CHARLESTON—Today I hiked into the woods to see a South Carolinaian salt marsh just outside of the city. And it’s stunning.

The cordgrass stretches backward to the barren horizon, poking from the saltwater like green whiskers. A white heron is hunting for breakfast.

And just when the scene couldn’t be more Carolinian, I see a bald eagle flying overhead.

The distant bird glides above the world, moving on an almost imperceptible air current, turning circles.

“You can tell it’s an eagle,” says John (age 11), pointing at the sky. “See how his wings are flat, instead of a V shape?”

John is wearing a sun hat,
a COVID mask, and gobs of sunscreen. He is a bird fanatic. He hands me his binoculars so I can watch the eagle ride the Atlantic breeze.

John goes on: “Most people see soaring birds and automatically think they’re eagles. But they’re usually vultures or some kinda other soaring bird. When you see a dihedral wing shape, it’s not an eagle.”

Dihedral? Who is this kid?

It's hard to believe bald

eagles almost disappeared from this earth. Especially since they’re the quintessential American symbol. But isn’t it always the same tragic story with us humans? Sometimes we ruin the things we love.

Over the years, hunters killed lots of bald eagles. Commercial pesticide usage killed even more. North Americans were wiping out bald eagles by the shipload.

By the 1970s there were an estimated 220 eagles left on the continent. And even worse, nobody could figure out what to do about it.

Zoologists started touring grade schools with bald eagles, simply so children could get a final glimpse of the national bird before the species vanished.

“Eagles are raptors,” says John. “They’re SUPER good at surviving. I’ve even seen them eat snakes before. I love it when they eat snakes.”

But eagles weren’t surviving. Fifty years ago there were only 13 pairs of…

CHARLESTON—I’m walking rough cobblestones beneath South Carolina’s blazing afternoon sun and I’m sweating through my shirt.

I woke up at 6:39 a.m. in our cheap hotel. I plugged in the room’s coffeemaker. I said good morning to the cockroaches. I crawled into the mildewed shower while the coffeemaker gurgled.

The shower steamed up the bathroom and I could see traces of greasy fingerprints appearing on the big mirror. Two words were traced upon the fogged-up glass:

“MARRY ME!!!” With three exclamation points.

I was all smiles. Because my wife didn’t write this, and neither did I. Meaning: within this scumsucking hotel room, someone recently popped The Question. And I can only hope the other someone said yes before they contracted tetanus.

As it happens, Charleston is where my wife and I honeymooned nearly twenty years ago. The town has changed since then. Within the last two decades, for instance, America has built tons of outdoor shopping malls.

In my era (Paleolithic era) indoor malls ruled the world. We had low-tech signs, food courts, and

pushcarts selling cardboard pretzels with “cheese-like” sauce.

But over the years malls gravitated outdoors and the shops got weirder. Today outdoor malls have bright blinking signs and bizarre shops where you can build your own Teddy bears for three hundred bucks. And worse, Yankee Candle stores.

I have nothing against Yankee Candles, in fact I kind of like them. But whenever my wife passes these storefronts we have to stop and smell approximately 7,102 candles until my lungs burn and I have a pumpkin-pie-scented headache.

But nevermind all that because Charleston is a town that rings my bells. This street’s cobblestones were once used as ballast on ships that arrived here in 1670. The brick house I’m strolling past is a place where George Washington once kicked back a few beers.

This is also the town where my wife and I conducted the cheapest honeymoon ever…

CHARLESTON—The Atlanta Braves game plays on the radio. I’m listening on an alarm-clock radio that sits on my hotel nightstand.

Our cheap room overlooks the not-so-snazzy outskirts of the Holy City. This is not one of your slick hotels. This is the kind of place that smells like fifty-year-old Pall Malls and has a wobbly toilet.

We just got into town, but I never miss a game if I can help it. And when I close my eyes, I can see the game, even though it’s happening on a radio.

I wanted to be a baseball writer as a kid. There was an old man in our neighborhood who was an actual sportswriter. The white-haired old salt was the real deal. He carried a portable typewriter to ballgames. He sat in press boxes. He tapped out five-hundred word columns like a regular Red Smith. It was unbearably cool.

