She has two kids. She dropped out of high school after she had the first. She was raising them as a single teenage mother. Her mobile home caught fire. It was heroism. There’s no other word for it. She saved her babies, and she bears the scars of it.

Kansas. An itty-bitty town. An old cafe. Linoleum floors, vinyl stools. The coffee tastes like ditch water.

In the parking lot: one semi truck, and fifty Fords. George Jones is on the radio.

Thank the Lord these places still exist.

This morning, I visited a river my father used to fish. I had to see it again. I was going to go fishing for old time’s sake, but decided I wanted eggs instead.

My waitress has the personality of a saint, and the smile to go with it. She warms up my coffee. I notice the skin on her chest and neck is marbled red and purple. Burns. Bad ones.

The man beside me is white-haired, wearing a cowboy hat. So are the old men beside him. I don’t know them. But these are the men my father came from.

We start talking.

“What’cha do for a livin’?” one cowboy hat asks.

Men have a biological need to ask this question of strangers. It’s as essential to manhood as

fishing rivers our daddies fished.

“I’m a writer,” I say.

This causes a stir among the hats at the counter. They lean forward to get a better look at the out-of-towner.

“What’cha writin’ about?” one asks.

Between five of them there are four cowboy hats, three pairs of suspenders, and enough white hair to sink the U.S.S. Uruguay. These men are the men I come from.

“This, that, and the other,” I say.

“Well, son,” says Cowboy Hat. “I’m gonna tell you a story about Bigfoot that I been trying to get published for SIXTY years...”

The other men laugh, but the old fella is serious.

“I was a boy,” Cowboy Hat goes on. “Saw this big ole thing in the woods. I’s scared to death, but got me a good view... It was Bigfoot, alright.”

The others…

Your prairies were a blip on the television screen of me. And I’m a stranger here, a foreigner. I have my own family, my own life, and it's a good one. And I haven’t thought of you again, Kansas.

Hello, Kansas. Nice to see you. It’s been a long time. You’re just as lovely as you used to be.

I’m driving through your prairies, the sun is setting over the wheat. The small towns are nothing but grain elevators and high-school baseball fields. And I’m remembering too much.

Namely, I remembering the way my daddy listened to the Grand Ole Opry broadcast on Saturday nights in a Kansas shed. I remember how he loved Minnie Pearl.

Whenever Minnie would say, “I’m jest proud to be here,” he’d slap his knee. Because when her voice came on the air, we knew she was going to say that.

He used that same corny phrase ten times per day. Until I was sick of it. He used it at baseball practice, supper tables, and even when he shook THE ACTUAL Minnie Pearl’s hand.

So yeah, I remember a lot, Kansas. I remember the place where I hit my first in-the-park home run, not far from here.

My father was clapping, and shouting. He was

wearing a Little League T-shirt, spitting sunflower seeds.

I ran the bases.

Roy Wallace was catcher. By the time I reached home plate, he had the ball in his mit.

Daddy shouted, “Mow his ass over, boy!”

So I did. I slid into Roy like a windmill in a tornado. My uniform was covered in dirt.

My father screamed, “HOW-DEEEEEEEE!”

I was fifteen feet tall.

Kansas. I hated you for a long time. My father left this world by way of his own gun, and he did it here. After we left this place, we never came back. And never wanted to.

In fact, I almost didn’t come today. I almost cut through Oklahoma on my way home.

I’m glad I didn’t. Because I would’ve missed the painted sunset behind Coolidge. I would’ve missed the golden fields…

Mexican waiters in colorful sombreros visit her table. They sing. Parents sing. Every able-bodied patron sings. I sing. And for a moment in time we are eight years old again.

I’m in a Mexican restaurant. I’ve been driving. I’m tired. I’m here to enjoy cold beer and something salty.

Earlier, I tried visiting the joint up the road. The place has allegedly good barbecue. I left after three seconds. They had a band that only knew two volume levels: loud, and nuclear holocaust.

So I’m here.

Behind my booth are children. It’s a birthday party. There are at least fifteen. They sit around a long table which is mounding with gifts. They holler and laugh.

A few wear pointy hats. I didn’t know kids wore pointy hats anymore.

My waitress brings my beer, and I overhear all the Top-40 hits of childhood happening behind me.

“Gross, you eat boogers?”

“I know you are, but what am I?”

“My dad could beat up your dad.”


How have we come this far as a civilization, and still not eradicated cooties?

