I am turning off Interstate 76 onto two-lane highways that cut across the countryside of Adams County, Pennsylvania. It’s remote out here. Think wheat fields and ramshackle barns. I’m visiting Gettysburg National Cemetery today, but it feels like I’m traveling toward the earth’s edge.

I am accompanied by loud thundering noises.

A convoy of deafening Harleys, classics, scramblers, and Softails rush past my vehicle. The pack leader looks like Dennis Hopper gone to seed. He gives me a two-fingered salute then tests the limits of the known sound barrier.

It was bike week here in Gettysburg. Swarms of motorcycles gathered in this nationally important borough to honor our history by having daily poker runs, tattoo contests, bike shows, chrome parades, burn outs, and of course, bikini contests.

One local merchant says, “The bikers are real polite and all, but I wish them ladies would put on more clothes. Some gals are way too old to be ‘advertising the goods,’ if you know what I mean.”

I enter the park, drive

around for several minutes, and finally find a parking spot between two custom choppers that cost more than my house.

At first glance, Gettysburg National Military Park feels like any other national park. Lots of kids in oversized sunglasses. Middle-aged people in white sneakers. Young parents pushing strollers, food stains on their crumpled clothes, wearing looks of metaphysical exhaustion. And of course, bikers.

But in many ways this park is unlike any other. Not only is this the resting place of 6,000 veterans from the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, both World Wars, the Korean War, and Vietnam, this is a battleground where more than 150,000 soldiers clashed during the War Between the States. Where 10,000 were killed and mortally wounded.

When they transformed this place into a cemetery, Abraham Lincoln attended its dedication and gave a little speech you probably heard about.

The Lincoln Address Memorial stands front and…

I am standing in a long line with every single tourist in Philadelphia. It’s hot. Humid. I am sweating through my drawers.

There must be hundreds of us here, loitering in the heat, waiting outside Jim’s South Street to buy a Philly cheesesteak. Every time our line starts to move forward, it turns out to be a false alarm and we actually end up shuffling backward, a little closer to West Virginia.

I hate lines. I detest them. But part of the human condition is to wait in lines. Lines are what we do. You visit post offices, airports, DMVs, funeral homes, you’re going to stand in lines. After you die you will wait in line to enter the pearly gates. Please have a valid photo ID and two forms of identification ready.

Nevertheless, I am a dutiful tourist, and all tourists visit Jim’s.

“You gotta eat a cheesesteak at Jim's!” is what the Philadelphians tell you. And I’m sure they’re right. But they forget to explain that the line of tourists outside Jim’s is longer

than the line to the women’s restroom at a Mary Kay convention.

Even so. Here I am.

I’ve had a great time in Philly over these last days. Not only have I learned some history and seen pretty things, but I have received substantial parking tickets and almost totaled my rental car thrice.

The highpoint of my expedition was definitely the historic walking tour, led by a guy named Casey.

Casey made my whole Philly visit worth it. If you ever take a historic tour here, get Casey to be your guide. He’s a high-school teacher by day, historian by night. He’s the kind of down-to-earth guy who doesn’t just expertly tell the story of Philadelphia, but he also does the voices.

Casey had me laughing, reflecting, nodding thoughtfully, and constantly thinking to myself: “I hope the police don’t put a boot on my…

Somewhere in Philadelphia. The breakfast joint is packed this morning. I’ve been on the road for several days. I’m running dangerously low on saturated fat. I coasted into the City of Brotherly Offensive Driving on fumes. I need steak and eggs. Stat.

I slide into a booth. I’m carrying a paperback mystery novel and my reading glasses.

I always travel with paperbacks because you never know when you’re going to be stuck waiting somewhere. Like right now.

I am waiting for my server to notice me. There is only one waitress in this crowded joint, and she is currently dealing with a thousand-and-one tables. So I read.

The waitress finally approaches my table, she looks tired. She is lean and her wiry arms are covered in intricate tattoos.

“Choo readin’?” she asks.

I put the book down. “Oh, it’s a mystery.”

