An escapee to the desert


In 2006, Ken Wozniak moved from Chicago to Chapparal, New Mexico, a small town near the state's arid southern border.

Friends at the time thought he was crazy.

A retired U.S. Army veteran and the bearer of three purple hearts, Wozniak builds custom motorcycles and works as a security guard to pass the time. He lives for a fraction of the price he did in Chicago on 7 1/2 acres with his wife, nine dogs and assortment of other pets.

He wasn't too sad to leave behind the cold weather and traffic.

"It's a totally different lifestyle. You come from the hustle and bustle to laid-back and easy customs," he says. I would never go back."

Shakespeare cowboy


With less than a thousand year-round residents and an economy based largely on tourism, Bandera is the self-proclaimed "cowboy capitol of the world."

Bandera resident Jon Curry, a musician, has a way with words to go along with his style.

"In most tourist towns, there is a sense that it's orchestrated or contrived," he tells me in a born-and-raised Texan drawl. "But here there is a palpable genuineness seldom found elsewhere."

About his outfit: "It's really just a pair of blue jeans and boots."

Though on closer inspection, we counted six layers, which qualifies as deliberate dressing, in my book.

When there’s frost on the port-a-potty…


I solicited travel advice from jeweler Meredith Ott at a Christmas craft fair in downtown Comfort, a small town in the picturesque hill country region of Texas.

Ott has a home IMG_5243 in Canyon Lake, northest of San Antionio, but travels the craft fair circuit much of the year in a Volkswagen pop-top camper with her cats.

"I love the Texas hill country in winter and Colorado in summer," she says. "I have a rule: when there is frost on my little port-a-potty, it's time to come back to Texas."

Four years after the storm


In Bay St. Louis, Miss. – 20 minutes west of Biloxi and an hour northeast of New Orleans – a woman living with her dog in an RV is not that out of the ordinary.

This is where the eye of Hurricane Katrina touched down in August 2005, causing more devastation than any recorded before her in the country.

Miles of sandy beaches and nary a tourist greet me in early November. Posts from decimated houses sit like forgotten bones.

For every grocery store, restaurant, bait stand and gas station, two or three are closed indefinitely.

The quiet is a vacation after Florida's coast line, Boston, Manhattan.

It's a sad quiet, though, like a ghost town.

Locals still talk about the aftermath.

Bodies, vehicles, and people's belongings were strewn like litter.

People slept wherever they could. The street lights were out and you could see the stars.

The insects were terrible. It was hot and humid.

Pet dogs roamed the city in packs.

Men reverted to instinct, too.

In New Orleans, where the levees broke, there was violence and looting. But here crime was kept mostly in check by the National Guard.

Store employees gave away food and toiletries.

A.J. Sconza, 59, and his wife Patricia, 68, were working the closing shift at Wal-Mart the afternoon before the hurricane.

Aj A.J. waited for Patricia to check out the final customers, so they could drive to a relative's home further inland. By the time she finished, they realized there wasn't time.

They drove to their small one-story home in Bay St. Louis to ride out the storm.

"The wind was so loud, we had to yell to each other to talk. And then the water came in," says A.J., tears forming in his eyes.

In less than an hour, it went from a tiny pool he tried to sweep away to 4 1/2 feet above the living room floor.

"And my wife can't swim. She's tiny. I hugged her and I kissed her and I said, 'Good bye. We ain't gonna make it. I love you and I'll see you in Heaven.'"

But the water stopped.

It wasn't their time.

Days later A.J. dedicated his life to God and more than four years later is an

active member of Calvary Chapel, where he helps whoever and whenever he can.

"I dont have no regrets, I'm just full of joy. I've been in and out of jobs, but

I'm not worried about it because the Lord gonna take care of me," he says.

"I've heard of so much death since we've been here,” says Andrea Langham, Andrea who moved to the area with her husband Kris from Huntington Beach, Calif. a couple years ago. Kris is the church's pastor.