Then, parents hush kids. Children's voices run quiet. A mother walks to the door and looks through the glass.

"Here she comes,” the woman says to her group. “Get ready.”

There is a pregnant pause. I am holding

my beer with both hands, watching the door.

The door opens.

Children scream “Happy Birthday!” loud enough to break stained glass. Then, applause.

The birthday girl is dressed like a princess. She has a diamond tiara, a pink dress with sequins. She has Down syndrome.

Her father helps her to the table, holding her arms. The girl sits and covers her face. She’s blushing.

“YOU GUYS!” she says.

Her smile is bright enough to tear the cotton-picking world in half.

Mexican waiters in colorful sombreros visit her table. They sing. Parents sing. Every able-bodied patron sings. I sing. And for a moment in time we are eight years old again.

Princess Pink opens gifts, using both hands. The wrapping paper doesn’t stand a chance.

“Tell her what gift you gave her,” the princess’…

My wife is asleep in the passenger seat. Thelma Lou, bloodhound, is chewing my wallet. For the last week, I’ve been saying things to this dog like: “NO! DROP THAT WALLET, THELMA LOU! I MEAN NOW!”

It’s early. I’m leaving Colorado Springs. My father’s mountain resting place is in the rearview mirror. Ahead of us: two more weeks on the road.

My wife is asleep in the passenger seat. Thelma Lou, bloodhound, is chewing my wallet.

For the last week, I’ve been saying things to this dog like: “NO! DROP THAT WALLET, THELMA LOU! I MEAN NOW!”

She loves it when I say this.

I've taken to hiding my wallet, and somehow she keeps finding it—even when it’s in my pants. So, like any diligent dog owner who cares deeply about their pet and discourages bad behavior, I am employing the ancient training technique of “letting her have the God forsaken wallet.”

Anyway, I’m spending this morning riding through mountains that belong in a John Wayne movie. I am enjoying a leisurely drive when suddenly:


An SUV almost sideswipes me.

Horn honking.



What the?

The female motorist even shows me her sacred finger. And all at once, I understand. This is a major highway, and I’m going under the speed-limit.

Well, I don’t mind telling you that I’m not a speeder. I wish I were, but you can’t change who you are. You’re either a “go-getter,” or “lazy-and-walletless.”

My father used to lovingly call me Sean “the Slug” Dietrich.

I earned this nickname one summer when he told me to pressure wash our deck—which was roughly the size of Nova Scotia. He insisted that this chore would be good for me. Power washing, you’ll note, has never been “good” for anyone in the history of backyard accessory structures.

While I operated the machine, a neighbor kid named Joseph came riding on a bike. He nearly passed a kidney stone.



“You’re SO LUCKY!”

I thought about this for a minute. Then, drawing…

That’s when she hears something. Footsteps in the brush. A man crawls into her vehicle through the shattered windshield. He pulls her free.

It’s late night. She’s driving an empty highway. The radio is playing something lively. She’s heading toward South Carolina. A new life. A new job. A new town.

She’s got a lot going for her. She’s fresh out of college, smart, ambitious, she comes from a good family, she’s got all the support she can stand.

She’s giddy about her new job. She starts on Monday. She’ll get her own office, good benefits, the whole enchilada. She’s wondering where life is going to take her next, and she’s pure excitement.

She doesn’t see the deer jump in front of her. All she hears is the sound of crunching.

It’s over fast. She smashes into a guardrail, her vehicle tumbles a few times. There is blood in her vision, but she’s not hurt—it’s a miracle.

Her car is wrecked, she’s stuck in a ditch, but she’s alive with no broken bones. She tries to crawl out of the vehicle, but the door is jammed.

That’s when she hears something. Footsteps in the brush. A man crawls into her vehicle through

the shattered windshield. He pulls her free.

Her new friend says, “You’re gonna be alright.”

It’s dark. They hike toward the highway to flag a car down. When she gets to the road, the man is gone.

Here’s another:

Bill has cancer. It started as a skin problem on his back. It grew fast. It spread. Doctors operate and cut it out.

After the invasive procedure, he lies on a hospital bed, subjected to lethal doses of daytime television.

Bill is sad. He has no wife, no children, no immediate family to visit him. He’s never felt as alone as he does today.


He sees a child, standing by the open door. He doesn’t know how the boy got in. Only friends and family are allowed to visit—Bill has neither.…

he’s a happy man and in twenty minutes, he’ll be off work. He’s excited, he tells me, because tonight’s a big night. He’s going to introduce his girlfriend to his parents.

