STONYCREEK TOWNSHIP, Pa.—The Flight 93 National Memorial sits on a broad green pasture. The field is remote, interrupted only by minimalist monuments standing in the distance, surrounded by vivid wildflowers.

One monument is a 93-foot high musical instrument, with 41 colossal wind chimes, making clunking sounds that sing across the meadow like a glockenspiel.

There is no other structure like this in the world.

The monument honors the 41 passengers and crewmembers from United Airlines Flight 93. The hijacked plane that crashed in this field 19 years ago.

The National Park Service runs this place today. But not so long ago this was open farmland.

It happened on a Tuesday morning. Perfect weather. Clear sky. Locals saw a Boeing 757 jerking through the air at an awkward angle.

Farmers watched in slack-jawed amazement. Commuters pulled over to see a commercial airliner bounce from the sky and slam into the Earth.

When the plane hit soil it sounded like the world had come apart at the bolts. A mile-high column of

black smoke wafted into the air. The clear sky was ruined.

Earlier that morning the flight had been due for takeoff from Newark International Airport at 8:01 a.m. But, because this is America (Land of the Free and Home of the Flight Delayed) the flight was running late by 41 minutes.

The passengers and crew were chatty that morning. People made conversations over Styrofoam coffee cups. It was usual talk.

They chatted about their kids’ soccer games. Work. The new fad diet that wasn’t making their thighs any smaller.

In the cockpit, pilot Jason Dahl was going through his preflight stuff. He was 43, cobby build, with a smile that looked like he could have been your favorite uncle Lou.

Jason always carried a little box of rocks with him. They were a gift from his son. When a man carries a box of rocks simply because his kid collected…

OHIOPYLE, Pa.—When we started this ridiculously long bike trail, I had no idea what the heck I was getting myself into.

A guy learns how out-of-shape he is when he’s riding a silly trike in the Appalachian Mountains.

That’s the ironic thing about doing trails. By the time you finish the trail you’re finally in-shape. But by then it doesn’t matter. Because the trail is finished and it’s time to eat Hostess products again.

My wife and I have been biking for two days in the Allegheny region of the Appalachians. Our route follows the roaring Youghiogheny River and it led us here, to the tiny town of Ohiopyle. Population 56.

My body hurts. And I mean all over. If it’s attached to me, it hurts. No matter how small the body part.

My fingernail? Hurts. Hair cuticles? Hurt. My nose? Totally sunburned.

Yesterday, my wife and I were the only people on a long stretch of trail that cut through the prettiest hill country known to mankind. We shuffled through miles of loveliness that became so overwhelming

you half wished the scenery would stop.

But the trail doesn’t stop. It goes on and on. And all you can do is pedal.

That’s what we do now. We pedal. We pedal until we forget we’re pedaling. We’re just existing. Breathing. Zombies. Two pieces of meat with legs.

Why are we pedaling? How did we start? It’s as though we’ve always been doing this. I came out of the womb pedaling. I will pedal until I die. And when they put me in the ground they will notice that my feet are still twitching.

My wife and I mostly ride in silence. It’s an odd thing, being on a trail from sunrise to sunset. You don’t talk much. In fact, you don’t have anything important to say. And you realize you never had anything important to say. Ninety percent of all…

SMITHTON—Sunrise. A small Pennsylvania town. I’m sipping weak coffee, writing from the porch of a small 1893 inn that overlooks Appalachia. American flags fly from every post, beam, telephone pole, and CB antenna.

Long ago this simple-looking inn used to be owned by a local brewery. The original bar is still in the barroom.

Back in the day, a barkeep would have served his lukewarm beer for pennies and rented rooms upstairs for a buck. But today, this place is just a remnant of old America.

The inn was turned into a bed and breakfast a few years ago. Mostly it caters to bicyclers who are foolish enough to cycle the Great Allegheny Passage Trail. Take, for example, me and my wife.

Ah yes. The trail. About that. We have been pedaling this multi-state trail for a full day. We started yesterday morning in Pittsburgh. We arrived in Smithton at sundown. After our long ride, we crawled into bed and fell asleep in under nine seconds.