The old man could fully appreciate the game in ways that only old men can. He’d covered the Bronx Bombers, the Brooklyn “Bums” in

‘55, and the Milwaukee Braves when they signed a young guy named Hank. He’d shaken hands with Koufax, watched Mantle and Maris duke it out in ‘61, and he was present for Jackie’s funeral.

But alas, I never even came close to being a sportswriter. All I can do is listen by radio.

The sound of the crowd sounds like static. This year Major League Baseball is using fake crowd noise on broadcasts since COVID-19 prohibits fans from attending games. Which means that the Boys of Summer are traveling the nation to play in empty stadiums. This is eerie when you think about it.

But the canned crowd sounds aren’t so bad since baseball doesn’t work without crowds. And if you don’t believe me, sing the first verse of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.”

I was never in any danger of being an actual baseball writer. For…

There is a TV camera in front of me. There are several audio and lighting people packed into this tiny room like pickled hogs’ feet in a jar.

Amidst all the high-tech equipment, there is a makeup department, wardrobe department, lighting people, producers, co-producers, associate producers, executive producers, and supervising administrative associate to the assistant to the co-producers.

I have one task today.

I’m supposed to say a few simple lines for a commercial. Which is a lot harder that it sounds. I haven’t had to memorize any actual lines since I played Paul Revere for my fourth-grade play and told everyone that the British were coming.

“Okay, people!” says the director, clapping his hands. “Let’s do it one more time!”

So we all cheerfully start the scene from the top. We are still wearing our on-camera smiles as though we cannot think of anything more wonderful than doing this take “one more time.” Even though we have been doing it “one more time” for 45,293 times because some idiot who looks like me

and lives in my house keeps muffing his lines.

“Places, people!”

There are large lights aimed at me. These are not small spotlights from the Dollar Tree. These are the sorts of lights used to illuminate runways for 727s. These lights are miniature nuclear events. They are inches away from my bare skin, causing the hair on my forearms to burn off and my neck to flay. It’s great.

The best part about being on camera is that I am discovering how badly my mind operates. I have three ultra-easy lines, but I’ve been at this all day and I can’t say them without screwing up.

In fact, I can’t speak without stuttering, lisping, hiccuping, or having my knee joint pop for no reason.

And on the rare occasion when I get my lines right, someone in the film crew inevitably makes a loud bodily noise…

BIRMINGHAM—I saw you in the Publix parking lot. Your car’s gas tank lid was open. I wanted to tell you. But you were busy.

You were wearing nurse’s scrubs, a hospital badge, and you were changing your baby’s diaper in the backseat of your car.

Your other toddler was watching you have a meltdown. You looked like you were about to cry behind that surgical mask.

Right now, I wish there were a machine I could hook to my chest that would print onto paper the words inside my heart. I’m not always great with sentences, but I have a lot I want to say. Such as: “thank you.”

If you are a nurse, I can only imagine how tired you must be. I can’t begin to understand what nursing is like these days.

Alabama’s COVID-19 cases are on an upward rise. People are dying each day. And, well, I guess nobody knows this better than you.

You’ve probably been working yourself raw, pulling double shifts, seeing the horrors firsthand. And somehow, after you clock out, you still manage to

do the grocery shopping, to pay the bills, and to change your baby’s diaper in the backseat.

Maybe you feel overlooked, a little invisible, and underappreciated. Maybe that’s why you’re so upset. Or maybe you’re overwhelmed with life right now, wondering if what you do truly matters.

You probably view your life the way everyone does. You see yourself going from Point A to Point B, doing your work. No big deal. You’re just one nurse among millions. If you don’t do your job, someone else will.

But you’re wrong. And it’s not just your job that’s important, your life is important in a way that you might never fully appreciate.

This is going to sound silly, but have you ever watched someone knock over a bunch of dominoes?

