Simple Life

My Poetic Summer Vacation

Like dessert, the sweetest endings are meant to be shared

By Jim Dodson

Whenever our friend Joe comes to supper, he helps himself to a slice of my wife’s carrot cake before we all sit down to the meal. His philosophy, simple and sweet, is “Life’s short. Better eat dessert first.”

Sometimes, though, the best things come later in life.

More than a year ago, mired in a world shut down by COVID, I proposed to my wife that we take our far-flung American clan to Scotland to celebrate her birthday and the playing of the 150th British Open Championship. It would be our first family summer vacation in more than half a dozen years.

As is always the case in revolutions and family vacations, success lies in careful planning. With grown children and two sets of parents converging from compass points as disparate as Los Angeles, Chicago, New Jersey and North Carolina, it took no small amount of coordination to finalize a game plan.

Fortunately, I am married to a woman who could organize a convention of drunken anarchists. With her usual efficiency, Dame Wendy promptly arranged flights, secured tournament tickets, parking passes and rental cars, and booked a dwelling in the East Lothian village of North Berwick, a place I’ve returned to many times since the early 1980s.

Though I’d been to St. Andrews many times in my long golf-writing career, the chance to attend the oldest golf championship in the birthplace of the game was something I’d dreamed of doing since I was knee-high to a ball washer.

So was another bucket list item for the eternal English Lit major in me.

Long a student of English romantic poetry, especially that of William Wordsworth, I’d always hoped to someday find my way to Tintern Abbey in Wales, the ancient ruin on the River Wye that inspired England’s greatest Romantic poet to write one of his most beloved poems of the same name.

It was my clever wife who suggested a way to check two boxes with one trip. By flying to London a few days before the clan assembled in Scotland, we could take our own sweet time motoring through the countryside to Scotland, taking in the abbey and maybe even the Lake District, where the poet once resided.

England’s Romantic Age of poetry was, in large part, a reaction to the 19th Century’s bleak industrialization that robbed mankind of its intimate connection to nature. The world is too much with us; late and soon, warned old Bill Wordsworth. Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; Little we see in Nature that is ours; We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

Unfortunately, in the hours before we set off, the world still seemed very much with us.

News reports of transportation strikes and acute shortages of workers described travelers stranded at airports and train stations amid thousands of pieces of lost or unclaimed luggage.  Queues were said to be hours long at London Heathrow, the epicenter of traveler chaos. To add to the fun, Boris Johnson’s abrupt fall from grace had unleashed the usual jamboree of warring cabinet ministers eager to take possession of 10 Downing Street. Meanwhile, weather forecasters were warning of the deadliest heat wave to hit Britain since Medieval times.

Remarkably — I’m not sure how — we managed to escape the madness, with luggage, golf clubs and most of our dignity still intact, speeding on to the gorgeous Welsh countryside in a zippy eco-rental car.

Few of the world’s iconic landmarks have made my proverbial jaw drop as did the first sight of ancient Tintern Abbey (circa 1131) as we rounded a high meadow curve above the winding River Wye. There it rose in the vale below, startlingly large and bigger than life. Scarce wonder Old Bill was inspired by his first sight of this setting: O sylvan Wye! thou wanderer thro’ the woods / How often has my spirit turned to thee!

Two hours of exploring the quiet abbey ruins followed by a plowman’s lunch of crusty bread, local cheese and good Welsh ale, sent us up the River Wye Valley hungering for more. Over the next three days, in fact, we wound our way to the Lake District along rural backroads and narrow hedgerow lanes, pausing only to hike through spectacular forests and explore ancient market towns, including Ludlow, where my other favorite English poet, Alfred Edward Housman, set his famous paeon to over-indulgence: Terence, this is stupid stuff: You eat your victuals fast enough; There can’t be much amiss, ’tis clear, To see the rate you drink your beer.

To our good fortune, Ludlow’s famous summer food festival was just getting underway, so we briefly joined the fête, discovering what Housman meant when he added: And malt does more than Milton can / To justify God’s way to man.

By the time we reached our cottage in Scotland, I almost felt like a man who’d managed to shed the stresses and cares of modern life, just in time to celebrate an ancient game’s birthplace and The Open’s historic sesquicentennial.

By design, we’d arranged tickets for the first and final day of the competition, allowing time for me to introduce my future son-in-law and his golf-mad papa to a trio of the most celebrated links courses in Scotland. As usual, the stout North Sea winds took a heavy toll on our scores, but we loved every minute of the challenge. Like Joe with his carrot cake, it was the perfect appetizer for the main course to come across the Firth of Forth at St. Andrews.

The hottest and driest summer in memory left the Grand Old Lady (as St. Andrews’ Old Course is fondly called) at her most exposed in many a year. But to the record crowd of 290,000 on hand to shout and serenade their favorite players, that mattered little.

The theme of this year’s historic Open — displayed on everything from grandstands to golf caps — was “Everything Has Led To This,” a fitting coda for one who finally made a journey he’d dreamed about since boyhood.

The finish was predictably rowdy and wonderful. In the end, the veteran favorite faded with dignity, allowing for a young and promising upstart to have his name carved on the coveted Claret Jug, joining 149 previous Champion Golfer(s) of the Year.

My favorite moment, however, came when I walked my daughter and her intended through the iconic Royal & Ancient clubhouse, home to the keepers of the game, where I’ve had the good fortune to be a member for many years. Old friends and fellow members made them feel most welcome.

“Dad,” she said, clearly moved by the history and pageantry around us, “thank you for bringing us here. I never imagined anything so beautiful.”

It was one of those moments that felt, in retrospect, a bit like a homecoming and a farewell. Whichever it was, I shall never forget it.

Her words even called to mind my favorite lines from Old Bill’s Tintern Abbey, the perfect coda to a poetic summer journey:

To them I may have owed another gift,

Of aspect more sublime; that blessed mood,

In which the burthen of the mystery,

In which the heavy and the weary weight

Of all this unintelligible world,

Is lightened: — that serene and blessed mood,

In which the affections gently lead us on  PS

Jim Dodson can be reached at

Simple Life

Summer Twilight

The brief, magical time between day and night

By Jim Dodson


Not long ago as a beautiful summer evening settled around us, my wife and I were sitting with our friends, Joe and Liz, on the new deck facing over our backyard shade garden, enjoying cool drinks and the season’s first sliced peaches.

The fireflies had just come out. And birds were piping serene farewell notes to the long, hot day.

“I love summer twilight,” Joe was moved to say. “Everything in nature pauses and takes a breath.” He went on to remember how, growing up in a big family of nine children, “my mother would shoo us all outdoors after supper to play in the twilight until it was dark. It was a magical time between day and night. A glimpse of heaven.”

“We played Kick the Can and Red Light, Green Light,” Liz remembered. “The fading light made it so much fun.”