It seems like we’ve been cycling for a hundred

thousand miles, but I looked at a map and realized we have only traveled fifty. We have a long, long, LONG way left to go. I don’t know if I’m going to make it.

Already my legs feel like they’ve been beaten with a blackjack billy club. My joints are sore, my eyes are sunken, I’m dehydrated, and I’ve lost all my teeth.

Still. The profound greenery of Appalachia is worth the effort. In fact, it’s too much beauty for the written word.

This morning, I stumbled onto the porch to see nothing but tree-covered hills draped in chowder-thick fog. I saw Queen Anne homes, Victorian rooftop spires, and church steeples. And Canada geese were flying overhead, honking out a morning melody.

“You actually have Canada geese here?” I said to a local guy who was beside me.

“Course we have geese,” he said, “This…

Three pounds. That’s not much. A pineapple weighs three pounds. So does a jar of Crisco. The human brain weighs three pounds.

That doesn’t seem like much weight, but think about it. Human brains have built modern society, fed starving nations, cured deadly diseases, and given us the U.S. Tax Code.

The human brain came up with Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Einstein’s three-pounder proved relativity. And once, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, two brilliant young men combined their three-pound organs to create Delta Airlines.

I’m thinking a lot about the human brain right now. Because at this moment I am cycling on a busy Pittsburg super highway with a plastic helmet covering my brain.

My wife is pedaling behind me. Vehicles speed by, traveling 120 miles per hour. Drivers honk horns. Motorists flick cigarette butts out windows. A semi-truck blows his whistle.

How did I get here? What led me to this profound life moment? That’s when it hits me. My three-pound brain.

The reason we are in Pittsburgh is because this is where the Great Allegheny Passage

bike trail begins. And our brains thought this trail would be fun.

The Allegheny Passage is a very long trail that starts in Pittsburgh and runs through the Appalachian Mountains. It crosses the Eastern Continental Divide, the Mason-Dixon Line, and the Maryland border.

Then the trail runs into the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal trail which lopes hundreds of miles across historic waterways, forests, rivers, farmland, covered bridges, and small towns. It snakes through Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and finally peters out in Washington D.C.

So that’s why I’m on this busy highway. We are going to ride this trail.

I’ve never been to Pittsburgh before. And to tell the truth, I visualized my first experience going differently.

On the highway, I see a police cruiser parked near the curb. I pull over to ask for directions to our hotel. The policewoman glances at…

My wife and I are on the way to Virginia, driving northward on a bumpy two-lane highway. We have a long way left to drive.

I have spent the morning riding through Tennessee, tailgating a beat up Chevy with a license plate that reads: “Virginia is for lovers.”

I’ve been staring at these four words for nearly two hours. And the slogan has started to aggravate me. What a corny phrase. I wonder what yahoo came up with that one.

Then we cross the state line into Virgina.

All of a sudden I am driving through steep green hillsides that look like they belong in Scotland. Every two minutes I pass a rural scene so arresting that I have to pull over to see if it’s real.

The mountainsides are quilted in uniform grass, dotted with trees, and the cattle are grazing. Every wildwood barn, vacant schoolhouse, dilapidated RV, and abandoned water heater is swallowed in kudzu.

“Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?” my wife asks.

No. I have not.

This is my first

visit to Virginia and nobody prepared me for what it would look like. In fact, I feel silly trying to describe to you all that I’m seeing.

The pavement carries us into valleys that slice through the Middle of Nowhere. We take horseshoe curves that shoot us into highlands, grasslands, forestlands, and farmland.

The farther we drive, the more churches we see. We see a new chapel every seven feet. Sometimes closer than that. There are so many churches in the state of Virginia, Bill Gaither could run for governor.

And old homes. I’ve never seen so many American farmhouses. Many of these homesteads sit on gracious cliffs. Other houses have as many as two, three, or four axles.

I pass a cow bathing herself in a craggy mountain stream, she’s looking at me. I pass a man plowing a field with a red belly…

KNOXVILLE, Tenn.—It’s sunny weather. The college town is filled with frat boys and sorority pledges who buzz around the city like fire ants on a fallen Snickers bar.

