We arrived at the little airport in Ashland, Alabama, at 9 am. Although it didn’t look much like an airport. Actually, it looked like a pole barn in the North Alabama woods. Somewhere nearby, you could hear banjos.

The Butlers arrived with Becca, their daughter. Becca is 11 years old and blind. She is a child with more raw energy output than a small municipal dam. She leapt out of the backseat, brandishing her white cane, vibrating with pure excitement.

“I’m gonna fly today!” she shouted as she began applauding herself. “I’m so STINKING excited!”

I first met Becca by email last September. I did not expect to become such good friends with an 11-year-old. But you can’t plan these things.

Our friendship officially happened when she first hugged me. Becca gives good hugs. At the time, we had just completed our first lunch date, eating at Bama Bucks, a steakhouse and wild game restaurant where they have a cage of wild deer grazing across the street, sort of like lobsters

at a seafood restaurant. Before I left the restaurant Becca hugged me tightly and said, “I really think we should be friends.”

And so it was. We became instant pals. We wear friendship bracelets and everything.

Fast forward. Several months ago, I was on a commercial airplane, about to go make a speech somewhere. I was flying livestock class where you have to ride with a chicken on your lap. My phone lit up while we were still taxiing on the runway. It was a text from Becca.

“What are you doing?” the text read.

I told her I was about to fly to Kansas City. She told me she had never flown before. “Would you like to fly someday?” I asked her. Her text came back as something akin to, “Does the Pope go in the woods?”

One thing led to another. And here we were. At the…

A beer joint. In the sticks. A cinderblock building. There were beat-up trucks parked in a dusty parking lot. No sign. Only a small Pabst Blue Ribbon marquee indicated this was a place where a man could break a dry spell.

My companions were old enough to be my grandfathers. I accepted their invitations to attend their private waterhole.

“We don’t want anyone to know it’s here,” said one old man whom I will call Billy. Although that is not his name. It is Ted Carter.

“Otherwise, people will ruin it,” said his cohort.

It was a dank place. A lot like the place where Miss Wanda sold me my very first beer when I was 14.

Yes, I realize 14 is way too young to consume libation. I also realize that if Wanda had done such a thing today, she would be rotting beneath Tutwiler Prison. But those were different times.

Wanda gave me an ice-cold Miller High Life in exchange for a song played on my guitar. She asked me to sing to the barroom

because—how’s this for irony?— her mother heard me sing in church once.

I sang “Hello Walls.” I tried to make my voice do like Faron Young’s voice did.

We opened the door. The old men assumed their barstools. The place smelled like someone’s crawl space.

There was a tiny plywood stage in the corner. An old guy with a ponytail was picking and singing Vern Gosdin’s “Set’em Up Joe.”

I ordered a Miller High Life, just to see if the spirit of Wanda lived on.

“We don’t carry High Life,” said the bartender. She was young and full-faced. But in a pleasing way.

My two partners ordered Bud Lights. I ordered a Budweiser. The girl called out. “I need two Bud Lights and one beer!”

The other bartender was nicknamed “Tiny.” He weighed roughly 250 lbs., and his arms were the size of…

I was a pitiful child. When I graduated fourth grade, I was the only student voted most likely to enter the field of manual culvert excavation. I was a total loser.

“But Sean,” I can hear you saying, “we were all total losers when we were kids.”

Thank you for trying to make me feel better, but no, we were not all total losers. Some kids were actually attractive and popular and brilliant.

Case in point. Yesterday, a 14-year-old from Florida won the National Spelling Bee. The kid’s name was Dev Shah. His winning word was “psammophile,” which is an extremely rare noun used to describe organisms that prefer sandy soil environments.

I, for one, am impressed inasmuch as I once lost the elementary spelling bee to the word “potato.”

“T-A-T-E-R?” I spelled over the microphone.

The auditorium erupted in laughter.

I never won anything when I was a kid. I was unimpressive in every way. My Little League team never won a single baseball game.