A few years ago, Liu Yang broke the world record for…

JACKSONVILLE, Ala.—Late afternoon. I am in the deep woods. It is raining. I’m riding a tricycle along the Chief Ladiga Trail, pedaling toward Georgia with my wife. We are soaked to the gristle.

We are far from civilization. This trail cuts through ancient farmland, abandoned pastures, cornfields, peanut fields, and miles of kudzu-laden forest. We have twenty miles left to ride.

The tricycle I’m riding came from the classifieds. I bought it a month ago. The man selling it said the trike had belonged to his older brother who’d recently passed. His brother's name was Larry.

He said Larry had been excited when he bought this trike, he sorely missed cycling ever since his Parkinson’s disease made riding bikes impossible. Sadly, Larry never got to ride this trike more than a few times before he died.

When I first took this contraption for a test spin, the man nearly cried when he saw me ride it. He stood in his driveway, watching me pedal in circles.

He said, “Oh, Larry would be so happy to know

someone was enjoying his trike.”

When he’d finally gathered himself, he handed me a little red flag on a long pole.

“What’s this?” I asked.

He told me the flag attached to the back of the trike so that approaching eighteen-wheelers wouldn’t run me over in traffic. Then we laughed.

But as it turns out, the reflective flag is an important piece of safety equipment. The flagpole is about four feet tall and the flag flaps behind you when you ride, signalling to all oncoming traffic that you are an official member of the dork squad.

Right now my flag is flailing in the rain. I am not only a member of the dork squad, I am also the president.

But this trail couldn’t be more lovely. The Chief Ladiga Trail was once part of the Norfolk Southern Railway line. The winding flat paths…

CHELSEA, Ala.—We've been on the road all week. And I've been listening to Willie Nelson on my radio. I'm listening right now. He is singing one of my favorite songs.

“In the twilight glow I see her,
“Blue eyes crying in the rain,
“When we kissed goodbye and parted,
“I knew we’d never meet again…”

I turn it up because I am a sucker for this tune. Though, I’m not sure why. When I was a boy, the lyrics never made sense to me.

After all, nobody with blue eyes ever cried in the rain for me. And I certainly didn’t have blue eyes. My eyes are gray. My mother used to say my eyes were the color of our pump shed.

Even so, there’s something about this tune that moves me. I can close my gray eyes and go back in time.

And I see my father’s work bench in the garage. A radio sits beside a chest of mini-drawers that is filled with bolts, nuts, screws, washers, and rubber grommets.

Crystal Gayle

is singing “Don’t it Make my Brown Eyes Blue?”

Then Willie begins playing over the speaker. My father turns it up.

“Love is but a dying ember,
“Only memories remain,
“Through the ages, I’ll remember,
“Blue eyes crying in the rain…”

And I am holding a GI Joe doll, watching a tall, skinny man work on something beneath a shop lamp, holding a screwdriver.

He does all his own repairs, this man. Because he believes it is wasteful to hire people to do work you could do yourself. Just like it’s disgraceful, and even unforgivable, to throw away refrigerator leftovers.

The people I come from are proud and self-sufficient, and they are not above eating ten-week old meatloaf that has turned Sea Foam Green. They cut their own hair. And their own lawns.

When I started travelling a lot for…

COLUMBIANA—I am eating barbecue. Good barbecue. The kind prepared in an establishment that looks like a hunting cabin. A spot called Tin Top Barbecue. I believe God lives in the back room.

I cannot eat barbecue without first saying grace. It’s not like this with any other style of cuisine. For example, I recently tried eating sushi. Not only did I forget to say grace, apparently I also forgot to make sure my food was dead.

But with barbecue it’s impossible to look upon tender, carbon-encrusted glistening pork and not remove your hat to say a few words of heavenly thanks.

You cannot find barbecue like the kind I’m eating at mere restaurants, eateries, or cafés. You only find it in backyards, pit trailers, or at places my people call “joints.” These are usually establishments with gingham table cloths, rough-milled walls, napkin dispensers, and Merle Haggard on the radio.

I’ll bet Merle always said grace.

