Nashville is screamingly busy today. This swollen town almost looks like New York, or L.A. Except for all the out-of-towners in cowboy hats and tennis shoes.

I come from cow-people. We had an expression for folks like this: All hat and no cattle.

I meet a young man from Cleveland, wearing a huge Stetson. He is half tight, enjoying the scenery.

He says, “Everyone’s a cowboy in Nashville, man.”

I am standing on Fifth Avenue. At the Ryman Auditorium. Home of the Opry.

I’m here to pay my respects to an old friend. I drove a long way to be here.

The brick and stone tabernacle is the mother church of country music. And when I say “country,” I mean old country. Not the modern sewage of today. The stuff on the radio today is pure-T carrion. And you can quote me.

The Grand Ole Opry began on November 28, 1925. It was a holy day. Radio host George Hay took the mic. He introduced the maiden broadcast by announcing to the world, off the cuff:

“Ladies and

gentlemen, for the past hour we’ve been listening to music from the Grand Opera, in New York City, but we now present the Grand Ole Opry.”

And the world was never the same.

Those days are gone, however. The Opry is dead. They still do the Opry broadcast at Opryland. But it’s not the same. Think: Disney World with fiddles.

Beside the Ryman, on the sidewalk, is a bronze statue of Loretta Lynn. She’s not far from the statue of Bill Monroe, father of bluegrass. They both played here.

Loretta is posing with her Epiphone Excellente. She’s wearing her Western fringe.

She died a few days ago. And country music lost its matriarch.

She got her first guitar when she was 18. Which sounds young, except it wasn’t. Not for her.

Not when you consider that Loretta was married to an Army…

South Carolina. The distant backroads. I am driving in the deep forest, stuck behind an asthmatic pickup.

The truck is a ‘78 Ford. F-100. Two-tone. Brown and vanilla. Five liter engine. Probably a three-speed manual. I know this because my old man drove the same truck.

The Ford travels 49 mph. The driver is in no hurry. His arm is hanging out the window. And I’m transfixed by his license plate.

The South Carolina license tag has a motto printed on it. The motto is located at the top, in white text. Just beside the $640 registration sticker.

“While I breathe, I hope,” says the adage.

I’ve never known a more beautifully optimistic state motto. Especially when you consider some of the other state mottos.

Such as North Carolina’s motto: “Esse quam videri,” which means, literally, “To be, rather than to seem.” Which sounds like the Walmart version of a Bill Shakespeare quote.

California’s motto is one word: “Eureka!” Idaho’s is, “Let it be perpetual.” Florida’s state motto is: “Ask about our grandkids.”

But I like the

Carolina license plate slogan. Namely, because it’s been a hard year for me. Exactly 365 days ago, the doctor thought I had cancer.

I went through a long miniseries of misery, only to find out that I’m okay.

Still, the year itself was double, double toil and trouble. Within that year, I lost six friends to the C-word. And one to suicide. I thought I was going to have a nervous breakdown.

But here I am, 12 months later, driving South Carolinian backroads. My dog is in the passenger seat. The sun is blaring through the windshield. Kris Kristofferson is singing on a staticky AM station.

I am still alive. And the Eighth State couldn’t look any nicer.

It’s funny. I've always heard South Carolina is an arrestingly gorgeous place. But until today, I’ve only visited the touristy destinations. I’m like any other…

Somewhere in South Carolina. A rundown seafood joint. The kind of place that serves oysters on the half shell.

I’m sitting at the bar, eating Captain’s Wafers, waiting for my food.

The view is astounding. The salt marshes go on for miles, only interrupted by the sabal palms.

The beer is cheap, and cold enough to crack your fillings. The cocktail sauce is free.

The woman behind the bar looks happy tonight. She is late-middle-aged, and silver haired. She missing more than a few teeth. But it doesn’t affect her beauty. She bounces behind the bar with springy feet.

I finally ask, “Why are you so happy?”

She leans onto the bar. “Guess,” she says.

“You won the powerball?”

She shakes her head. “Guess again.”

“You’re pregnant?”

She laughs. “Honey, that ship sailed a long dadgum time ago.”

Only she doesn’t say “dadgum.”

“I’m happy,” she says, “‘cause I’m gonna graduate.”

“Graduate from what?”

“High school. My daughter and I just took the GED test. And we passed it. Passed it clean.”

The woman looks at me and smiles a her tooth at me. And I’m smiling my less-than-optimal dental

work at her, too.

Because, you see, sitting before her is a guy who was a dropout, just like her.

“I got pregnant when I was in ninth grade,” she goes on. “Parents kicked me out, I had to start working. But I ain’t sorry. I got a good daughter out of the deal, I married a dadgum good man.

“When you’re a kid, it’s easy to drop out. Your little teenage brain only thinks about the here and now. If only I had listened to the adults in my life.”

I nod. Because I’m picking up what she’s laying down.

“But, hey, I don’t regret my life choices,” she adds. “They made me who I am today.”

Another nod from the choir.

She uses a church key to pop…

Savannah, Georgia. I am walking upon 300-year-old cobblestone streets with my coonhound.

It’s perfect October weather. This antiquated downtown is a trip inside page 124 of your grade-school American history textbook.

Yes, this town is touristy. It’s a little gaudy in some places, sure. It’s pretentious, certainly.

Yes. There are hordes of eccentric art-school students walking around, wearing clothing that looks like it was made expressly from repurposed Wonderbread sacks.

But this town is also heartstoppingly gorgeous. And it’s one of my favorite American cities. Hands down.

It’s Savannah.

My dog’s name is Marigold. Marigold is blind. She walks beside me on the cobblestones, taking it all in.

