Somewhere in South Carolina. A rundown seafood joint. The kind of place that serves oysters on the half shell.

I’m sitting at the bar, eating Captain’s Wafers, waiting for my food.

The view is astounding. The salt marshes go on for miles, only interrupted by the sabal palms.

The beer is cheap, and cold enough to crack your fillings. The cocktail sauce is free.

The woman behind the bar looks happy tonight. She is late-middle-aged, and silver haired. She missing more than a few teeth. But it doesn’t affect her beauty. She bounces behind the bar with springy feet.

I finally ask, “Why are you so happy?”

She leans onto the bar. “Guess,” she says.

“You won the powerball?”

She shakes her head. “Guess again.”

“You’re pregnant?”

She laughs. “Honey, that ship sailed a long dadgum time ago.”

Only she doesn’t say “dadgum.”

“I’m happy,” she says, “‘cause I’m gonna graduate.”

“Graduate from what?”

“High school. My daughter and I just took the GED test. And we passed it. Passed it clean.”

The woman looks at me and smiles a her tooth at me. And I’m smiling my less-than-optimal dental

work at her, too.

Because, you see, sitting before her is a guy who was a dropout, just like her.

“I got pregnant when I was in ninth grade,” she goes on. “Parents kicked me out, I had to start working. But I ain’t sorry. I got a good daughter out of the deal, I married a dadgum good man.

“When you’re a kid, it’s easy to drop out. Your little teenage brain only thinks about the here and now. If only I had listened to the adults in my life.”

I nod. Because I’m picking up what she’s laying down.

“But, hey, I don’t regret my life choices,” she adds. “They made me who I am today.”

Another nod from the choir.

She uses a church key to pop…

The letter came via snail mail. It was postmarked Richmond, Virginia. It was penned in a childish hand.

“My teacher reads your stories to our class sometimes and I wanted to know, can you write about me? If it’s not too much trouble for you to do?

“I am 8 years old. I don’t really have anything cool about me. I have red hair. But you can probably come up with something cool. My dad died this year the same way yours did, so my teacher said you are the same as me. It’s okay if you can’t write back.”

To the little boy in Richmond: Red is the most prestigious hair color in the world. That is not an opinion.

Fifty years ago, experts estimated that redheads made up approximately 8 percent of the earth’s population. But the percentage of redheads sharply decreases each year.

This year, the percentage is at an all-time low. About 1 percent of the world’s population have red hair. Ours is the rarest hair color in the solar

system. So welcome to the club, friend.

Our red hair is caused by a gene called the MC1R gene. Genes are microscopic very scientific things in the human body. They float around in your bloodstream, wearing little lab coats and carrying around tiny clipboards and pocket protectors.

A gene is something your parents carry around with them, all the time. Sort of like auto insurance, only more dependable.

So if both your parents had the MC1R gene, this means that you have a 25 percent chance of being born with red hair.

Congratulations, your parents both had the MC1R gene. You’re a ginger. May God have mercy on your soul.

I got my red hair, personally, from my dad. My dad had the MC1R gene. He was a redhead. He came from a long line of redheads. Although when he got older, his hair became more…

Lake Martin is flat. Mirror flat. It is a perfect evening. The sun is low. The crickets are singing in full stereo. And I’m visiting with old ghosts.

My father would have looked at this calm water and said it was as “flat as a bookkeeper’s bottom.” Only he wouldn’t have used the word “bottom.” He would have opted for a more colloquial expression unfit for mixed company.

Unless, of course, my mother was around. In which case he wouldn’t have opened his mouth at all.

Because he was a man of few words, my father. Which is what I remember about him most. His quietness. My aunt used to say that my father once traveled with the circus, performing as a sideshow act: The World’s Most Quiet Man.

So right now, I’m taking up the family business. I haven’t said a word in a few hours. Mostly, I’ve just sipped my cold glass of Milo’s Famous Tea, and I’m happy in the company of my faded memories.

I am thinking about Granny. Granddaddy. Mama. And the man

I once called “Daddy.” I am thinking about what these people would be doing right now, if they were alive.

