PAXTON—I am driving a U-Haul through the north end of Walton County on the way to Birmingham where we will begin a new chapter in our lives. The sun is setting. The rural parts are covered in tall grass, old trees, and mobile homes.

I lived in this county (past tense) just south of here. When I was a young man, I once got a part-time job helping an elderly preacher who was from Paxton. He needed help around his house. He paid twenty bucks for three hours of labor every weekend.

It was decent money until he asked me to clean his garage. His garage was a titanic abyss of ancient junk. I told him that I would need some help before I would agree to clean it.

So he told me to pray for some, and said if my faith was strong, maybe someone would show up to help. Nobody ever did.

Paxton is the highest town in Florida. It sits 318 feet above sea level, right

on the Alabama line. The highest point in Florida is a couple minutes away.

The place is a perfect example of Northwestern Floridian culture. The same culture I will miss. You have Baptists coming out your ears, and Methodists, and Tongue-Talkers. You see cardboard signs on highway shoulders advertising “free puppies.” A middle-aged man on his porch counting cars.

There are 797 residents in Paxton, unless Sister So-And-So has her baby tonight, then it will be 798.

And do you know what I like about Paxton best? The little country school. They just don’t make them like Paxton School anymore. The school has been here since 1939. In its entire eighty-year-plus history a little over 2,000 students have graduated from it. Total. That’s how small we’re talking.

It’s a thirteen-year school. Kids start in kindergarten and attend until they’re seniors. And they are unbeatable, too. The agricultural program churns out prize-winning…

A backroad somewhere along the Suwannee River. The world was covered in bald cypresses, live oaks and beards of Spanish moss. And I really had to pee.

I had been driving all morning through the Twenty-Seventh State. We are moving this week. These are my last 24 hours as a Floridian, which is almost surreal. Tomorrow my home state will no longer be my home.

My urinary pains were getting worse with each passing mile. Ever since Lake City I had been doing the ceremonial dance of the loaded bladder.

I finally found a gas station tucked in the sticks. It was an old joint with rolling-number pumps, a rusted tin roof, and plywood on some of the windows.

“Here?” said my wife. “You’re stopping here? This place looks like a tetanus farm.”

I hopped out of the car before I could answer.

In front of the station were old men. They were seated in fold-up lawn chairs, chewing the fat. Their caps bore the logos of heavy equipment brands.

Inside, the woman at the counter

looked to be comfortably in her eighties. She wore cat-eye glasses á la 1959, and I could smell the unmistakable scent of Opium perfume my granny used to wear. She was in a rocking chair, reading a “Woman’s World” magazine with her non-smoking hand.

“Do you have a bathroom?” I asked.

I was jogging in place.

She adjusted her hearing aid. “Huh?”

“A bathroom,” I said. “It’s urgent.”

“A what?”

“Bath. Room. Please.”

The woman moved about as quickly as a semester of veterinary school. She took her sweet time digging behind the counter while my bladder swelled to the size of a football.

Finally, she gave me a key with a Ford hubcap attached to the chain and sternly told me to bring it back when I finished. I smiled at her and tried to imagine a world where a man would steal…

Palatka sits on the Saint Johns River, the longest river in Florida. I’m sitting at the river’s edge, eating lunch, watching the seagulls beg for my bread crust.

“It’s not polite to beg,” I tell the gulls.

They simply stare at me with sad eyes because deep in their little bird hearts they know I’m right.

On the shore is an old guy, fishing. He has a white beard down to his navel. He is shirtless. He looks exactly like a Biblical prophet would look if that prophet had also been a founding member of ZZ Top.

The man waves at me. And even though I don’t know this man from Adam’s stepson, I wave back.

“How’re you today?” he says.

“Fine. You?”

“I’d be a lot better if they were biting!” he says.

Then he casts.

And basically, I’ve just described Palatka in a nutshell. Friendly. Small. Nice. Lots of fishing.

Palatka proper is behind me, brilliant in the noon sun, painted with the vivid pinks of a million azaleas. The brick edifices look the way they did 150 years ago.

The bell in the First Presbyterian church rings out a tune. And the town is overrun with walkers. Which I find absolutely wonderful.

You don’t see people walking much anymore. And yet that’s how America used to be. People walked everywhere. These days, however, if you walk as a means of transportation you take your life into your hands.

If you don’t believe me, just take a stroll to your local Walmart on foot. You’ll have to hop eight lanes of traffic, jog across 23 culverts, and dodge at least 450 sleep-deprived truck drivers. By the time you get to Wally World you will be out of breath, covered in mud, and suffering PTSD.

But in Palatka you still see people walking.

“You from around here?” asks ZZ Top, cranking his reel.

“No sir,” I say.

Back to…

The old man in the crowded hotel dining room was wearing dual hearing aids. He smiled and greeted me with a voice that was loud enough to change the migratory patterns of geese.

“You can sit by me!” he said, patting the seat.

Truthfully, I did not want to sit next to this loud guy—I didn’t want to sit next to anyone. But I had no choice. There were no available tables because the room was overrun with a girl’s soccer team.

Hell hath no fury like a girl’s soccer team attacking a continental breakfast bar.

The teenage girls were noisy, fidgety, and flinging complimentary fruit at one another, achieving incredible distances with their cantaloupe wedges.

The team’s adult chaperones wore weary looks on their faces, expressions which seemed to say: “Point me to the nearest liquor store, please?”

So I sat beside the old man. I was tired. I was uncaffeinated. I was not ready for a conversation with a stranger. I tried to send him a “leave me alone” message nonverbally. But the message was not received.