“And flashlight tag,” chimed Wendy, my wife, sipping her white wine and joining the memories. “We didn’t have to come in until the first stars appeared and my mother called us to come in for a bath and bed.”

In a world that increasingly seems so different from the quieter, simpler one we grew up in, we all agreed, something about twilight seems about as timeless as moments get in this harried and overscheduled life we all live.

In truth, our ancient ancestors held much the same view of the changing light that occurs when the sun sinks just below the horizon, or rises to it just before dawn, softly stage-lighting the world with a diffusion of light and dust, heralding either the prospect of rest or awakening.

Like most rare things, the beauty seems to be in its brevity.

Back when I was a small boy in a large world, summer twilight was especially meaningful to me. During my father’s newspaper career, we lived in a succession of small towns across the sleepy, deep South where we rarely stayed in one place long enough for me to make friends or playmates. Because it was a time before mass air conditioning, I lived out of doors with adventure books and toy soldiers for companions, building forts and conducting Punic wars in the cool dirt I shared with our dog beneath the porch. The heat and brightness of midday made my eyes water and my head hurt.

In the rural South Carolina town where I attended first grade, a formidable Black woman named Miss Jesse restored my mother, a former Maryland beauty queen, to health following a pair of late-term miscarriages, and taught her how to properly cook collards and grits. Come midday, while my mother rested, Miss Jesse would haul me out from under the porch and make me put on sandals to accompany her to the Piggly Wiggly or to run other errands around town in her baby blue Dodge Dart.

Beneath a stunning dome of heat that lay over the town like a death ray from a martian spaceship, it was Miss Jesse who explained to me that daytime was when the world did its business and, therefore, shoes and good manners were necessary in public. Removing my sandals to feel the cool tile floors of the  Piggly Wiggly beneath my bare feet — the only air conditioned place in town save for the newspaper office — was a tactical error I made only once, as Miss Jesse had complete authority over my person.

Yet it was also she who had me stand on her feet, dancing my skinny butt around the kitchen as she and my mother cooked supper to gospel music playing from the transistor radio propped in the kitchen window. Miss Jesse also informed me that both a good rain and twilight were two of the Almighty’s holiest moments, the former refreshing the earth, the latter replenishing the soul.

I often heard her singing a gospel tune I’ve since spent many years unsuccessfully trying to find, a single line of which embedded itself in my brain: “In the shadows of the evening trees, my lord and savior stands and waits for me.”

Miss Jesse was with us for only a single summer and autumn. She passed away shortly before we moved home to North Carolina. But I have her to thank for restoring my mom’s health and giving me a love of collards, a good rain and summer twilight.

The suggestion of that old hymn she loved speaks to another perspective on twilight.

Some poets and philosophers have used it as a metaphor, indicating the fading of the life force. Others view it as the end of life, a dying of the light that symbolizes the coming of permanent night, a prelude to death.

On the other hand, as I read in a science magazine not long ago,  all living things would fade and die from too much light or darkness were it not for twilight, that in-between time of day when we see best.

For that reason, metaphorically speaking, it’s worth remembering that twilight also comes before the dawn breaks, marking the beginning of the day, the renewal of activity, a resumption of life’s purposes.

Tellingly, birds sing beautifully at both ends of the day — a robust greeting to the returning light of dawn and a solemn adieu as twilight slips into dusk.

As a lifelong fan of the twilight that exists fleetingly at both ends of the day — someone who is fast approaching his own so-called twilight of life — I take comfort in the words attributed to Saint John of the Cross who wrote, “In the twilight of life, God will not judge us on our earthly possessions and human success, but rather on how much we have loved.”

I also love what actress Marlene Dietrich famously said about the summer twilight — namely that it should be prescribed by doctors. It certainly heals something in me at day’s end.

A friend I mentioned this to not long ago sent me a short poem by a gifted Black poet named Joshua Henry Jones Jr., a son of South Carolina who passed away about the time Miss Jesse was teaching me to “feet dance” in my mama’s kitchen.

It’s called “In Summer Twilight” and nicely sums up my crepuscular passion.

Just a dash of lambent carmine

Shading into sky of gold;

Just a twitter of a song-bird

Ere the wings its head enfold;

Just a rustling sigh of parting

From the moon-kissed hill to breeze;

And a cheerful gentle, nodding

Adieu waving from the trees;

Just a friendly sunbeam’s flutter

Wishing all a night’s repose,

Ere the stars swing back the curtain

Bringing twilight’s dewy close.

Now, if I could only find that sweet gospel hymn that still plays in my head.  PS

Jim Dodson can be reached at

Simple Life

“The Cocktail Cat”

The spirit of a roaming feline

By Jim Dodson

I have a friend who never fails to show up at cocktail time.

Wherever he’s been, whatever he’s been up to all day, he appears like clockwork as I settle into my favorite Adirondack chair under the trees to enjoy a sip of fine bourbon and observe the passing scenes of evening life.

Fortunately, he doesn’t drink bourbon. He doesn’t do much of anything, near as I can tell, except annoy the dogs and pester me well before dawn for his breakfast after a night out carousing the neighborhood, before snoozing all day on the sunny guest room bed like a house guest who won’t leave.

We call him Boo Radley after the peculiar character who saves Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Our Boo, an old, gray tomcat who would rather watch birds than chase them, hasn’t caught a bird of any sort in years.

At cocktail hour, rain or shine, you can set your watch by Boo’s punctuality. Hopping up on the arm of my chair or the small table where I set my whiskey while I reflect on the day’s events and find pleasure in watching birds at the feeders, Boo is either too fat or too old to bother trying to catch them. Even in his salad days he was never much of a killer, though he would leave the occasional mouse on a discreet lower step of our back porch.

Like his cinematic namesake, Boo’s an oddly friendly fellow once he gets to know you, though he generally doesn’t cotton quickly to strangers. Curiously, we’re half convinced several folks in the neighborhood are secretly feeding him, because he’s beginning to resemble a bowling pin. Perhaps he has them fooled into believing that he’s actually homeless. Nothing is further from the truth. He’s managed to ditch every expensive collar and bell we’ve put on him over the past 10 years in order to keep his dining ruse going.

In fact, Boo Radley has had at least three very nice homes. The first was in Southern Pines when No. 2 son brought him home on a cold winter evening. He was just a small gray foundling you could hold in the palm of your hand, a friendly little cuss who appeared half-starved and very grateful.

Second Son named him “Nikko,” which means “daylight” in Japanese, and planned to take him off to Boston, where his new job in the hospitality industry awaited. His mom wisely interceded, pointing out that the last place a homeless kitten needed to live was with a single career guy working long and impossible hours.

So we inherited Nikko. The first thing I did was give him a new name and identity.

He seemed to like the name Boo Radley, though who can ever say what a cat is really thinking.

