Somewhere in Kansas. I'm in town for a funeral. The ceremony is in a few hours. I stopped by this breakfast joint to meet someone. The place is packed with old men.

A gaggle of old guys sit at the bar, wearing cowboy hats. One wears an oxygen cannula and a John Deere cap. Another Stetson man is sawing his chicken-fried steak with a forty-inch stag handled pocketknife.

I’m immediately struck with the fact that this place is crawling with tough guys. Really tough ones.

I can’t help but marvel at what a wimp I am compared to the grizzled men of yesteryear. I am nothing like these old birds. They have sawdust and 10W-30 running through their vascular systems. Me? I handle sentences for a living, and I watch “Steel Magnolias” twice per year whether I need it or not.

I hold the door open for more weathered cattlemen who enter. The bell over the door dings. I wish I could take a picture of them all because they look like illustrations from a

Louis L’Amour novel.

When it’s my turn the waitress approaches and asks where I’d like to sit. I tell her that I’m meeting somebody and that I’d love a booth.

“Sure thing, hon,” she says. “Got plenty’a booths.”

The waitress puts me in a seat facing the parking lot and keeps me full of caffeine while I wait, sip, and think about the solemn ceremony ahead. I will be a pallbearer today.

After a few minutes I hear a rumbling noise. I look through the plate glass window to see a monster Ford dually charging through the parking lot. The herculean F-450 nearly takes out six Nissans, two Mazdas, and one Prius, chugging like a nuclear locomotive through a Steinway factory.

All the cowboys have paused eating to watch this giant truck make its matinee entrance.

The truck parks. The door opens. Out from the…

It is dark. Early morning. I pull my airport rental car to the curb and throw the gear shift into park. I am hoping nobody will think I am a weirdo, parking in this residential area before sunrise.

I look out my windshield at the nondescript house and keep my eyes on the garage door. It has been a lifetime since I’ve been here. Many lifetimes, actually. I almost didn’t come this morning.

But I had to see this place. In fact, as soon as my plane landed it was all I could think about. I couldn’t sleep last night, I tossed and wallowed in my sheets.

So I got up early, before the hotel staff started serving the systematic hell they call “continental breakfast,” I crawled into my rental, and I followed empty highways until they led me here.

Parkville, Missouri, is a small town. There are about five thousand living in Parkville proper. There are antique shops, galleries, a little historic downtown. It’s your quintessential American hamlet.

The town was founded

in 1836, and was originally called “English Landing,” it was once a port on the Missouri River for tobacco and hemp. Today, I’m told it’s the kind of place where old guys from the American Legion chew the fat and tell flagrant lies about the fish they’ve caught.

My father ended his own life in Parkville. He did the horrible deed in his brother’s house. Nobody saw it coming. They found his body in my uncle’s garage. And the sad irony is, if you’d known my father, you’d know that he probably chose the garage so he wouldn’t make a mess inside the house.

Strangely, my father talked to me on the phone only minutes before he pulled the trigger. He said he loved me. It was just a casual call, and it was a nonchalant “I love you.” The words were said the same way he…

ATLANTA—I don’t do big cities. But if you were to force me to pick my favorite American city, I wouldn’t pick one because I don’t like being forced to do anything.

My mother used to “force” me to eat tapioca pudding as a kid, the texture reminded me of snot and I refused to eat it because I couldn’t understand how the same advanced civilization that gave us bacon came up with mucus pudding.

But if you were to ask me nicely to pick a favorite major American city, maybe I would pick Atlanta. Because I have history here.

Right now I am thinking warm fuzzy thoughts about this city because I am standing in a 32-mile long line in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, awaiting airport security to strip search me.

We in the crowd of air passengers have been dutifully removing our belts, earrings, shoes, dentures, and insulin pumps, waiting to get past the Transportation Security checkpoint and board the plane. But I just tripped the metal detector for the second time, which

is a lot like winning the lottery.

