Homewood, Alabama. When you walk into Salem’s Diner, it’s the people you notice first.

It’s not the ‘50s music on the radio. It’s not the framed black-and-white photographs of World-War-II-era college football heroes, frozen in time, mid-tackle, plastered on the walls.

It’s not the tiny faux-wood booths, or the stacks of complimentary newspapers for customers who prefer print instead of iPhones.

It’s not the beautiful smell of pork and sausage. The scent of coffee and hickory smoked pork products.

It is the booth in the back. The one chock-full of white-haired men who are engaged in solving America’s biggest problems over bottomless cups of Joe.

It is the waitress who calls you “baby,” and does this non-ironically.

It is the cook who can crack 12 eggs, stir the grits, and fry the belly of an entire sow using only one hand.

You walk into Salem’s Diner, and you’re taken backward on the timeline because these people are the characters of your childhood.

You grab a seat. The waitress approaches you with a coffee urn. She is no spring chick.

Her name is Joyce. She is a little long in the tooth to be a waitress.

Joyce tells you she has been working for the Salem family since she was 14 years old. Currently, she is a great-grandmother.

“Got a job working here when I was a little girl,” she says. “The Salems treated me good from Day One. I just never found a reason to leave.”

Our cook today is Spencer. Spencer is prepping his flat top for today’s lunch rush. There is always a lunch rush at Salem’s.

That’s because this little out-of-the-way diner was recently voted to have the best Philly cheesesteaks in the United States. Not long ago, a famous TV personality told an audience on network television that Salem’s Diner had better Philly cheesesteaks than Philly. This place became world famous overnight.

Spencer is partly responsible…


I am trying so hard to find happiness in my life, but I can’t. I’ve just gone through a divorce. Do you know how to find true happiness?



Here’s the short answer. No.

Now here’s the long answer. Heck no.

My mother always said happiness was like catching a lightning bug. Once you catch it, now what? You have two options. You can either (a) put the bug in a jar and kill it, or you can (b) let it go. Either way, the bug will die a grisly, arduous death.

My mother was always so uplifting.

My uncle once told me happiness was like homemade ice cream. It always melts, it’s always a soupy mess, and it’s always a pain in the everlasting aspirations to make. Even so, it’s great while it lasts.

Have you ever tasted homemade ice cream? Whenever someone homemakes ice cream, it’s a pretty good day on planet earth. Especially if this ice cream is vanilla.

Vanilla homemade ice cream, among the old-timers and church people I

come from, is a narcotic. It causes people to do strange things to acquire it. I know people, for example, who would drive upwards of 12,000 miles to get a bowl of homemade ice cream. I am one of these people.

Here’s a true story. My uncle had a friend who got out of prison when he was 65 years old.

His friend, who I’ll call Sweet Pea, was covered in crude tattoos. He was wiry and lean. He walked with a bent posture because of all the broken bones earned in prison fights.

Sweet Pea was a gentle, quiet guy. And his face was messed up from a prison accident. When he got out of prison, the one thing he’d been looking forward to, among other pleasures, was homemade vanilla ice cream.

He used to dream about it while he…

It’s 2:15 a.m. My wife’s portable alarm clock sounds. The noise is like a submarine dive alarm. I am awake. I am drinking coffee made from the hotel coffee maker which tastes like boiled jockstrap water. We are doing the Trailblaze Challenge hike today.

I keep telling myself, “We’re doing this for C.C.”

3:03 a.m.—We are in a van with 13 other half-asleep Trailblazer hikers. We are driving to the trailhead where we will walk for 26.3 miles for the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Alabama, an organization that changes the lives of kids with critical illnesses.

My friend C.C. received a wish when he was a kid. He met Peyton Manning. His sister and caregiver is Paige, and she is our dear friend. They are why I’m here.

Namely, because I am not an athlete. I am more of a Little Debbie enthusiast.

4:49 a.m.—Now we’re at the trailhead. “Yay! We’re here!” shouts one perky hiker. It’s early. Many of the other hikers want to punch this hiker in the mouth.