I suppose that’s part of that peculiar feline charm. Dogs occupy space, someone said. Cats occupy time. They act like you’re on this planet to serve them and should be damn grateful to do so. Another friend who has several cats informs me that cats know the secret of the universe. They just won’t tell anybody.

During our many years in Maine, we had a succession of barn cats who wormed their way into our affections. As a lifelong dog lover who occupies more space than time, even I came to admire their independence and pluck, somehow surviving the fierce Maine winters and coyotes.

Boo grew up with our three dogs, sometimes sleeping with them, often stealing their food, giving them a passing swat now and then as a friendly reminder of who was really in charge. Bringing up Boo was like raising a problem child.

We eventually moved to a house that had 2 acres of overgrown gardens. Boo didn’t miss a beat. He was always out in the garden, night and day, either following me around or snoozing in the shade on hot summer afternoons. A neighbor warned us there were foxes in the area.

One evening around dusk, I saw Boo sprint across the yard, chased by a young gray fox. Moments later, I saw the young fox run the opposite way, chased by Boo Radley. This game of cat-and-fox tag went on for weeks. Nature will always surprise you.

Not long after that, we moved to the Piedmont city where I grew up and Boo found a new pal in the neighborhood, a large, brown, wild rabbit that comes out every evening around cocktail time to feed on clover and seeds from our busy bird feeders.

I named him “Homer” after the author of the epic Greek poem about a fellow who wanders for 10 years trying to get home. Our Homer seems very much at home in our yard, keeping a burrow beneath my hydrangea hedge.

Boo is highly territorial about our yard — woe to any other cat that sets foot on the property — but has no issue whatsoever about sharing space with a large wild rabbit. I’ve seen the two nose-to-nose many times over the years.

Such are so many sweet mysteries in this world that we cannot explain.

But maybe we don’t always need to. Perhaps it’s enough to simply notice them.

In his splendid essay, “A Philosopher Needs a Cat,” NYU religion professor James Carse writes: “It is not accidental that the word animal comes from the Latin anima, soul. The primitive practice of representing the gods as animals may not be so primitive after all. Soul is not only the small ‘still point of the Tao’ where there is no more separation between ‘this’ and ‘that,’ it is also the presence of the unutterable within.”

A mystic would probably say it’s enough to simply pay attention as different worlds intersect when we least expect it, revealing the presence of the unutterable within.

I have no idea what Boo Radley would say about such matters, being a cat of few — or actually no — words. He’s not one for small talk.

But after so many years and miles together in each other’s company, it’s enough that Cocktail Cat never fails to sit with me as the evening fades, season after season, displaying the kind of timeless nonjudgment and spiritual detachment a Buddhist monk might envy. Boo is perfectly companionable while betraying absolutely no opinion on — or apparent interest in — the trivial matters I present to him as we watch birds feed and I sip my expensive bourbon. At the end of the day, there doesn’t seem to be much separation between his “this” and my “that.”

It also occurs that maybe I have the philosophical proposition plum backwards. Perhaps this aging, well-traveled tom cat simply needs an armchair philosopher to sit with in silence at the end of the day.

Only the Cocktail Cat knows for sure, and he ain’t telling, a perfect presence of the unutterable within.  PS

Jim Dodson can be reached at

simple life

The Incomplete Gardener

We dream and scheme — and forever learn

By Jim Dodson

Over the past five years, I’ve been building a garden in the old neighborhood where I grew up, a garden of shade and light beneath towering oaks, and my third effort at a major landscape project.

Each one has been distinctly different from the one before it. The first was a woodland retreat I built on 15 acres atop a sunny coastal hill in Maine, carved out of a beautiful forest of beech and birch. I was a new father when the gardening bug bit with emphasis, inspired by the British sporting estates and spectacular public botanical gardens I routinely visited in my work as a golf editor and outdoors correspondent for a pair of national magazines.

My children spent the first decade of their lives on that hilltop, living in a rugged post-and-beam house I built with my own hands and never expected to leave. It was, or so I told myself, my dream home and private garden sanctuary, the last place on earth I would abandon. My own growing obsession with gardening even inspired me to spend two years researching and writing a book about the horticulture world, the beautiful madness that overtakes those who fall in love with shaping landscape.

It was difficult to say goodbye to that little piece of heaven, but life changes when you least expect. That’s an important lesson of living. When I had an opportunity to come home to the South and teach writing at a top Virginia university and start a trio of arts magazines across my home state of North Carolina, I didn’t hesitate.

Next came a cottage on two acres in Pinehurst that we inhabited for a year with the full intention of buying. The property came with a charming but wildly overgrown garden and an aging swimming pool. Over a full year, I liberated a handsome serpentine brick fence, rebuilt the garden and enclosed the property with a new wooden fence and gate. We also updated the pool and enjoyed it for the span of one lovely summer. Our golden retriever, Ajax, particularly enjoyed the pool, taking himself for a dip every morning and floating for hours on his own air mattress.

The problem was the cottage. It was built over a forest swamp and turned out, upon the required inspection for sale, to have massive mold below decks. The entire structure had to be immediately evacuated and gutted. We took a bath on the deal, a gamble, and lost a small fortune. But such is life. One lives, learns and moves on.

The mid-century house we bought six years ago in the Piedmont city where I grew up was built by the Corry family — a beautiful California-style bungalow that was Big Al Corry’s dream house. Mama Corry was the last to live in it, and the family was thrilled when they learned we were buying it because I had grown up two doors away from the Corry boys.

As we approach six years on the grounds, restoration of the house is nearly complete. Sometime later this summer, after I finish the stone pathways and install a new wooden fence and gate, my latest woodland garden will be complete as well.

Or will it?

One of the lessons I’ve learned from building three ambitious gardens is that a garden is never complete — and neither is its creator.

We don’t just grow a garden. It continually grows us.

I think of this phenomenon as the garden within.

We scheme and dream, we build and revise, we learn from the past, forever growing.

As my friend Tony Avent, the gifted Raleigh plantsman once told me during the five weeks we spent together hunting aboriginal plants in the upland wilds of South Africa, no garden — or gardener — is ever complete.

“You’re not really a serious gardener until you’ve killed a lot of innocent plants,” he pointed out, “and learned from the experience. You just have to get down in the dirt and do it.”

I blame verdure in the bloodstream and dirt beneath my fingernails for this earthly addiction, probably a legacy of the old Piedmont family of rural farmers, gardeners and preachers from Alamance and Orange counties that I hail from. When I was a kid, both my parents were devoted amateur landscape gardeners. My father’s thing was lawns and shrubs, and my mother was widely admired for her spectacular peonies and roses come May and June.

A few years back, about the time Ajax the dog was enjoying his daily floats in a swimming pool we rebuilt but never owned, a lovely woman who purchased my family’s home got in touch. She was planning to sell the house in order to move into a senior adult community — and wouldn’t I like to come and dig up some of my mom’s spectacular peonies?

