A no-name beer joint. Just off the highway. Somewhere outside Atlanta. Glowing Coors signs. Unlevel pool tables. I had been driving for several hours. I’d just hit town and my throat was dry.

I stepped into the dark room and made my way to the bar alongside the other hands. There was a kid playing music on a plywood stage. He had tattoos, a trendy mullet haircut and he wore his ballcap backward. He looked like a frat boy. He was singing what passes for country music in today’s melodically deprived America.

Then the kid started “country rapping.”

“Country music is dead,” said my bartender, who was pushing 70. Or maybe he was pulling it.

“The real cowboy singers have disappeared,” he went on. “I miss Willie Nelson, every day.”

He brought me a cold Pabst and asked what I wanted to eat.

“A burger,” said I.

He leaned onto his elbows. “We got vegan burgers, black bean burgers and chicken burgers.”

“Vegan burgers? I thought this was a beer joint.”

“New management.”

“But, I want a beef patty that’s

bleeding so badly it needs Band-Aids.”

The bartender sighed. “Don’t we all.”

The barman looked like a real cowpoke. He had smoker’s teeth. His skin was crepe paper. He wore a tan so rich he looked as though he’d been born in the Mojave.

His hands were veiny and rough. I know this because we actually shook hands. Just the way real guys used to do before the “fist bump” made us all look like schoolgirls playing Patty Cake at recess.

The kid strumming the guitar was still rapping. It was hard to watch.

The bartender looked at me. “They call it redneck rap. It’s all over the radio these days. Kids eat it up.”

“But it ain’t music,” said the guy next to me. He was wearing a crumpled suit. He looked like Fred Mertz after a long day.…

The sailboats are in the Charleston Harbor. White sailcloth, trimmed tightly. Hulls of every color.

Fort Sumter stands in the distance, the artificial island where the first shots of the Civil War were fired.

There is a boy next to me. He is redheaded, chubby and wearing Chuck Taylors. He doesn’t have to tell me that his name is written on the inside tongue of the shoes. I already know.

The boy’s hair is curly. His freckles are too much. He has a lifelong overbite. He answers to the name Sean.

“Are you having a good time in Charleston?” I ask him.

“Yessir,” he says. So polite. “It's one of my favorite cities.”

“I know.”

“Do you like Charleston?” he says.

“One of my favorite cities,” I say.

Long silence.

“So,” I say, “what sorts of things have you done here so far?”

He shrugs. “Mostly just eat. You?”


I know this boy. But I haven’t seen him in years. I always forget what a nice boy he is.

And this niceness attribute, as it happens, is where a lot of his problems stem


Because the old saying is true, nice guys really do finish last. It’s merely a matter of physics. In the game of life, the role of the nice guy is to hold the door for everyone else. To refill the other guy’s iced tea.

But it’s a double-edged blade because nice guys aren’t usually nice to themselves. Nice guys have a hard time loving old Number One.

Nice guys, for example, don’t like their photos taken. “Oh, Lord,” the nice guys say, “I’m so ugly.”

In academic settings, sometimes nice guys don’t make very good grades. And even though a teacher assures them there is nothing wrong with their brains, the nice guy responds, “Why can’t I understand this? Why I am so stupid?”

Thus, the nice guy is predisposed to disliking what he…

I’ve always liked South Carolina. But I like it even more on days like this.

The weather is overcast. The sky is cloudy. The air is so humid you could sip it with a straw.

Although the humidity is one of the best parts of South Carolina. It seeps into your pores, into your olfactory senses and into your clothes. And if you have curly hair, for example, you are screwed.

I’m on the road today. The wide saltmarshes pass by my windows like smudged impressionistic canvases of green and gold. The sky is a swell of grays. I see a blue heron in the distance, standing on a dead tree.

I stop at a little seafood joint. The place is surrounded by marshland grass, a wide open sky, scattered live oaks, and roughly 8 million Chrysler Pacifica minivans. The place looks like a tourist trap on crack. But it’s getting late so I go inside and order a beer.

“You want a South Carolina brewed beer, sweetie?” the waitress says.

“Is a bear Catholic?” I say.

