We just pulled into our driveway after being on the road for weeks. I step out of the vehicle and hear a low-pitched howling coming from my house. It’s a baying sound you could hear a mile away.

The bloodhound’s voice is special. A single howl can last three or four seconds, maybe longer if there is a squirrel or a UPS employee involved. Their deep groan is rich, throaty, hoarse, and sounds like the Marlboro Man trying to sing Handel.

They’re comical dogs. A bloodhound has paws the size of baseball mitts. Their ears get caught in their mouth when they eat. Their skin is a few sizes too big for their body. In other words they're the perfect animal.

We are dog people. And I am a bloodhound guy. It runs deep in me. I have loved hounds since boyhood, when my cousin and I first saw Ellie Mae Clampett and her bloodhound, Duke, in a TV episode of the “Beverly Hillbillies.”

My cousin had a severe crush on Ellie

Mae. But I was in love with her dog.

As a young man, I had friends whose fathers were avid hunters. They used bloodhounds to track raccoons through the South Alabamian forest, usually at night. You’ve never seen anything more poetic than five hounds tearing into the midnight woods beneath a yellow moon, howling.

The hunting party would hike through groves of swampland, carrying lanterns, chewing short cigars. It was cold and damp, and I wanted to go home because I’m not a hunter.

I’m a fisherman, not a hunter. There is a big difference. A hunter is brave, tireless, he will endure hard weather, dire odds, and will sit motionless for hours without even scratching his back pocket. A fisherman has koozies that read: “She thinks my belly’s sexy.”

Often, a true fisherman will spend all day out on the water enjoying himself before he realizes he…

THOMASVILLE—This small Georgia town is painted with late afternoon shadows and it looks like an illustration fit for the cover of “The Saturday Evening Post.”

An old man in a fedora is walking his dog. A few kids ride bikes. A lady waters her plants. You’d swear the year was 1952.

I want to move here.

My wife claims I say this whenever we enter a pretty town. “I wanna move here,” I’ll insist. Then she’ll roll her eyes so hard she gives herself a migraine.

We’ve been on the road for weeks, traveling through the southeast, so I’ve said those words a lot. Whenever we pass through an attractive city my wife sets a timer to see how long it takes me to suggest moving there.

My current record is one minute and 18 seconds.

Our first stop today is an enormous oak tree, perched near a residential intersection. It has a fat base and titanic limbs covered in resurrection ferns, which blanket the bark like green fur. The branches stretch outward like colossal spider legs,

sweeping to the ground.

Big Oak is one of America’s oldest live oak trees. The ancient hardwood has been here since 1680, back when Jamestown was still the capital, and the colonists had not yet discovered Starbucks.

“This tree’s been hit by lots of cars,” says one Thomasville resident. “Trucks ram right into it, or crash into the limbs.”

But somehow it’s still here after 330-some-odd years of ironic catastrophes. And it’s still just as lovely.

When you stand beneath it you get the uncontrollable urge to touch it. But be careful. Because every yahoo tourist like me has been touching it, and COVID-19 is currently one of America’s leading causes of death.

Even so, I rest a bare hand upon the gnarled bark. The tree is warm.

It’s taken real effort to keep Big Oak alive. The tree has steel support cables,…

If you were to ask me what Heaven looks like, I would tell you. It looks like Apalachicola, Florida.

Visit Apalch in the late afternoon when the sun is sinking. Go downtown and look at the brick storefronts. You’ll see what I mean.

Walk along the docks where trawlers are moored behind 13 Mile Seafood Market on Water Street, a place that’s been selling wild oysters since the ‘50s. Oysters are the main industry here.

At least they were.

“It’s basically like a big mill is closing down,” said an elderly local man. “Ain’t no boats out there. The bay’s empty. The oystermen are gonna be hurting.”

He is of course talking about the closing of the oyster beds. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservancy Commission recently made the decision to stop harvesting oysters in Apalach.

It was a blow to the town, but vital to the health of this brittle Floridian ecosystem. This exhausted bay is in serious trouble.

“We're not just looking at it from an oyster perspective, but from a system perspective,” said

Dr. Felicia Coleman, part of an Apalachicola Bay initiative. “How healthy is the Apalachicola Bay? And that's the problem.”