5:12 a.m.—Rational people are at home right now, nestled in their

feather beds. We are now hiking the far flung Pinhoti Trail, miles from human civilization. You could die from an infected blood blister out here.

“This is for C.C.,” my wife keeps saying with each step. “For C.C.”

5:31 a.m.—Our hiking pace is akin to refugees marching to a Russian gulag to be executed. It’s tar black outside, we’re wearing coal-miner headlamps. Someone in our group starts singing to lighten the mood. This person will never be seen or heard from again.

6:45 a.m.—We are not 3 miles in. We still have 23 miles to go. Sunrise on the mountain is nothing short of heaven-like. There is a hiker pooping just off the trail. I can see the perpetual whiteness of this hiker’s cheeks.

“This is for C.C.”

7:33 a.m.—I’m talking with a hiker who knows a kid who…

I don’t know how I got into this. No, wait. I remember.

My wife, that’s how I got into this. That’s how every crazy, halfcocked idea in my life starts. With her. Bungee jumping in Mexico is only one example.

Right now I am at a Birmingham hotel, with a lot of other insane people who are filtering into the lobby, carrying heavy duffle bags of hiking gear and expensive all-weather clothes. These people are all in very good shape and have no adipose tissue.

We are all here because tomorrow we will be hiking 26.3 miles up a mountain.

It’s important to note, we are not in the military. Nobody is holding a bayonet to our backs and forcing us to march onward. In fact, we paid good money to be here. Take my wife. Her hiking boots alone cost more than a three-bedroom beach condo.

“Are you ready to hike?” says a trim, super peppy fitness-looking guy, clapping my shoulders violently, and smiling like he’s having a febrile seizure.

This man is a complete


“I’m ready,” I say.

“I can’t hear you!” he shouts.

“Then get hearing aids.”

Tomorrow morning, hours before sunup, 268 clinically deranged Alabamians will be awoken by an alarm, whereupon we will all be taken to the Pinhoti Trail, riding in Soviet style buses, and dropped off naked, in the remote darkness of the mountains, just outside Talladega, whereupon we will hike until we are either dead or sincerely wish we were.

We are doing this hike for the Make-A-Wish Foundation of Alabama. This organization grants the wishes of children with critical illnesses.

This Alabamian hike raises more money than all the other Make-A-Wish organizational hikes in the nation. By far. These people are doing some real good stuff.

When the Alabama Trailblaze Challenge hike started in 2017, there were less than 75 hikers, and they raised about $200,000.

The hike has since…

Cracker Barrel is quiet this time of night. There are few cars in the parking lot. My wife is with me. We’ve been traveling all day.

On the way into the restaurant, I see a few kids sitting on rockers outside. They’re playing checkers.

“HEY!” shouts a little girl. “YOU CAN’T JUMP BACKWARDS!”

“YUH HUH!” shouts a little boy.


I don’t like to butt in, but this situation calls for some well-tempered adult advice. And since there aren’t any well-tempered adults around, my advice will have to do.

“She’s right,” I tell the boy. “You can’t jump backwards unless you’ve been kinged.”

“I can’t?” he says.

“Nope. Besides, even if you COULD, it wouldn’t matter, because your girlfriend says you can’t, and girls are ALWAYS right.”


His sister laughs until the vein in her forehead shows.

We get a table.

Our waitress has long hair and tired eyes. We still have miles to drive, I order coffee. Black.

The waitress tells me about her son. He’s about to start first grade when summer is over. She hasn’t seen much of him

this summer. This isn’t her only job. She has two more.

She shows me photos of her son. He’s skinny. Thick eyeglasses. Freckles.

“He’s doing Vacation Bible School this summer,” she says. “He loves it.”

As it happens, I have passed many years in Vacation Bible School—both as an inmate, and as a warden. I consider the hours spent judging heated three-legged races to be golden.

I order my usual. Three eggs, bacon, biscuits.

There’s a couple in the corner. They’re elderly. He’s eating, she’s beside him—not eating. Halfway through the meal, he sets his fork down and places his arm around her.

