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…

Granny says they live in the country. Their entire lives have been spent filling silos, raising cattle, and attending church four nights per week. Now they’re too old to do much more than an occasional Sunday service.

Emporia, Kansas, is hot today. The mostly brick and concrete downtown is a throwback to 1953. The weather feels like I’ve just jumped rope in the attic.

I am sitting on a bench, counting cars, eating soft serve ice cream.

I’ve lost count.

I remember my redheaded father bringing me to Emporia as a kid when he had errands to run. I had to hold his hand when we’d cross the street. He’d waltz into a hardware store, and talk to the old men behind store counters.

The old timers all talked the same—they added “now” to the ends of their sentences.

“Okay, now,” an old man might’ve said, messing up my ugly red hair. “Be a good boy, now. Listen to your daddy, now. Hear me, now?”

“Bye, now,” would be the typical farewell greeting.

And my father would always return their goodbyes with: “Alright, then.”

My father could make conversation with a fire hydrant. He was especially chatty with total strangers. And they would usually open right

up to him. I don’t know how he did it.

Maybe it was his red hair that made him so easy to talk to.

A green Chevy truck pulls to the curb. A teenage boy leaps from the driver’s seat. The boy is all business. He helps an elderly couple from the vehicle.

The old man wears a camouflage ball cap. He can’t seem to move one side of his body. A stroke, I’m thinking.

The old woman’s silver hair is in a tight bun. She is every farmer’s wife since the Eisenhower Administration.

Together, they all hobble across the street in a three-person clot. The teenager supports them both with lanky arms.

The boy is moving nice and easy, making sure they don’t trip.

They are only inside the store for a few minutes. Then, they exit.…

Today, I just saw the place where his Thinking Bench still sits. It remains, after all these years. And it makes me happy.

I saw on the news this morning that Anthony Bourdain took his own life. After that, I read that someone named Kate Spade did the same thing. I never met Anthony or Kate, but I knew someone like them once.

We had a bench by our pond. A pine-log bench. It sat near the edge of the water. Daddy called it his Thinking Bench. This afternoon, after twenty-five years, I sat in that bench. I remember the day he built it—using only a sharp axe and cuss words.

It’s funny, how I can remember things like benches, but not what I had for supper last night.

Salmon, I had the salmon. No, it was chicken.

Anyway, weeds grew around his bench. He trimmed the grass using a jack knife sometimes. I don’t know why he did that. Cody, his Lab, would sit beside him when he used the bench.

One December morning, when the weather was unusually cold, I found him there. He’d been sitting all night. He wasn’t moving. Eyes open.

There was a thin layer of frost on his back and shoulders. His red hair stiff from the cold.

Mama ran outside with a blanket. He didn’t want it.

“You coulda froze to death,” she said. “You need serious help, John.”

“Help doing what?” he’d say with vinegar in his voice.

Because Daddy didn’t trust shrinks. After all, who could trust a medical man who had baby soft hands and wore silk underpants? How could a man like that help a body?

Besides, nobody from my father’s world seemed to KNOW what professional help was, exactly. At least not back then. Fewer understood words like “depression.” Back then, those were just modern ideas invented by folks who ate snails at dinner parties and talked about things like cubism, yoga, and frozen yogurt.

Daddy was the kind who made log benches. The kind who liked…

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.”

“COOTIES!”

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’…