I thanked her and promised I would soon drop by, shovel in hand. But, sadly, I got so busy with work and travel, I failed to get there before the house was sold and the peony row was plowed under by the new owners.

Another life lesson from the garden — everything in life has an expiration date. Delay may cost regret.

But sometimes, when you least expect it, another opportunity comes along, a chance for more growth.

This latest garden saved my sanity during the lost days of the COVID pandemic. It’s designed for hot summer days now upon us, cooled by more than 20 flowering trees I’ve planted around the property, creating my version of an urban woodland retreat — a Scottish vale, as I imagine it — where birds gather to feed each evening and the aging gardener sits with a fine bourbon in hand, still scheming and dreaming.

In the meantime, this month, the new peony row I planted last summer in memory of my mom — using the same small wooden-handled pot she used to plant things in her garden — should really be something to see.  PS

Jim Dodson is the founding editor of O.Henry.

Simple Life

The Kindness of Strangers

And the strangeness of some kinds of people

By Jim Dodson

The other afternoon I was making a pleasant run to the garden center during early rush hour when I saw something I’ve never seen on a busy North Carolina street.

While waiting for the light to change at one of the busiest intersections in Greensboro, a woman next to me in a large, luxury SUV began edging out into the heavy stream of traffic crossing in front of us.

At first, I thought she might simply be unaware of her dangerous drift into moving traffic. She was, after all, visibly chatting on her phone and apparently oblivious to blaring horns of those who were forced to stop to avoid a collision. Within moments, however, traffic in both directions had halted. One man was actually yelling at her out his window, shaking a fist.

But on she merrily went, indifferent to the automotive mayhem left in her wake, the first red light I’ve ever seen run in slow motion.

For an instant, I wondered if I might have somehow been teleported to Italy or France where motorists seem to regard traffic lights and road signs as simple nuisances, a quaint if daunting European tradition of civil indifference to les autorités that evolved across the ages.

Having motored across all of Britain and most of France, Italy and Greece, I long ago concluded that driving there is both a blood sport and national pastime, an automotive funhouse to be both enjoyed and feared. When in Italy, for instance, my operational motto is: drive like the teenage Romeo with the pretty girl on the back of his Vespa who just cut you off in the roundabout with a rude gesture insulting your heritage. It’s all part of the cultural exchange.

But here in America, at least in theory, most of us grew up respecting traffic laws because we were force-fed driver’s education since early teen years, programs designed to make us thoughtful citizens of the public roadways.  (Quick aside: I have a dear friend whose teenage son has failed his driver’s license test — God bless his heart — for the fifth time, which must be some kind of statewide record; I’ve helpfully suggested she immediately ship him off to Sorrento, Italy, where he’s bound to find true and lasting happiness, a pretty girl, a nice Vespa scooter and no annoying driver’s test to complicate his life, rude gestures optional.)

All fooling aside, in cities across America, officials report that traffic accidents and automobile fatalities are approaching record levels. Some blame the COVID pandemic that has had the world so bottled up and locked down, presumably entitling folks behind the wheel to make up for lost time by driving like there’s no tomorrow — or at least no traffic laws.

In my town and possibly yours, is it my imagination or do more folks than ever seem to be blithely running stop signs, ignoring speed limits and driving like Mad Max on Tuscan holiday? Running a red light in slow motion may be the least of our problems.

The armchair sociologist in me naturally wonders if America’s deteriorating driving habits and growing automotive brinksmanship might simply be a symptom of the times, part of a general decline of public civility and respect for others that fuels everything from our toxic politics to the plague of violence against Asians.

Whatever is fueling the road rage and social mayhem, the remedy is profound, timeless and maddeningly elusive.

I saw the fix written on a sign my neighbor planted in her yard the other day.

Spread Happiness, it said.

I found myself thinking about my old man, an ad-man with a poet’s heart who believed kindness is the greatest of human virtues, a sign of a truly civilized mind. My nickname for him was Opti the Mystic because he believed even the smallest acts of kindness — especially to strangers — are seeds from which everything good in life grows. “If you are nothing else in life,” he used to advise my older brother and me, “being kind will take you to wonderful places.”

This from a fellow who’d been in the middle of a World War and experienced first-hand the worst things human beings can do to each other. He became the kindest man I’ve ever known.

In any case, Opti would have loved how a timely reminder of his message came home to me during another challenging automotive moment.

On a recent Saturday morning, after setting up my baker wife’s tent at the weekend farmers’ market where she sells her sinfully delicious cakes and such, I set off in my vintage Buick Roadmaster wagon to a landscape nursery on the edge of town to buy hydrangeas for my Asian garden.

On the drive home, however, I blew a front tire and barely made it off the highway into a Great Stops gas station before the tire went completely flat. I had no spare. To make matters worse, my cell phone had only one percent of a charge left just long enough to leave a quick desperate voicemail on my wife’s answering service before the dang thing went dead. The old Buick, of course, had no charger.

I walked into the service shop whispering dark oaths under my breath at such miserable timing, asking the personable young African American clerk if she could possibly give my phone a brief charge. I even offered to pay her for the help.

Her supervisor emerged from the office. When I explained that I was running errands for my wife when my day suddenly went flat, she gave me a big grin. “Bless your heart, child! Give me that phone!”

I handed it over. She shook her head and laughed. “You’re just like my husband. I can’t let that man go anywhere without him gettin’ into trouble! That’s husbands for you!”

Just like that, my good mood returned. Outside, a few minutes later, the tow truck arrived. The driver was named Danny Poindexter, a big burly white guy. He was having a long morning too. We dropped off my car at the auto service center and he graciously offered to drive me home to get my other car. It was the second surprising act of kindness from a stranger that morning. As we approached my street, I saw my neighbor’s pink Spread Happiness for the second time.

“What kind of cake do you like?” I asked Danny.

“Carrot cake,” Danny replied. “I love carrot cake.”

He dropped me off at home and I drove over to the farmers’ market and picked up a piece of my wife’s amazing carrot cake, phoned Danny and met him at a Wendy’s parking lot near his next job. He was deeply touched by the gesture. “This just makes my day,” he said, diving straight in.

I then drove back to the service station across town to pick up my phone — now fully charged — that I’d managed to forget in all the unexpected mayhem of the morning. I even offered to pay the ladies for their kindness to a stranger.

They simply laughed. “Oh, honey, that’s why we’re here!” said the manager. “I’m just glad you remembered to come back for your phone, so I didn’t have to chase your butt all over town!”

I drove home to plant my new hydrangeas in a happy state of mind, making a mental note to take the kind ladies of Great Stops my wife’s famous Southern-style caramel cake just to say thanks to strangers who are now friends.  PS

Jim Dodson can be reached at

Simple Life

The Cowboy in Me

Old Westerns are the cure for Yellowstone fever

By Jim Dodson

So, there we sat, three old ranch hands around a blazing fire as a lonesome doggie let loose a howl at the moon.