She leans into him. She’s crying. I can see she’s wearing an oxygen facemask and a hospital bracelet. There’s a story here, I…

I found my way through the hospital corridors. I was running a little late, so I was jogging through the medical center.

The young man was waiting for me in his hospital bed. He was wearing a cowboy hat with a hospital gown.

“Thanks for visiting me,” he said.

He smiled.

The boy is 13, he has gone through multiple surgeries. The muscles in his face have been affected by the surgeries, so his smile is uniquely beautiful.

He is a nice-looking boy. He’s been through a lot. You can tell it by his attitude.

“I appreciate you visiting me.”

“Are you kidding?” I replied. “I’m a writer. Which means if I didn’t have a wife, I’d be living underneath an overpass. I appreciate you WANTING to meet a writer like me.”

“I like your writing.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“I am a writer too.”

“Yes. That’s what your father told me. What do you like to write?”

“I write stories about cowboys.”

Verily I say unto thee, this is a boy after my own heart. I fear that in our era of high-tech

movie graphics, Chat GPT, and AI we are going to lose a love of pure Westerns. But this child gives me hope.

He is even a John Wayne fan. My holster runneth over.

“Can I read one of my stories to you?” he says.

“I’d be honored.”

“Maybe you can tell me what you think about it; as one writer to another.”

The boy clears his throat. He removes a sheet of paper from a folder and assumes a recitation voice.

I’m paraphrasing here, but he tells a story about a young cowboy named Chet.

Chet was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Chet, the young hero, was told he would never recover. Oh, how his parents cried. And, oh, how the boy nearly lost hope.

“It was very hard on the young Chet,” said the kid.…

“What’s it like to fly on a plane?” 11-year-old Becca texted me.

Becca is blind, and she is my friend. She lives in north Alabama, and her parents are canonized saints. She has had quite a childhood.

Quite a childhood indeed.

“You wanna know what it’s like to fly?” I texted back.


At the time I was sitting in the plane, flying livestock class, the cheapest way to fly, unless you strap yourself to the landing gears. Sometimes livestock-class passengers have to ride with chickens or various Billy goats on their laps.

Right now, seated on my lap is a laying hen named Gertrude. Gertrude is fussy and, apparently, suffering lower intestinal problems.

“Tell me what it’s like to fly,” texts Becca.

Becca is a grade-schooler who has become my good friend. I’m not sure how our friendship happened. But it did.

Among other things, we have music in common. Becca has a voice like a cherub, a mind like a razor, and she is cuter than a duck in a hat.

Becca and I have performed together onstage before. It

was a success.

Last month, at one of my recent shows, she accompanied me and sang “O What A Beautiful Morning,” then “Amazing Grace.”

Then Becca told the whole audience how she lost her vision, and how the first face she expects to see someday is God’s face.

She brought the house down. People wept so hard I heard audience members blowing snot into their shirttails. People were not just crying. These were sobs, complete with wailing and moaning.

Becca received so many standing ovations that evening that many audience members reported that they were in need of emergency meniscus surgery.

It was a night I’ll cherish for the rest of my life.

“I’ve never been on a boat or a plane,” Becca texted as my plane lifted off. “Tell me what it’s like...”

“It’s like riding a…

Hannibal, Missouri, is a little off the beaten path. Actually, Hannibal is a LOT off the beaten path. I can’t even find the beaten path anymore.

On the way into town, my GPS kept getting confused in rural Missouri, and at one point I ended up in—this is true—Illinois.

It’s a river town. The gray Mississippi eases along Hannibal at 5.8 miles per hour, moving ever southward. The floodgates are up today. There is a flood warning in effect right now, wind gusts are clocking in at 33 mph.

I’m at a bar called “Rumor Has It.” Beside me is a riverboat captain.

“This is a beautiful river that can kill you,” says the captain who has been a commercial pilot on the Mississippi since the early ‘70s. “My wife calls her my mistress, because I spend more time with this river than with her.”

