I’m watching the Alabama-Missouri game. I’m eating boiled peanuts. It’s the first time I’ve seen college football since the pandemic began some 300 years ago. To say I’m happy is like saying the Pope is an okay guy.

I’m ecstatic.

I don’t want to get all mushy about Alabama football because I don’t want to be “that” kind of fan. You know the one I’m talking about.

The football fanatic whose conversations are always about sports. A guy who, even if he is at, let’s say, a baby christening, will talk about the importance of a well-formed wishbone offense.

These are men so painfully obsessed that they name their kids after head coaches.

So I’m not going to tell you how I was born during Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s farewell game, the last of his career. A game in which the Crimson Tide smeared the Fighting Illini into proverbial skidmarks.

Neither will I tell you about how, during the instant I drew my first breath, my father was facing a delivery-room television that broadcasted Paul Bryant’s final game.

I won’t tell you

how when my father heard a newborn baby crying, he was so moved by paternal emotion that he sincerely said, “Ssssshhhhhh! It’s third down!”

What I will tell you is that my father liked Alabama’s head coach.

Who didn’t?

Paul William Bryant was born in the late summer of 1913 in a sleepy Cleveland County, Arkansas backwater. His hometown of Moro Bottom wasn’t even a town at all. Only seven families lived in the community. All dirt farmers.

Paul was a large, lanky baby. He had feet like rowboats, hands like ball gloves, and a stern, righteous face that looked like he helped write the Ten Commandments.

He was the eleventh of twelve births, and friends said he was a fearless human being.

When I say “fearless,” I mean that in his boyhood, Paul once wrestled a bear…

DEAR SEAN:

I just lost my mom, and now I have some hard decisions to make. I feel so lost and broken, I have been trying my best, but I feel like I failed. I was wondering if you had any advice on dealing with the loss of my mom.

Thanks,
BROKEN-IN-KANSAS

DEAR KANSAS:

The imaginary scenario I’m about to describe is going to sound far-fetched and weird. So just humor me.

But first, I want you to breathe. Seriously. Before you read another word.

In. Out. Big. Soft. Long. Deep. Breaths. Relax your jaw. Loosen your shoulders. Turn into a big blob of Jello pudding.

Seeeeeee the pudding. Beeeee the pudding.

Good.

What I want you to do is visualize a large white world. Not white like cotton sheets or snow. But white like sunlight. Like staring at the noon sun with eyes wide open.

White light is everywhere within this new world. In fact, you aren’t even sure how big this new space is because it’s too bright to see anything. It could be the

size of a closet, or it could be bigger than Asia. No way to know.

At first the light hurts your eyes. It gives you a headache. And it doesn’t let up. It just gets stronger until it singes your hair and burns your skin.

Eventually, the brightness works its way into you. Past your adipose tissue, vascular system, kidneys, and spleen. It bores into muscle and bone and finally gets down into the Real You.

The Real You is an interesting thing. I don’t want to get all hooky spooky here, but think about it. A person’s soul is literally inside their body, but no surgeon can find it. No one can point to your ribcage and say, “Ah, yes, your soul’s right there. Just to the left of your colon.”

So for the purposes of this imaginary scene, right now,…

COLUMBIANA, Ala.—When I come to this town I get a little emotional. It just does something to me.

Maybe it’s the American flags hanging from every porch, shop, and shed. Or it could be the fried food at the Exxon station. Or maybe it’s because I have friends here.

The town sits smack-dab in the geographic center of the state. The first settlers started migrating here in 1792. And these were very tough people.

They came in wagons, on horseback, traveling across sloping hills, over jagged mountains, fording streams, and clearing paths with hatchets. They came from Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Some of these people were slap crazy.

To give you an example, here’s a story a guy told me:

In 1826 there were heated debates about where the Shelby County seat would be. Montevallo was pushing hard for it. Columbiana was pushing even harder.

When Columiana won, people in this town got so hyped up with excitement they bored huge holes into hundred-foot pine trees, filled each crevice with gunpowder, and lit them

on fire.