“Sounds like that dadgum dachshund down the street got loose again,” grunted Harry, the quick-draw artist sipping his Buffalo Trace.

“He’s pretty bad,” agreed Timmy the Kid, the tile-slinging merchant. “But that dang goldendoodle across the street ain’t much better. Got a howl on him like a stuck prairie dog.”

Counting women folk (cowboy-speak for “wives”) there actually were six of us gathered round the elegant Tuscan terrace fire pit in Tim and Sally’s beautiful backyard where our brides were drinking excellent white wine and chatting about whatever suburban wives talk about when their husbands are talking like dim-witted ranch hands who have watched too many episodes of Yellowstone, the hottest show on cable TV.

In case you’ve been livin’ under a flat rock in the woods, Yellowstone is the TV saga of rancher John Dutton and his proud but mentally unstable family, owners of the largest cattle ranch in Montana. They are in a perpetual war with an Indian reservation, the national park system and godless resort developers eager to turn their ranch into Club Med West. Think Dynasty with pump shotguns, F-bombs and luxury pickup trucks.

Whether you find Yellowstone appalling or hopelessly addictive, Yellowstone fever has spread like a case of terminal kudzu across the lower 48, turning ordinary dudes like Harry, Tim and briefly me into mini John Dutton wannabes.

As a result of the show’s surging ratings, there’s now even an official Yellowstone Merchandise TV Shop Collection peddling everything from home goods to coffee mugs for riding the urban range in your luxury pickup truck. Down at the auto mall, fancy rigs like the boys from Yellowstone drive can easily set you back 70K.

Back at Christmas, just for fun, I bought the little missus — a.k.a. my wife — an official Yellowstone ballcap and matching sweatshirt that reads, “Don’t Make Me Go Beth Dutton on You,” thinking she might ditch her daily green tea and morning yoga meditation in favor of going a little bit “Beth Dutton.” Every marriage needs a bit of spice.

In case you been watchin’ way too much CNN and worryin’ about stuff like the future of democracy and the free world, Beth Dutton is the smokin’ hot, potty-mouthed, always drunk, oversexed, mean-as-a-rattlesnake daughter of John Dutton, the stoical, monosyllabic, unnaturally stone-faced daddy-rancher with obvious deep inner conflicts, who every now and then shoots some dumb sumbitch who wants his land or wanders uninvited onto it. 

Unfortunately, while I was over at Tractor Supply one Saturday mornin’ trying to decide how many head of cattle I might be able to raise on a quarter acre suburban lot, the little lady dropped off her sexy new Beth Dutton duds to Goodwill — her way of saying the drunk and nasty lifestyle of the modern TV cowgirl just wasn’t her cup of green tea, with or without the Tito’s chaser.

For those of us who grew up in the 1960s idolizing cowboys like Gene Autry, Matt Dillon and Roy Rogers, not to mention the boys from Bonanza and the gals from The Big Valley, these Yellowstone folks aren’t exactly your polite, old-fashioned TV cowboy types who wear white hats, never seem to get dirty and always marry the pretty school mistress in the end.

Must admit, after binging three full seasons of Yellowstone, I suddenly began to miss those kinder and gentler Hollywood cowboys I grew up with and had every intention of someday becoming.

Sitting on a shelf in our library are a pair of small, well-worn cowboy boots, the only things on my feet for the first four years of my life. We lived in the rolling country north of Dallas, a neighborhood that shared a great big pasture full of horses and a burro named Oscar.

Oscar belonged to me — well, my folks. But I fed and talked to Oscar every morning and sometimes got to ride him in the afternoon. I always figured Oscar and I would someday ride off into the sunset together, meet the right gal and finally settle down. Instead, we moved to the city where I rode a bicycle instead of a burro and gave up my boots for a pair of Keds.

The old-style cowboy in me never died, though. He even still shows up from time to time, like when — in search of the Golf Channel or an update on Ukraine — I stumble across old episodes of The Virginian or Maverick on some remote cable channel and watch the entire episode, remembering exactly what happens. Give me a classic John Wayne western or John Ford epic on TCM and I’m also good for the count.

Several years ago, my wife surprised me with tickets to see Glen Campbell at an outdoor arena in Raleigh. Reportedly suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, Campbell was making his farewell musical tour.

Unfortunately, a thunderstorm broke right at showtime, and Campbell managed only a brief appearance to sing one song before the show was canceled. He passed on not long afterward.

I guess even rhinestone cowboys never die, though, as long as you have their complete hits on Spotify or Pandora radio. When folks drive like the Wild West in my town, I just sing along with Glen.

Twenty-five years ago, I took my daughter, Maggie, then a precocious 7, on an unforgettable, two-month road trip to fish and camp the great trout rivers of the West. We tented beneath glittering stars by the Shoshone River and attended the Friday night rodeo in Cody. We took a rocking McKenzie boat down the Snake and camped for two days in Yellowstone, saw buffalo and a gray wolf, hiked for miles, and drank our bodyweight in root beer. For a full week we rode horses in the Colorado high country around Durango and camped atop a star-strewn mesa in New Mexico. On the way home, we even bumped into the great-granddaughter of outlaw Jesse James near the Red River. She was a nice old lady with a killer smile.

Though I didn’t tell my daughter this for many years, the cowboy in me was actually scouting out places where I could start a new life following a divorce — somewhere in the wide-open, Western spaces where I could stake a new claim, hear the doggies sing and never look back. 

It didn’t quite work out that way, but the trip sure healed something in both of us and bonded us like saddle pals on the old Chisholm Trail. The little memoir I wrote about our journey of the heart is still in print all these years later — and even got made into a film. Maggie herself now lives in the Golden West.

I guess that’s why I was initially drawn to the saga of the Duttons of Yellowstone Ranch, hoping to find some comforting trace of the Western spirit — the inner cowboy — that lives in all of us.

But after three full seasons of Yellowstone, I simply had enough. I went back to old TV Westerns and John Ford movies that never fail to deliver.

My little missus — better known as my wife, Wendy — knew just the thing to perk me up. She brought me a nice big glass of milk and some Oreos as we settled in to watch a couple of my favorite episodes of The Big Valley.  PS

Jim Dodson can be reached at

Simple Life

The Baker’s Assistant

How sweet it is

By Jim Dodson

Not long ago, my wife, Wendy, joined 47 million foot soldiers of the Great Resignation by retiring early from her job as the longtime director of human resources for Sandhills Community College.

She loved her job at the college. It was fun and fulfilling in almost every way.

But something more was missing — and revealed — when COVID invaded all our lives.

Simply put, it was time to follow her heart and do something she’d envisioned doing even before I met her 25 years ago: to start her own gourmet, custom-baking company called Dessert du Jour.