Outsiders might not care about what goes on in a podunk oystering town, they have their own lives to worry about. But a lot of sunburned oystermen just lost their livelihoods. And it hurt.

This will be Franklin County’s first non-oystering period since Apalachee and Timucua natives began gathering oysters in these waters.

A few years ago, this bay was producing about 3 million pounds of yearly oysters, a crop worth about 9 million bucks. Ninety percent of Florida’s wild oysters came from this fleck-on-the-map town.

Ninety.

And there’s a reason these bivalves are so coveted. Because they will blow your mind.

A few years ago I was in a fancy seafood joint in Saint Louis, Missouri, of all places. I was very homesick for…

This desolate Georgia highway is swallowed in kudzu. Deep green vines have overtaken acres of pines. The avalanches of leaves spill into ditches.

I don’t hate kudzu. Certainly, I know it’s a noxious weed. But so are white clovers and creeping thistles, and I kind of like them, too. Also, I’ve always wondered why we call some flowers weeds but not others.

I will forever remember one childhood summer, when I planted purple kudzu flowers into a shoebox of potting soil, purely out of curiosity. Afterwhich the Baptist Women’s Bible Study Brigade sentenced me to public execution.

Kudzu was the devil’s work, they said. I never got a fair trial.

This road is the perfect place to see flowering vines that grow in all directions, like nests of copperheads, swallowing everything. I’ll bet if vehicles quit driving this route the vines would eat the old highway.

Kudzu has a bad name, so I’ve always been forced to admire it in secret. To me, the flowers look like something from Eden, and a hillside of leaves is

beautiful.

I sincerely hope the ladies’ Bible study group isn’t reading this.

The Japanese vine was officially introduced to the U.S. at Philadelphia’s World’s Fair in 1876. This was the same fair that unveiled an enormous iron-and-copper French sculpture that would later be nicknamed “the Statue of Liberty.”

The Japanese pavilion displayed exotic East Asian things like ceramics, archeological artifacts, Japanese magnolias, cinnamon-bark crepe myrtles, and a floor show featuring Tony Orlando.

Also, a small decorative vine with a purple flower.

But nobody paid attention to kudzu until 60 years later when dust storms started browbeating the prairies of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado. The government turned to kudzu for salvation. Congress announced that kudzu would end erosion by stabilizing soil. And they paid eight bucks per acre to anyone who planted it.

Eight bucks during the Depression was serious cash. People…

I am a redheaded fool, driving around the Peach State. I’ve spent the day exploring Georgia’s backroads. And I’m lost, going in circles.

I get lost easily. Namely, because I refuse to use a GPS. I hate them. I prefer Rand McNally. My wife has threatened to lodge all Rand McNally products into remote crevices of my body if I don’t use a GPS.

But the Georgia countryside is a great place to get lost. It’s a laid back, sleepy world of kudzu, longleaf pines, and incredible heat. My car thermometer reads 107 degrees from sitting in the sun.

I pass vegetable stands, Spanish moss, rusty pickups, and side-of-the-road handmade signs that read: “Eggs 4 sal.”

Nothing better than a good sal.

I drive past 13,239 churches. Almost every denomination is represented. Presbyterian, A.M.E., Baptist, Methodist, and that one denomination that outlaws pianos. Take your pick.

Ahead is a Catholic church. It’s a small building in the distance with white siding, small porch, and a modest steeple.

I pull into an empty parking lot beneath large trees because

I need to use the restroom, and Catholics are very clean people. My wife tells me she’ll wait in the car. That way she can set fire to all my Rand McNally products.

I meander into the vacant building to find the chapel is unlocked, and heavily air-conditioned.

After using their pristine lavatory, I enter the sanctuary to see what it’s like.

It’s quiet. And it’s empty. For the first time in days, I remove my surgical mask in a public place.

I take a knee, briefly, then cross myself. I’m not Catholic, but I watch professional sports. I sit in the front pew. I bow my head. It is so silent in this room that my ears are ringing to beat the band.

