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…