What followed was a series of hellish blasts and explosions ringing throughout Alabama’s hillsides like artillery. I’m sure there was a lot of whooping and hollering, too.

You don’t even want to know what these people did to you if you were late on your property taxes.

But anyway, after the townspeople had blown up enough trees to satisfy themselves, they got busy building this cute town.

It really is a gem. The old buildings. The painted advertisements on aged brick walls. The way people honk and wave at each other when they recognize that they are, in fact, first cousins.

And, oh, the churches.

You’ve never seen churches like you’ll see in these parts. There are tons of them. And when I say “tons,” I mean that there are some 200 churches in a few-minute radius.

Church has always been…

Yesterday was the first day of autumn. I was in Chattanooga, in a cheap motel room, watching baseball on a busted motel TV with a messed-up picture. The colors were screwy. The display was tinted radar-screen green so that the players looked like little green Martians in batting helmets.

I was seated on the edge of the bed, a Styrofoam box of takeout food on my lap. A burger. Medium-well. With American cheese. I like my cheese to be patriotic.

The tiny green Atlanta Braves were playing good baseball. Each pivotal moment was narrated by Chip Caray, and he was in good voice that night.

“...A high, fly ball, hit deep toward left center… AND THE BRAVES STRIKE FIRST IN THE FIRST INNING...!”

It was an important game. If these miniature green guys won, they would be champions of their division. Which is a big deal.

Then again, within a world afflicted with COVID, baseball hardly matters. After all, our society is falling apart right now. There are wildfires out west, serial hurricanes

in the Gulf, and a globalized pandemic. I just read that the U.S. death tolls are around 200,000.

So baseball seems like an infinitesimal thing to be concerned about this year. In fact, it seems ridiculous.

But not to me. I’ve watched every game. Seen every play. I’ve listened to Chip call each blessed pitch using the anvil tones of a radio evangelist.

Certainly, our sport was a little different this year. The coronavirus regulations made it feel alien. Ball clubs played to vacant stadiums with canned crowd noise. Players weren’t allowed to high-five, spit seeds, chew gum, or adjust personal regions on national television.

Coaches, trainers, and medical staff wore surgical masks and rubber gloves. All umpires, in strict accordance with ridgid Major League Baseball protocol, were required to be legally blind.

But these green-skinned Braves kept playing. I love them for it. And you can’t…

Dear Summer,

You were not a great season this year. In fact, you were the worst. I’m glad to see you go. I hope autumn is better. Adios. Goodbye forever. It’s been a slice.

The thing is, I’ve had some great summers in my life. Some real humdingers. Summers that were pure euphoria, just the way the dog days should be. But you were not one of them.

One summer, for instance, our Little League team swept the regional championships. What a sunny season that was.

Yes, it’s true, we 12-year-olds were not playing a team who matched us in age, weight, or ability. Yes, it is also true that the opposing Methodist team was made up almost entirely of first-graders who still had all their baby teeth. But the point is we beat them.

After the game, I remember sitting on the tailgate of my father’s truck eating an ice cream cone at a rural Dairy Queen. And it was already the greatest summer of my life.

Except, as it turns out, it wasn’t. Because I would

end up having many that were even better.

Like the summer when my cousin and I took a road trip to see a Willie Nelson concert. It was shaping up to be one of the happiest summertides of all time.

But it was not meant to be.

We were on our way to Atlanta, riding a crumbling two-lane highway in my cousin’s ‘82 Ford, when we happened upon a truck that was broken down.

An elderly man was on his way to his daughter’s wedding shower. Half of the man’s face was paralyzed from a recent stroke, and he was just so old. He needed help.

My cousin and I looked at each other and knew we’d never make it to Atlanta.

We gave the guy a lift, and even attended his daughter’s shower. We missed the concert and never saw Willie.

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—This is a pretty cool town. The historic Episcopal Church on Washington Street catches the fading sunlight the way it once did in 1773. The neon signs in the commercial district are flickering on for the evening.