This is because my Little League team was composed

of Deepwater Baptist boys. Our parents did not believe in winning. We believed in the doctrine of suffering. We believed in being of service to others.

So whenever other teams were undergoing batting slumps, they played us and felt much better about themselves. That was our team’s role.

We were not taught to win. My team was named the “Submergers.” We were servants. If my team had won a gold medal, our mothers would have just had it bronzed.

Spelling bees? No way. I come from country people. My people did not emphasize spelling.

When I was a kid, for instance, I remember when my aunt Jospehine died.

My uncle Jerry Lee called the funeral home, in tears. Jerry Lee gave the funeral-home driver directions to his home address, which was at the end of Eucalyptus Drive. To which the funeral home operator replied, “Can…

I am in a hospital waiting room. My wife is having cataract surgery right now. For the last four hours I’ve been in this crowded holding pen of optical patients where we have been exposed to dangerous quantities of daytime television.

Currently, there is a TV mounted overhead with volume set to “deafen.” We are prisoners, all forced to watch “Live with Kelly and Mark,” where the banter between co-hosts goes like this:

“I’m so glad it’s June.”

“Me too. Does June have 31 or 32 days?”

“It only has 28.”

My wife was nervous about getting surgery this morning. I could tell by the way she was chewing her fingernails when we arrived at the hospital.

My wife is a feisty individual who, aside from being a dedicated fingernail chewer, is not afraid to use strong language during appropriate situations, such as, traffic, national championship games, Bible study, etc.

So when the male nurse, for example, inserted a needle into my wife’s arm, she implied loudly that he had been born to unmarried


After that, we waited for several hours while medical staffers took her vitals, made sure her heart worked properly, examined her blood pressure, and asked vitally important medical history questions, such as, “Will this be a co-pay?”

Then they wheeled her back. I waved goodbye to her.

And now here I am. Waiting alongside other eye surgery candidates. All of whom wear looks of dread on their faces.

I don’t know how anyone could be anything but nervous. So far, we have watched dozens of patients get wheeled into the mysterious back room, then re-emerge after a few hours with bandages, eye patches, groggy looks on their faces, and wearing butt-revealing gowns.

These surgery patients are usually accompanied by escorts who roll them along in wheelchairs. And you can tell the patients are still loopy from medication by the way they affectionately grope their escorts,…

Knoxville. Last year. I am walking into a Waffle House to get supper because everywhere else is closed at this hour. The sidewalks are rolled up. The lights are off. Knoxville is asleep.

I should be asleep, too, of course. But I’m not. Because I had to make a speech earlier tonight. It was one of those long nights where I drove straight to Knoxville and came right back.

I had to wear a tux. Have you ever been to a Waffle House while wearing a tuxedo? You get a lot of funny looks.

“Did you just finish with senior prom?” the waitress asks.

“No,” I say. “It was much worse. I had to make a speech to drunk rich people.”

She leans on the counter. “You wanna cry about it?”

“No. I’m past that.”

“So. What’re we drinking, Prom King?”

“Anything that’s hot and black.”

“One cup of tar, coming up.”

There is a guy at the counter who is dressed in a service uniform of some kind. He is old. There are tattoos all over his arms. Tattoos on his knuckles. Piercings all

over his face. A ring in his nose.

He is a little long in the tooth to have a ring in his nose, but there you are. The tattoos on his knuckles let me know that he has no problem using those babies.

He gazes into his coffee cup.

Here is a man who is not playing with his phone. Which is a rarity in our world. He’s not reading anything. He’s not talking to anyone. He’s just gazing.

“Evening,” I say to him.

He glances up from his coffee. “Hi ya, buddy.”

He’s country, with an accent like your favorite uncle. Country people always call you “buddy.”

The waitress stops by the old man’s mug.

“Get you a refill?” she says.

“Yes, please,” he says as she pours. “Thank you, baby.”

Country people also…

The Alabama mountains look good today. The evening sun is cresting over the hillsides. I’m watching an Appalachian spring overtake the foothills beneath me.