Colorado Springs—I found a twenty-dollar bill on the sidewalk. And because I am a competent, responsible adult, I raced toward the money, shouting, “MINE! MINE!” at my wife.

There they were, two Andrew Jacksons, crumpled. I made the same sound a five-year-old boy makes when he discovers the Tootsie Roll center to a Tootsie Roll Tootsie Pop.

I don’t often find money. It’s not one of my skills. I have a friend who finds money everywhere. He once found a hundred big ones outside a convenience store. I happened to be with him when it happened.

I never forgave him.

Thus, with my newfound wealth, I walked into a giftshop to do some dutiful vacation-junk purchasing. Here in Colorado, I am a tourist, and a tourist can never have enough plastic junk to clutter up his home, office, garage, guest bedroom, or storage unit.

Then, I overheard his voice.

He was behind the cash register, talking to a customer. His accent was pure Alabama. It had to

be. He drew out his vowels the same way Good Ole Boys have been doing since the invention of the beer koozie.

I waited in line with an armful of overpriced trash. I was buying more than twenty-bucks’ worth—three T-shirts, a snow globe, a coffee mug, and a few bumper stickers for my accordion case.

That’s right, I play accordion. My grandfather played, too. Grandaddy told me long ago that the accordion was a great way to pick up chicks. He was grossly misinformed.

When it was my turn, I asked the gray-haired man at the cash register where he was from.

“Montgomery,” he said.

Bingo. Alabamians, you’ll note, don’t say “MONT-gomery” like the rest of the free world. They say, “Muh-GUM-ree.”

“How’d you get out here?” I asked.

“Long story,” he said. “I came here for my parents. They’re old…

A man loading groceries saw the boy sprinting toward an oncoming vehicle.

Fayetteville, North Carolina—the middle of the night, on the interstate. She was on her way to start a new life in a new place.

She pulled over at a rest area.

It was dark. She was young. A man came from nowhere, forced her into a car, and held a gun to her. He told her what he was about to do to her.

Then, someone kicked open the window and pulled him off. There was a fight. Her attacker was never caught. Her hero was never found. She was unharmed.

“My mom thinks it was an angel,” she says. “I think so, too.”

Birmingham, Alabama—Daryl saw a man walking the highway. He offered the man a ride.

The man said, “No thanks,” and mumbled something nonsensical.

Daryl dove past him the next afternoon. And the next. One day he pulled alongside the man and said, “Please let me do SOMETHING for you, sir.”

The man said, “I’m so scared, dude. Help me.”

Daryl brought him home. He made contact with the man’s sister, who said her brother suffered from schizophrenia. He’d gone missing days earlier.


a few hours, the family was reunited on Daryl’s front lawn.

“You saved my brother’s life,” said the man’s sister. “And mine.”

Flowood, Mississippi—on Tuesday afternoons, Mary instructs a gymnasium of women, of varying ages and fitness levels, how to dance hip-hop.

One of her students—an elderly woman—had chest pains.

The ambulance came. Mary rode with her to the hospital. She lied to nurses, claiming to be the woman’s daughter so they’d let her into the woman’s room. She called the family.

One emergency open-heart surgery later, the old woman is alive and moving.

“Anybody woulda done what I did,” said Mary.

No. They wouldn’t have.

Southside, Florida—a boy and his mother walked into a supermarket. He pitched a tantrum and kicked her. She let go of his hand. He ran through the…

He used to play make-believe with me when I was little. Daddy would wear a cowboy hat and play Old West Saloon. I was Wyatt Earp; he was Billy the Kid.

Colorado Springs—I’m standing on Pikes Peak, fourteen thousand feet above sea level. I’m looking at the world from a mountaintop.

Twenty-four years ago we scattered Daddy’s ashes here. He came packed in a cardboard box. I was a child.

The day we turned him loose, I prayed for something grand to happen. Maybe a gust of wind, a big cloud, or even snow. I’d heard it can snow on Pikes Peak during the summer.

That’s what I wanted. I wanted nature to deliver something. But there were no gusts. No clouds. No snow. Only hot sun.

Anyway, my father’s death happened suddenly. I was twelve. And this view takes me to that age again. The scenery up here is breathtaking. I can see clear to Kansas, and the sun is shining so hard it burns me.