“Hey, pal, wanna hear something funny?” he said.

I looked at the man. I was definitely not in the mood for funny. Even so, I am the child of quiet evangelical fundamentalists; expressing disagreement is not in my repertoire.

“Sure,” I said.

He leaned in and said, “I have really bad gas.”

I stopped chewing. “I’m sorry?”

“Gas,” he said. “I have bad gas. I just had to tell someone.”

I looked around the room. This had to be a prank. Allen Funt and his camera crew must have been lurking around here somewhere.

But it was no joke. The old man told the entire story:

He was chaperoning his granddaughter to soccer camp. Last night, as soon as they checked into this hotel, he developed severe chest pains. He laid on his bed but the agony became worse so that…

I was late for a plane when I saw him. The freckled kid was in uniform. Operational camouflage combat fatigues. Reverse-flag patch on his right shoulder. High and tight haircut.

He was standing on the sidewalk outside the airport. His mother was beside him, straightening his collar. His little sister was there, too. So was his dad.

The young man was carrying a backpack the size of a Frigidare, the thing must have weighed a few metric tons. He was vaping from an e-cigarette nervously.

I could tell by everyone’s body language that this was farewell.

Mama stood three feet shorter than her boy. She stared upward into his young eyes and the expression on her face was mournful.

“You got everything, baby?” she said.

He might be on Uncle Sam’s payroll, but to her, he’s still “baby.”

“I packed sandwiches in your bag,” said Mama. “It’s a long trip, be sure to eat, need to keep your energy up.”

“Yes ma’am.”

Dad jumped in. “How long of a flight is it?”

“Six hours for the first half,” said the soldier.

Little Sister spoke up.

“I’ll miss you. I don’t know what I’m gonna do without you.”

He nodded solemnly, but offered nothing heartfelt in return. In fact, his side of the whole conversation was about as emotionally charged as a scoop of coleslaw.

Dad said, “Just keep your head down and your nose clean.”

Funny. American dads have been using this exact phrase since dads wore knee breeches and carried muskets to PTA meetings. Head down, nose clean. Here it is 2022, and dads are still saying it. Don’t tell me this isn’t a great country.

Dad clapped his son on the shoulder. “You’re gonna be fine.”

“We’re so proud’a you,” said Mama.

“I love you,” said Sister.

Once the soldier finished sucking on his vape pen, he gave Mama one final hug. Then he stooped to embrace Sister.…

I knocked on the manager’s office door. The voice said, “It’s open,” so I walked in.

I was a teenager, unattractive, and a little unkempt. I looked about as fitting in this franchise bookstore as a muddy goat at a wedding.

Also, I was an introvert, which made job interviews almost as hard as it was talking to girls. The only way to know if an introvert boy is romantically interested in you is whether he looks at your shoes instead of his.

“Yes?” the bookstore manager said. “What can I do for you?”

“I’m here about the, ah, job.”

The man put on his glasses and looked at me. “YOU?”

His exact words.

The manager gave me a belittling smirk. I could read his mind. In his eyes I was white trash. I could tell by the look on his face that this was going to be the interview from hell.

I handed him my application; that little sheet of paper that devalues your entire life into pathetic, one-word responses.

My application was garbage. At age

17 I was a dropout. I had only ever worked grunt jobs, swinging hammers or salting French fries. I had shaggy hair and wrinkled clothes. I was wearing a button-down shirt bought from a local thrift store.

In fact, I was such a regular at my local thrift store that store employees knew me by name and often gave me free stuff. Usually, they gave me free books. Mountains of free books. They knew I was a lover of the printed word. Books were all I had. Books were my closest friends.

“So why do YOU want to work in a bookstore?” the manager said.

“Um,” I began. “‘Cause I heard you give discounts on books.”

He tossed my application into a tray and laughed. “You must be really into comic books, huh?”

“No, sir.”

“Your application says you dropped out of school.”

The young woman in the supermarket was pushing the buggy lazily through Aisle Five. She was wearing extremely short shorts, flip flops, and she was extraordinarily pregnant. Her hair was piled atop her head, no makeup. She looked maybe 15.

A young man was with her. He, too, was young. He was built like a junior high-schooler, painted in billions of tattoos, wearing work boots.

“Can we get Pop Tarts, Gerald?” she said. “I love Pop Tarts, don’t you like them?”

“I don’t give a [bleep] about Pop Tarts, Nadeen,” Gerald said. “What the [bleep] do I care about Pop Tarts? I’m not wasting our [bleeping] money on Pop Tarts. We have more important stuff to buy.”

Thus it was, she returned the strawberry Pop Tarts to the shelf. And she pushed the buggy, following her young man through the aisles.

“Oh, Gerald, I don’t see what the big deal is, I love them, can’t we buy some?”

“Hell to the no,” said the great poet of our time. “What’choo think I am, made of cash?” He cussed again.

“All you do is spend, spend. Ain’t taking you shopping with me no more ‘cause you buy everything. Now push that cart over here, there’s a sale on peanut butter.”

I hate to be nosy, but it’s a gift. So I followed this couple. Whenever they looked in my direction, I pretended to be studying at the ingredients on a Marshmallow Fluff jar label.

The girl absently placed a hand on her belly and said, “Do you think we should name her April, since she’s gonna be born in April?”

“No [bleeping] way,” said the Bard. “We agreed on naming her Meredith, after my mom, don’t you like that name?”

She smiled. “I guess, but it sounds so… So old ladyish.”

“Don’t say that to my mom,” said Gerald. “She’s been depressed about getting old now that she’s 38.”

When they…