About a year ago. Before the pandemic. I saw him across the crowded restaurant with his elderly parents. They didn’t look like they’d aged a bit. But he did. His face was lean, his skin was wrinkled, he was gaunt. And he still had his trademark sense of humor.

I told him I hardly recognized him.

“Yeah,” he said, “it’s this new diet I’m on, it’s called being sick, the weight just falls off.”

This is not his best joke, I’m not sure whether I should laugh.

Then he gave me the real story. It’s a long one, I don’t have room to tell it all. He became very ill with an autoimmune disease. Doctors said he was dying. His parents were braced for the worst. His mother and father became his caregivers.

His parents tell me that for two years, they did a lot of talking to the sky, asking for help.

Doctors still can’t explain how he was cured. Maybe it was the treatment. Maybe it was something else. They aren’t sure. All anyone knows is

that one day he woke up better. No traces of illness are left.

“Now all I have to do is gain weight,” he tells me.

I have another friend I wanted to tell you about. I grew up with him. We once went to Mardi Gras together when we were young men—which is another long story that I don’t have time for. Let’s just say that I almost ended up as a permanent smear on a New Orleans sidewalk.

A few years ago my friend had the worst year of his life. His marriage sort of fell apart. His wife left him and took their son with her. Next he lost his business, then his money. He became suicidal.

One night, while asleep on his brother’s sofa-sleeper he had decided that he was going to end it all on the following day.…

“Yeah, I played ball with Hank Aaron,” said the old man on the phone. “Long time ago. He was a good man.”

Eighty-five-year-old Howie Bedell played with the Milwaukee Braves during the golden era. He started playing professional baseball during an era when names like Mays, Mantle, Snider, and Jackie were household names.

I talked to Howie this afternoon. He was in his living room in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. I’ve never met Howie before today. Actually, the way we met was: I looked his name up in the phonebook and took a chance.

When he answered the phone I could hear a TV blaring in the background. I heard a dog barking at the back door. I heard his wife whisper, “Who’s on the phone?”

He shushed her and said, “It’s someone calling about Hank.”

So I asked a few questions.

“Well,” Howie began, “I first met Hank Aaron at spring training in Bradenton, Florida. I was a rookie, I drove down to Florida from Pennsylvania in my first car after I signed.”

The

year was 1957. Eisenhower was president. Patsy Cline was on the radio. Gasoline was 30 cents a gallon. The Little Rock Nine had just enrolled in high school.

Howie was 22, newly acquired by the Braves minor league system. He batted left. Threw right. He stood six-one. He was 185 pounds of legs that could sprint to first base in 2.9 seconds.

“When I showed up to practice, I was nervous. I’s sitting in the dugout when someone said, ‘Hey, Howie, take the field and warm up.’”

Howie jogged to the outfield in an empty stadium. Two other players also exited the dugout: the 26-year-old third-baseman, Eddie Matthews; and a 23-year-old centerfielder from Alabama who everyone called Hank.

Howie’s heart was pounding in his throat. He stood in centerfield, crouched in a fielder’s stance, punching his mitt, trying to breathe.

Howie watched young Aaron limber up with…

I am walking in the woods on the Natchez Trace National Scenic Trail. I’m in a world of slippery elms, black oaks, and chinkapins, strolling through the Tennessee forest. The last time I walked this trail I was an 8-year-old, holding the hand of my late father. We were singing at the tops of our voices.

There are horses on the trail today. I’m walking beside one such horse, a cocoa-brown animal named Danny Boy. The older man who rides Danny Boy is kind enough to keep pace beside me because he knows I am obsessed with his horse.

I have known this animal for approximately two minutes and I’m already professing my love.

I can’t think of a prettier place to be introduced to a horse than on the Natchez Trace footpath. This famous trail spans three states, stretches 444 miles, weaves from Mississippi to Tennessee, and dates back to 800 A.D., shortly before the birth of Mick Jagger.