A friendly veteran TSA representative informs me that she is eager to help me through the frisking process. “Halt and put your hands where I can see them, sir,” she says in a helpful voice. “Now.”

So I have plenty of time to remember things during this moment. Things like, for instance, gag-inducing tapioca.

And while I’m being fondled by TSA, I’m also thinking about the days when the Atlanta Journal Constitution was the highlight of my life, back when newspapers were still newspapers.

We lived in Atlanta for a hot minute when I was a boy, and I loved the AJC newspaper. Each morning I would be the first to retrieve the news. My uncle thought this was hysterical, a kid fetching the paper.

“That’s a pretty good trick, Fido,” he’d say. “How about I teach you to…

The Smallest Church in America sits in McIntosh County, Georgia, about forty minutes south of Savannah, just off Interstate Exit 67.

The ten-by-fifteen cinderblock structure is tucked in the deepwoods, nestled among miles of kudzu. There is a steel cross mounted on the roof. A flagpole out front clangs gently in a faint breeze.

I pull into the parking lot alongside a lone rusty truck with a camper shell. In the front passenger seat of the idling truck is a boy, clutching a stuffed animal.

The vehicle is loaded with junk. Lots of junk. And through the camper shell windows I can see a made-up mattress with some pillows. It looks like someone is living in this vehicle.

I wave to the boy. He waves back. He looks Latino, maybe four or five years old.

I approach the tiny church only to find someone seated inside. It’s a woman. Her head is in her hands. She must be the boy's mother. I suddenly feel awkward about invading someone’s privacy so I turn to walk back

to my vehicle and give her space.

But when the woman hears my feet make noise she shoots up from her seat. She quickly makes the Sign of the Cross in the doorway before leaving the building.

When we pass each other I can see she is Latina, like the kid, with delicate features, caramel skin, and midnight hair. I can also see that she is young. And she has a black eye.

I am no expert, but black eyes don’t usually appear without outside help.

“Hi,” I say to her.

The woman smiles nervously. She’s missing a front tooth, too. And I notice her bottom lip is split open.

“Hello,” she says with a heavy Spanish accent. “Sorry I take so long.”

“No hay bronca,” I say.

I learned this phrase from Alejandro, my former construction coworker and beer-swilling protege. The phrase is Mexican…

Coastal Georgia. It was dark and rainy when we pulled into the tourist-trap restaurant parking lot with 4,236 other cars. We were running on fumes, we were low on calories. We’d been on a highway for six hours, our stomachs were empty.

All evening we’d been hunting a place to eat, but everywhere was slammed with tourists. Each local restaurant had one-, two-, or three-hour wait times. This particular seafood joint only had a 25-minute wait.

I gave the hostess my name. The perky high-school-age girl added us to the list and told us we would have to wait outside. But there was a big problem with this.

“It’s raining,” I said.

Although the word “raining” would be putting it mildly. It was Hurricane Hugo out there. Furthermore, this restaurant had no covered porch or outdoor shelter. Only a dirt parking lot.

“Why can’t we wait inside?” I asked.

She shook her head. “We don’t allow people to wait inside, sir. Ain’t enough room for the servers. If you wanna give me your cell phone number, I’ll call you when your table’s ready.”

I pointed to the empty bar at the rear of the restaurant. “Can’t we just sit at the bar and wait?”

A second head shake. “Bar’s closed. You’re not allowed to sit there.”

“You won’t even know we’re there.”


I turned to look at the Old Testament rainshower outside the window. A sudden clap of thunder exploded, shaking the windows and dimming the lights.

“You’re actually going to turn us out into the driving rain?”

The hostess reached behind her lectern and handed me a plastic-covered menu. “Maybe you can use this as an umbrella?”

She was all heart.

So my wife and I raced back to our car, through the muddy parking lot, clomping through hip-deep puddles. After waiting 25 minutes in our front seat I had received no phone calls.

I charged inside to…

Hey, Jackie. Congrats on being born last Tuesday. Welcome to Earth, kid. Your mother says you tipped the scale at nine pounds and nine ounces. Please allow me to be the first to say: Dang.