She pauses a beat.


don’t get it,” she says. “Is that a joke?”

I get no respect.

She brings me a beer that’s brewed in Greenville. She cracks open the tallboy can. The brewery is called Birds Fly South. The beer is named “Days Like This.” It’s a Kölsch, whatever that means.

“Days Like This,” I say, reading the can.

“It drinks pretty good,” the waitress says. “It’s one of my favorites.”

Then she hands me a menu. “You want some oysters? Just got’em in a few hours ago.”

I fold the menu closed. Because this woman is singing my culinary song. I am a Florida child. Raw oysters are my love language. Especially on Days Like This.

The waitress brings my platter of bivalves.

“Any hot sauce, sweetie?”

I shake my head. I don’t need hot sauce or fresh lemon if…

A filling station. Somewhere near the South Carolina state line. I made a pit stop. I have a long way to get to Charleston. I raced inside the store with both hands gripping my bladder chakra.

I asked the clerk where the bathrooms were.

I was already doing the “I really gotta go” dance. A dance that looks like you’re running in place while also undergoing a public brain seizure.

The guy behind the counter was named Jeremy. I know this because it was on his nametag. Jeremy wore a Metallica shirt. His ballcap was sitting back on his head, revealing a sweaty mop of grayish hair. He was covered in a slick film of sweat, reading an auto magazine. He had a five o’clock shadow that was pushing six thirty.

Jeremy slowly pointed to the bathrooms.

Very. Slowly.

“Bathrooms are back there,” he said.

I was so grateful I almost exploded into a river of pure gratitude.

I walked to the men’s room, stiff-legged, trying not to make any sudden movements that would compromise the integrity of strained urinary muscles.

I grabbed the doorknob.

I tried to turn it. But the door was locked. So I jiggled the knob a few times.


I walked back to the front counter, moving even more gingerly than before, just in case the spirit moved.

“The men’s bathroom is locked,” I said.

Jeremy looked up from his magazine and gazed at me with the same blank stare often seen on the faces of the comatose.

“Your men’s bathroom,” I said again.

He looked at me but remained silent.

“It’s locked,” I said.

He nodded. “Okay.”

I smiled.

I tried to breathe deeply. But not too deeply. Breathing too vigorously flexes the body’s diaphragmatic breathing apparatus, which is located very close to the urethral sphincter. Breathe too deeply with a full bladder and you’ll end up in the ER.

So I went to…

“Why do so many people visit Mount Airy?” I ask the old man at the antique store.

“Hmm?” he answers.

I’m in North Carolina. Andy Griffith’s hometown. A humble American village that receives approximately three kajillion visitors each year.

“Say again?” the old shopkeeper says.

The man adjusts his hearing aids.

So I re-ask my question. Why do so many people visit Andy Griffith’s hometown? And I ask this question, mainly, because it’s always been a minor mystery to me.

I mean, I love Andy as much as the next Joe Six-Pack. But Andy Griffith wasn’t The Beatles or Mick Jagger. He wasn’t a historic figure, a religious icon, a Renaissance sculptor or a sex symbol. He was a TV star, for crying out loud. Which puts him in the same category as, for example, Regis Philbin.

“People come to Mount Airy,” says the shopkeeper, “because you can’t never have too much Mayberry.”

It’s a trite answer, ultra cliché and a little too neat and tidy for me. Although it’s a great line that probably woos the tourists.

But it doesn’t explain why later this

afternoon, when visiting the Andy Griffith Museum, I encounter biblical throngs waiting outside the gates. Think: the Children of Israel wearing Reeboks.

Where do they all come from? And why?

It’s 90 degrees outside, but the weather doesn’t stop them. There isn’t a single pair of pants in the crowd without a sweat stain on the butt. And yet everyone is cheerfully waiting in line.

Why? I keep asking myself. Why are we here?

We come from all over. Florida, South Carolina, Virginia, Texas, Tennessee, New Mexico, Minnesota and South Dakota. I didn’t even know South Dakota was a real place.

I ask one man how many miles he traveled to see the museum.

“It took us 29 hours by car,” he says.

I ask why he came.

He shrugs. “It’s Mayberry.”