News late last year that an innovative shared community kitchen for food entrepreneurs (called The City Kitch, based in Charlotte) was opening branches in Greensboro and Raleigh propelled her into action. She signed up for the first private kitchen studio and got to work preparing for her debut at a popular outdoor weekend market just before Christmas, selling out everything she baked in a couple hours. It was a promising start.

I should pause here and explain that Wendy is no novice or newcomer to the luxury baking world. Even while masterfully holding down a demanding career over the past two decades, she made stunning custom wedding cakes, luscious pies, artistic cookies and other baked delicacies for friends and neighbors.

As I say, she was already wowing customers in Syracuse, New York, when we met during one of my book tours in 1998, and she agreed to go on a formal first date that turned out to be, as I fondly think of it, baptism by baby wedding cakes.

To briefly review, on a brisk autumn evening after a seven-hour drive between my house in Maine and her home in Syracuse, I arrived just in time to find Wendy cheerfully boxing up 75 miniature, exquisitely decorated wedding cakes for some demented daughter of a Syracuse corporate raider.

“Oh, good,” she beamed, flushing adorably with a dollop of icing on her button nose, as I appeared. “Want to help me box these up and take them around the neighborhood for me?”

How could I refuse? Her neighbors, it seemed, had offered space in their refrigerators and freezers until the cakes could be delivered to the wedding hall in the morning.

Truthfully, I don’t recall much about being pressed into service as an impromptu delivery man. I just have this vague memory of carefully boxing up dozens of the beautiful little cakes and bearing them all gussied up with elegant ribbons and bows to her lady pals around the cul-du-sac. “Oh,” one actually cooed as she looked me over. “You must be the new boyfriend from Maine. Careful you don’t put on 50 pounds. Wendy’s cakes are awesome.”

I gave her my best Joe Friday impersonation. “Never tasted ’em, ma’am. Just here to help out the baker lady.”

Happy to report, the baby wedding cakes made it safely to the wedding hall the next day without incident. The grateful baker lady even thoughtfully saved one of the gorgeous little cakes for the trip home to Maine.

I’m embarrassed to say I never sampled it. Cake wasn’t my thing, probably because I grew up with a mama who annually made me a birthday cake from a Betty Crocker box mix and store-bought frosting that tasted like chocolate-flavored sawdust with icing. I gave Wendy’s baby wedding cake to my children, who absolutely loved it.

Another issue emerged on my next visit to Syracuse, our critical second date. When I breezed into her kitchen with a bottle of her favorite wine before we went out to dinner, I found her putting the finishing touches on another masterpiece of the baker’s art.

Sitting nearby on her kitchen counter, however, was a beautiful wicker basket full of popcorn, my all-time favorite snack food. As she opened the wine, I grabbed a big handful of what I thought was popcorn.

Her lovely face fell. It turned out to be a groom’s cake that only looked like a wicker basket full of popcorn.

Profusely apologizing, as I licked the evidence of the crime off my greedy fingers, figuring this might be our last date, I had something of a dessert awakening.

“Hey, this is really good. I don’t even like cake. What’s in this?”

To my relief, she laughed. “Only the finest Swiss white-chocolate, sour-cream cake with salted buttercream. But no worries. I can make another one pretty quickly. Let’s just get Chinese takeout for dinner while I work.”

I’d never seen such composure under fire. Right then and there I decided to propose to this remarkable woman and even confessed my sad history with Betty Crocker, wondering if she would do the honor of becoming my wife and someday making me a birthday cake.

“Sure,” she said. “I’ll even make you a Betty Crocker box cake if you want it.”

Talk about a selfless act of love! This was like inviting a Wine Spectator judge to enjoy a lovely bottle of Boone’s Farm’s Strawberry Hill or LeRoy Neiman to do a doodle of a racehorse! She actually made me a box-mix cake, which I took one taste of and dumped in the garbage.

Fortunately, by the time our wedding rolled around two years later, Dame Wendy had schooled me up like a pastry chef’s apprentice, a culinary awakening sealed by my first taste of her incredible old-fashioned caramel cake — which she now makes me every year for my birthday (along with a sour cherry pie). 

Not surprisingly, the spectacular cake she made for our outdoor wedding beneath a gilded September moon disappeared without a trace before I could even get a taste. Our greedy guests left nary a morsel and even took home extra pieces stuffed in their pockets. 

Since that time, a long and steady stream of fabulous specialty cakes, cookies, pies, scones, muffins and the best cinnamon rolls ever made have flowed from her ovens to the tables of friends, family and customers from Maine to Carolina.

Which is why the creation of Dessert du Jour is such a milestone for the love of my life. She’s never been happier, launching her little dream company at a time we’d all like to see in the rearview mirror as soon as possible. In the meantime, she shares her happiness with others, one gorgeous theme cookie or slice of roasted pecan-studded carrot cake at a time.

And for the moment at least, I have the honor and pleasure of still being her sole employee, the one who puts up the tent and tables at the street market and delivers the goods wherever I’m sent around town, a baker’s assistant happily paid in cake tops and leftover cinnamon rolls.

I ask you, does life get any sweeter than that?  PS

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Jim Dodson can be reached at

Simple Life

A Gentle Nudge

Mysteries of the golfing universe


By Jim Dodson

Not long ago, the host of a popular golf radio show asked me who I most enjoy playing golf with these days. We were discussing the various golfers and assorted eccentrics I’ve met, interviewed, and written about over a long and winding career.

“These days, I like to play golf with old guys,” I said without hesitation, “like my friend Harry.”

“So, who is Harry?” he asked.

Harry, I explained, is a gifted artist and nationally known cartoonist I’ve known for many years. He has a wry sense of humor, a beautiful tempo in his golf swing, and a refreshing take on life. Harry is 76 years old, deaf in at least one ear, losing bits of his eyesight, and battling a rogue sciatic nerve in his left leg that sometimes makes swinging a club difficult.

He was once a splendid single-digit player who now aims for bogey golf, and never gets too rattled by whatever the game gives him. He accepts that bad breaks happen and are simply part of this maddening Presbyterian game, not worth fretting about. So are aging body parts that can’t propel the ball the way they once did.

Instead, Harry plays for the occasional fine shot, the rare good break, and the fellowship of his companions that includes a good bit of affectionate needling and laughter. He’s never had an ace, but holds out hope of someday shooting his age, the proverbial goal of every aging golfer.

Though I’m almost a decade younger than Harry — he jokes that I am a pre-geezer in training — I love playing with him because he is a model of what I hope to be like in the rapidly shrinking years ahead: a man who has loved the game since he was a boy and loves it just as much, though differently, as an old man. He is living proof that the game can grow sweeter as the clock runs down.

Golf has been part of his life since he was 10 or 11 years old and an uncle allowed him to pick a club from a barrel of used irons. He chose a battle-scarred 7-iron and the set that went with it.