Amazingly, much of this national treasure remains almost unchanged by history. But for some reason, the trail wasn’t

as well known in nearby Nashville like I’d expected.

For example, at my hotel I asked some employees where the Natchez Trace trailhead was located and they looked at me like I had boogers.

“The WHAT trail?” said a guy at the desk.

“The Natchez Trace?”

“You sure you’re saying it right?”

“I believe so.”

“Wait. Is that the nightclub where the waiters set the martinis on fire?”

You have to worry about America.

Either way, I finally found the trail. And I couldn’t be happier because the footpath is the same as it was when I hiked it with my father.

The Natchez Trace is the granddaddy of American trails, predating the United States itself. In fact, this trail was here before the Chikasaw, the Choctaw, and the Cherokee.

It gives me chills to think this trail existed during the same…

At sunrise, the Great Smoky Mountains are so majestic their beauty could kill you. So are the Rockies, and the Sierra Nevadas at sundown.

The same goes for the Tetons, the Blue Ridge, the Bighorns, the Elks, the Adirondacks, and the Appalachians, which were carved by the pocketknife of God.

Oh, and the Missouri River, when seen from 34,000 feet above, it will break your heart with its glory. The Missouri moves like liquid silver across a green patchwork of American farmland. So does the Mississippi, the Rio Grande, the meandering Columbia, the Ohio, the Arkansas, the Tennessee, the Colorado, the Youghiogheny, the Chattahoochee, and the boisterous Potomac.

But then, you can also feel this wonder in other places. Like when the Gulf of Mexico reflects the colors of dusk.

Or when you gaze across the Chesapeake Bay. Past the river reeds and gray water. When you listen to the geese overhead, honking their chipper hellos.

You get this same feeling when standing on Ellis Island. You begin to

visualize the hundreds of thousands of congregated Germans, Norwegians, Chinese, Dutch, Sicilians, Hungarians, Polish, Jewish, Danish, and Swedish, all dressed in drab rags, holding tight to their entire lives, crammed into duffle bags. And it all makes sense, why your old man was such a tightwad when it came to buying your Little League uniform.

I visited Ellis Island once, I could swear I almost saw my Scots-Irish ancestors waiting in line. I could practically feel their breath on my neck.

You experience this same feeling in Savannah, within Trustee’s Garden, when an expensive tour guide reminds you that this was where the first seeds of American cotton, apples, coffee, and wheat were experimentally grown.

And when you walk Savannah’s streets to Oglethorpe Avenue, you feel a similar awe inside the home of Juliette Gordon Low; a girl who was deaf in both ears, who founded a humble youth organization in…

I receive a lot of questions in my email inbox. And I wish I could answer them all, but I can’t type very fast. So I have compiled a few common questions which I am answering here. Let’s get started:

Q: Your writings sometimes make me cry. Are you one of those sappy guys who cries all the time?

A: I never cry. Although my eyes perspire a lot.

Q: Are you a natural redhead?

A: Nobody has ever asked me this. So I called my mother to ask her. She said, “Well, the day you were born, the first thing the doctor said when he saw your head was, ‘Uh-oh, you know what they say about preachers and redheads.’”

However I never actually learned what they say about preachers and redheads.

Q: Why do you always feel the need to mention the pandemic in your writings lately? No offense, but it gets old. Move on.

A: Thanks for the question. May I ask where you live, because I think I would truly enjoy living on that

planet too.

Q: Did you hear that Prince Harry has quit using social media because people were being so negative, and leaving hateful comments on all his accounts? He and his wife said it was wrecking their mental health. What’s wrong with our world?

A: You know what they say about redheads.

Q: Why are people being so mean these days? Do people ever send you ugly remarks?

A: Every day. But it got bad during the pandemic. Some comments really sting, too. Here are a few of the tamer remarks:

“What’s wrong with your head? It’s enormous. You look like a freak.”

“The problem is that any untrained [bad word] can become a writer these days... And you actually think people care about what you have to say. Shut up.”