The happy city that feels like Disney World for 20-year-olds this morning. There are a lot of people wearing Tennessee Orange.

Today I am meeting with my friend’s son, Peter. Peter is a 19-year-old student, and he is going to take me to visit The Mound. At first, I didn’t know what mounds were. But now I do.

The North American mounds are prehistoric hills that were formed by early-early-early Native American tribes. As it happens, there are mounds all over the Knoxville region. Some estimates suggest that there were once over 200 mounds in this area. Today, about a dozen are left.

I’ve known Peter since he was a baby, he’s always been into history-type stuff. It used to be dinosaurs. Today, it’s mounds.

Peter is a brilliant young man who looks like a college kid on the outside, but has a nuclear-physicist’s brain. He is on the

autism spectrum, and it was not always easy for him growing up.

This is why when he decided to leave home for college his parents were worried sick about him being on his own with friends. But Peter was determined to do it. So they let him go.

Peter's dad told me, “It’s hard having your son leave. He’s my best friend. Hardest thing I ever did was driving away from the school, seeing my baby in the rear mirror, waving goodbye. Ripped my heart out.”

But getting back to the mounds, Peter tells me all about them.

“The mounds are really cool,” Peter says, “Knoxville was originally built by the Mound People. They lived here back in 3500 BCE.”

Peter talks like a professional tour guide, and he keeps looking to me for appropriate responses to his speech.

“Wow,” I say.


BIRMINGHAM—Early morning. The sun is low. Fog rests on the trees. And I have a persistent case of writer’s block.

I leave my hotel on foot because I love morning walks. They help in more ways than one. When I walk, I’m able to think in straight lines, clear my head, and most importantly, pull a hamstring.

I see a pest guy spraying outside my hotel. He wears a COVID mask, and carries a spray canister of noxious chemicals.

“How’re you doing this morning?” he asks.

“I have writer’s block,” I say.

“Oh, no. I used to get writer’s block, but I don’t get it anymore.”

“Really? What’s your secret?”

“I had four kids.”

I make my hike across a nearby parking lot, aiming toward a shopping complex. Outdoor malls are great places to walk.

This is when I hear tires squeal behind me.

I turn to look. It is a bad dream happening in slow motion. A white Mitsubishi swerves through the parking lot like a runaway diesel, roaring straight for me.

The vehicle fires forward and misses me by an eyelash. I don’t

even have time to shout any religious language at the driver.

I am left standing on the pavement. Adrenaline has made me cold. I am doubled over.

The guy with the sprayer calls out, “You okay?”

All I can do is nod. “Just dandy,” I say.

It takes a few minutes to gather myself. I am still sick to my stomach. But I keep walking.

I walk across culverts, ditches, decorative shrubbery, thorny bushes, and steep embankments until I reach the mall. My nerves are shaken, but I’m alive, and that’s the important thing.

The shopping complex is empty this morning except for a few older women out power-walking.

I pass a slew of employees in shopfronts. They’re unlocking display windows, doing inventory, drinking coffee from paper cups. And I am finally starting to calm…

Lorie was watching when the supermarket cashier told the young mother that her card was declined. She knew she wanted to help the woman. She couldn’t explain why. It was something she wanted to do.

Just because.

Maybe it was the way the girl was holding a baby on her hip and a toddler by the hand. Or it could have been the girl’s frazzled facial expression.

Maybe it was the single-file line of impatient shoppers, rolling eyes, glancing at watches, adjusting their surgical masks.

Lorie stepped forward. She spoke to the cashier. “I wanna buy her groceries,” she said, presenting her card.

The girl looked embarrassed. There’s a feeling that comes with being the recipient of charity. It’s not a pleasant one. You feel a mixture of colossal idiocy and gratefulness, combined into one giant, foul-tasting pepperoni.

“No,” said the girl. “I’ll just put all this stuff back.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Lorie.