“It was a set of Dalton Hague clubs, really beautiful. I played with them for years bragging that I owned real Dalton Hague signature golf clubs.” He pauses and chuckles. “They turned out to be Walter Hagen clubs that had just been beaten to death. But oh, how I loved those clubs.”

We often meet late in the afternoon for nine holes at a beautiful municipal course set on a wide lake well out of town, surrounded by mature hardwood forests with no houses, streets or power lines visible anywhere. We often pause to watch the action as shadows lengthen and nature reawakens — deer crossing fairways, waterfowl in flight. We rarely bother to keep a score. We just play, talk, be.

Harry’s favorite hole is the short par-4 seventh that angles down toward the lake, with an approach over a wooded cove to an elevated green backdropped by a breathtaking view of the water. He has sketched and painted it several times, aiming to get it just right. “Isn’t this something?” he’ll say with a note of quiet wonder, pausing before his approach shot that sometimes lands in the water of the cove, sometimes just feet from the pin.

If nothing else, getting older also makes it easier to laugh in the face of Father Time. “That’s the easiest 69 I ever made,” Walter Hagen — aka Dalton Hague — playfully quipped upon turning 69.

One afternoon not long ago, as we were watching a spectacular chevron of geese heading south for the winter over the lake from his favorite spot on the course, Harry told me a little golf story that speaks of wonder and mystery.

After Harry’s mom passed away, her final wish was that Harry and his younger sister take her ashes and those of Harry’s father down to a lake in a park at Carolina Beach, where the couple first met and later married. Harry promised he would do that.

His sister was a busy surgical nurse. Her unpredictable schedule repeatedly delayed their planned journey to the coast. It happened month after month. One afternoon he was playing golf with a partner who was particularly wild off the tee.

“I was helping him look for his ball deep in the woods, when I stepped over a downed tree and saw a golf ball sitting on top of a rotting log — almost like someone had placed it there. I picked it up and tossed it over to my companion. But it wasn’t his ball so he tossed it back. It was a very old ball. When I looked at it, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”

The ball’s colorful logo read Carolina Beach.

One word was printed on the opposite side — Mom.

“It sent chills down my spine. A day later, I drove my folks’ ashes down to Carolina Beach — four hours away — and spread them in the lake at a spot that meant so much to their life together. I felt real peace at that moment.”

As he told me this, he pulled the ball out of his bag and handed it to me.

“I’ve carried it with me ever since,” he explained with a very Harry-like smile. “This game, this life, is wonderfully unexplainable, isn’t it?”

Simple coincidence or a gentle nudge from the golfing universe? Harry’s not sure. And neither am I. But that’s part of the wonder of this game.

As we played on, hitting occasional nice shots and mishits that will never be recorded, it struck me that there was, as usual, a nice little message in Harry’s seventh-hole homily, perfectly timed for a couple “old” friends on a golden afternoon at the end of their golf season; yet another reason to be thankful for the game I aim to play just like Harry until I either shoot my age or simply fly away like geese in the autumn.  PS

Jim Dodson can be reached at


Illustration by Gerry O’Neill

Simple Life

Meaningful Happiness

When you think about it, the ordinary becomes extraordinary

By Jim Dodson

I bumped into a friend in the produce section at the market. We had not seen each other since the start of the pandemic — well over a year ago, if not longer — long enough for me to briefly forget her name, though maybe I was just having the proverbial senior moment.

In any case, when I asked how she’d been, she simply smiled. “Like everyone, it’s been pretty challenging. But, also kind of revealing. It may sound funny, but I discovered that picking beautiful vegetables to cook for my family makes me really happy. Previously, shopping seemed more like a necessary chore than a privilege. I guess I’ve learned that the ordinary things provide the most meaningful happiness.”

We wished each other safe and happy holidays and said goodbye. She went off to the organic onions and I went in search of the special spiced apple cider that only comes round during the autumn holidays — an ordinary thing, it suddenly struck me, that provides “meaningful” happiness to my taste buds. For what it’s worth, though too late to count, I also suddenly remembered my friend’s name: Donna.

Quite honestly, in all the years I’ve steeped my tin-cup soul into the works of great spiritual teachers, classical philosophers, transcendental thinkers, Lake District poets and street-corner cranks, I’d never come across the phrase meaningful happiness.

But suddenly — like an ear-burrowing TV jingle or a favorite song from the 1970s — I couldn’t get the idea of it out of my head.

Mankind’s search for happiness and meaning, of course, probably constitutes the oldest quest on Earth, beginning with a fabled naked couple in a heavenly garden, though as any ancient sage worthy of his or her plinth will tell you, true happiness is not something you can acquire from the outside world. Even a fashionable fig leaf can only cover so much.

Objects and possessions can certainly provide a shot of pleasure, but they invariably lose their power to possess us somewhere down the line as rust and dust prevail. At the end of the day, as our wise old grandmothers patiently advised, true happiness can only come from the way you think about who you are and what you choose to do. As a famous old Presbyterian preacher once remarked to me as we sat together on his porch on a golden Vermont afternoon: “What we choose to worship, dear boy, is what we eventually become.”

This curious idea of meaningful happiness, in any case, struck me as a highly useful tool — a way of defining or, better, refining — what kinds of people, things and moments in life are worthy of our close attention in a world that always seems to be beyond our control and on the verge of coming apart at the seams. For most of us, like my friend Donna’s awakening among the vegetables, the art of discovering meaningful happiness simply lies in recognizing the ordinary people, things and moments that fill up and grace an average day.

My gardening hero, Thomas Jefferson — “I’m an old man but a new gardener,” as he once wrote to a friend — was an inveterate list-maker. And so am I.

So, naturally, I began taking mental inventory of the blessedly small and ordinary people, things and moments that provide meaningful happiness in a time like no other I can recall.

I’m sure — or simply hope — you have you own list. Here’s a brief sampling of mine:

Rainy Sundays give me meaningful happiness. The heavens replenishing my private patch of Eden. No fig leaf needed.

Speaking of which, I’ve spent most of the pandemic building an ambitious Asian-inspired shade garden in my backyard, though probably more Bubba than Buddha if you want to know the Gospel. Even so, it’s granted me great peace and purpose, untold hours of pondering and planning, no small amount of dreaming while digging in the soil, delving in the soul, bringing an artist who works in red clay a little bit closer to God’s heart.

Unexpected phone calls from his far-flung children provide this papa serious meaningful happiness. They grew up in a beautiful beech forest in Maine, assured by their old man that kindness and imagination could take them anywhere in the world. Today, one lives in Los Angeles and works in film, the other is a working journalist in the Middle East. They are telling the stories of our time. This gives the old man simple joy from two directions, East and West.

Courteous strangers also make me uncommonly happy these days — people who smile, open doors for others, wear the world with an unhurried grace. Ditto people who use turn signals and don’t speed to make the light, saving lives instead of time; those who realize the journey is really the point. For this reason, I always take the back road home.