“And it's not just older people. It's drugs and suicide,” she continues. “So, there's still a lot of hurt here."

The Langhams were among those who came in teams organized by a group of Calvary Chapel pastors. They fed people three meals a day under a circus tent set up in a Bay St. Louis ball field.

The meals and sermons went on for about a year after the storm. Then restaurants began to reopen and the city asked the church to stop.

Church member Stephanie Luxich, 52, a lifelong resident of Bay St. Louis, population 6,000, remembers those days.Stephanie

She lost her apartment in the hurricane and has lived in transitional settings, doing a variety of temporary work.

She also recalls how a decade before the storm, the now quiet city had started to boom. People bought property sight unseen. With its small-town charm and uncluttered beaches, Bay St. Louis was the new place to be. Real estate prices skyrocked.

Since then, about a third of the population has left.

"I always thought I was going to die here,” says Luxich. “But then Katrina changed everything. Nothing is forever.”

Luxich has learned to appreciate blessings amid the chaos – such as the year she spent in a 450-square-foot FEMA-issue cottage with sea green interior and crown molding.

She had it placed at the edge of her niece's property, near the water.

“I'd always wanted to live on the beach,” she says. “I couldn't afford it.”

"When you've been through a lot of stuff, it's just too much effort to stress about things," she adds. "He (God) has provided me with exactly what I need."

A Floridian pit bull owner

I met Jim Martens, 75, at a gas station
near Santa Rosa Beach, Fla. 

He saw my dog IMG_4977 and my license plates and
we realized we had some stuff in common.

Martens, a former U.S. Marine, Army and
police officer used to live in Spokane, Wash.

He recently adopted a pit bull puppy.

Originally from Indiana, he's lived in
several places, but is happy to retire near the panhandle coast of the sunshine

He says the occupations he's had have
made him see America differently.

His services were paid for by
taxpayers, but often benefited those on the sidelines.

“In a way, I wish in my day, I'd have
seen a lot more of the country,” says Martens.
Then adds: “I've
got a good life, a good wife and good kids.”

And, I hope, a good new addition to the
All the best with your puppy, Jim!


Martens pointed me in the direction of
this beach, which was a definite find, because parking was scarce
everywhere else I looked….

A trip to the Billy Graham Library


While in Charleston, North Carolina, Helen Fergusun, 76, visited the Billy Graham Library, a multimedia gallery that explains the mission of the famed preacher.

Fergusun, from Nocona, Texas, attended a crusade rally in Ft. Worth, during the 80s.

"It was wonderful, so many people there and such a high response," she says. "You go away trembling of what weak person you are and what life would be without him (Jesus)."


Graham, 90, grew up on a dairy farm in the Charleston area, and has been a noted international evangelist for about six decades. He was one of the first to bring his message to people through television and had to convince church leaders to embrace that technology.

During countless crusades, nationally and internationally, Graham reiterated the same gospel message.

He welcomed interaction with talk show hosts and political leaders, but refrained from himself becoming a polarized figure.

A noted exception occurred in 1952, when Graham took a stand against segregation by physically removed the ropes separating black and white audience members at one of his crusades.

It smells different in Appalachia


I met former Appalachian Mountains resident Pam Harris, 52, near her home in the Boston area, of all places.

Though she left Wise, Virginia 27 years ago, she carries her accent with her and a way of looking at the world.

"The first thing you'll notice is that it smells different there," she told me of the area straddling the mountain ridge between Virginia and West Virginia.

And of the roads: "Some of those turns will knock you on your face!"

Due to rain, exhaustian and conflicting travel plans, I avoided the crazy swtichbacks and only ventured as far as Oakdale, West Virginia, on the northeast edge of classic Appalachia.

I did notice the air smelled fresh and kind of sweet – almost like someone in the distance was baking bread.

I found it incredible that there were five churches in a three mile area on Old 460, and wished it was Sunday morning.

In Oakdale, there were trailers and houses in various states abutting the banks of a beautiful river, a pickup truck piled with tied trash bags, a vacant looking fire station and some kind of community center or school.

