country-pop shows, country-rap shows, country-synchronized-swimming shows, and former Brady Bunch cast member, Barry Williams, singing the complete oratorio works of George Frideric Handel.

Miss Carol goes on: “We took our kids here a lot. Alby loved the riverboat dinner cruise. This was his favorite place.”

And as it happens, I…

My father was himself here, on these bajillion acres. Everywhere else, he was someone different.

Humboldt, Kansas, sits on infinite prairie. Here, summer is in its early stages. The wheat is perfect. The sun is merciless. The Queen Anne style farmhouses are pure Mayberry.

I spent all afternoon looking for the farmhouse my father was born in.

I hoped that my father would give me some sort of sign when I visited his birthplace.

I drove dirt roads until my car was covered in dust. I stopped at Johnson’s General Store for directions. The woman behind the counter was ringing up an old man in camouflage.

“I’m looking for the Dietrich place,” I said.

The old man smiled. He said, “You’re kin to Douglas, ain’t you? That makes you distant kin to my dad’s family, sorta.”

Sort of.

The next thing I knew, he was giving me country directions, complete with hand gestures and cuss words.

I drove every road in Allen County, but couldn’t find the right house. And no signs from above, either.

So I stopped at a home in the middle

of a cattle pasture. A young woman answered the door. She was pregnant.

“Sorry to bother you, ma’am,” I told her. “I’m looking for the Dietrich house.”

She shook her head. “Dunno where that is, but my dad will know, lemme call him.”

She handed me her cellphone. I had a conversation with her father. Before we hung up, he said, “You know, my aunt was cousins with your uncle, that makes us cousins, sort of.”

How about that.

I drove past low creeks and wide prairies. I didn’t see another car for a hundred miles. And no family farmhouse.

I stopped at a ratty trailer on an eighteen-thousand-acre cornfield. An old woman was sitting on her rotting porch, enjoying a cigarette.

“You’re a Dietrich?” she said in a hoarse voice. “A Dietrich married my cousin’s daughter, which would…

Finally, he calms down. She feeds him again. She dabs his chin with a napkin. She touches his forehead. She grins at him.

It’s early evening. We are waiting for a table. My wife and I are standing in a long line of people who all had the same brilliant idea—to take the interstate exit and visit Cracker Barrel.

Behind me is a Baptist youth group. Mostly boys. I saw their vans in the parking lot. There must be fifty of them, and they all smell like hormones.

Ahead of me: an elderly couple. She’s pretty, wearing a floral shirt. He is two feet higher than she is, with wide bony shoulders. He is wearing a ball cap and holding her arm.

His hands are trembling. His head bobs back and forth. He doesn’t seem to have any control over his movements.

The hostess calls them.

The woman says into the man’s hearing aid, “Table’s ready.”

He smiles. It’s a nice smile. I wish my smile was half as inviting as Old Blue Eyes.

I see them in the dining room. The man keeps his shaky hands in his lap, but it doesn’t stop him from moving. He looks uncomfortable in his own body.

She is playing the wood triangle game. I’ve never been very good at this novelty test. And apparently, neither has she.

No sooner has the waitress delivered their plates of food than the old woman takes a seat beside Old Blue Eyes. She tucks a napkin into his collar. She spoon-feeds him.

His shoulders start to toss violently. His head jerks to the side. He’s a making a mess.

She stops feeding and waits.

The shaking gets so bad that he starts rocking in different directions. It’s hard to watch.

But not for her. She talks to him like nothing is wrong. And even though he flails, even though the eyes of the restaurant are watching, she’s unaffected.

Finally, he calms down. She feeds him again. She dabs his chin with a napkin. She touches his forehead. She grins…