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…

A hotel lobby. I am 951 miles from home, watching the news channels show hurricane footage taken from my hometown in Florida.

The video shows Hurricane Sally wrecking our villages, flooding our cities, and eating our shorelines. Some video looks to have been filmed a few miles behind my house. I’m sick to my stomach about it. I feel guilty for not being there.

Three businessmen sit in the lobby. I overhear them say they are from Washington D.C. They watch the lobby television, wearing surgical masks, sipping coffee, shaking their heads in mock amazement.

“Geez,” says one man, “you couldn’t pay me to live in Florida.”

“No kidding,” says the other. “There simply aren’t enough dollars in the world to make me live there.”

A piece of me wants to defend my homeland and tell these guys they are mistaken. After all, Washington D.C. is no day at Dollywood, either.

I’ve been to Washington. It’s full of high-powered young business professionals who wouldn’t hold the door open for the Queen of England toting an oxygen canister.

But I’m

not here to throw darts. Right now I’m worried about my people. I’ve been texting with friends and family since last night.

My mother still has no electricity. My sister’s family spent the night in a walk-in closet. My cousin got so stressed he started smoking again. The highways are submerged. Commercial barges are floating in places where they shouldn’t be.

I saw videos of my own backyard this morning. You could reenact historic naval battles back there.

The lobby TV makes an announcement. The newsperson tells us that today is the 16-year anniversary of Hurricane Ivan. And I am carried backward in time. I have to sit down for a moment.

Sixteen years. Has it really been that long? Oh, boy. Do I remember Ivan.

My wife and I were living in a ratty upstairs apartment. Our unit was located…

PAW PAW, W.Va.—This is your authentic American backwater town. Unassuming and tiny. Ancient clapboard churches. A train whistle whining in the background. Population 508.

I sincerely hope they have food here.

My wife and I have been pedaling on muddy trails for many days, living out of backpacks, eating protein energy bars that taste like expired tennis balls. We are exhausted, trail worn, and starving. I’ve never been so glad to see civilization in my entire life.

Please, God. Let them have food here.

We arrive at our cabin, which sits near the edge of a cattle field. There is a lot of mooing in the background. A local dog keeps sniffing around our campfire pit. I don’t know his name, so I’ve nicknamed him Fred. He’s brown and white, and he doesn’t understand the concept of personal space.

Also, it turns out Fred likes energy bars.

My wife and I leave camp on foot in search of supper. Fred Joins us. And we immediately discover that Paw Paw isn’t exactly the kind of place where you

simply find supper.

There is an old restaurant across the highway, but they’re not open. I dial the number on the faded sign to ask the owner if he plans on opening tonight. The guy says, “Nope. Deep fryer ain’t working. Sorry.”

This is not what you want to hear after you’ve cycled five million miles and your stomach is sour from famine. I am in desperate need of saturated fat. I am ready to bribe this man for a cheeseburger.

But some things are not meant to be.

“Try the gas station,” says a local guy who is sitting on the curb outside Dollar General. He is drinking from a Mountain Dew bottle. Or maybe he’s spitting into it. I can’t tell.

In a few moments, my wife and I and Fred are all trotting across Route 9 to investigate the filling…

CUMBERLAND, Md.—I’m eating crabcakes beneath the afternoon shadow of Emmanuel Episcopal Church on the anniversary of my father’s suicide.

The church steeple rises into the sky like a needle, poking into low clouds. It’s magnificent. Cumberland is full of steeples. In fact, it looks like the city was designed by Billy Graham.

My wife and I sit on the curb outside the church. We’re eating genuine crab cakes with our hands. The cakes crumble in our laps, getting grease stains on our clothes. They are rich, hot, buttery, and dangerously high in cholesterol. I’ve eaten four.

Today’s date is typically the worst of my calendar year. How can a calendar day be cursed? I don’t know. But his death was the most pivotal moment of my life. It messed me up, stole my confidence, ended my education, and left me with more issues than an annual subscription to the “Saturday Evening Post.”

Which is why I was feeling a little somber today, rolling into Cumberland on our cycles. We’ve been on the trail for seven days, and I

was feeling a little worn.

But then I saw the scenery.

The distant steeples in this picturesque Appalachian valley made hot tears swell behind my eyes. You’ve never seen anything more touching than a dozen churches in the mountains.

I hate that my father can’t be here to see this. But then, he never had time to see the world. He worked like a pack mule, then logged in overtime cutting his grass. I don’t know how he found time to blow his nose.

I don’t know why I’m telling you this.

Anyway, the first thing I did when we came into Cumberland was buy crab cakes. For one thing, I was starving from days of malnutrition. For another: I’ve heard everyone talk about these things. Crab cakes are a big deal to Marylanders.

And after eating them, I get it. These…

FROSTBURG, Md.—We roll our cycles into this little town like two wet dogs. It is raining, soggy, cloudy, damp, cold, and did I mention it’s raining?

“Welcome to Maryland,” says an old guy taking cover beneath a storefront awning with his dog.

“Thanks,” I say.

“Yeah,” he goes on, “our state motto here is: ‘We may be cold, but we’re also damp.’” He laughs at his own joke.

I try to laugh, too, but I can’t. We’ve been riding the trail for too many days. I’m cold. I’m hungry. And laughter takes too many calories.

The old man has a walrus mustache. He wears thick, Coke-bottle eyeglasses. And to be honest, I am more interested in his dog because this is a Chesapeake Bay retriever; the Lord’s breed.

In my life, I have owned exactly one.

I squat on sore legs to pet the dog. Her name is Brownie.

“This your first time in Maryland?” the man asks.


“We usually bring the rain out for guests.”

