Fifteen years ago. I had longer hair, skinnier features, and the same truck.

I saw him outside the Mexican restaurant. He was nosing behind the dumpster, looking for food. I’ve seen that look on a creature before. It was desperation.

He edged away from me, but not quickly. He didn't know if he could trust me, and I couldn’t blame him. It’s a rough world out there.

He wasn’t wagging his tail, so I took the same posture my father used to take in the presence of feral animals. I squatted and held my hands outward.

It worked like a charm. The old boy came right to me.

I was thrilled. There is something about stray dogs that awakens the dog whisperer in me. I whisper; and they run like hailfire.

But this dog didn’t run. He was black, with white spots, he had a chunk missing from one ear. He was timid, but he had a sweet demeanor. He found a special place in my heart from the beginning.

I have always had a

thing for strays. This probably goes back to the day my mother first brought home a chocolate dog named Cody. She was a dog with a warm personality that could melt a block of ice.

Cody wore a purple collar and licked me raw upon our first meeting. She became my fast friend. She was not only beautiful, she was the luckiest dog I ever knew.

There was something about her. Once, she was bitten by a copperhead, and survived. Another time, she was poisoned by a farmer with a grudge. She was sick for days, but she survived.

There was the time she fell off a fishing boat without anyone knowing she was missing. She almost drowned. But she didn’t. Somehow she made it to shore. That dog must’ve swam five hundred yards.

Later in my life there was another stray I loved. A…

Newnan, Georgia— The downtown is pretty enough to make a grown man cry. The old Alamo Theater building has been standing, since 1890.

The large neon sign glows red in the night, and the lettered marquee is perfect. In this theater, Chubby Checker himself once twisted the night away.

Some writers become inspired by Faulkner, Tolstoy, or Thoreau. Others draw inspiration from an old theater marquee.

My aunt went on her very first date at the Alamo. I understand the boy she was going with was Catholic. My aunt was raised Deepwater Baptist. This was a scandalous affair because Catholics are allowed to dance.

On North Court Square is a 20-foot-by-40-foot mural of Alan Jackson, Newnan’s native son. In the painting, Jackson sits atop a motorcycle, wearing a leather jacket and aviator sunglasses. He couldn’t get any cooler if he tried.

The newspaper in Newnan is also world class. Always has been. The Newnan Times-Herald, as I understand, is one of the few

small-town papers still kicking tail and taking names after 150 years in the business.

You might not know this, but all I ever wanted to be was a small-town newspaper man. When I was a kid, my friends were dressing up as Army men, firemen, or doctors. Not me. I wore my father’s old fedora, with a slip of paper in the hat band reading: “PRESS.”

I wanted to cover earth-shattering local news items and write cutting-edge editorials like:

—The baby shower Miss Arnette threw for her daughter-in-law, Irma Ann, was an alleged success. One female visitor remarks: “I had a delicious time and appreciated myself.”

—The Little League game between Slocumb and Fadette on Friday went into extra innings. One man in the stands says, quote: “Fadette got smeared worse than spit on a windshield.”

—The Saturday chili-cornbread potluck social at the Presbyterian church was well attended. Miss…

He wore coveralls, and liked music with twin-fiddle intros, crooned by men with old-world names like: Merel, Lefty, Buck, Roy, Ernest, and Hank.

There used to be a time when country music was music. It was an era when women named Patsy, Kitty, Loretta, Dolly, or June strummed guitars and broke your heart.

Tassels hung from sleeves, rhinestones adorned three-piece Nudie Cohn suits, boots were shiny, and cowboys didn’t wear latex pants.

Times have changed. Today, on my truck radio I heard a song on the country station entitled “Red SOLO Cup.”

The song goes:

“...a red SOLO cup is the best receptacle,
For barbecues, tailgates, fairs, and festivals,
You sir, do not have a pair of (male body parts),
If you prefer drinking from a GLASS…”

Do what?

This is what passes for country music? At the EXACT moment this song played—and this is the truth, so help me Hank—I was drinking iced tea from a glass jelly jar.

I come from a long line of men who drank almost exclusively from Mason jars. In fact, my uncle Tater would not drink from anything else. He drank tea, water, milk, corn, you name it. Always a glass jar.

Even if

Uncle Tater would’ve dined at a five-star restaurant, he would’ve asked the waiter to pour his Château Margaux in a jelly jar, then he would’ve asked for ice cubes.

My uncle loved country music—the old kind. If he would’ve heard a song like the one I just told you about, he’d be kicking in his grave.

He wore coveralls and liked music with twin-fiddle intros, crooned by men with old-world names like: Merle, Lefty, Buck, Roy, Johnny, Ernest, and Hank.

He would’ve never trusted singers with modern names like: Keith, Jordan, Dustin, or Eric. In fact, he didn’t even like my name.

We were musical people. We sang, yodled, waltzed, clapped, and knew all the words to “I’ll Fly Away,” or “Will the Circle be Unbroken?” And if you ever heard my grandfather sing “I’m so Lonesome I Could…

We ate so much artisan cheese it will be a wonder if my lower intestines ever function again.

We arrived in Southeastern Tennessee at dusk. Our cabin was covered in a thin layer of frost. But no snow.

I was hoping for snow.

My good friend, Jim, lives in this area and tells me they have a coyote problem. So I am keeping my eyes peeled for anything that resembles scavenging canines near our cabin.

I have always had a looming feeling that coyotes are going to be what finally kills me.

Anyway, we are in Tennessee for a getaway to celebrate our fifteen-year belated anniversary. After I finished unpacking, my wife insisted that I build a fire.