You’re a big boy and you haven’t even discovered carbohydrates yet.

Your mother also told me she named you after Jack Roosevelt Robinson, the baseball player who scored 947 runs, had 1,518 hits, and stole 197 bases over 10 seasons. Robinson embodied the American spirit and revolutionized the game. I, for one, think it was a fine choice for a name.

And a good name is important in this world because a name sticks with you. A name outlives you. Sometimes in life it will seem as though your name is all you have left.

But anyway, the reason I’m writing to you, Jackie, is because when your mother emailed yesterday she sounded pretty blue.

Your mom said your family situation is not ideal. Many of your immediate family members have left the picture, and your biological

father is absent.

“I feel like I have no family,” wrote your mother. “Like we’re all alone and nobody cares about us.”

So even though you are still in the maternity ward, and have therefore yet to receive a valid tax-ID (EIN) or accumulate any credit history, there are some things I want to tell you. Things I have learned in my short life. So I’ll quit wasting your time and cut to the car chase:

Your mother is wrong.

She is not alone. Neither are you. You both have a very real family. And it’s an exponentially big one, too. You just don’t know it yet.

Listen to me. Family is not DNA and it has nothing to do with your gene pool. It's not about biological traits, sharing a last name, or having the same predisposition toward high LDL. Your family is people who love you,…

The first guitar songs I learned to play were crying songs. They were the only songs I liked as a kid. Back then, 99 percent of the country music genre was comprised of sad songs that caused grown men to weep into their malt beverages. Crying songs.

It was my uncle John who taught me to play my first crying song. After my father died, my uncle John parked his RV at the edge of our land and lived beside us. He needed a free place to crash; I had no father. So it was a win-win.

Within his dank RV he doled out my nightly music lessons. I learned to pick six strings beneath his tutelage, I learned how to handle tunes like “Faded Love.”

Sometimes John would stay up until one in the morning, fueled only by caffeine and his big heart, teaching me the workings of the fretboard. To the untrained eye it looked like we were practicing music, but really he was helping

me grieve.

It was John who helped me find the nicest instrument I would ever own from the wall of a dingy pawn shop. He negotiated with the stogie-chewing clerk until we got a “sweet deal” on a battered Gibson B-15 model, 1968 guitar. Truthfully, the guitar was glorified firewood, but to me it was twenty-four karat.

John haggled like a horse trader until he’d whittled the pawnbroker down to his penultimate dollar. They shook hands. I dug into my pocket and placed a pile of crumpled cash on the counter. John immediately removed a ten-dollar bill from my money stack and said, “My commission.”

One time we went to Branson together. My uncle and my mother treated me to a non-stop week of country music and Dolly Parton impersonators. We must have visited every opry theater and playhouse in town.

Throughout each live performance, Uncle John would make wisecracks, trying his best…

DESTIN, Fla.—I’m in a traffic jam. Standstill. Cars are backed up to the horizon. I am stuck among them, trapped on Highway 98, suffocating within a cloud of blue exhaust and unspeakable misery.

We are moving at 0.002 miles per hour. I look out my window and see a gopher turtle crawling past my truck.

Our town has been having bad traffic lately, ever since the city began highway construction shortly after the Civil War. There are a million-and-one orange construction barrels located on our roadways. And these barrels keep multiplying.

At night when everyone sleeps I’m convinced these barrels all get together and have wild parties and reproduce lots of little baby construction barrels.

The powers that be told residents these highway “upgrades” would be finished a few years ago, but things keep getting pushed back. Currently the Florida Department of Transportation does not expect current upgrades to be finished until the installation of the next pope.

Thousands of years from now, when Florida’s coastline is underwater, archaeologists will find

millions of petrified automobiles still stuck in Destin gridlock, miles beneath the Gulf, awaiting the completion of upgrades.