I remember the first time I ever ate the bounty from this particular joint:

I was about to make a

speech at Shelby County High School—just down the road. The shindig was catered with barbecue from this very kitchen. When the meal was served I had a spiritual experience and I almost blacked out.

I was struck with a whiplash of hickory-scented memories. All of a sudden, I was sitting with my uncle in the middle of a cow pasture. I was watching him tend his homemade smoker.

Though, calling his heap a “smoker” would be too generous. It was really just some automotive junk my uncle would light on fire. His apparatus was a homemade cinder-block pit, filled with coals, topped with chain link fence, covered with a salvaged hood from a Chevy Impala.

Every few minutes he’d lift the hood to stab the fire with a shovel. He’d take a big whiff and say, “Smell that wood?”

I would breathe in the colorful…

Somewhere in Alabama. I am watching the first baseball game I’ve seen all season.

Eighteen Latino boys are playing in a shabby ball field of stubbled grass and red dirt. They have a few spectators, mostly adults with snacks, fold-up chairs, and surgical masks. The parents here are speaking Spanish. They also speak English, but you don’t hear any of it spoken tonight.

Except by me.

This is not sandlot baseball. Neither is this a suburban Little League game where parents scream at kids while suffering psychotic breakdowns. This is béisbol.

One of the Mexican mothers helps me with this word. It is pronounced: “BAZE-bowl.” Whenever I try to say it she laughs at me.

In every way this is the same gentle game my father taught me to play in an alfalfa field. The same game his father taught him.

But these boys play with more squint-eyed sincerity than I ever did. They are an underground ball club. Meaning: they aren’t doing this for anyone but themselves. They aren’t advertising it, either.

“We started

playing because they cancelled baseball,” says first-basemen Miguel (age 10). “With no games on TV, hey, we had to do something.”

Every boy lives within bike-able distance from his teammates. They are close friends who play in vacant lots, backyards, public parks, empty playgrounds, and school fields.

But what really impresses me is that they all chip in to pay a middle-aged guy to umpire for them. They call him “Chaparrito” because he is only five-foot six. He is not Latino, but fair-skinned, blondish, and originally from Muncie, Indianna.

“I’m not a real umpire,” the man says. “I actually work in pest control.”

But the boys tell me everyone looks up to Chapparrito because, rumor has it, he played minor league ball once. Chaparrito refuses to deny or confirm this rumor by winking at me.

Because he is not being hired by these boys to…

BIRMINGHAM—It's late. And I wasn’t going to write this, but I have to. Not only for me, but for the good of our children, and our children’s children. No matter how hard it is to address. I’m talking, of course, about the highly controversial issue of homemade ice cream.

Ice cream wasn’t always under scrutiny like it is today. It used to be okay to eat ice cream. But then, suddenly it wasn’t okay, and lots of companies started coming out with healthy frozen yogurt.

A few years later, news reports claimed frozen yogurt was just as bad as ice cream. So they came out with “sugar-free” frozen yogurt, made with “aspartame.” And the world as we knew it fell apart.

Aspartame is actually a lot of fun to say. It seems like a dirty word, but isn’t. You can use it in social settings and it’s acceptable.

EXAMPLE: “Have you seen traffic today? It’s a real pain in the aspartame.”

So Americans were eating sugar-free yogurt sludge by the gallon, hoping to live to be one hundred,

and doing step aerobics. Life was all right again.

Companies started going bonkers and making bizarre frozen yogurt flavors like Blackberry-Garbanzo Bean, and Coffee-Bubble Gum, and Toenail.

Then, reports came out with new information claiming aspartame was deadly.

One report stated: “Aspartame turns your bodily fluids into formaldehyde, side effects include: Numbness, tingling, and profound interest in Jazzercise.”

All of a sudden, journalists were telling mankind to stay away from anything that even remotely looked like sugar-free frozen yogurt, and for mankind to eat quinoa instead.

Which is probably why a few months ago, I found two fifty-pound bags of red quinoa in our pantry. It wasn’t long before we were eating what looked like chicken feed for every meal until sometimes—especially if we sat in one place for too long—grade-A eggs would start appearing beneath our haunches.

But mankind can only…