Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Today is an overcast day, 40-percent chance of rain, the sky is the color of corroded aluminum. And I am walking on a section of the Appalachian Trail.

I want to stress that I am not hiking. I am merely walking. There is a major difference. Hiking is what people with bulbous, muscular calves do. Walking is what out-of-shape guys with fixed 30-year mortgages do.

I am reminded of this fundamental difference every few seconds when college kids pass me on the trail. They carry backpacks that are roughly the size of Honda Civics, and these kids aren’t even remotely short of breath. That’s hiking.

“We’re hiking the whole trail,” says one college guy who wears a bushy beard. He and his pals started hiking in Georgia, and have completed 1,025 miles. When they began, there were 11 in their party. There are three left.

“It was a lot harder than we thought,” he explains. “A whole lot harder.”

I don’t see any of his friends nearby, I ask where everyone

is. He tells me that few can tolerate the stink from his lack of bathing. And he’s not joking. I can attest to the accuracy of this statement. This kid smells ripe enough to make a boxcar take a dirt road. Whenever he lifts his arms I briefly consider jumping off a mountain.

I ask how many days he’s been out here, which makes him scratch his head. “Think I’m on day seventy-one, or -two?” He shrugs. “I’m losing count.”

What I want to know is why. This is a big question for me. There must be a reason these insane hikers are out here. I ask why he’s doing this.

“Hmmm,” he says. “I mean… I don’t really know, dude.”

And that’s all he gives me.

During our walk, I am forced to put some distance between us because his body odor is getting…

It’s morning. I’m on the Amtrak Crescent No. 20. I don’t know where my train is located right now, but the landscape is pure green. And like I said, I’m on a train. So I’m as happy as a beached whale at high tide.

I crawl out of my matchbox bed at 6:19 A.M. I stretch, yawn, and smack my forehead on the upper bunk of my roomette. I wash my face in my little Barbie bathroom sink.

The whole sleeper car smells like fresh coffee. So I leave my room and locate the silver-bullet-shaped urn near the gangway. My train attendant helpfully pours my first cup. I thank her profusely because this is what you do when you get good customer service.

I am not accustomed to good customer service. I live in the cold, hard, real world, where customer service is a myth.

Last week, for instance, I tried to return a defective item to a department store at the “customer service” counter. There, a 19-year-old employee with stylish hair treated me like I

was a boil on the haunches of humanity. So I requested the employee’s manager. When the manager arrived, the manager officially confirmed that I am a boil on the haunches of humanity.

“You want cream or sugar, sweetie?” asks my train attendant.

“No, thank you.”

“Sleep good?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I am fully prepared for my first sip of coffee to taste like hydrochloric acid. But it doesn’t. I am shellshocked. Amtrak has good coffee.

I stay in a lot of hotels and spend a lot of time on the road. I have learned that coffee is one of those things that always sucks. You get used to it. That’s the way life goes. You move on. But on a scale of one to five, I give Amtrak coffee an eleven.

Next, I make my way to the dining car. I walk through the gangways,…

The distant green mountains of North Carolina are speeding past my train window. I am eating an omelette, drinking coffee, watching America go by at eye level.

The train whistle screams. Two long whistles. One short. One long.

That’s whistle code. It means we’re approaching a highway grade crossing. Whistle code is the law. All trains traveling upwards of 45 mph are required to sound their horns this way a quarter mile before each crossing.

These are things you learn in the dining car.

I have a thing for trains. Always have. When I was a kid, I was one of those annoying little redheaded boys obsessed with locomotives. Some boys were into dinosaurs. Others were deeply committed to Richard Petty. My thing was trains.

I owned all the toys, of course. I had miniature versions of famous locomotives like the Super Chief, the Flying Scotsman, and the City of New Orleans. Also, I could make all the train noises with my mouth. Still can.

But my family didn’t ride trains.

We changed our own motor oil for crying out loud. All I could do was park my bike at train crossings and fantasize when trains blew past.