“So, you sayin’ I gotta guess?”

“No, I mean it’s a mystery novel.”

She nods, then removes her pen. “Well, how about your order? That a mystery, too? Or are you gonna hurry up and tell me?”

This is exactly why I visit

diners. Nobody banters like this in franchise restaurants. In fact, in most fast food joints they don’t even have the courtesy to smile at you after they spit in your food.

I order a T-bone-and-eggs plate and a coffee. That’s when the real show begins. My waitress calls my order to the kitchen using genuine Philadelphia diner speak. Which sounds something like:

“Yo! Pull a cow bone! Drop a hash! Three eggs bullseye, and I want’em lookin’ at me! Burn a couple shingles, grease the trousers, light up the pig, and gimme a cup’a mud!”

She returns to me. She rests an arm on my booth seat. “So what’s it about?”


“Your book, Sherlock, what’s the big [bleeping] mystery?”

“Well, it’s complicated. And I don’t want to spoil it for you in case you read…

Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is nothing but cornfields, barns, and grain silos. Amish buggies periodically clop down the old roads. The four-beat gaits of the high-stepping strutters sounds like overwound metronomes.

Tonight I’m attending a garden party in the country. Before the guests arrive, I’m helping with odd jobs, setting up tables, loading coolers. My work partner this evening is 82-year-old Miss Annie.

You’d like Miss Annie. Everyone does. She is a woman who tells me upfront that she can see angels.

“Really?” I reply.

“Oh, yes. Mmm hmm. Angels.”

Miss Annie weighs maybe 90 pounds soaking wet. She wears an Amish head covering, a long black skirt, and Teddy Roosevelt glasses. She was Amish for most of her life, and it shows. Her voice has a Germanic lilt. She speaks in a singsong way. Like a Bach prelude minus the organ.

“Actual angels?” I say, stocking a cooler. “You don’t mean the ones in Los Angeles?”

“Real angels. Mmm hmm. Yes. I see them.”

“What do they look like?”

“Like angels.”


“Oh, yes.”

“Long white bathrobes?”

“Mmm hmm.”

All afternoon she

has been saying things like this. You never know what she’s going to say or do next. Earlier, for instance, radio music was playing and Miss Annie put down her broom, lifted the hem of her skirt, and began to buck dance. I haven’t seen a woman buck dance since my granny died.

“I have always loved to dance,” she says. “When I was sixteen, we Amish kids would sneak off and have barn dances. We would dance all night long to records.

“Oh, I loved it. When someone’s parents would find us, we’d run and hide in the fields. But it was fun.”

Miss Annie lived in the Amish community from the end of the Great Depression until ‘94, after her husband died. When she decided to leave the Amish she was in her mid-fifties.

She was…

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Today is an overcast day, 40-percent chance of rain, the sky is the color of corroded aluminum. And I am walking on a section of the Appalachian Trail.

I want to stress that I am not hiking. I am merely walking. There is a major difference. Hiking is what people with bulbous, muscular calves do. Walking is what out-of-shape guys with fixed 30-year mortgages do.

I am reminded of this fundamental difference every few seconds when college kids pass me on the trail. They carry backpacks that are roughly the size of Honda Civics, and these kids aren’t even remotely short of breath. That’s hiking.

“We’re hiking the whole trail,” says one college guy who wears a bushy beard. He and his pals started hiking in Georgia, and have completed 1,025 miles. When they began, there were 11 in their party. There are three left.

“It was a lot harder than we thought,” he explains. “A whole lot harder.”

I don’t see any of his friends nearby, I ask where everyone

is. He tells me that few can tolerate the stink from his lack of bathing. And he’s not joking. I can attest to the accuracy of this statement. This kid smells ripe enough to make a boxcar take a dirt road. Whenever he lifts his arms I briefly consider jumping off a mountain.

I ask how many days he’s been out here, which makes him scratch his head. “Think I’m on day seventy-one, or -two?” He shrugs. “I’m losing count.”

What I want to know is why. This is a big question for me. There must be a reason these insane hikers are out here. I ask why he’s doing this.

