BIRMINGHAM—The 16th Street Baptist Church is your quintessential church. It’s a stout building with real downtown character. Red clay brick. Ornate stained glass. The whole enchilada.

There are homeless men seated on the curb. One man is asking people for money. He zeroes in on me.

He’s smoking a cigarette while wearing a medical mask at the same time. Which is impressive.

“You wanna know more about this church?” he asks.

His old T-shirt is ratty and stained. His skin is aged. He offers to tell me the church’s story in exchange for a few bucks. A “donation,” he calls it.

I bite.

He pockets the money and launches into a spiel.

“This structure was designed in the turn of the century by a dude named Wallace Rayfield.” He pushes his mask aside and lights another bent Camel.

Rayfield was American history’s second black architect. He was formally educated in Columbia University, and in 1899 he was a unique treasure. A lot of people consider this building to be one of his masterstrokes.

He designed buildings all over

the U.S., there are nearly ten in Birmingham alone. He built others in New York, West Virginia, Arkansas, South Carolina, Georgia, Chicago, Pensacola, and one located in the little crossroads of Milton, Florida.

His creations are works of art in any town. Though you have to know where to look for them. Rayfield’s buildings recede into a cityscape like they’ve always been there.

“This church congregation is old, dude,” the man says. “Goes way back in time.”

This church was founded in 1873, it was the first organized black congregation in Birmingham. Some very well-known American men and women have spoken from this pulpit. People you’ve heard of, like W.E.B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King Jr.

The old man goes on, “The last time Doctor King came here, this place was, like, standing room only. And it was hot, brother. The…

ANDALUSIA—The first thing I always do in this town is eat ice cream. I order a Blizzard from Dairy Queen. If I’m in a good mood I might even get a Dilly Bar.

When I was dating my wife, I took her to this Dairy Queen for one of our first dates. Times were tight, I was really trying to stretch my cash. I ordered a large Blizzard and a tap water. We split the Blizzard.

She called me “Mister Big Spender” after that. She still calls me this.

This is not a term of endearment.

We are rolling into the drive-thru right now. It’s a summer afternoon. I’m idling behind three cars in the to-go line. One Oldsmobile, one Pontiac, and a Chevy Z71 truck.

The Dairy Queen on East Three Notch Street is among the finest in the nation. And that’s not an opinion. There aren’t many like it left in the U.S.

If you’re passing through this Alabamian hamlet with time to kill, order a single dipped cone from this 1950s-style establishment and see

what I mean. You’ll forget all about the coronavirus for a few minutes. You might even find that you need a Dilly Bar.

The DQ’s dining room isn’t open right now because of COVID-19, but the drive-thru is. Which is similar to how Dairy Queens worked back in the ‘50s. Most stores did walk-up business only.

I pay for my Blizzard. The girl at the window hands me a tap water and says, “Have a nass day.” She is a ray of sunlight.

I park near a curb. My wife and I remove our surgical masks to eat. I play some early Hank Williams on the radio. We take big slurps from our cups. My Blizzard is so thick it could be used in a Quikrete advertisement.

After two sips I develop an ice-cream headache.

My wife laughs. “Mister Big Spender has a…

There were children playing in the park. It was hot. And that’s what kids do in the summer. You have to admire kids, taking advantage of the dog days, even though there’s a pandemic going on.

Remember how euphoric it was being out of school for summer?

Yeah. Me too.

These children wore face masks. They were on the swing set, having a non-stop party. They achieved high altitudes. Did dangerous somersaults. Broke femurs. Loved every minute.

I saw the old man on a bench. He arrived early for our meeting by about ten minutes. He wore a mask. He was reading.

I introduced myself, then asked, “What’cha reading?”

“Oh, nothing.”

But it wasn’t nothing. It was a comic book. This elderly man, old enough to be my grandfather, with dove-white hair, was reading comics.

“Thanks for meeting me,” I said.

“No, thank YOU,” he said, stretching his frail hand outward to shake mine. “I’m retired, I get bored sitting at home.”