After the museum,…

Follow U.S. Route 25 through the miles of Carolina backwoods outside Asheville. Watch out for homicidal deer. Take the bridge across the French Broad River. Roll past the abandoned caboose. Cross the railroad tracks.

Standing before you is a small cluster of storefronts and brick buildings.

Welcome to Hot Springs, North Carolina. Population, 532. Unless Erica had her baby last night.

This is a small town. “Small” with a capital S. You’re looking at a couple square miles, tops. A 5-year-old could roll a bowling ball from one city-limit sign to the other.

I step out of my car and tour the metropolis. I peek into the old hardware store. There are a few restaurants. A filling station. A library. A post office. A stray dog, wandering the sidewalk.

Across the street is a guy playing banjo. He is covered in tattoos. He carries a fully loaded backpack. His boots are tattered. His skin is covered in a rainbow of mud streaks. He smells more ripe than a dead turtle.

He’s been hiking the Appalachian Trail. He

plays his banjo to earn cash.

“How long have you been on the trail?” I ask.

He stops playing and gives me a quizzical look. “What day is it?”


He counts on his fingers. Then he gives up. “A long freaking time, brah.”

There are 51 towns lining the Appalachian Trail’s 2,194-corridor that are recognized as Appalachian Trail Communities. This town is one of the few with mainstreets physically located on the trail itself. Meaning: you don’t have to leave the trail to locate toilet paper.

So there are a lot of hikers here. Brah.

You see them on the highway shoulders, staggering into cafés with glazed eyes and do-rags on their heads. They are often young and unkempt, tattooed, wearing hemp weave.

Some would call them hippies. The more politically correct among us would call them professional body-odor enthusiasts.

“Sometimes we…

Morning. Western North Carolina. I followed a two-foot wide path through the woods. One end of the path leads to Maine. The other end leads to Georgia.

The Appalachian Trail is where human hamstrings go to die. You are looking at the world’s longest hiking footpath, period. The trail traverses 14 states and carries hikers through elevation gains/losses equal to climbing Mount Everest 16 times.

And I am hopelessly out of shape. Like a walking advertisement for Hostess.

Still. At least I’m not lost. It’s pretty hard to get lost on this trail. You just look for the trees painted with a white mark, and you keep following them, uphill, until you have a heart attack and die. There are approximately 165,000 marked trees throughout the entire trail.

I began my hike in the wilds of North Carolina, somewhere near the French Broad River. The River was my constant companion. It stayed with me. Like an old friend.

The French Broad is the second oldest river in America. Five times older than the

mighty Colorado. Seven times older than Old Man Mississippi. Granddaddy of all rivers. Older than the North American continent itself.

Today, the river was the color of chocolate milk, charged by the recent rains. And it was loud, too. Deafeningly loud. Frothy. The currents roared in the distance like the drone of static.

As I hiked forward, ascending Hot Springs Mountain on my pale, shaky chicken thighs, I paused at an overlook to stare at the river, miles below me.

I was hungry. So I ate a chicken salad sandwich. Then I kept walking. That’s basically all you do on this trail. You walk.

But it was a good day for walking. A pristine day, with an ultramarine sky.

The underside of the forest’s leafy canopy was neon green in the sunlight. At times it felt like I was stuck inside the world’s largest green Chinese lantern.…

There are a lot of things I like about Tennessee, but I’ll start at the top: in Tennessee, they have MoonPies.

You can find them everywhere. Not just at gas stations and Walmarts. I found a MoonPie on my motel pillow.

I can remember eating a MoonPie with my father when we briefly lived in Tennessee as a boy. He was an ironworker, building the GM plant in Spring Hill. I was a redhead, missing teeth.

It was morning. He handed me a MoonPie and a Royal Crown Cola in a glass bottle. We sat on the curb outside the Shell station and ate in silence. Daddy read a newspaper. I chewed with my mouth open.

For the unbaptized, MoonPies are chocolate marshmallowy graham cracker snacks that Tennesseeans take seriously. Tennesseeans eat MoonPies at a variety of special occasions, such as birthdays, graduations, real estate closings, holy communion, etc.