“Everytime I see his face on my newsfeed I want to gag.…

She was slight. Elderly. She had an old kitchen that was lit up with smells and colors.

There is no place better than the humble kitchen of an American woman. If there is, I wouldn’t care to know about it. The linoleum floor. The enamel table with chipped edges. The stove with the stubborn oven door. Brillo pads in the sink.

And Lord, the smells. I could live and die in a good kitchen.

She was dusting her counters with flour on the day I interviewed her. She covered those countertops in snow, the way our ancestors have been doing ever since they deboarded the ark.

She wore one of those aprons that looks more like a cobbler’s apron. Two pockets. Floral print. She kneaded dough with frail hands. If you are ever lucky enough to see an elderly woman take out her aggression on a lump of lifeless dough, you are lucky enough.

When I visited her little kitchen it was long ago. I was on a long drive from Atlanta to Birmingham.

Her son asked me to visit. I only had thirty minutes to spare.

The reason she told me to come that day was because she wanted to make one of my favorite casseroles, one she remembered that I mentioned in my books a few times.

I don’t even know what the casserole is called. I’m not sure it even has a proper name. It has little diced potatoes, mountains of cheese, and—this is the crucial part—Kellogg's Corn Flakes on top.

When I was a kid, there was a lady in our church named Miss Patty who made this casserole for every get-together. As an adult, I have yet to find it again. I guess it’s an outdated church casserole now. It’s probably not stylish for modern women to put cornflakes on top piles of cheese anymore.

She made more than just casseroles. She cooked for local…

Nashville has always struck me as an interesting city. And by “interesting,” I mean this town scares me.

The main culprit here is traffic. Nashville’s highway system is a mess because these roads were built to accommodate approximately 11 cars, whereas there are currently 229 trillion Nashville residents.

So this is a problem. Because everyone uses interstates at the same time. Which means that on any average afternoon there are strings of traffic longer than the ladies-restroom line at a George Strait concert.

My friend Jerry lives outside Nashville and commutes to work. Each morning, Jerry spends 90 minutes in his SUV, fighting motorists just to back out of his driveway. Jerry admits that he would much rather have a new job.

But I’m told there are no new jobs in Nashville, only new buildings. Because this is what Nashvillians do. They build stuff. Construction has gotten so uncontrollable here that as soon as one structure is built, demolition crews arrive to tear the building down so they can begin erecting a triplex

in its place.

This town’s slogan should be “Boom!” Because that’s the only noise you’ll ever hear. In fact, while writing this very paragraph, I was interrupted by 13 loud construction booms.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t dislike Nashville. This city is young, hip, and exciting, but I always feel underdressed here. My friend Stacy works in a nearby clothing retail store and tells me that young Nashvillians spend fortunes keeping up with fashion.

In fact, some local clothing stores are so “current” they put wastebaskets beside the cash registers so customers can immediately throw away their newly purchased obsolete clothes and buy next year’s hottest trends.

But listen, I’m not being critical. If this town wants congested highways, cool clothes, and new buildings, more power to them. I’m only trying to tell you that this is a wild city.

Which leads me to a story…

Rural Illinois. It’s been a hard year for 10-year-old Greg. It’s not just global pandemics, scary events in Washington D.C., nor the fact that it’s colder than eighteen-hundred-and-froze-to-death outside. It’s more than that. Greg’s mother has breast cancer. So everything stinks.

Greg decided it was time to make his own fun. The problem is, of course, all the conditions were against him. The winter sky looked like pewter. And it was so cold you had to open the fridge to heat the house.

But then, nothing is impossible for a dedicated child. Greg decided he was going to get up a baseball game.

Now, I know what you’re thinking, because I’m thinking the same thing. What an unfitting season to have a ballgame. Especially when your region is experiencing lows of 20 to 30 degrees.

But it’s been a weird year for Greg, completely devoid of fun. He and his brother have watched his mother fight with her own body. And they have watched Greg’s father learn to do laundry, cook suppers, and become

a caregiver. They needed fun.