The downtown sidewalks are littered with young, hip people who wear trendy clothes and have multiple tattoos on each limb.

My friend, Izaak, lives in this town. He says tattoos are popular among urban professionals. Izaak himself has a few tats. So does his wife. And I’ll bet Izaak’s 2-year-old daughter will probably get a couple for Christmas.

I personally do not have any inkwork. I was raised by Southern Baptists who wouldn’t even keep NyQuil in the house.

Although, as a teenager I once came awfully close to allowing an older woman named Ursula to tattoo the Ford Motor Company insignia on my shoulder, one regretful spring break night in Panama City.

Thankfully, my cousin hid my wallet.

Tonight in Alexandria I see a lot of ink. I stand in line at a burger joint where I

meet a clean-cut guy with a tattoo on his neck. The artwork crawls down his shoulder blades.

I ask him about it. He is generous enough to show it to me.

“My own design,” he says, pointing to his neck. “This one’s for my sister, she died in a car accident. And this one’s for my dad, he’s my best friend.”

On his forearm he has another. It looks like a portrait of Don Knotts.

“My sister was a huge ‘Andy Griffith Show’ fan,” he says.

After supper, my wife and I buy ice cream at Jeni’s and stroll the sidewalks. The residential streets are lined with colonial row houses, painted with colors from the early American palette.

I see elderly people sitting on porches, reading non-electronic books. A woman is watering her ferns. I pass two kids who look like Wally and the…

Mount Vernon is nothing but swooping green hills, plump groves of tulip poplars, sycamores, and red maples. Today a clear sky hangs above a perfect red-roofed colonial mansion in the distance.

George Washington’s Virginia home is filled with hordes of historically conscious tourists, most have traveled thousands of interstate miles to bring their families here so everyone can play on their phones.

My guide is Mimi. She is a random elderly woman tourist I met at the gate. Big glasses. White hair. Mimi used to teach high school history in North Carolina.

Mimi gestures at George Washington’s mansion. “None of this woulda been here if not for women,” she says. “Women fought for Mount Vernon.”

She is using her teacher's voice.

In the 1850s, Washington’s wooden house was in shambles. In some places it was splintering like a hobo’s shack.

The great-great nephew of George Washington inherited this place, but didn’t know what to do with it. There were ruts in the floorboards, the walls were crumbling, the place smelled like an old bowling shoe.

The nephew tried to rescue Vernon by asking outsiders for help. After all, this was a historic landmark. The Washington family had owned this land since 1674. But almost nobody wanted to save it.

Mimi says, “The only folks interested in buying Washington’s house were commercial developers.”

Today’s breed of developers would have love to get their hands on a tourist spot like Vernon, which sees about a million tourists each year. They would have already built a mini-golf course, a casino riverboat in the backyard. And a phone charging station.

When nobody seemed to want the house, the nephew offered to sell it to the Federal Government for a song, to preserve it as a landmark. But they had no interest.

So he offered it to the Commonwealth of Virginia. “Thanks, but no thanks,” was the reply. The state legislatures felt it wasn’t prudent…

ALEXANDRIA, Va.—It’s a pretty day in Virginia. My wife and I just packed up our mud-covered cycles and loaded them into our van’s cargo hold. We are officially done riding the trail.

We’ve been cycling trails for a long time this last month. We’ve been on the Great Allegheny Passage, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal trail, and the Mount Vernon Trail. Our entire lives have been crammed into saddlebags. We’ve lived on basic foods, without access to good mayonnaise. We’ve used horrifying public restrooms. And now it’s all over.

The first thing I’ve learned from this long-distance trip is that I’m very out of shape.

My legs are aching, our hindparts are bruised, and one of my wife’s hands is still numb. But we’re both slimmer than before. And we’re consuming more anti-inflammatory meds, too.

Without a doubt, the hardest part about being on the trail is all the young people. They’re everywhere. You grow to dislike young people because they are in better shape than you and they aren’t bashful about it.

Imagine, you’re pedaling through the heart of a veritable wilderness. Struggling.