“Please, ma’am, I don’t need no charity. My boss just hasn’t direct-deposited my check, that's all.”

There is none prouder than a mother with a light wallet.

“I’m buying

your groceries,” said Lorie. “You can either take them home, or let them spoil in the parking lot. But I’m buying them.”

The young woman seemed genuinely confused. “Why are you doing this?”

Lorie thought about it for several moments. It was a very good question. What had come over her? Why was she doing this?

“Just because,” Lorie said.

As it turns out, it wasn’t just a few scant groceries. The girl had practically shoved the whole grocery store into her buggy.

She was buying the confectionary things growing children need to stay healthy and strong. Chocolate bars, chocolate milk, chocolate popsicles, chocolate chips, chocolate fudge brownies, chocolate syrup, chocolate pretzels, Swiss chocolate swizzle sticks, triple chocolate dark fudge ice cream, and a new pancreas.

The girl agreed to let Lorie buy her items. But before…

Dear Young Person

I am an imaginary old man. I am every World War II veteran you never knew. I am each faceless GI Joe from a bygone European War.

I am hundreds of thousands of infantrymen, airmen, sailors, marines, mess sergeants, seabees, officers, engineers, doctors, buck privates, and rear-echelon potato-peelers.

We hopped islands in the Pacific. We served in the African war theater. We beat the Devil. Then we came home and became the old man next door. We are in our 90s and 100s now.

Today was our holiday. It was on this day, September 2, 1945, that the war officially ended.

Wartime was a wild era to be young. When we went overseas we were teenagers, scared spitless, with government haircuts, wearing new wedding rings.

We hadn’t seen action yet. We were so jittery we smoked through our week’s rations of Luckies in one day.

Then it happened. It was different for everyone. But it happened. Shells landed everywhere. People screamed. And in a moment our fear melted away.

Suddenly, we had war jobs

to do. And it didn’t matter who we were, or which posts were ours. Everyone worked in the grand assembly line of battle.

When the smoke cleared and the action was over, we had new confidence in ourselves. And we were no longer children.

No two experiences were alike. Each man had his own story. And we weren’t only men, either. There were 350,000 women serving in the U.S. Armed Forces. People forget that.

Speaking of women. We guys were always talking about our sweethearts, wives, and mothers. If you even mentioned someone’s girl, a man would talk for hours about her. Then he’d show you wallet-sized pictures.

And even if you’d already seen his photos, you never interrupted a man who talked about his sweetheart. Because eventually, you’d be telling him about yours.

Everyone wanted to go home. Though, don’t get me…

It’s a great day for a drive in the Azalea City. The afternoon sun is on the bay. The grass flats are stretching toward the horizon like furry islands.

I ride through the tunnel, which shoots me beneath the Mobile River and spits me into a mild-mannered, picturesque French colonial city. I love it here.

I had a friend from Mobile once say that if you want to make locals angry, tell them Mardi Gras originated in New Orleans.

“These are fighting words,” said my pal.

If you say such a thing to a Mobile-person, their face will contort, their nostrils will flare, they will speak in strange tongues, and their head will rotate 360 degrees.

Then they will spit out facts about how Mobile has the oldest organized Mardi Gras celebration in the U.S. They will also explain that Mobile’s Mardi Gras fun was happening in 1703, long before New Orleans was even wearing a training diaper.

Then they will fling beads at you.

When I was a young man, I played music in

a crummy bar band. We were always getting gigs in Mobile. The guys in the band would carpool together, and I was usually the driver.

This was before GPSs, back when early man was still using Rand McNally products. The truck would be loaded with musical junk, amplifiers, and instruments. And five of us idiots would be riding through town looking like the cast members from “Hee Haw.”

To us, Mobile was the biggest city around. Three times the size of Pensacola or Dothan. It wasn’t like other mega-cities, either. People were friendly in Mobile.

As long as you didn’t ask stupid questions about Mardi Gras.

The first thing I’m always struck with here is that this is a baseball town. Hank Aaron was born Down the Bay. And so was Leroy Robert “Satchel” Paige. And Satchel Paige is one of my all-time heroes.