I know what they would be doing. My Granddaddy would be carving a figurine with his butter-yellow Case knife. My grandmother would be reading the Bible, humming hymns, and chain-smoking Winstons.

My mother would be sewing something with a hoop. My father would be shirtless—he was born shirtless. And he would be drinking something harder than Milo’s.

As it happens, I am a big fan of Milo’s tea. I go through three or four gallons each 60 seconds. And do you know why I like Milo’s?

Because they don’t try to do too much with their tea. They don’t dye it red or add weird ingredients like azodicarbonamide, diacetyl, drywall dust, or rodent excrement. They don’t flavor it with added crapola. It’s…

The distant green mountains are speeding past my train window. I am eating an omelet, drinking coffee, watching America go by at eye level.

The train whistle screams. Two long whistles. One short. One long.

That’s whistle code. It means we’re approaching a highway grade crossing. Whistle code is the law. All trains traveling upwards of 45 mph are required to sound their horns this way a quarter mile before each crossing.

These are things you learn in the dining car.

I have a thing for trains. Always have. When I was a kid, I was one of those annoying little redheaded boys obsessed with locomotives. Some boys were into dinosaurs. Others were deeply committed to Richard Petty. My thing was trains.

I owned all the toys, of course. I had miniature versions of famous locomotives like the Super Chief, the Flying Scotsman, and the City of New Orleans. Also, I could make all the train noises with my mouth. Still can.

But my family didn’t ride trains. We changed our

own motor oil for crying out loud. All I could do was park my bike at train crossings and fantasize when trains blew past.

This is why riding trains is a big deal for me. Sure, I realize trains aren’t as flashy as air travel. They aren’t even efficient in our current Jet Age. A commercial airliner averages speeds of 575 mph. This train rarely exceeds 47 mph. But slowness is precisely why I love trains. Trains are laid back.

Yesterday, I boarded Amtrak’s Crescent No. 20. I almost missed my train because of traffic on the interstate. I arrived in a frenzy, sprinting through the station, and finally reached the platform with three minutes to spare.

I was out of breath. My leg muscles burned. I was stressed. And since I’m used to dealing with embittered airport people, I was prepared to be cussed out by Amtrak officials…

Our train came into Hartford at about one o’clock. The Vermonter eased into Union Station, and we deboarded after the ticket collector shouted, “Hartford, Connecticut!”

The station is built of brownstone and gracious glass windows. It’s a trip backward in time. Like visiting the 1880s.

No sooner had I deboarded than I met an old man, struggling with his heavy baggage. He was using a walker, limping. I helped him into the station. Soon we were seated on oaken pews in the old depot. He was breathing heavily from exertion. I was breathing heavier.

“Thanks for the help,” he said. “Sometimes I forget I’m an old fart.”

“No problem,” said I.

Hartford Union Station is just a giant room. Because that’s all train stations were, long ago. Big rooms. This particular room housed thousands who would embark and disembark for parts unknown.

There’s an adventurous feeling you get inside old train stations. A feeling you don’t get in, say, LaGuardia’s Fifth Circle of Hell.

Long ago, you could have come to Hartford Union Station to travel anywhere you

wanted to go. North to Montreal. West, to Santa Fe. Or south, to the Big Easy.

The old man looks around the station. He’s overcome with nostalgia. My granddaddy always said nostalgia was a crippling narcotic.

“We came to this station all the time when I was a kid.”

He grew up in Hartford. He visited this station with his mother. Each year, as a boy, he would take a solo trip to his aunt’s Pennsylvania. His mother would pin a strip of paper inside his little coat. The paper was labeled with his home address.

The note would read: “IF THIS CHILD IS LOST, PLEASE RETURN TO…” Then, his mother would tuck five dollars into his shoe.

“Everybody’s mom did that back then. People were very trusting.”

The old man points to the ticket booth and rifles through the last 100…

It was the dogs. The dogs are what got me.

When you tour the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City, you see a lot. You see twisted steel girders. Baby-faced portraits of the deceased. Mutilated emergency vehicles.

But it was the dogs that wrecked me.

The dog exhibit is pretty small. Located in the far corner of the museum, with photographs of search and rescue dogs.