I am beneath the mistress’s spell this afternoon as I hang out on Hannibal’s sidestreets.

In the distance, a barge drifts along the Muddy Mississippi, moving at a tortoise pace. There is a riverboat

docked at the landing. A train passes and lays on the whistle.

Riverboats. Barges. Trains. It’s the 19th century in Hannibal.

“This is a town so small both city-limit signs are nailed to the same post,” says one merchant. “It’s great because it’s charming, and it’s actually affordable. And you meet tourists from all over the globe. Just yesterday I met people from Norway, Australia, and Japan.”

Downtown is quaint and touristy. It feels like the aftermath of a gift shop explosion. But everything is done tastefully. You won’t find any deep-fried Oreos or CBD shops here.

It’s Monday, for example, and all the shops are closed. Which is unheard of in a tourist economy.

And that’s the beauty of Hannibal. It’s a real small town. Even though it’s a tourist destination, these merchants have real families, and real lives. Shops…

Paola, Kansas, is a nano-town with 150 people and approximately 200 churches. This is the belly of the Bible Belt. Rumor has it that they handle snakes over in Parker. Although this is unconfirmed.

Sort of.

Right now I am in a building that was built in 1917. It was originally a convent school. Nuns once lived here. Today it’s a community center.

Currently I am standing on a stage performing my one-man trainwreck in the 34th State this evening. And I’m pretty emotional about it.

I’ve performed in 40 states, but this is the first time I’ve done my show in Kansas.

It’s weird being here. Namely, because my father was a Kansan. He was born in Iola. He grew up in Humboldt. He was “Kansas white trash” he always said. Kansas is where he began his life. And Kansas is where I started mine.

His funeral was held one county over.

My old man was an ironworker. They called guys like my father “boomers.” This meant he traveled wherever the work

was. We moved seven times in my first six years of life. We had no roots. No foundation.

For a time this was my home. I learned to play baseball in Kansas. I went to school here. I first couple-skated here. I first tried Red Man Chew on the back of daddy’s Ford, parked in Allen County, whereupon I puked for a solid hour.

My father lost his mind in Kansas. He was arrested in Leavenworth County, Kansas, for attempted murder of his wife and children.

The next morning, after being released on bail, he died by his own hand. The news of his self-inflicted death made the front page of the local papers.

We left Kansas when I was a child. I am not familiar with this land anymore. I don’t know it. My mother made me a Southerner. My aunts and uncles raised me. And…

My plane touched down in Missouri. The air was cool and sharp. The horizon was broomstick flat. It looked like rain.

In a few moments I was in a cheap rental car that smelled like an armpit. I cruised along the featureless byways of the “Show-Me State.” The state where I was born. The state where my father ended his own life.

I entered Parkville. The town where our lives went to perdition. And I remembered things.

My father used to tell a story about why Missouri is called the Show-Me State. When I was a kid, we’d ride in his rusted Ford F-100. Daddy would be eating licorice or sunflower seeds or spitting into a Coke bottle.

He said Missouri was called the Show-Me State because a politician used to go around telling other politicians to put their money where their mouths were. “Show me!” the politician would say.

Daddy used to do an imitation of a politician by growling “SHOW ME, SIR!” and waving his hands around like a televangelist undergoing a brain


I never forgot it.

The truth about the state nickname, I later discovered, is more complicated.

For starters, there are many theories on why it’s called the Show-Me State. Not just one. My father’s explanation wasn’t wrong, but it wasn’t conclusive.

I did some Googling. The politician Daddy was referring to was Congressman Willard Duncan Vandiver, from Cape Girardeau County. The year was 1896. The congressman was a dead ringer for Missouri’s other poster boy, Samuel Clemens. He had a voice like a hammer and the personality of a heart attack.

Vandiver once shouted from the campaign platform:

“I come from a state that raises corn and cotton and cockleburs and Democrats, and frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me! I am from Missouri! You have got to show me!”

But historians think the Show-Me nickname started earlier. One story originates in the mining…