I stared at his outstretched hand. I hadn’t shaken hands in half a year since the pandemic began. So we

bumped elbows.

“Is that a comic book?” I asked.

He shrugged. “I like the pictures.”

It was Batman.

I had to laugh. When I was a boy, I was a Superman fanatic. I subscribed to “Action Comics” for nine bucks per year and received 24 issues in the mail. It was the best deal in town.

Before our conversation got going, he offered to say an official blessing. This was a little weird, but I went along with it. I closed my eyes because I didn’t know what else to do.

If you’ve never heard a blessing from a retired Catholic priest, it’s cool. They recite what sounds like antiquated poetry.

Which is different from the way I grew up. We were Baptists. Our preachers’ prayers were pure improv. They would say anything that came to their minds.…

CYNTHIA—I’m depressed because I’m stuck indoors because I have a compromised immune system. I miss my husband. He died two years ago from a stroke and I’m still learning to be an old widow.

You mentioned once you play online Scrabble, I love that game and wanted to know will you play me sometime? I’ll warn you though, I’m pretty darn good and I don’t ever lose.

DAN—Dear Sean, I have been depressed for the past fifteen years off and on. It doesn’t matter why because I now realize that it's a chemical thing and it’s just the way I’m made and I’ve gotta deal with it.

In May I tried to do the ‘stupid thing’ [suicide] you mentioned in your earlier column but I called my mom and she saved me. She found me in a bad place and never judged me even though I was in a really bad place. I’ve been on and off meds for a year and I go to therapy but it’s a never ending war. This ‘rona has really been

hard for me. Thanks for listening. I’m not going to give up and I don’t think anyone else should give up. My mom is awesome.

GAIL—I’m 79 and I have never been this depressed in my life. My kids threw me a birthday party when I turned 79 in June but I was only pretending to have a good time, inside I was wondering what the point is to being alive. I live in Ohio. Visit me.

HELEN—Can’t you see that your just part of the fear mongering shawn? Quit scaring everone into a early grave. OK, Depression is a thing OK we get it OK? But people like you are focusing on the virus and it’s making it only worse.

JOHN—I lost a brother to suicide. I also work in the mental health field, I want to share the National Suicide Prevention…

Listen, I know you’re busy. And you probably don’t want to read anything super long. So I’ll make it quick. I promise. Once I’ve typed 2,345,402 words, I’ll stop writing.

But I’m worried about you.

No. Please. Don’t stop reading yet. Because I’m serious. You are not all right. You haven’t told your family what you’re going through. Your friends don’t know either. You’re depressed. And depression is a real thing.

Sure, it’s easy to hide it right now with everyone quarantining. But you’re drowning. And I just want you to know you have a friend.

The weird thing about depression is that it’s like a mosquito bite that infects you with yellow fever. On the surface it’s a little swollen area. No big deal. It’s just a tiny bite. Suck it up cupcake. But underneath the skin it’s Hiroshima. And yellow fever doesn’t just go away until it’s done some damage.

So when people tell you, “don’t be sad,” or “cheer up,” or whatever stupid things they say, they’re talking out of their hindparts.

Telling someone to cheer up during depression is like telling

a man with pancreatic cancer to “snap out of it.”

The concept of mental health among most Americans is totally screwed up. We get it all wrong. To many, the term “mental illness” is another way of saying, “Whoa, that guy’s a whack job.” And this makes people who suffer ashamed to admit they’re suffering.

It’s not fair. And it’s downright cruel. A guy who breaks his leg in a skiing accident is likely to get more genuine concern from his friends than someone with clinical depression.

But we can’t change society, so I don’t want to get off track by talking about that. I don’t have enough room. Besides, the real reason I am writing this is because I want you to know that you're not alone.

Look, just because nobody ADMITS they’re depressed…

We just pulled into our driveway after being on the road for weeks. I step out of the vehicle and hear a low-pitched howling coming from my house. It’s a baying sound you could hear a mile away.