Beside me is Otis. Otis is an athletic dog. He hikes faster than me. He is smarter than me. He can hike farther distances, too. Otis probably even knows how to do algebra.

I, on the other hand, am no athlete. I come out here and I hike in a style that would make athletes cringe. I hike slow. And I mean R-E-A-L-L-Y slow. I am DMV slow.

In my backpack, I carry all the nutrition anyone could need. I have chicken salad from Chicken Salad Chick. I have a Payday. And I have two beers. One for me. One for Otis.

You will not find any gluten-free energy bars or trail mix in my bag. You will not find lifegiving food that nourishes the arteries and feeds the limbic system. You will find food which contains bacon, and Budweiser.

Whenever I stop for lunch, I sit on

a tall rock and dangle my legs off the edge, and I watch the world below me.

Otis never wants his beer. Which means that, once again, I am forced to drink it. The things I do for this dog.

And after a brief moment of repose, we are back to hiking again. We move steadily upward. My pale, shaky thighs are weak. I have unusually scrawny legs. My mother used to say I looked like a guy riding a chicken across the backyard.

But eventually, we reach the top. Whereupon I will pause to catch my breath while Otis looks at me as if to say, “You shouldn’t have drank my beer.”

And the view is arresting.

My father was a mountain lover. He was an ironworker. Local Number 10. He was a stick welder. Stick welders are real men.

My old man could climb things. Anything.…

Sunset. There must be a million people gathered in Railroad Park tonight. Downtown Birmingham is crazy. There are no parking spots left. People are parking cars as far away as Milwaukee.

The Alabama Symphony Orchestra is playing a Memorial Day weekend concert outdoors in the park. Concert goers have come from every corner of the earth. This place is like Woodstock, only with fewer naked people.

There are children, playing tag. Young families. High-schoolers, full of hormones, with only one thing on their minds. (Hint: It ain’t bingo.) College couples on first dates, carrying on intense conversations. And elderly married couples, who haven’t conversed since the Nixon administration.

The symphony tunes up. And away we go. The music can be heard all the way in Hoover.

The most interesting person I will meet this evening is a young man with Down syndrome. He is 6 years old. His family’s blanket is near mine. He listens to the orchestra with slack-jawed awe. I’ll call him Ray.

“We just adopted him,” Ray’s parents say.

Ray’s biological mother got

rid of her son when he was a newborn. And by “got rid of” I mean that she threw Ray in a dumpster when she discovered his developmental disabilities.

A neighbor found the infant screaming among the garbage. And yet here he is. I have never seen a child more excited. Also, I have never been hugged so many times. Ray is a big hugger.

After each hug, Ray listens to music for a few seconds, until he suddenly realizes he isn’t hugging me, so he re-hugs me again. We do this every 9 seconds.

“Ray loves everyone,” says his mother.

Ray and I meet a young woman nearby. I’d guess she is maybe 16. She is very pretty. Ray wanders over to this girl and gives her a big hug.

“You smell good,” Ray tells her.

“Thank you,” she says.

“What about me?”…

Danny and the band arrived late to the nursing home. They were running behind schedule because of traffic. But they were here, and that’s all that mattered.

And they brought their instruments.

“We’re all waiting for you, Danny,” said the nurse, leading the band toward the rec room.

Residents filled the day-use room, wall to wall. There were dozens of wheelchairs, O2 canisters, and a corral of roller-walkers stabled near the door like Appaloosas on the open range.

Residents had donned their Sunday best. Old men wore ballcaps with KOREA and VIETNAM embroidered on the fronts. Old ladies sported oversized tennis shoes and hairdos which hadn’t changed since the Johnson administration. Everyone’s hearing aids were cranked up.

The musicians set up near the spinet piano. Then Danny introduced the band over the mic.

There was Roger on the drums. Roger is no spring zucchini, he’s been playing the skins since Buddy Holly was a household name.

Albert was on double bass. I asked how long Albert has been playing the upright. His only response was,

“I have underpants that are older than you.”