Maryland is a neat place. It’s one of those itty-bitty states in the U.S., comparable

in size to Hawaii. Except in Hawaii they have hula skirts and fruity drinks. Here, they have emergency weather.

Still, aside from the rain, Maryland is like a mini version of America itself. This state has it all.

Maryland, for example, is a Mid-Atlantic Eastern state where everyone talks like the guy from “My Cousin Vinny.” But technically speaking, Maryland is also a Southern state.

And, it’s one of America’s oldest colonies, steeped in revolutionary history. Baltimore and Annapolis once served as temporary capitals during the Second Continental Congress. But, oddly, Maryland has never produced a single U.S. president. Figure that out.

The geography here varies, too. They have coastal dunes, seagrass, and pelicans. But also, Appalachian Mountains, black bears, and someone even spotted a mountain lion in Fallston recently. They have huge Wye oaks, but also boggy…

Somewhere in Maryland. It’s an eerie feeling, cycling in the woods, far from civilization. You could die out here and nobody would know for days until your income taxes were late.

The newspaper story would read, “Cyclist tries to fend off copperhead with tennis shoe and dies.”

My wife and I have been doing this remote trail together, but somehow we got split up this afternoon. I don’t know how I lost her. I know she’s biking ahead of me somewhere, but I haven’t seen her in a mile. I’m starting to get worried, thinking about all this copperhead business. I hate snakes.

This trail is full of fatal snake stories. You hear idle chatter from fellow hikers retelling tales about how some hapless soul once got snakebitten on the face by a copperhead while trying to take the snake’s picture.

There are a million chilling tales like this circulating around the trail.

So your senses get very heightened while you’re out here. Which isn’t a bad thing, actually. It’s exhilarating. It makes snacks taste better. Your vision gets

sharper. Scenery seems more intense.

After another few minutes, I see my wife in the distance. I am relieved to finally find her. She has stopped on the trail, straddling her bike, waiting for me. Her tiny black silhouette is far away against a cloudy sky. A canopy of oaks drape over her. She doesn’t see me yet.

This woman has been with me for nearly two decades. Sometimes it still feels like we just met last Tuesday.

Oh, how I wish time would slow down.

I’ve been thinking about some deep stuff in the woods this afternoon. It’s easy to do that in this space. It’s probably because you’re always staring at ancient trees that will outlive everyone’s great-great-great grandkids.

And you’re looking at towering volcanic prehistoric rocks that just sit here undisturbed. You think about how these rocks will…

CONFLUENCE, Pa.—We are in an itty-bitty town that is dotted with old houses. The low mountains slope downward into three giant converging rivers. There are herculean oaks everywhere. Lots of wildflowers. If they were going to remake “Sound of Music,” they would shoot it in Confluence.

And I’m scribbling notes about it all in my little notebook. Because this is what I do. I have carried a notebook for years now, it goes everywhere with me, and I write everything down. You never know when inspiration will hit you with a two-by-four.

Today the little Pennsylvania community is overrun with cyclists who are biking the Great Allegheny Passage through the Appalachian Mountains. Which is what my wife and I have been doing for the last five days.

We ride for hours until our butts have lost all sensation. Then we pull over and cheerfully pop handfuls of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication.

Out on the trail you get to know your fellow trail-riders because you pass each other a lot. You’re following the same bike route.

You sleep in the same towns, shelters, hostels, or roadside ditches. You eat at the same spots. You steal the same canteen water from the same unsuspecting residential homes.

I meet an older couple from Manhattan, New York. They are doing the trail together with two top-of-the-line mountain bikes. He’s 67, and recently recovering from a stroke. She is 63 and his lifeline.

He has a voice like a guy who might own a pizza joint in Brooklyn. She sounds like Edith Bunker. I love these people.

He’s fallen off his bike twice on the trail due to muscle weakness from the stroke. But he’s not discouraged.

He says, “Listen, I got no broken bones—knock on wood—and no cuts. I’m making it to the end, or so help me.”

I meet a young man from California. He’s doing the trail entirely on foot. Sometimes he hikes…

STONYCREEK TOWNSHIP, Pa.—The Flight 93 National Memorial sits on a broad green pasture. The field is remote, interrupted only by minimalist monuments standing in the distance, surrounded by vivid wildflowers.

One monument is a 93-foot high musical instrument, with 41 colossal wind chimes, making clunking sounds that sing across the meadow like a glockenspiel.

There is no other structure like this in the world.

The monument honors the 41 passengers and crewmembers from United Airlines Flight 93. The hijacked plane that crashed in this field 19 years ago.

The National Park Service runs this place today. But not so long ago this was open farmland.

It happened on a Tuesday morning. Perfect weather. Clear sky. Locals saw a Boeing 757 jerking through the air at an awkward angle.

Farmers watched in slack-jawed amazement. Commuters pulled over to see a commercial airliner bounce from the sky and slam into the Earth.

When the plane hit soil it sounded like the world had come apart at the bolts. A mile-high column of

black smoke wafted into the air. The clear sky was ruined.

Earlier that morning the flight had been due for takeoff from Newark International Airport at 8:01 a.m. But, because this is America (Land of the Free and Home of the Flight Delayed) the flight was running late by 41 minutes.

The passengers and crew were chatty that morning. People made conversations over Styrofoam coffee cups. It was usual talk.

They chatted about their kids’ soccer games. Work. The new fad diet that wasn’t making their thighs any smaller.

In the cockpit, pilot Jason Dahl was going through his preflight stuff. He was 43, cobby build, with a smile that looked like he could have been your favorite uncle Lou.

Jason always carried a little box of rocks with him. They were a gift from his son. When a man carries a box of rocks simply because his kid collected…