The altitude is getting to me. There are tiny sparks in my vision. The EMT at the visitor’s center told me this means I am in oxygen debt.

Twenty-four years. It’s been so long since

he’s been gone that I often forget his face. I have to open a photo album to remember.

I have a favorite photograph. A faded Polaroid. He’s wearing his denim, his boots, and his work jacket. He’s all iron worker.

I loved him.

He used to play make-believe with me when I was little. Daddy would wear a cowboy hat and play Old West Saloon. I was Wyatt Earp; he was Billy the Kid.

We’d have gunfights at high noon. Our living room became the showdown at O.K. Corral. I would take him down with a cap gun. I was the best shot in the West. He would grab his gut, then fall on the floor.

Then, I would jump on his chest. He would kiss me on the forehead. He’d say, “That’s my little cowboy.”

How could a…

Thelma Lou interrupts me. She doesn’t want me to think. She wants me to play.

I just crossed the border into New Mexico. I’m only three hours from Colorado Springs, where I’ll visit my father’s resting place.

And I am lost. Not poetically, but worse. Literally. My GPS quit working a few minutes ago. I’m running blind.

Still, after two days of driving across the eerily flat Texas dirt, it’s nice to finally see some eerily flat New Mexico dirt for a change.

My wife is asleep in the passenger seat. We are traveling with two dogs: my late bloodhound, Ellie Mae,—God rest her soul—her ashes are in a cedar box, riding on my dashboard.

And my other dog, Thelma Lou—a twelve-week-old bloodhound whose bladder is the size of a zipper pea.

Thel sits in my lap while I drive, staring out my windshield. We are wandering across the Middle of Nowhere. This two-lane highway is bumpy, and jagged. In front of me: prairie. Behind me: prairie. There are no cars for miles.

But I’m enjoying the drive. So is the puppy. And I’m remembering


Mostly, I’m remembering the dog in the box. She was the sort who rode shotgun. Always shotgun. Even when my wife was in the car, Ellie would sit between us. If you rolled down the window, she’d poke her head out. Her long ears would flap in the wind.

Ellie was my friend. She was born in Georgia, raised in the Panhandle of Florida. She loved all things that hounds love: pine trees, children, long walks on the beach, raw sewage, Lawrence Welk.

I think Ellie would’ve liked the West.

Thelma Lou certainly likes it. She is taking in the view like it’s the first time she’s ever seen earth.

She wears a look I can’t explain—like she’s thinking very, very hard. And all of a sudden, my vehicle smells like four-day old cabbage. Gurgling sounds come from Thel’s…

After she laid him to rest, she couldn’t figure out what to do with herself. So here she is, with her barbecue pit-master nephew, serving brisket.

I’m in the Texas Panhandle. I wish I could tell you where, specifically, but I don’t know. Outside Amarillo.

There are no landmarks. No trees. No water. Just dirt, wind, and prairie. I am at a rundown barbecue trailer, parked outside a filling station. I am ordering food. My wife is waiting in the vehicle with our bloodhound.

The woman at the window is a gray-haired sweetheart.

When I first arrive, she is smoking a cigarette out front. When she sees me, she moseys into the trailer. I’ve always wanted to use that word—“mosey.”

She gives me a Texas barbecue lesson. Her voice sounds like a tuba.

“Our barbecue’s different than your Southern style, baby,” she says. “You need to know that.”

Fair enough. Since I am a Southerner, I ask her what the regional differences are.

“Oh, lotsa differences. Mainly, in Texas we actually know how to cook.”


“Also,” she adds. “We don’t care ‘bout side dishes like y’all do.”

Say it ain’t so. Side dishes are sacred to people in my parts. In

fact, each year local heathens visit Southern Baptist barbecues simply to eat their yearly requirement of coleslaw.

The fourth time I got baptized, for instance, I ate so much coleslaw I had to ask the congregation for forgiveness the following Sunday.

I order a pulled pork sandwich.

“Pork?” The old lady gives a hoarse laugh. “We don’t do pork. This is Texas. Brisket.”

“Okay,” I say. “A brisket sandwich, then.”

“No sandwiches, neither. Brisket.”

I order brisket and ask for extra sauce on the side.

“No sauce,” she says. “Brisket.”


So I’m eating brisket that’s wrapped in foil. And we are having a conversation.

Beneath the woman’s rough skin is a lady who was born in Amarillo. She married a man in the military. She saw the whole world with him. Top to…