You see dogs nosing through rubble, wearing safety harnesses. You see them in their prime. They’re all deceased now. But they were spectacular.

There was Riley. Golden retriever. He was trained to find living people. But, he didn’t find any. Instead, he recovered the remains of firefighters. Riley kept searching for a live survivor, but found none. Riley’s morale tanked.

“I tried my best to tell Riley he was doing his job,” said his handler. “He had no way to know that when firefighters and police officers came over to hug him, and for a split second you can see them crack a smile—that Riley was

succeeding at doing an altogether different job. He provided comfort. Or maybe he did know.”

There was Coby and Guiness. Black and yellow Labs. From California. Surfer dogs. They found dozens of human remains.

And Abigail. Golden Lab. Happy. Energetic. Committed. Big fan of bacon.

Sage. A border collie. Cheerful. Endless energy. Her first mission was searching the Pentagon wreckage after the attacks. She recovered the body of the terrorist who piloted American Airlines Flight 77.

Jenner. Black Lab. At age 9, he was one of the oldest dogs on the scene. Jenner’s handler, Ann Wichmann, remembers:

“It was 12 to 15 stories high of rubble and twisted steel. My first thought was, ‘I can't send Jenner into that…’ At one point, [Jenner] disappeared down a hole under the rubble and I was like, ‘Ugggggh!' Such a heart-stopping moment..."

Trakr. German Shepherd. Tireless worker. Worked until he…

Ah, New York City. There is a slight chill. The city is full of Midwesterners, all wearing white Reeboks, all staring straight upward.

My wife and I have just stepped out of our cab, after leaving LaGuardia Third World International Airport. Our cab driver was a nice man who drove upwards of 75 mph with only one finger on the wheel, and that was just on the sidewalks.

Right now, my wife and I are walking to our hotel. Because that’s all you do in New York City, really. You walk. You walk for miles, until the blisters on your feet become the size of U.S. Congresspersons.

Right now, we are stuck walking in a massive clot of people moving like a herd of bison. We are trekking onward, hauling our luggage, dodging cabs.

Even so, my wife is thrilled to be in this town. It is her first time visiting. So she is taking cellphone pictures by the gazillions.

My wife finds important photographic moments wherever she glances. So far, she has taken pictures of our cab’s interior, my half-eaten airport bagel, the

plane’s lavatory, and a middle-aged woman walking down the street dressed like a giant marital aid.

I also have this feeling the locals can tell we’re out-of-towners. We have that look about us. I met a cashier in a coffee shop, for example, when I was trying to order a large iced tea.

My tea arrived. “There’s something wrong with my iced tea, ma’am,” I said.

“What‘s wrong?”

“It’s not sweet.”

“So add some sugar.”

“I can’t add granulated sugar to cold tea.”

“Why not?”

“Because I am not a communist.”

Then the cashier asked if I was from Alabama. I was so impressed this lady guessed where we were from.

“That’s amazing,” I said. “How on earth could you tell where we’re from?”

“Honestly?” she said, leaning in to whisper. “It’s your teeth.”

I’ve never…

We crossed through Delaware into Pennsylvania. We got to our hotel late, and woke up at the crack of noon.

This morning, there were three men sitting on a bench outside my hotel. They were wearing crimson jackets with giant University of Alabama logos on the backs.

Here I was, in a remote community in the Keystone State, not far from the New York line. A rural hamlet with sprawling fields, rolling hillsides, breathtaking single-wides, and lots of Chevy Camaros on blocks in driveways.

In these parts, you do not see many Alabama Crimson Tide sympathizers. What are the odds?

I approached the men.

“Roll Tide,” I said.

“Roll Tide,” they said.

“Roll Tide,” my wife said.

“Roll Tide,” their wives said.

And then we were done.

Pennsylvania looks good today. There is a wide scope of color. Rolling golden farmland is cut with a distant winter-colored Appalachia. Old barns, grain silos, withered cornfields. To say it’s beautiful would be selling it short. This is pure Americana.