The pies come in different flavors. They have chocolate, vanilla, banana, strawberry and salted caramel. And once per year, just before the Tennessee-Florida game, they sell

MoonPies made out of real University of Florida graduates.

Yesterday I was in Chattanooga, the spiritual birthplace of MoonPies. I had time to kill, so I stopped at a gas station to purchase a MoonPie and an RC Cola.

I sat on the curb to eat my vittles because I am haunted by an ironworker.

Outside, I met an man who moved to Tennessee from New York, back in the 1970s. He was wearing dirty construction clothes, spitting into a Mountain Dew bottle. Which, by the way, is also a Tennessee-invented product.

The Mountain Dew, not the spit.

“I moved here because Tennessee just FEELS good,” the man said. “Came here as a sheet-metal worker. I’ve lived all over the U.S. But nobody is as nice as they are in Tennessee.”

He spit.

“It’s the people that make Tennessee special. Nicest people in the nation,…

See Rock City. That’s what the highway signs said. So here I stand, atop Lookout Mountain. Seeing Rock City.

I am 2,389 feet above sea level. The world beneath me looks like a train model set, filled with thousands of itty-bitty Walmarts and Burger Kings.

I’m overlooking seven U.S. states from a cliff known as Lover’s Leap. I can see Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, North and South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama.

“Long way down,” says a nearby tourist. The man leans over the guardrail and spits, just to watch his saliva fall.

He stares admiringly at his airborne spittle. “Long, LONG way down,” he adds.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve seen slews of highway signs saying, “See Rock City.” They are scattered along backroads between Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and God only knows where else. They are painted on every barn, cowhouse, birdhouse and doghouse.

I have even seen these three words engraved on the boys’ bathroom wall in a local junior high school. “See Rock City” was written just beneath the phrase, “Mrs. Biderbecke stinks,”

and “Writing on bathroom stall walls is done for neither wealth nor critical acclaim, therefore it is the purest form of art.”

I’ve also seen those famous three words in places far from home.

One time, in the Philadelphia International Airport, I saw a guy wearing a “See Rock City” T-shirt. I was homesick and thrilled to see anything familiar. I immediately stopped swatting rats and approached him.

“Excuse me, sir?” I asked. “Where are you from?”

“Who the [bleep] wants to [bleeping] know?” he asked.

“Your T-shirt,” I said. “See Rock City? I know where that place is.”

“How about that.” He said. Then he stole my wallet.

But somehow, I’ve never actually been to Rock City until today.

I pulled into the park at lunchtime. I bought a ticket. One adult pass cost me a little over $25. Not a bad…

I remember the old saying my fourth-grade teacher taught us: “If you don’t know where you’re going, then any road will get you there.”

It always seemed like such a wistful phrase. An axiom that blatantly encouraged aimlessness. Which is an art form I have always been particularly skilled at.

Thus it was, I left Alabama this morning with aimlessness as my only traveling companion. I drove north on Highway 11, riding toward a little place called Wherever The Heck I Stop.

My wife is busy this week and she sent me away. So I left home with a gym bag full of T-shirts and Levis. I brought snacks. Little Debbies. Sweet tea. Funyuns. And I took to the open highway like a stray dog.

You can pick up Route 11 a few miles from my front door. This romantic American highway will carry you 1,645 miles, north or south, whichever direction you choose. It spans from New Orleans to New York, where it eventually crosses the Canadian border

and all the highway troopers start talking in French.

I love this route. Namely, because Route 11 is the under-appreciated highway nobody pays attention to. The Ringo Starr of highway routes.

It’s not the glamourous Route 66, plunging through the untrammeled West like a Marty Robbins song. Neither is it the Pacific Coast Highway, snaking across steep cliffsides and the beer-commercial mountains of Big Sur.

No, Route 11 is like the redneck cousin you always see at family reunions. The cousin who always stands in the corner, silently drinking his Miller Lite. Most folks forget he’s even there. Which is too bad, because if you were to actually talk to this cousin, you’d realize that not only is he pretty interesting, and polite, he also know A LOT about monster trucks.

That’s Route 11.

The 10-state highway whisks you across the loveliest parts of the Southeast, past the faded hamlets of…