This is why riding trains is a big deal for me. Sure, I realize trains aren’t as flashy as air travel. They aren’t even efficient in our current Jet Age. A commercial airliner averages speeds of 575 mph. This train rarely exceeds 47 mph. But slowness is precisely why I love trains. Trains are laid back.

Yesterday, I boarded the Amtrak’s Crescent No. 20, which left from New Orleans bound for Philadelphia. I almost missed my train because of traffic on the interstate. I arrived in a frenzy, sprinting through the station, and finally reached the platform with three minutes to spare.

I was out of breath. My leg muscles burned. I was stressed. And since I’m used to dealing with embittered…

“Don’t kiss a girl without being prepared to give her your last name.”

My granny said that.

My father gave me this one: “If you so much as touch a cigarette, you might as well tear up half your paychecks from now on.”

My mother’s axiom, however, is my all-time favorite: “It’ll be okay.”

It might sound like a simple phrase, but my mother said this often. Whenever things were running off the rails. Whenever a girl broke my heart. Whenever I lost my job. Whenever I cried. Whenever I had a common cold that I believed to be, for example, tuberculosis, she said these words. I needed her to say them.

She also said: “Cleaning your plate means ‘I love you.’”

And this is why I was an overweight child.

I could keep going all day.

“Don’t answer the phone when you got company over,” my uncle once said. “It’s just flat rude.”

This one is from my elderly friend, Mister Boots: “That smartphone is making you stupid.”

My grandfather said: “Anything worth doing is worth waiting until next week to

do.” Then he’d crack open another cold one.

My wife’s mother once said: “Always carry deodorant in your truck. You don’t want to smell like you’ve been out roping billy goats when you bump into the pastor.”

Said the man named Bill Bonners, in a nursing home, from his wheelchair during an interview: “I never wanted to be a husband, I really didn’t want that. But I just couldn’t breathe without her around me.”

Mister Bill died only four days after his wife passed.

And one childhood evening, I was on a porch with my friend’s father, Mister Allen James who was whittling a stick, and he said: “Boys, if you marry ‘up,’ you’ll have to attend a lotta parties you don’t wanna go to. You wanna be happy, marry someone who knows her way around a supermarket.”…

As a writer, one thing you want to strive for is complete ackuracy. You don’t want grammatical mistakes in your work because this undermines your writing and makes you look like a toad.

Still, errors and typos do happen. One of the main culprits is autocorrect. Modern computers and smartphones are always correcting spelling without your permission, and the software often gets it wrong. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been burned by autocorrect.

I once wrote a heartfelt column about a man who nearly died in the hospital. I attempted to tell his story by describing his tearful return home. When I wrote about how his daughters rolled his wheelchair up the sidewalk and into his house for a triumphal entry, autocorrect happened.

I wrote: “Today, the old man’s family pushed him straight into his casket.”

I was aiming for the word “castle.”

Here’s another one:

My friend and fellow writer, Beau, was writing a social media post for his wife who was returning home after a trip to Europe. Beau wrote a

romantic essay for her in which he stated: “I have been waiting all month to see those big beautiful dimples again.”

Big deal, you’re thinking, what’s wrong with that? The big deal is that autocorrect replaced “dimples” with a word that rhymes with “fipples.”

So the main problem with autocorrect is that it’s on drugs. You’ll be typing along and misspell the word “hapy” and your device immediately grasps what you were trying to write and helpfully replaces the word with “Russia.”

When I wrote this column, for instance, my computer flagged misspellings on words like “Beau,” and “fipples,” but it had no problem with “ackuracy.”

Still, this is no excuse. As a writer you must painstakingly proofread your work and catch all your senseless eros.

Which is why I highly recommend getting married to a math teacher. Speaking from experience, math teachers make…

They tell me Mrs. Simpson was a small, soft spoken 90-pound woman without family. And that’s how this story begins.

The lonely elderly woman was watering her plants one afternoon when she had her big accident. She slipped and fell off her porch. Hers wasn’t a tall porch, thankfully. But at her age, it didn’t have to be. The injury was severe. She was 86.