First, Greg approached Jason (age 9) and Andrew (10), who said they were all in for a ballgame. Next, the boys talked to Jon (10) and his brother Van (13). Everyone said, yeah, a baseball game was totally doable.

Whereupon they all biked to Martin’s (11) house, and pitched the idea. Martin was immediately onboard. But there was a snag. Martin’s sister, Laura (7), wanted to play too.

At which point Martin’s mother (42) said the boys had better include Martin’s sister or else they would have to clean the gutters for their Granny (74).

“Laura plays too rough,” explains her brother. “But we said she could play if she didn’t punch anybody.”

Laura crossed her heart. So things were working out.

Then Jon’s mother got involved. Mainly, because Jon’s mother is one of those type-A people who actually enjoys organizing…

If you would’ve told me 10 years ago I’d be receiving letters from people who wanted to be writers, I would have laughed and asked you to refill my Ovaltine.

But the truth is, I receive messages about this very thing from aspiring writers all the time. Nearly without fail, most of them actually use the word “aspire” in their letters.

Here are some excerpts:

“I’m an aspiring writer, please help me figure out how to go about this.”

“I an aspiring author… I’m 18, I’d like to know what my next step should be.”

“I’m 71 years old, I aspire to be a writer, do you have any tips...?”

So I wanted to depart from my usual subject matter and take a moment to address these letters. Because I know from my own pitiful experience that there is nothing more frustrating than wanting to BE something but not knowing how.

Which leads to my first point. And this is the main thing I want to tell the good people who have contacted me: Quit calling yourself an

“aspiring writer.” You are not an aspiring writer. You are a REAL WRITER.

Simply put, if you write, you’re already the real deal. I truly believe this.

After all, you don’t aspire to be alive, do you? Nobody living in New York aspires to be a New Yorker. Birches don’t aspire to be trees. Episcopalians don’t aspire to be Episcopalians; they simply open a Pabst Blue Ribbon and shout, “And also with YOU!” ‘Piskies are fun!

Skill has nothing to do with who you are. Who you are is who you are. And if you like writing stuff, you are a writer. Not an aspiring one. A true writer.

Now you say it.

See how easy that was? You’re legit now. Identity crisis solved. Now you can go on with your life.

I realize you probably think I’m being lighthearted here, but…

“So you’re the writer who wants to hear my story?”

Yessir. I’m the guy. Thanks for taking my call, I know you’re a busy man.

“Busy? In a retirement home? Yeah, I’m slammed. Say, I knew a Dietrich when I was in high school, ‘bout 70 years ago. In Chicago. Bill, Bill Dietrich. You related to him?”

No.

“Well, good for you. Bill was a sorry piece of work. Nobody would wanna be related to him.”

Your daughter Janell told me you have a story.

“Story? Aw jeez, I wish she wouldn’t have told you that. I don’t like telling that story on account of people think I lost my mind. I’m sorry, sir, I don’t think I want to tell it today. I’m just not in the mood.”

Okay. I absolutely understand.

“It all started like this, you see. I’s working in sales in Chicago, I never got to see my family. It was real hard, my kids hardly knew me, I missed their birthdays and everything. But when you’re a young guy, you only care about money.

“Well, back then they didn’t pay for salesmen to fly

unless you were a hot shot, so I drove everywhere. Had a ‘66 Chevy Caprice, I’d driven it to almost every state.”

That’s a lot of driving.

“Don’t I know it. So one night, I’m driving, and I’m missing my daughter’s birthday because I’m on the road to some little Indiana town. It’s late, I’m riding over this big, tall bridge over a river or creek or something. Listening to the radio. And I see an enormous light coming toward me. I mean big.”

A light?

“Yep. And the closer I get, I can see it’s actually TWO SETS of headlights, coming at me.”

And you’re on a bridge?

“A very tall bridge.”

So what happened?

“Well, right away I can see it’s two delivery trucks, and the idiots are passing…