So, I went outside into the cold to get firewood. I loaded an armful, keeping a lookout for ravenous coyotes. I think I saw one or two on the roof, but I can’t be sure.

On my way back inside, my foot slipped on a piece of ice. I was airborne. The last thing I remember is watching hickory logs fly upward into the night.

When I awoke, I saw my old Little League coach, Mister Whiting, standing over me, smoking a cigarette.

He said: “Get on your feet, and quit whining or the coyotes will eat you!”

“Yessir,” I said.

Then he popped my rear and said, “Can’t never could! There is no ‘I’ in team! Quitters never win and winners never quit! Have you called your mama? I wish I could call mine!”

It was obviously a hallucination, Mister Whiting has been dead for many years. I can’t remember how he passed, it was either old age or coyotes.

I finally got a fire going. A roaring fire does something to the primitive man in me. I love a fireplace, and when I tend logs I do it with the sincerity I would use to guard a bank vault.

I kept looking out the window for snow, but no…

They were foremen, electricians, explosive experts, tractor drivers, and above all, they were breadwinners.

Three old men sit around a propane heater. They are chewing the fat, laughing about the old days.

I walk through their front door. A bell dings.

“Welcome to the coal-mining museum!” hollers one man. He stands, then leans onto a walking stick and adjusts his hearing aid.

The miner’s museum is a tiny building in the sleepy hamlet of Whitwell, Tennessee. Inside are relics dating back to the early days of coal-mining in Marion County.

There are old helmets, blade shovels, iron wagons, carbide head-lanterns, and large stumps of black coal.

“Mining goes way back in my family,” says J.T. “My great-grandfathers come from England to mine coal for the Queen.”

The other two men near the heater are also retired coal miners. Albert and Jimmy.

I get the dime tour from all three men at once.

There is too much to take in. On the walls are a million items J.T. has gathered over the years. I ask why he’s collected so many artifacts.

“‘Cause,” he

says. “I don’t want the world to forget about us miners.”

In the center of the room is a large display of photographs. In the pictures are his friends. Most of them deceased.

J.T. can point to any picture of any miner and tell you a story.

“This here was my buddy,” he says, tapping one photo. “Called him ‘Bugus,’ we all had nicknames.”

He taps another photograph. In the frame are two blonde women with blackened faces.

“These two ladies were coal miners. Bet you ain’t never seen women miners. Hardest dadgum workers you ever saw.”

These Appalachian men have enough tales to fill a box car. Sadly, they don’t have many around to listen. J.T.’s little museum doesn’t get many visitors.

Most days, he sits in this room, piecing jigsaw puzzles together on a card table, prepared…

Mister Wallace is positioned near the stage in a motorized wheelchair. ALS has taken its toll on him. He is not able to move like he used to. Sometimes, just talking wears him out.

Reeltown, Alabama—the high school parking lot is slam-packed with cars. People are parking on the grass, trucks park over at the fire department. I find an open space on the school lawn.

My wife and I enter the gymnasium. It’s loud inside. There are four hundred people seated at cafeteria tables. There is enough fried chicken in this room to short-circuit the U.S. government.

Local ladies tend to the crowd, dressed in aprons. High-school girls with pitchers refill sweet tea, young men with football jerseys gather empty paper plates.

This is a fundraiser for Wallace Mann.

You’d like Wallace. He is a country preacher in this community. And in this world, there are two different kinds of preachers. Country preachers, and everyone else.

“Brother Wallace always made the rounds,” said one man with white hair. “Do you ‘member when country preachers used to make the rounds? No, you might not, you’re too young.”

As it happens I once I worked as an assistant to a

preacher who made “the rounds.” He spent four days each week driving to hospitals, standing at bedsides, visiting nursing homes, holding hands, or taking out trash for an elderly man who couldn’t get out of his recliner.

“That’s what Brother Wallace would do,” the old man goes on. “He did it every week without fail before he got sick, he made the rounds.”

Mister Wallace is positioned near the stage in a motorized wheelchair. ALS has taken its toll on him. He is not able to move like he used to. Sometimes, just talking wears him out.

Miss Ann feeds him with a plastic fork. His family is seated around his table. He is wearing his high-school colors.

“Oh, he loves Reeltown football,” says his wife. “He used to play here, you know. He tells everyone he was was defensive guard. He used to guard the the…

Lake Martin—I could see myself living on this lake. Any prime lakefront property would do.

Also, while we’re daydreaming, I would like a herd of flying pigs. And a money tree. And a little fountain in the backyard that squirts chocolate syrup.

I first visited Lake Martin on a fishing trip as a boy. The man who took me wasn’t kin, but he told me to call him “Uncle,” and the name stuck.

There were four or five men on that trip, and I was invited to tag along because they felt bad for a fatherless kid like me.

I was youngest in the group, but those men never treated me like a child. They gave me the same kindness you’d show a stray.

It was like visiting paradise. The water was wide. The fish were big. I fell in love with it all.

And that is precisely where I am writing you from. I am seated on a dock, looking at scenery.

I only have a few minutes

before I leave town. We’ve been on the road for a few days, we have eight days left. My wife and I have been living out of a cooler, surviving on gas-station coffee.

Good coffee is hard to find on the road. Consequently, so are clean bathrooms. I have seen a few horrific restroom scenarios that were like witnessing the Fifth Circle of Hell.

But here at the lake, I forget about the rigors of travel, and I am brought back to the middle.

Yesterday, we ate at Oskar’s. It’s the kind of small place filled with men in camouflage caps, and waitresses so sweet they might melt in the rain.

The fries were the good kind of fries. I am a connoisseur of French fries. Also—and I’m not proud of this—I dip my fries in ranch dressing.

Oskar's has good ranch.