You fall off your porch at 86, they start throwing around terms like “celebration of life.”

When Mrs. Simpson awoke, she was in the hospital, eyes blinking. She saw medical people standing over her, smiling.

Mrs. Simpson’s first hoarse words were: “Will someone please…?”

Everyone gathered around for the rest.

“…Please feed my cats?”

This made the doctors laugh. They all exchanged looks and said, “Isn’t there someone in your family who can do that for you?”

“Got no family.”

“How about friends?”

She shook her head.

“Well, You aren’t leaving the hospital, Mrs. Simpson. Not after all the bones you’ve broken.”

“...And I can’t remember if I left the oven on.”

“Try to calm down, Mrs. Simpson.”


need my toothbrush, and the trash goes out tomorrow morning…”

So a few nurses got together to send someone to the woman’s house to do these things. They watered the plants, checked the oven, packed her a overnight bag, and someone even took care of the old woman’s cats.

After a few days, Mrs. Simpson had been transferred to a rehab, where she had all her belongings, including her prodigious collection of paperback romance novels, her big balls of yarn and her knitting needles.

Over the next months, Mrs. Simpson became the darling of the rehab facility and the favorite patient of many staffers. This easygoing 90-pound woman without family.

Often she could be seen sitting upright in bed, working on a garter-stitch pattern, peering over her reading glasses at her visitors.

She had many visitors.…

We had a major potato salad crisis at our Fourth-of-July barbecue. Someone forgot to designate a family member to be the official “bringer of potato salad.” So everyone took it upon themselves to bring potato salad. We had 2,927 varieties.

There are few things more American than a full-scale potato salad war. When I saw all that Corningware and outdated olive drab Tupperware lined up on the buffet, all filled with concoctions of boiled potatoes and mayonnaise, it made me feel warm and patriotic inside.

I don’t have to remind you that it’s been a long year. A really long one. This backyard barbecue was long overdue.

Last year my family didn’t even do a Fourth-of-July cookout. There was a pandemic going on. Instead, my wife and I sat at home and played dominoes. We had no covered dishes. No potato salad. I think we ate cold leftover Chinese takeout and watched a “Laverne and Shirley” marathon. And I hate dominoes.

Thankfully, that sad year is miles behind us now.

Today, the aunts and uncles arrived by the dozens, all carrying 30-pound jugs of potato salad. My mother-in-law made several kilos of her special celery-pimento potato salad. Even a few of the little kids had prepared some potato salad, which tasted pretty good once you picked out the Lego pieces.

Meanwhile, my brother-in-law was manning the charcoals, flipping hamburgers, trying to remember everyone’s picky food orders. No two burgers at our get-together were the same. In this modern age everyone is on some kind of special diet.

We had the beautiful people who only wanted 99-percent lean hamburgers. We had “keto” and “paleo” people who wanted high cholesterol beef. And lastly, we had those who chose to eat tofu and grain burgers. “The tofu is colored with delicious beet juice,” reported one vegetarian.

Me? I went straight for the potato salad. My wife had prepared enough potato salad to ruin…

New York Harbor, 1885. Only 20 years after the Civil War. New York was the epicenter of the world.

Bubs McFee had traveled all the way from Maryland to be here, hoping to get hired as part of the auxiliary metal-working crew that would help assemble the world’s most famous statue.

Competition was stiff. Everyone wanted this job.

A big-bellied foreman surveyed the long line of hopeful young laborers, sizing them up like an infantry. When the foreman’s eyes landed on Bubs he laughed.

“God sakes, son,” said the foreman. “You don’t look old enough to shave. You sure you’re in the right place?”

“Yes, sir.”

The other applicants laughed.

“What are you, twelve?” said the foreman.

Bubs said nothing.

At age 23, Bubs looked like he was an adolescent. But he had worked the steel girders on exactly 28 buildings and three truss bridges in Pittsburgh. Bubs had been laying rivets since his fourteenth birthday. He could climb anything, lift twice his weight, and swing a nine-pound hammer so hard you’d feel its impact from three states away.