My ears always ring. I have moderate tinnitus. I’ve had it since childhood. As a boy I had…

Morning on the interstate. I’m passing a caravan of large white bucket trucks. There must be a hundred of them. Maybe more. These are utility line workers, heading for the Carolinas.

Tropical Storm Isaias is brewing in the Atlantic. It will make landfall tomorrow morning. These trucks are heading for ground zero, and there isn’t even a ground zero yet.

The trucks’ running lights are flashing. Their hydraulic lift buckets wobble from highway speed.

These men in neon vests prepare for weeks of sleepless nights, mechanical failures, possible accidents, wet weather, convenience-store suppers, cheap hotels, and video calls home.

I honk my horn. I wave at one driver. We are both driving at a high speed. The lineman waves back.

And the convoy of trucks never stops coming. After only a few minutes on this highway I’ve counted almost 60 trucks. I finally quit because I lose count.

I live on the Gulf Coast. Hurricanes are part of our life. When Opal hit, for instance, it crippled us. But it took only 24 hours

for hordes of electrical lineworkers to arrive in town so we could all run our air conditioners again and watch daytime television.

They came from far-off places like Texas, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. My aunt was so grateful to linemen working on her street that she made sandwiches each morning for them.

She delivered food every day until they left town. She knew all the guys’ names. She could tell you all about their kids.

And I’ll never forget when Hurricane Ivan smashed into our area.

I was a newlywed, living in a one-bedroom apartment. Our building had no storm shutters. All we could do was cover our windows in duct tape to prevent shattering.

Friends lost homes, cars, animals, trees. Ivan pommeled us like we’d insulted his mother.

The next morning, our world was flooded, but not with water; with bucket trucks. Men in hardhats arrived…

SAVANNAH—It’s hard not to love this town. It’s easy on the eyes, colorful, and there are flowers everywhere.

There are also sweaty tourists, out and about, on foot, exploring Georgia’s oldest city on a sunny afternoon. I wander among them, keeping at least fifty feet away. My surgical mask on.

For the past few weeks I’ve been rediscovering America. I’ve had friends email and ask why I’m on a road trip during a worldwide pandemic.

The answer is because I was starting to lose my mind at home. After almost a hundred months indoors, I had grown deeply lethargic. Maybe even depressed. A friend of mine recommended a change in scenery.

At first I was apprehensive about traveling, but then I figured: “You know what? My mental health is a wreck, and if I don’t do something about it, who will?”

This American tour has been good medicine. I’ve learned a lot, too. The first thing I’ve learned is that Georgia is hotter than the fires of hell. It is 102 degrees outside today.

This

is actually a valuable lesson because it reminds me of how artificial our society can be. We modern Americans, for instance, have air conditioning, non-stop digital entertainment, gourmet take-out, and round-the-clock Walmarts where you can buy spray cheese at any odd hour of the night.

But when you visit historic towns like Savannah, you get a sense of how life was three centuries ago. And it dawns on you that our modern electrified society isn’t necessarily the “real” world.

Early Americans’ lives were filled with real-world nature, agriculture, and back-cracking work. They were serenaded by crickets, backyard chickens, frogs, and distant pianos; we have car stereos and electric lawnmowers. They brewed rainwater-and-dandelion tea; I eat spray cheese on Fritos.

My wife and I walk over to Oglethorpe Square for a look around. The place is filled with young tourists seated on benches, all playing on…

CHARLESTON—It’s my last morning in town, and I will miss this place. The sun is rising over the old American city in a way that steals your breath. The street is lined with colonial single homes. There are fresh horse apples in the street.

I hear the sound of a draft horse clopping behind me, pulling a carriage, warming up his joints for the day. I step aside to let the carriage pass. I wave like a fool because I am a hopeless tourist in a romantic city, and I feel obliged to act like one.

“Can I pet your horsey?” I ask the driver.

Horsey. This word just slips out.

The driver stops, he lets me run my hands along the animal’s silken coat. I wish, by some stroke of fate, that I had been born a horse guy. Horse guys know more about life than I do.

But alas, I am a dog guy. And dog guys know nothing about life. All we do is spend our hard earned money on chew

toys shaped like tacos.