A slender kid whizzes up from behind and weaves around you like he’s annoyed, like he’s stuck in traffic behind some codger who left his blinker on.

This happened to me a lot. And no matter how fast I would pedal, the kid would always speed past me in a fury.

And those were just the kids on foot.

Sometimes young people would be friendly. They’d cruise their bikes beside you and say, “So, where’re you from?”

Between labored breaths, you’d answer, “Fl… Flor… Florida.”

Then the kid would say something, like: “Wow. You know, I really admire people your age.”

And you’d want to kill him.

Things like this wreck your trail confidence. After a while you become envious of young people. You start to feel like you are the only idiot suffering. Everyone else…

WASHINGTON D.C.—The Washington Monument stands in the far-off distance. There are important people buzzing around town, wearing designer-brand facemasks, texting on phones, in a perpetual hurry.

It’s morning in D.C. A little chilly. And this feels like the most important place on planet Earth. You can feel anxiety hanging in the air. It’s got me feeling jumpy.

I’ve been living on a trail for many days. This is a shock to the system.

Besides, I’m not used to a high-powered atmosphere. I am a small-town guy. In my hometown, for example, if you visit our supermarket, it will take hours to finish your shopping because everyone will ask about your mama.

But here, things feel urgent. Young people are ambitious, career oriented, fast paced, and severely constipated. Even my breakfast-joint waitress has an edge to her voice.

“I’m not really a waitress,” she says, topping off my coffee. “I’m a civics education major with a minor in criminal psychology.”

After she tells me this, I’m too embarrassed to ask her for the ketchup. It would be too far beneath her

dignity. So I choke down my home fries dry.

To get a sense of how this town feels, think about how the last year has gone.

Think of all the heated arguments on the world stage. The disagreements, the anger, the bitterness, the unhappiness, the joyless faces of ordinary folks standing in line for toilet paper. The irate TV newspersons who look like they’re about to suffer hemorrhagic strokes on the air.

Welcome to D.C.

After breakfast, I’m riding the outskirts of this metropolis, into the suburbs. On my drive I see attractive neighborhoods filled with two-story homes and SUVs in driveways. In one yard, I notice the kids selling lemonade.

I pull over. If for no other reason than because it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a lemonade stand.

In a few seconds I am on the…

HARPERS FERRY, W. Va.—Saint Peter’s Catholic Church is an old rock building. Very old. The historic church stands on a big hill overlooking the green gorge of the Shenandoah River. The Appalachian Trail runs alongside the chapel.

This church has seen it all. It survived a Civil War. And once, it functioned as a wartime hospital.

Inside this cathedral-hospital would have been bloody young men in uniforms, moaning for relief. Nurses would have been tending their wounds, bandaging amputated limbs, and helping the boys write letters home.

I walk up the church steps. The church is locked this afternoon because of COVID, but it’s still sacred to me.

There are tons of tourists out today. And I don’t mean to be critical, but sometimes ordinary American families wander around historic American landmarks with the same reverence you’d find at Six Flags. All that’s missing are the snowcones.

Somehow this just feels impolite.

But then this is the price Harpers Ferry pays for being protected as a U.S. National Park. The town is full of touristy-type shops selling souvenirs,

hot pretzels, ice cream sandwiches, and of course tie-dyed T-shirts.

Still, this town has seen far worse than tourism in its day. During the Civil War, Harpers Ferry changed hands eight times. Troops from both sides were constantly pillaging and burning everything in eyeshot, including schools.

But Saint Peter’s was spared. Why? Churches all over the U.S. were turning to soot. How did this place cheat fate?

The answer is Father Michael.

Father Michael Costello was a wiry Irishman. Fiery, and stubborn. In 1859, when pre-war violence was erupting in Harpers Ferry, other preachers evacuated, but the young clergyman refused to leave.

They say one morning Father Michael raised a British Union Jack flag atop this chapel to show the world that Saint Peter’s was a neutral place. And it saved the church from destruction.

After that, even though Harper’s Ferry was…