“Your mama know you’re here?” said

the foreman, whose belly jiggled with laughter.

“Yes, sir.”

This got another laugh from the group. But Bubs did not break a smile. He merely stared at the foreman.

The foreman looked at his clipboard. “Bubs, huh? That your real name?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Well, Bubs, you have any idea how many beamwalkers die each year on my clock? Have you ever laid a rivet in your life? Can you even lift a hammer with that puny arm you got?”

“Yes, sir.”

The foreman shook his head. “You’re naturally gabby, aren't you?”

Bubs took the Fifth.

The foreman squinted and leaned in. “Well, I think you’re a liar. I don’t think you’ve ever worked with iron in your life. I don’t think you’d know a rivet from your own butt.”

The foreman held up a hammer.…

The radio played George Jones at the barbecue joint where I ate lunch. I was eating Saint Louis ribs. Overhead, George Jones sang “He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

Whenever George sings the opening lyrics to this tune, a chill dances up my spinal column and I get sentimental. Immediately, I remember sitting in my father’s truck cab, wearing my Little League uniform, listening to the staticky AM station.

I glanced around the barbecue joint to make sure I wasn't being watched during my musical moment. Then I dabbed my chin with a napkin and helped George remember the words.

I write a lot about old country music, and I’m sure the subject gets tiresome. But I do this for an important and well-planned reason:

Because I don’t have to do any actual research.

But also, because if you and I don’t keep these timeless melodies alive, who will?

As a boy, my family drove great distances to support the cause of Minnie Pearl and Roy Acuff. We paid good money to watch Roy tear up his

apple-tree fiddle and crack jokes alongside Sarah Cannon. Ernest Tubb was still making appearances at the Opry when I was a babe. And I don’t want to let all that go.

The idiocy they’re cranking out on the radio today simply cannot compare to the country tunes of yore.

Classic country is folk art. Plain and simple. It is subtle lyricism based on a two-beat bassline, a steel-stringed rhythm section, and bottled malt beverages. This music was the poetry of stick welders, sharecroppers, and coal miners’ kids. And it’s ours.

When Loretta Lynn sang “Blue Kentucky Girl,” you weren’t merely listening to a radio. You were listening to one of your own take the microphone. This is why whenever Willie sang “You Took My Happy Away,” your daddy’s allergies always acted up.

I don’t mean to be critical, but new country is an embarrassment…

A cafe. I’m drinking coffee, typing on a laptop. I am trying to do some writing. But it’s hard to concentrate. Namely, because I am sitting beside a group of middle-aged women who are having a conversation about Tupperware.

“Do you remember my friend Martha?” says one woman. “Martha has a Tupperware container, she got it at Target, she can put anything in it.”


“Yep, anything she wants, she just puts it in the container.”

“Martha does?”

“She got it at Target.”

“They have good containers at Target.”

“Martha just loves it.”

“I’d love a container like that.”

“You should go to Target. That’s what Martha did.”

Shoot me.

I’m no longer writing. I’m people watching. My stare travels across the cafe where I see an old man seated alone. He is eating a sandwich, sipping coffee. He wears a ratty ball cap and gazes out the window. I have a soft spot for old men who look out windows.

Over to my left are teenagers—boys and girls. One boy is wearing a Boy Scout uniform, a girl sits beside him. They are holding hands. I smile because these kids

are so happy Norman Rockwell would eat his heart out.

Also, I see an elderly couple sitting behind me. He’s talking into a cellphone, using a voice loud enough to register on the Richter Scale.

Cellphone Guy shouts, “My doctor said my heart is looking good, honey! There’s nothing to worry about! I don’t need surgery after all!”

And the ladies beside me keeps talking:

“Yep, Martha told me the lid just unscrews off her container.”

“The lid unscrews?”

“On and off, just like this.”

“How does it go back on?”

“When you wanna put the lid on, you screw it on. When you wanna take it off, you unscrew it.”

“Whose container is this again?”

“Martha’s container, she got it at Target.”

Give me strength.

So I’m not…