One man who looked to be in his thirties was working near the road and gave me a routine salute as I drove past in my RV. Otherwise, I saw very few people.

The Applachian towns sprang up around coal mines and many have dwindled in population with the industry's decline.

After leaving Wise, Harris says she was hurt to hear people stereotype Appalachian residents as stupid or unsophisticated.

"The two insults people (from the Appalachian Mountain towns) can't tolerate about them is they're liars or lazy. You esteem to tell the truth and you esteem to not be lazy, because those things are important to how the mountains work."

With her accent and value system, Harris knows she could go back and be accepted instantly. In the Boston area, it took a while to make friends.

To this day, her way of speaking confounds some New Englanders.

"Some people speak slowly to me," she says. "I speak slowly back to them!"

(The photo above is of a river in Narrows, Virginia, near the northeastern edge of the Appalachian Mountains.)

Chasing the right dream

Claudia Torres came to the United StatesIMG_4588 from Medellin, Columbia when she was 19.
"I love this country. I met my husband here and had my son here and most of my friends are American," she tells me in a lilting accent that makes ordinary words sound like a song.

The 46-year-old Norwalk, Conn. resident teaches Spanish and preschool and nannys part time. She and her husband, an Ecuadorian immigrant, met while in college and became citizens later.

Though hers is a success story, Torres worries others are not making the transition. They are chasing the wrong dream, a misunderstanding of values that even native-born residents fall prey to.

"It's about family. It's not about green dollars. People think about money all the time and they forget values," she says.

"The United States opened its doors to every body," Torres adds. "We should integrate ourselves into American society and learn its laws and its culture."

There are many differences that must be adapted to. Some are humorous, such as the less boisterous observation of Christmas and rigid way time dictates daily life.
Others are serious: differing ideas of discipline versus child abuse, for example, and a police force that cannot be paid off to get out of a speeding ticket, could result in criminal charges.

"Orgullo" or self-pride can be a stumbling  block.
"Immigrants say, 'Oh I don't want to speak because I will make a mistake,'" relates Torres. "That is wrong. Americans don't laugh at you because you make a mistake. When you know the law, you get more respect. When you make the effort, Americans give you more value."

"You need to create that separation," she says. "It's not to forget about where you come from, it's not to forget who you are. But you need to learn about where you are coming to."

She adds, "You need to learn the American dream — it's not that we come here to work like machines — because we are human, we have familes. We have to see our kids grow up."

New Hampshire is ‘just better’

Tim Ray turns 80 this month and has lived his whole life in New Hampshire.

IMG_4131 Currently he resides in Rumley, a small city about 115 miles northwest of Boston.

A few years ago, Ray and his wife drove a motorhome through the midwest and the southwest, then home.

"I was so glad to be back," says the former mechanical manufacturing plant employee who now works full time as a rest area attendant.

In frank, New Englander style, he adds: "It's just better."

What exactly makes the "Live Free or Die" state so great?

"The people are good. "And you have the mountains."

It's kind of cold, though, isn't it?

"You get used to that."

Summer is the best time of year, Ray says. He has fond memories of trips to the the Maine coast with his six children.

A righteous worker at Poale Zedeck


At Poale Zedeck, an active Orthodox synagogue in Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill, janitor Michael Hommel showed me around just before sundown, Friday.

He's not Jewish, but has been attending services regularly since
July. It's a good place to pray and lends structure to his life, he

"I love my job here. I'm taking care of one of God's houses."

He's thought of converting, but then someone else would have to turn out the lights and operate the elevator on Saturday.

Poale Zedeck means "workers of righteousness." The synagogue was built during the Great Depression by an Austro-Hungarian
Jewish congregation that formed in 1881. Today its stained glass windows
are assessed at $450,000.

Women sit in the balcony or in a section on the side
of the main sanctuary that is separated from the men by a window. I'd probably choose the
balcony so I could be as close as possible to the dome.