And of course, there’s Danny, playing his collector’s item candy-apple-red Country Gentleman guitar, which is worth about as much as an amphibious aircraft carrier. Danny’s mother bought him this guitar in 1960. “My mom gave me this guitar for my thirteenth birthday,” he said.

The band opened with a few easy numbers. Just the classics. “Summertime,” by Gershwin. That always gets the collective heart rate up. Then “Fly Me to the Moon,” the older crowd loves that one.

One man in the front row became so excited that he began to shout, “I have to pee!” Whereupon the rowdy stood and attempted to demonstrate this for his fans just before the nurse escorted him from the room.

The band followed this with “You’re Not Mine Anymore,” by Willie Nelson. A song which debuted in 1954, when many…

Yesterday was international Redhead Day. I’ll bet you didn’t know we redheads have our own holiday, but we do. And it’s an important day.

Because countless redheads throughout history fought so that we, as a nation, could observe this holiday in freedom. Our ginger ancestors died protecting precious rights that many of us redheads enjoy today.

Such as the right to wear orange or burgundy; the right to be cast as the little orphan Annie in the school musical production of “Annie”; and the right to get free beer on Saint Patrick’s Day.

You probably know a redhead in your life. And speaking as a genetic minority, we ruddy complected persons could use your support right now.

Because redheads are disappearing.

That’s right. Modern research shows that the number of those carrying the recessive gene causing red hair are declining.

The percentage of redheads has dropped steeply within the last few years. At one time, the earth’s population of redheads was about 19 percent. Today it’s down to 2 percent. That’s barely enough to

form a jayvee basketball team.

We are diminishing in huge numbers each year. And each time we die, we take our genetics with us.

If this trend continues, by the year 2100 there will be approximately 3 redheads left including Willie Nelson.

I am a longtime redhead. My hair turned strawberry in my teens, but I was born with hair the color of Ronald McDonald.

I was also a jaundice baby, which means my skin was the color of sickly urine. My mother said I was also born with a pointy head. “You looked like a No. 2 pencil,” my mother recalls.

My mop of hair, however, was the main attraction in the delivery room. The first words of the nurse who delivered me were, “You know what they say about redheads and preachers…”

Unfortunately, nobody ever learned what they say about redheads and preachers because…

I came into town driving on Highway 331. The sun was setting. The sky was pink. The first thing I saw was the bay of my youth, and I almost started to cry tears of nostalgia.

Whereupon a motorist in a Range Rover traveling upwards of 190 mph tried to run me off the bridge and into the bay water.

Welcome home.

The Choctawhatchee Bay is pure majesty. You’re looking at 127 square miles of brackish water, fed by the Choctawhatchee River. A unique habitat that’s home to species like leatherback turtles, alligators, porpoises, and sturgeon.

What is a sturgeon? Glad you asked. A sturgeon is a prehistoric fish species that looks uglier than homemade fudge. Sturgeons predate the Jurassic Period. They can live up to 100 years, grow 20 feet long, and if you catch one in your cousin’s boat you will have no choice but to grab another beer.

I veered off 98 and took the old beach road near Blue Mountain. And I was on Highway 30A.

The highway was littered with beach tourists aplenty. There were bazillions of them. On every crosswalk. Many such tourists wore thong bikinis, stiletto heels, and hoop earrings. And those were just the men.

This place has changed.

At one time, my home county had a population of 21,000 folks. We had one or two grocery stores, a few filling stations, and Barney Fife still checked the doorknobs every night.

Everyone’s daddy fished. Everyone’s mother sewed their Halloween costumes. Nobody spelled “taters” with a P. And words like “ruined” were always pronounced “ruint.”

Today, Walton County sees more than 5.3 million visitors per year. The average tourist spends an average of $889 each day, amounting to $4.8 billion in direct spending.

We are a small town whose main crop is real estate developers. We have 1,267,124 supermarkets.

But I still remember olden times. I remember when 30A was desolate and tranquil.…