“Hmmm,” he says. “I mean… I don’t really know, dude.”

And that’s all he gives me.

During our walk, I am forced to put some distance between us because his body odor is getting…

It’s morning. I’m on the Amtrak Crescent No. 20. I don’t know where my train is located right now, but the landscape is pure green. And like I said, I’m on a train. So I’m as happy as a beached whale at high tide.

I crawl out of my matchbox bed at 6:19 A.M. I stretch, yawn, and smack my forehead on the upper bunk of my roomette. I wash my face in my little Barbie bathroom sink.

The whole sleeper car smells like fresh coffee. So I leave my room and locate the silver-bullet-shaped urn near the gangway. My train attendant helpfully pours my first cup. I thank her profusely because this is what you do when you get good customer service.

I am not accustomed to good customer service. I live in the cold, hard, real world, where customer service is a myth.

Last week, for instance, I tried to return a defective item to a department store at the “customer service” counter. There, a 19-year-old employee with stylish hair treated me like I

was a boil on the haunches of humanity. So I requested the employee’s manager. When the manager arrived, the manager officially confirmed that I am a boil on the haunches of humanity.

“You want cream or sugar, sweetie?” asks my train attendant.

“No, thank you.”

“Sleep good?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I am fully prepared for my first sip of coffee to taste like hydrochloric acid. But it doesn’t. I am shellshocked. Amtrak has good coffee.

I stay in a lot of hotels and spend a lot of time on the road. I have learned that coffee is one of those things that always sucks. You get used to it. That’s the way life goes. You move on. But on a scale of one to five, I give Amtrak coffee an eleven.

Next, I make my way to the dining car. I walk through the gangways,…

The distant green mountains of North Carolina are speeding past my train window. I am eating an omelette, drinking coffee, watching America go by at eye level.

The train whistle screams. Two long whistles. One short. One long.

That’s whistle code. It means we’re approaching a highway grade crossing. Whistle code is the law. All trains traveling upwards of 45 mph are required to sound their horns this way a quarter mile before each crossing.

These are things you learn in the dining car.

I have a thing for trains. Always have. When I was a kid, I was one of those annoying little redheaded boys obsessed with locomotives. Some boys were into dinosaurs. Others were deeply committed to Richard Petty. My thing was trains.

I owned all the toys, of course. I had miniature versions of famous locomotives like the Super Chief, the Flying Scotsman, and the City of New Orleans. Also, I could make all the train noises with my mouth. Still can.

But my family didn’t ride trains.

We changed our own motor oil for crying out loud. All I could do was park my bike at train crossings and fantasize when trains blew past.

This is why riding trains is a big deal for me. Sure, I realize trains aren’t as flashy as air travel. They aren’t even efficient in our current Jet Age. A commercial airliner averages speeds of 575 mph. This train rarely exceeds 47 mph. But slowness is precisely why I love trains. Trains are laid back.

Yesterday, I boarded the Amtrak’s Crescent No. 20, which left from New Orleans bound for Philadelphia. I almost missed my train because of traffic on the interstate. I arrived in a frenzy, sprinting through the station, and finally reached the platform with three minutes to spare.

I was out of breath. My leg muscles burned. I was stressed. And since I’m used to dealing with embittered…

“Don’t kiss a girl without being prepared to give her your last name.”

My granny said that.

My father gave me this one: “If you so much as touch a cigarette, you might as well tear up half your paychecks from now on.”

My mother’s axiom, however, is my all-time favorite: “It’ll be okay.”

It might sound like a simple phrase, but my mother said this often. Whenever things were running off the rails. Whenever a girl broke my heart. Whenever I lost my job. Whenever I cried. Whenever I had a common cold that I believed to be, for example, tuberculosis, she said these words. I needed her to say them.

She also said: “Cleaning your plate means ‘I love you.’”

And this is why I was an overweight child.

I could keep going all day.

“Don’t answer the phone when you got company over,” my uncle once said. “It’s just flat rude.”

This one is from my elderly friend, Mister Boots: “That smartphone is making you stupid.”