People stop and stare at her because she bumps into things a lot.

We stop at an outdoor cafe for supper. I figure this joint must accept dogs because it’s Savannah.

The hostess is a woman who is wound tightly and probably needs regular fiber supplementation. She asks how many are in my party.

“Two,” I say.

She tells me—not politely—that she needs to ask her manager about my canine date. I tell her Marigold is a

blind dog who needs assistance. I’m Marigold’s “Seeing Eye” human.

The woman just looks at me.

The hostess returns bearing the grim news. “You can’t bring a dog in here.”

I thank the woman, sincerely, and tell her that I’ve been kicked out of much nicer joints than this.

My dog and I keep walking the old streets. But I’m not fazed by rejection. I’m an author. My whole life is fraught with rejection. I get rejected four or five times each day whether I need it or not.

We finally arrive at another outdoor cafe. This hostess is much friendlier. She says Marigold is welcome to sit in the outdoor dining area as long as she doesn’t chew or pee on anything.

I order a turkey and Swiss on sourdough. I order a burger…

Sunup. I am walking the mostly empty streets of Apalachicola. This is where the mighty Apalachicola River meets the Gulf of Mexico, then spills its unrestricted beauty in all directions.

Apalachicola. Tourists have a hard time saying the name at first. But after a few beers, they eventually get it right.

The town’s name comes from the Apalachicoli Tribe. They were a branch of the lower Creek tribe. Now they are all gone.

I am told their language was never recorded. So nobody knows what they sounded like. Nobody heard the melodies of their voices made.

Once upon a time, this town was the third busiest port in Florida. A lot of money was made here by some very important old men with walrus mustaches and formal hats.

Which is why this town is full of old buildings that are constantly being restored, touched up, retrofitted, renovated, re-bolstered, repainted.

The effect is dazzling. It only takes you three minutes in Apalach to realize this isn’t the Florida you see on TV. This is a history book.

There is

nowhere else on the globe like Appalach. Certainly nowhere in the state of Florida.

Florida is a different bird, you see. Out-of-towners don’t understand us. They’ll never understand us.

Florida is the only state wherein the farther north you travel, the further South you go. Florida is the catch-all drawer of the United States.

We have it all here. We are Cubans. We are Georgians. We are Alabamians. We are red and yellow Black and white. We are fun. We are weird. We are slap crazy.

And Apalachicola is one of those Floridian rarities history will never see again. It’s unique unto itself.

It’s shrimp trawlers, faded Queen Anne homes, churches with bells that actually ring, and palm trees older that mud.

I’m walking in silence. Most people aren’t out at this time of morning. Except for a few of us dog-walkers,…

I am sitting at a bar in Port Saint Joe. It’s a dark place. It smells like onion rings and Miller Lite. I might be mistaken, but I believe there are dartboards here. Waylon Jennings is singing.

It’s hard to believe this town used to be the largest city in Florida. Once upon a time, in 1838, this little place had 12,000 people and, amazingly, only one McDonald’s.

This was where the Florida constitution was first penned. That’s how important this town was.

They don’t teach us stuff like that in history class anymore.

There is a guy at the bar beside me. He’s from Chicago. He’s here for leisure. He is a columnist, like me. Except this man is pretty famous for writing political rants online. He is incognito this week.

I have never met another columnist in a bar. Let alone a famous one. What are the odds?

We did the whole “what do you do?” thing, and we figured out that we were both writers.

The difference is that he writes for huge newspapers and

drives a Benz. Whereas my career is still undetermined. I write for small-town papers and I drive 22-year-old Ford.

Even so, I’m not unsatisfied with my life. I have a good dog and most of my original teeth.

The man has never been to this town before. Florida is my home state. I grew up just two counties over. So I welcome him and tell him he’s picked the right time to visit.

October on the Gulf Coast is the season when—any meteorologist will tell you this—all the tourists go home.

I have spent many an October in Gulf County. This place has changed over the years, but it hasn’t changed too much. The fishing is still good. The barbecue is still stellar. The beer still flows like the mighty Apalachicola.

The famous man asks what my favorite part of Port Saint…

Dearly beloved, thank you for coming today, friends, colleagues, and well-wishers. Thank you Lyle, and Holly, for putting on such a marvelous spread. I just wanted to share a few words.

Let us not forget that we are gathered here to remember a good woman. Maybe one of the best. Perhaps THE best. She was old Florida. She was an artist. She was beautiful.

(Speech notes to self: Enunciate your words. Do not mumble. Make sure your fly is up.)

You know, it’s weird. When I was first asked to say something about my friend, Sherry Sandquist, for her celebration-of-life service, I couldn’t come up with words to say.

Which is remarkable inasmuch as you’re looking at a guy who has diarrhea of the mouth. When I was a kid, my mother said I could talk the paint off a fire hydrant.

On my first day of second grade, for example, the teacher had to move me around the classroom six times.


She later told my parents that “Sean is a very nice boy, but

his mouth never stops moving.”

I was an average kid. A straight-C student. But when it came to incessant talking I was without peer. Each one of my childhood report cards—every single one—explained that “Sean talks too much.”

And yet I am unable to find anything to say about one of my best friends for her final memorial.

Namely, because where would you start? What do you say about your friend while her whole family is staring at you? Where do you find the words?

Here you are. You’re behind a microphone. Your hands are clammy. Your chest starts to pound. And you’re about to crumble beneath the limelight.

Then, suddenly, you recall something the doctor said in third grade. He said you have a condition called “vasovagal syncope.” A prevailing medical condition wherein episodes of extreme nervousness can cause you to black out…