Most of the vehicles in today’s congestion belong to summer tourists. Such as the flock of Range Rovers Autographs ahead of me with Georgia plates. A few of these motorists strike me as the uppity type because they occasionally glance at my rusted, ugly Ford and wince.

Something also tells me they aren’t crazy about my bumper sticker, which reads: “You mess with me and you mess with the whole trailer park.”

It’s hard to believe our town used to be a sleepy village, complete with captivating trailer parks. But there was indeed a time when Destin had about 7,500 full-time residents, and one small grocery store that played Hank Snow on the radio.

Today, the summer population here swells to somewhere between 40,000 and 60,000. And I firmly believe that…

There are about 5,240 folks living in the town of Brewton. Although last week someone had twins. So now there are more.

This township has all the things you look for in the quintessential American hamlet. A Pic-N-Save supermarket. Barbecue joints. Muddy trucks parked outside the attorney's office. The occasional stray dog hanging by the mill.

The train tracks run parallel with Highway 31, which means that diesel locomotives roll right through the downtown like they own the place. On Douglas Avenue storefronts still line the street like they did when Woodrow Wilson called the shots. There are flowers everywhere.

But Brewton’s masterstroke, if you ask me, is not its clapboard churches, or the begonias on the main drag. Neither is this town’s glory found in its rainbow row of antique and Greek Revivial homes on Belleville, nor its citywide devotion to jayvee sports.

The magnificence of Brewton lies over on Lee Street inside a nondescript brick restaurant.

The humble eatery sits between a vacant lot and a welding shop, almost invisible

if you’re not looking for it. There is an American flag flying out front. A few potted plants.

This place is named Drexel & Honeybee’s Donations Only Restaurant, it is owned and operated by Lisa Thomas-McMillian and Freddie McMillian.

This afternoon I swung open the café’s front door and found myself immediately standing in a line of omnivores, waiting to place my order. When it was my turn I approached the buffet sneeze-guard and was confronted with the kind of food my mother cooked.

The woman behind the counter filled my plate with ribs, mac and cheese, cabbage, okra, and scalding hot hoe cakes. There was peach cobbler, and the tea was so sweet I had to pray away the type-two diabetes.

I asked how much all this home cooking was going to cost me. They said it was free.

“Donations only,” one volunteer said, pointing to an…

Entering Conecuh County. That’s what the little green sign reads, off Highway 31. I’m heading north, passing through a small sliver of the county. I love Alabama.

A few weeks ago, I was driving to Birmingham, I listened to an audio book. The narrator spoke with an accent like a New Jersey paperboy. He pronounced Conecuh as “Koh-NEE-queue.”

That hurt.

Now entering Butler County. Wingard’s Produce Stand. B&H Cafe. Dollar General. There’s the McKenzie water tower.

And God said, “Let there be kudzu.” I also love kudzu.

I once planted some in my backyard in hopes that one day it would swallow my house. Everything looks better when swallowed in kudzu.

Georgiana is eight miles away. If you’re keeping score, I also love Georgiana. I’ve visited the Hank Williams boyhood home in Georgiana too many times.

Anyone who knows me knows I also love Hank Senior. But then who doesn’t? My affection goes back to childhood. My father’s workbench. A radio. Hank, blaring from a small speaker while he changed the oil in our corral of Fords.

My favorite part

of the Hank museum tour is the underside of the house. A tour guide named Miss Margaret told me Hank used to practice his guitar there.

“It was cool down there,” said Miss Margaret. “He’d sit on an old car bench-seat to avoid the heat.”

Miss Margaret. I loved her, too. I didn’t know much about her except that when I met her she was elderly. Half her face was paralyzed. Her accent sounded like a Camellia garden on the Fourth of July. I remember wishing she would adopt me.

Georgiana also has Kendall’s Barbecue joint. Love it.

Although “Love” is a weak word for Kendall’s. I would tell you more about this place, but someone wrote me an ugly letter once, saying:

“You talk about Alabama barbecue TOO MUCH! I'm from Texas originally before I moved to Alabama… I…