“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…

Jack was laid to rest today at 12 p.m. sharp. It was a small service in the Peterson’s backyard. There were folding chairs. Jack’s pinewood box was decorated with white flowers and his favorite chew toys.

It was an exemplary summer day. The East Texas sky was powder blue. A suffocating 103 degrees. It didn’t look like a day for a funeral. It looked like a day to sit beside an inground pool and guzzle something cold and potent.

Most attendees were neighbors. They were all ages. Some brought refreshments. Others brought pound cakes or cold salads. The whole affair was pretty simple. No frills. Lots of food.

The way Jack would have wanted it.

People took turns sharing memories before the group. An 8-year-old girl cried when she delivered hers.

“Jack used to always steal my food. If I turned away, even for a little bit, my food was gone. My chips, my sandwich or whatever. He ate it. He was so cute.”

“Oh, I remember when Jack escaped once,” said a neighbor woman with grayish

hair and Jackie-O sunglasses.

“I was working in my yard and I saw him fly by. I knew he wasn’t supposed to be out, so my husband and I chased him for a whole mile. When I found him, Jack was digging in a trashcan. That’s my main memory of Jack. Running free.”

A 15-year-old girl was lightly weeping when she shared hers, nervously reading from a page.

“When I was child, Jack saved my life. I fell into my grandma’s swimming pool when I was 4, and he started barking and making noise, and my mom came out and rescued me. I could have died if it wasn’t for Jack.”

That one got everyone sniffing.

Especially Mom.

Mom was closest to Jack. The irony here is, Mom never wanted a dog. She didn’t even like dogs.

That all changed one afternoon when…