Mowing the lawn for the first time in spring makes me surprisingly happy, as does mowing it for the final time in autumn, bedding down the yard.

In summer, I love nothing better than an afternoon nap with the windows wide open; or watching the birds feed at sunset with an excellent bourbon in hand, evidence of a growing appreciation for what our Italian friends call Dolce far niente — “The sweetness of doing nothing.” Ditto golf with new friends and lunch with old ones, early church, old Baptist hymns and well-worn jeans. My late Baptist granny would be appalled.

Let me be clear, eating anything in Italy makes me wondrously happy — for a few blessed hours, at least.

Watching the winter stars before dawn makes me blessedly happy, too, along with wool blankets, the first snow, homemade eggnog, the deep quiet of Christmas Eve, the mystery of certain presents, long walks with the dogs, writing notes by hand and my wife’s incredible cinnamon crumb apple pie.

This list could go on for a while, dear friends. It’s as unfinished as its owner.

But time is precious, and you have better things to do this month — like shop, eat and be merry with the friends and family you may not have been with in years.

Let me just say that I hope December brings you true meaningful happiness.

Whatever that means to you.  PS

Jim Dodson can be reached at

Simple Life

The Last Ride

A legendary car, two old dogs and the end of the road in sight

By Jim Dodson

I knew this day would eventually come.

In recent years, I’ve pushed the thought to the back of my mind that it might be time to say goodbye and hand her off to someone who can restore her to her glory.

But every time I take her for a spin, by Jove, The Pearl works her automotive magic on me, riding like a dream, cruising the world on eight cylinders and a Corvette engine. With her roomy leather seats and patented “Dynaride” suspension system, she’s still like driving in your living room. We’ve been together a dozen years, almost half The Pearl’s life and almost one-sixth of mine. We survived the Great Recession, the end of cassette players and four teenagers. My dog Mulligan has spent most of her long life riding shotgun in The Pearl. Oh, the places we’ve been together up and down the highway!

The Pearl is a 1996 Buick Roadmaster estate station wagon, reportedly the last true production wagon that General Motors made before switching to prissy little SUVs.

The mighty Roadmaster is an American automotive icon, introduced in 1936 as the nation began to crawl out from under the Great Depression. Its creators had this nutty idea that Americans getting back on their feet might want to take the family on a road trip to see the land of the free and the home of the brave. With its oversized windows, sleek lines, wide chassis, faux wooden siding, “vista roof” and proverbial third seat facing backwards, the versatile Roadmaster wagon was just the ticket for seeing America from ground level.

The end of the Roadmaster line came in 1996 when 22,989 models rolled off the assembly line for the last time.

Mine entered the life of a nice gentleman from New Jersey who loved the car so much he kept the dashboard covered with protective felt and put only 60,000 miles on its odometer over 12 years.

Fate and quiet desperation brought us together when my children began stealing the Volvos and Subarus to go off to college. I wrote a newspaper column joking that I was shopping for a car like the one my old man drove when I was a kid — a gas-guzzling monster of the American highway that no enlightened, environmentally-minded Millennial would be caught dead riding in around town. It turns out, that car was a Buick Roadmaster wagon.

Not two days after the column appeared, a woman phoned to say, “Mr. Dodson, I am here to make you a happy man.”

Her father and mother were residents of a local senior living community. They owned a 1996 Buick Roadmaster station wagon that the daughter had fooled her father into giving up, lest he injure himself or someone else due to his declining driving habits.

“My father bought the car new and absolutely adores it,” she explained. “We all loved it. It took me off to college and helped me move several times. She has a few dings but still runs like a dream. But it has to go.”

She explained that a vintage car buff out West was interested in buying it — Roadmasters were apparently big with car collectors — but if I wanted to check it out at a local garage, she would consider selling it to me.

“If you don’t buy this car,” said the mechanic, handing me the keys for a test drive, “I probably will. They don’t make cars like this anymore.”

I purchased it an hour later. My wife laughed when she saw it pull into the driveway. “Oh my,” she said. “That really is your father’s Buick.”

No. 1 son — the Subaru thief — asked if he could take the car off to college. Not a chance, I told him.

No. 2 son pointed out that my Roadmaster model was ranked No. 7 on the “official list of Best Cars to Own in the Event of a Zombie Apocalypse.” He wondered if he could take it for a spin.

“Maybe after the zombie apocalypse,” I said.

I had, after all, my own big plans for this oversized jewel of the 20th Century American highway.

For many years — decades, actually — I’d dreamed of finding and traveling the Great Wagon Road of Colonial America, the famous backcountry highway that brought thousands of Scots-Irish, German and other European immigrants to the American South during the 18th century, including my own English and Scottish forebears.

Historians and old road experts had recently determined the Great Road’s original path from Philadelphia to Augusta, Georgia — an 850-mile land route that passed through some of the most historic battlefields, towns and sacred landscapes of early America.

Dan’l Boone and his family traveled it from Pennsylvania to the banks of the Yadkin River. The most pivotal battles of the Revolutionary War were fought along the highway, including engagements at Cowpens, Kings Mountain and Guilford Courthouse, leading to the British surrender at Yorktown. 

America’s first immigrant highway also bisected the killing fields of the American Civil War at Antietam and Gettysburg, where Abraham Lincoln — whose grandfather lived on the Great Road in Virginia — gave the Gettysburg Address on a hill just above the highway. By my count, in fact, no less than seven U.S. presidents were either born directly on or traveled the Great Wagon Road most of their lives. The Scots-Irish brought their balladry, fiddle music and God-given talent for fighting (and making corn whiskey) down the road, giving birth to Bluegrass in the hollers of Appalachia.

Four summers ago, after years of research and planning, my dog Mulligan and I set off along the road in our own Great Wagon, which a colleague at work nicknamed The Pearl, hoping to travel the entire route in two or three weeks.

Silly me. It took a month just to get out of Pennsylvania. The abundance of great stories and memorable people we met along the road turned an 800-mile road trip into a three-year, 3,000-mile odyssey of discovery that recently drew to a close, including a year of travel lost due to COVID.

Though she is showing her age and is more dinged up than ever, The Pearl managed to make the entire journey and then some. She brought us home with an engine that still runs like a dream.

Along the way, she provided absolute strangers with fond memories of their own childhood. “My father had a car just like that,” they would say with a note of pure wonder. “It was my favorite family car.” A man in the parking lot at Gettysburg actually offered to buy The Pearl. “How much do you want for her?” he asked.

“Nothing,” I replied. “But I might someday give her to the right person.”

He handed me a card, which I promptly lost.

Since finishing the road last autumn, The Pearl has mostly been my gardening car, hauling shrubs and mulch, though Miss Mulligan and I go out for a spin every now and then.

Mully is now 16, The Pearl is pushing 25. The last ride can’t be far away.

But what a time we’ve had, what a sweet journey it’s been. PS

Jim Dodson can be reached at