The lure of the Smoky Mountains is obvious. Yet for years it had been an annual ritual of ours to check some guide books about the region out of the library during the winter months, do some reading, look at pictures…and then decide to go somewhere else.
Why? Because the Smoky Mountains don’t have peaks, I guess. They look like hills.
We observed the same ritual this winter while adding an important new twist. We went.
It was a road trip, and we covered 3,200 miles before we were through, visiting the urban areas of Davenport, St. Louis, Nashville, Asheville, and Louisville and countless small towns along the way. We stopped by the graves of William Boroughs and Carl Sandburg (neither of whom I’ve read) and the oldest church west of the Allegheny Mountains, which happens to be a French-Canadian structure in SE Illinois built in 1799.
We arrived there on a Sunday morning just as the service was letting out, and a member of the congregation explained to us a little about the Latin Mass still in use there. By in large the congregation was elderly, and the women had pieces of lace draped over their heads.
On another day we spent a few hours in the largest labyrinth of caves the earth has to offer, tracked down Gethsemanie Abbey in rural Kentucky, where Thomas Merton wrote most of his books (I have read a few of those), spotted a summer tanager in a tree above Abe Lincoln’s boyhood home (see photo above), and ate dinner at the Old Talbot Tavern in Bardstown, where Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, John James Audubon, George Rogers Clark, and General Patton once dined—though not at the same time.
To this distinguished list of guests we ought to add Louis-Philippe I, who became the last King of France after the restoration of the monarchy in 1830. During the revolutionary years he spent some time in exile touring the United States, and on October 17, 1797, he booked a suite of rooms there.
We stayed that night in a dismal mom-and-pop motel across the street from the estate where Stephen Foster wrote “My Old Kentucky Home.” The next morning we went over to wander the grounds. We met up with the site manager by chance and she filled us in on all the doin’s in nearby Louisville associated with the soon-to-be-run Kentucky Derby. The steamboat race was over, but the Pegasus Parade and other wild events were set to take place before the races the next day.
“All the Louisville basketball players will be in the parade.”
“They didn’t do too badly this year,” I said.
“Yeah,” she replied, “but I’m a Kentucky fan.”
“Well, we’re from Minnesota,” I said. “We’ve been milking the skills of your cast-off, Tubby Smith, for quite some time, without much luck. He was let go just recently.”
“Yeah, I feel so sorry for y’all,” she cracked a mischievous smile.
I told her we’d eaten at the Talbot Tavern and she said, “You know, Jesse James ate there.”
I said, “I didn’t know that. They sure have a lot of bourbons on the menu—“
“Well, Bardstown is the Bourbon capital of the world.”
“But I was looking for the bourbon my parents used to drink and couldn’t find it. It’s probably too cheap. Old Crow.”
She laughed. “My daddy used to drink that too.”
She recommended that we drive out to the Heaven Hill distillery on the edge of town, which has a visitor center. It wasn’t open yet, but we did get a chance to see the Baudoinia compniacensis, a black fungus that grows at the base of the warehouse buildings as a natural result of the maturing process.
An hour later we were walking the streets of downtown Louisville. I was impressed by the vast expanse of the Ohio River, the multi-colored façade of the Muhammad Ali Center, and the post-modern gleam of the Humana Tower across the street. We headed for the warehouse row a few blocks down and came upon an Arts and Crafts museum. With less than an hour in the meter and 375 miles still to drive, we skipped the museum and took a look around the gift shop, where the friendly clerk filled us in on the exhibits. One was devoted to ceramic bourbon containers—designed to make it easier to sneak drinks into the Derby infield, I guess.
More interesting, perhaps, was a display of woodcuts by Harlan Hubbard. I noticed that the accompanying book had a foreword by Wendell Berry.
“Isn’t he wonderful,” the clerk purred.
“And what about these hats?” I asked. “It’s a Derby thing, right? Do people really buy them.”
“We’ve sold a few.”
“We have just the most superficial notions about all this Derby business…” I said.
“It is superficial,” she replied. “Very superficial.”
We told her we’d been to Mammoth Cave and Gethsemanie Abbey, and she said, “I’ve spent my entire life in Kentucky. I live in the house I was born in. But I’ve never been to those places. My world is my zipcode.”