The bloodhound’s voice is special. A single howl can last three or four seconds, maybe longer if there is a squirrel or a UPS employee involved. Their deep groan is rich, throaty, hoarse, and sounds like the Marlboro Man trying to sing Handel.

They’re comical dogs. A bloodhound has paws the size of baseball mitts. Their ears get caught in their mouth when they eat. Their skin is a few sizes too big for their body. In other words they're the perfect animal.

We are dog people. And I am a bloodhound guy. It runs deep in me. I have loved hounds since boyhood, when my cousin and I first saw Ellie Mae Clampett and her bloodhound, Duke, in a TV episode of the “Beverly Hillbillies.”

My cousin had a severe crush on Ellie

Mae. But I was in love with her dog.

As a young man, I had friends whose fathers were avid hunters. They used bloodhounds to track raccoons through the South Alabamian forest, usually at night. You’ve never seen anything more poetic than five hounds tearing into the midnight woods beneath a yellow moon, howling.

The hunting party would hike through groves of swampland, carrying lanterns, chewing short cigars. It was cold and damp, and I wanted to go home because I’m not a hunter.

I’m a fisherman, not a hunter. There is a big difference. A hunter is brave, tireless, he will endure hard weather, dire odds, and will sit motionless for hours without even scratching his back pocket. A fisherman has koozies that read: “She thinks my belly’s sexy.”

Often, a true fisherman will spend all day out on the water enjoying himself before he realizes he…

THOMASVILLE—This small Georgia town is painted with late afternoon shadows and it looks like an illustration fit for the cover of “The Saturday Evening Post.”

An old man in a fedora is walking his dog. A few kids ride bikes. A lady waters her plants. You’d swear the year was 1952.

I want to move here.

My wife claims I say this whenever we enter a pretty town. “I wanna move here,” I’ll insist. Then she’ll roll her eyes so hard she gives herself a migraine.

We’ve been on the road for weeks, traveling through the southeast, so I’ve said those words a lot. Whenever we pass through an attractive city my wife sets a timer to see how long it takes me to suggest moving there.

My current record is one minute and 18 seconds.

Our first stop today is an enormous oak tree, perched near a residential intersection. It has a fat base and titanic limbs covered in resurrection ferns, which blanket the bark like green fur. The branches stretch outward like colossal spider legs,

sweeping to the ground.

Big Oak is one of America’s oldest live oak trees. The ancient hardwood has been here since 1680, back when Jamestown was still the capital, and the colonists had not yet discovered Starbucks.

“This tree’s been hit by lots of cars,” says one Thomasville resident. “Trucks ram right into it, or crash into the limbs.”

But somehow it’s still here after 330-some-odd years of ironic catastrophes. And it’s still just as lovely.

When you stand beneath it you get the uncontrollable urge to touch it. But be careful. Because every yahoo tourist like me has been touching it, and COVID-19 is currently one of America’s leading causes of death.

Even so, I rest a bare hand upon the gnarled bark. The tree is warm.

It’s taken real effort to keep Big Oak alive. The tree has steel support cables,…

If you were to ask me what Heaven looks like, I would tell you. It looks like Apalachicola, Florida.

Visit Apalch in the late afternoon when the sun is sinking. Go downtown and look at the brick storefronts. You’ll see what I mean.

Walk along the docks where trawlers are moored behind 13 Mile Seafood Market on Water Street, a place that’s been selling wild oysters since the ‘50s. Oysters are the main industry here.

At least they were.

“It’s basically like a big mill is closing down,” said an elderly local man. “Ain’t no boats out there. The bay’s empty. The oystermen are gonna be hurting.”

He is of course talking about the closing of the oyster beds. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservancy Commission recently made the decision to stop harvesting oysters in Apalach.

It was a blow to the town, but vital to the health of this brittle Floridian ecosystem. This exhausted bay is in serious trouble.

“We're not just looking at it from an oyster perspective, but from a system perspective,” said

Dr. Felicia Coleman, part of an Apalachicola Bay initiative. “How healthy is the Apalachicola Bay? And that's the problem.”