Earlier today we got stuck behind an Amish buggy on the highway. That was a treat. A young man and woman

were in the carriage. She was bird-skinny. He had the hint of an Abraham-Lincoln beard. I waved. They scowled at me.

I stopped at an antique store. The place was filled with ancient rural equipment and gramophones. The old woman behind the counter was talkative.

“Cold enough fer ya?” she said.

“Yes, ma’am.”

“You don’t hafta call me ma’am.”

“Yes, I do.”

“Why?”

“Because you are a ma’am.”

She showed me antiques that dated back to the founding of Pennsylvania. Some were from her own family. Several items related to the Quaker tradition.

“My family was all Friends,” she told me.

“Good for you,” I replied. “My family can’t stand each other.”

“No,” she said with a laugh. “A ‘Friend’ it means they’re Quaker.”

I don’t know much about Quakers except that…

My wife and I are on the way to Virginia, driving northward on a bumpy two-lane highway. We have a long way left to drive.

I have spent the morning riding through Tennessee, tailgating a beat up Chevy with a license plate that reads: “Virginia is for lovers.”

I’ve been staring at these four words for nearly two hours. And the slogan has started to aggravate me. What a corny phrase. I wonder what yahoo came up with that one.

Then we cross the state line into Virgina.

All of a sudden I am driving through steep green hillsides that look like they belong in Scotland. Every two minutes I pass a rural scene so arresting that I have to pull over to see if it’s real.

The mountainsides are quilted in uniform grass, dotted with trees, and the cattle are grazing. Every wildwood barn, vacant schoolhouse, dilapidated RV, and abandoned water heater is swallowed in kudzu.

“Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?” my wife asks.

No. I have not.

This is my first

visit to the rural parts of Virginia and nobody prepared me for what it would look like. In fact, I feel silly trying to describe to you all that I’m seeing.

The pavement carries us into valleys that slice through the Middle of Nowhere. We take horseshoe curves that shoot us into highlands, grasslands, forestlands, and farmland.

The farther we drive, the more churches we see. We see a new chapel every seven feet. Sometimes closer than that. There are so many churches in the state of Virginia, Bill Gaither could run for governor.

And old homes. I’ve never seen so many American farmhouses. Many of these homesteads sit on gracious cliffs. Other houses have as many as two, three, or four axles.

I pass a cow bathing herself in a craggy mountain stream, she’s looking at me. I pass a man plowing a field…

“Why do so many people visit Mount Airy?” I ask the old man at the antique store.

“Hmm?” he answers.

I’m in North Carolina. Andy Griffith’s hometown. A humble American village that receives approximately three kajillion visitors each year.

“Say again?” the old shopkeeper says.

The man adjusts his hearing aids.

So I re-ask my question. Why do so many people visit Andy Griffith’s hometown? And I ask this question, mainly, because it’s always been a minor mystery to me.

I mean, I love Andy as much as the next Joe Six-Pack. But Andy Griffith wasn’t The Beatles or Mick Jagger. He wasn’t a historic figure, a religious icon, a Renaissance sculptor or a sex symbol. He was a TV star, for crying out loud. Which puts him in the same category as, for example, Regis Philbin.

“People come to Mount Airy,” says the shopkeeper, “because you can’t never have too much Mayberry.”

It’s a trite answer, ultra clichéd and a little too neat and tidy for me. Although it’s a great line that probably woos the tourists.

But it doesn’t explain why later this afternoon,

when visiting the Andy Griffith Museum, I encounter biblical throngs waiting outside the gates. Think: the Children of Israel wearing Reeboks.

Where do they all come from? And why?

It’s 90 degrees outside, but the weather doesn’t stop them. There isn’t a single pair of pants in the crowd without a sweat stain on the butt. And yet everyone is cheerfully waiting in line.

Why? I keep asking myself. Why are we here?

We come from all over. Florida, South Carolina, Virginia, Texas, Tennessee, New Mexico, Minnesota and South Dakota. I didn’t even know South Dakota was a real place.

I ask one man how many miles he traveled to see the museum.

“It took us 29 hours by car,” he says.

I ask why he came.

He shrugs. “It’s Mayberry.”

After the museum,…