My grandfather said: “Anything worth doing is worth waiting until next week to

do.” Then he’d crack open another cold one.

My wife’s mother once said: “Always carry deodorant in your truck. You don’t want to smell like you’ve been out roping billy goats when you bump into the pastor.”

Said the man named Bill Bonners, in a nursing home, from his wheelchair during an interview: “I never wanted to be a husband, I really didn’t want that. But I just couldn’t breathe without her around me.”

Mister Bill died only four days after his wife passed.

And one childhood evening, I was on a porch with my friend’s father, Mister Allen James who was whittling a stick, and he said: “Boys, if you marry ‘up,’ you’ll have to attend a lotta parties you don’t wanna go to. You wanna be happy, marry someone who knows her way around a supermarket.”…

As a writer, one thing you want to strive for is complete ackuracy. You don’t want grammatical mistakes in your work because this undermines your writing and makes you look like a toad.

Still, errors and typos do happen. One of the main culprits is autocorrect. Modern computers and smartphones are always correcting spelling without your permission, and the software often gets it wrong. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been burned by autocorrect.

I once wrote a heartfelt column about a man who nearly died in the hospital. I attempted to tell his story by describing his tearful return home. When I wrote about how his daughters rolled his wheelchair up the sidewalk and into his house for a triumphal entry, autocorrect happened.

I wrote: “Today, the old man’s family pushed him straight into his casket.”

I was aiming for the word “castle.”

Here’s another one:

My friend and fellow writer, Beau, was writing a social media post for his wife who was returning home after a trip to Europe. Beau wrote a

romantic essay for her in which he stated: “I have been waiting all month to see those big beautiful dimples again.”

Big deal, you’re thinking, what’s wrong with that? The big deal is that autocorrect replaced “dimples” with a word that rhymes with “fipples.”

So the main problem with autocorrect is that it’s on drugs. You’ll be typing along and misspell the word “hapy” and your device immediately grasps what you were trying to write and helpfully replaces the word with “Russia.”

When I wrote this column, for instance, my computer flagged misspellings on words like “Beau,” and “fipples,” but it had no problem with “ackuracy.”

Still, this is no excuse. As a writer you must painstakingly proofread your work and catch all your senseless eros.

Which is why I highly recommend getting married to a math teacher. Speaking from experience, math teachers make…

They tell me Mrs. Simpson was a small, soft spoken 90-pound woman without family. And that’s how this story begins.

The lonely elderly woman was watering her plants one afternoon when she had her big accident. She slipped and fell off her porch. Hers wasn’t a tall porch, thankfully. But at her age, it didn’t have to be. The injury was severe. She was 86.

You fall off your porch at 86, they start throwing around terms like “celebration of life.”

When Mrs. Simpson awoke, she was in the hospital, eyes blinking. She saw medical people standing over her, smiling.

Mrs. Simpson’s first hoarse words were: “Will someone please…?”

Everyone gathered around for the rest.

“…Please feed my cats?”

This made the doctors laugh. They all exchanged looks and said, “Isn’t there someone in your family who can do that for you?”

“Got no family.”

“How about friends?”

She shook her head.

“Well, You aren’t leaving the hospital, Mrs. Simpson. Not after all the bones you’ve broken.”

“...And I can’t remember if I left the oven on.”

“Try to calm down, Mrs. Simpson.”


need my toothbrush, and the trash goes out tomorrow morning…”

So a few nurses got together to send someone to the woman’s house to do these things. They watered the plants, checked the oven, packed her a overnight bag, and someone even took care of the old woman’s cats.

After a few days, Mrs. Simpson had been transferred to a rehab, where she had all her belongings, including her prodigious collection of paperback romance novels, her big balls of yarn and her knitting needles.

Over the next months, Mrs. Simpson became the darling of the rehab facility and the favorite patient of many staffers. This easygoing 90-pound woman without family.

Often she could be seen sitting upright in bed, working on a garter-stitch pattern, peering over her reading glasses at her visitors.

She had many visitors.…