Outsiders might not care about what goes on in a podunk oystering town, they have their own lives to worry about. But a lot of sunburned oystermen just lost their livelihoods. And it hurt.

This will be Franklin County’s first non-oystering period since Apalachee and Timucua natives began gathering oysters in these waters.

A few years ago, this bay was producing about 3 million pounds of yearly oysters, a crop worth about 9 million bucks. Ninety percent of Florida’s wild oysters came from this fleck-on-the-map town.

Ninety.

And there’s a reason these bivalves are so coveted. Because they will blow your mind.

A few years ago I was in a fancy seafood joint in Saint Louis, Missouri, of all places. I was very homesick for…

This desolate Georgia highway is swallowed in kudzu. Deep green vines have overtaken acres of pines. The avalanches of leaves spill into ditches.

I don’t hate kudzu. Certainly, I know it’s a noxious weed. But so are white clovers and creeping thistles, and I kind of like them, too. Also, I’ve always wondered why we call some flowers weeds but not others.

I will forever remember one childhood summer, when I planted purple kudzu flowers into a shoebox of potting soil, purely out of curiosity. Afterwhich the Baptist Women’s Bible Study Brigade sentenced me to public execution.

Kudzu was the devil’s work, they said. I never got a fair trial.

This road is the perfect place to see flowering vines that grow in all directions, like nests of copperheads, swallowing everything. I’ll bet if vehicles quit driving this route the vines would eat the old highway.

Kudzu has a bad name, so I’ve always been forced to admire it in secret. To me, the flowers look like something from Eden, and a hillside of leaves is

beautiful.

I sincerely hope the ladies’ Bible study group isn’t reading this.

The Japanese vine was officially introduced to the U.S. at Philadelphia’s World’s Fair in 1876. This was the same fair that unveiled an enormous iron-and-copper French sculpture that would later be nicknamed “the Statue of Liberty.”

The Japanese pavilion displayed exotic East Asian things like ceramics, archeological artifacts, Japanese magnolias, cinnamon-bark crepe myrtles, and a floor show featuring Tony Orlando.

Also, a small decorative vine with a purple flower.

But nobody paid attention to kudzu until 60 years later when dust storms started browbeating the prairies of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado. The government turned to kudzu for salvation. Congress announced that kudzu would end erosion by stabilizing soil. And they paid eight bucks per acre to anyone who planted it.

Eight bucks during the Depression was serious cash. People…

I am a redheaded fool, driving around the Peach State. I’ve spent the day exploring Georgia’s backroads. And I’m lost, going in circles.

I get lost easily. Namely, because I refuse to use a GPS. I hate them. I prefer Rand McNally. My wife has threatened to lodge all Rand McNally products into remote crevices of my body if I don’t use a GPS.

But the Georgia countryside is a great place to get lost. It’s a laid back, sleepy world of kudzu, longleaf pines, and incredible heat. My car thermometer reads 107 degrees from sitting in the sun.

I pass vegetable stands, Spanish moss, rusty pickups, and side-of-the-road handmade signs that read: “Eggs 4 sal.”

Nothing better than a good sal.

I drive past 13,239 churches. Almost every denomination is represented. Presbyterian, A.M.E., Baptist, Methodist, and that one denomination that outlaws pianos. Take your pick.

Ahead is a Catholic church. It’s a small building in the distance with white siding, small porch, and a modest steeple.

I pull into an empty parking lot beneath large trees because

I need to use the restroom, and Catholics are very clean people. My wife tells me she’ll wait in the car. That way she can set fire to all my Rand McNally products.

I meander into the vacant building to find the chapel is unlocked, and heavily air-conditioned.

After using their pristine lavatory, I enter the sanctuary to see what it’s like.

It’s quiet. And it’s empty. For the first time in days, I remove my surgical mask in a public place.

I take a knee, briefly, then cross myself. I’m not Catholic, but I watch professional sports. I sit in the front pew. I bow my head. It is so silent in this room that my ears are ringing to beat the band.

My ears always ring. I have moderate tinnitus. I’ve had it since childhood. As a boy I had…