I wave goodbye to the horsey and keep walking. I pass a few construction workers at a nearby house. Charleston is full of construction work, but not the kind you’re used to.

Here, they don’t have whining power tools and loud radial saws. They have a gentle tap-tap-tap from a hammer. Or the sweeping sound of a wood plane against poplar. Old sounds. Noises that were once the soundtrack of America.

Sadly, I’m from Florida. I’ve worked on lots of construction crews, I’ve been reading measuring tapes since age 14. In Florida, our national bird is the Sapsucking Real Estate Contractor, who uses earth-shattering electric power tools, and cheap materials.

It’s not like this in Charleston. Just down the street is the American College of the Building Arts. Students can choose from six specialized traditional crafts that predate mud: timber framing, architectural…

CHARLESTON—Today I hiked into the woods to see a South Carolinaian salt marsh just outside of the city. And it’s stunning.

The cordgrass stretches backward to the barren horizon, poking from the saltwater like green whiskers. A white heron is hunting for breakfast.

And just when the scene couldn’t be more Carolinian, I see a bald eagle flying overhead.

The distant bird glides above the world, moving on an almost imperceptible air current, turning circles.

“You can tell it’s an eagle,” says John (age 11), pointing at the sky. “See how his wings are flat, instead of a V shape?”

John is wearing a sun hat,
a COVID mask, and gobs of sunscreen. He is a bird fanatic. He hands me his binoculars so I can watch the eagle ride the Atlantic breeze.

John goes on: “Most people see soaring birds and automatically think they’re eagles. But they’re usually vultures or some kinda other soaring bird. When you see a dihedral wing shape, it’s not an eagle.”

Dihedral? Who is this kid?

It's hard to believe bald

eagles almost disappeared from this earth. Especially since they’re the quintessential American symbol. But isn’t it always the same tragic story with us humans? Sometimes we ruin the things we love.

Over the years, hunters killed lots of bald eagles. Commercial pesticide usage killed even more. North Americans were wiping out bald eagles by the shipload.

By the 1970s there were an estimated 220 eagles left on the continent. And even worse, nobody could figure out what to do about it.

Zoologists started touring grade schools with bald eagles, simply so children could get a final glimpse of the national bird before the species vanished.

“Eagles are raptors,” says John. “They’re SUPER good at surviving. I’ve even seen them eat snakes before. I love it when they eat snakes.”

But eagles weren’t surviving. Fifty years ago there were only 13 pairs of…

CHARLESTON—I’m walking rough cobblestones beneath South Carolina’s blazing afternoon sun and I’m sweating through my shirt.

I woke up at 6:39 a.m. in our cheap hotel. I plugged in the room’s coffeemaker. I said good morning to the cockroaches. I crawled into the mildewed shower while the coffeemaker gurgled.

The shower steamed up the bathroom and I could see traces of greasy fingerprints appearing on the big mirror. Two words were traced upon the fogged-up glass:

“MARRY ME!!!” With three exclamation points.

I was all smiles. Because my wife didn’t write this, and neither did I. Meaning: within this scumsucking hotel room, someone recently popped The Question. And I can only hope the other someone said yes before they contracted tetanus.

As it happens, Charleston is where my wife and I honeymooned nearly twenty years ago. The town has changed since then. Within the last two decades, for instance, America has built tons of outdoor shopping malls.

In my era (Paleolithic era) indoor malls ruled the world. We had low-tech signs, food courts, and

pushcarts selling cardboard pretzels with “cheese-like” sauce.

But over the years malls gravitated outdoors and the shops got weirder. Today outdoor malls have bright blinking signs and bizarre shops where you can build your own Teddy bears for three hundred bucks. And worse, Yankee Candle stores.

I have nothing against Yankee Candles, in fact I kind of like them. But whenever my wife passes these storefronts we have to stop and smell approximately 7,102 candles until my lungs burn and I have a pumpkin-pie-scented headache.

But nevermind all that because Charleston is a town that rings my bells. This street’s cobblestones were once used as ballast on ships that arrived here in 1670. The brick house I’m strolling past is a place where George Washington once kicked back a few beers.

This is also the town where my wife and I conducted the cheapest honeymoon ever…