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.


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


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…

Morning on the interstate. I’m passing a caravan of large white bucket trucks. There must be a hundred of them. Maybe more. These are utility line workers, heading for the Carolinas.

Tropical Storm Isaias is brewing in the Atlantic. It will make landfall tomorrow morning. These trucks are heading for ground zero, and there isn’t even a ground zero yet.

The trucks’ running lights are flashing. Their hydraulic lift buckets wobble from highway speed.

These men in neon vests prepare for weeks of sleepless nights, mechanical failures, possible accidents, wet weather, convenience-store suppers, cheap hotels, and video calls home.

I honk my horn. I wave at one driver. We are both driving at a high speed. The lineman waves back.

And the convoy of trucks never stops coming. After only a few minutes on this highway I’ve counted almost 60 trucks. I finally quit because I lose count.

I live on the Gulf Coast. Hurricanes are part of our life. When Opal hit, for instance, it crippled us. But it took only 24 hours

for hordes of electrical lineworkers to arrive in town so we could all run our air conditioners again and watch daytime television.

They came from far-off places like Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. My aunt was so grateful to linemen working on her street that she made sandwiches each morning for them.

She delivered food every day until they left town. She knew all the guys’ names. She could tell you all about their kids.

And I’ll never forget when Hurricane Ivan smashed into our area.

I was a newlywed, living in a one-bedroom apartment. Our building had no storm shutters. All we could do was cover our windows in duct tape to prevent shattering.

Friends lost homes, cars, animals, trees. Ivan pommeled us like we’d insulted his mother.

The next morning, our world was flooded, but not with water; with bucket trucks. Men in hardhats arrived…

SAVANNAH—It’s hard not to love this town. It’s easy on the eyes, colorful, and there are flowers everywhere.

There are also sweaty tourists, out and about, on foot, exploring Georgia’s oldest city on a sunny afternoon. I wander among them, keeping at least fifty feet away. My surgical mask on.

For the past few weeks I’ve been rediscovering America. I’ve had friends email and ask why I’m on a road trip during a worldwide pandemic.

The answer is because I was starting to lose my mind at home. After almost a hundred months indoors, I had grown deeply lethargic. Maybe even depressed. A friend of mine recommended a change in scenery.

At first I was apprehensive about traveling, but then I figured: “You know what? My mental health is a wreck, and if I don’t do something about it, who will?”

This American tour has been good medicine. I’ve learned a lot, too. The first thing I’ve learned is that Georgia is hotter than the fires of hell. It is 102 degrees outside today.


is actually a valuable lesson because it reminds me of how artificial our society can be. We modern Americans, for instance, have air conditioning, non-stop digital entertainment, gourmet take-out, and round-the-clock Walmarts where you can buy spray cheese at any odd hour of the night.

But when you visit historic towns like Savannah, you get a sense of how life was three centuries ago. And it dawns on you that our modern electrified society isn’t necessarily the “real” world.

Early Americans’ lives were filled with real-world nature, agriculture, and back-cracking work. They were serenaded by crickets, backyard chickens, frogs, and distant pianos; we have car stereos and electric lawnmowers. They brewed rainwater-and-dandelion tea; I eat spray cheese on Fritos.

My wife and I walk over to Oglethorpe Square for a look around. The place is filled with young tourists seated on benches, all playing on…