Kentucky- the land of Abraham Lincoln, Bluegrass music, Bourbon whiskey, the Kentucky Derby, some of the biggest losses in the Civil War, and all the family on my mother`s side. I`m British because my Dad is British and my mother ceded American citizenship when I was a kid- but I`ve always felt my soul was American: Kentucky American, and to a very small degree: Native American American.
I`m talking about this because I just got back from a 10-day vacation with my family in Kentucky. I haven`t been back to visit my grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins in Kentucky for around 7 years. The last time I was there I was just 21, just done with University and still pretty raw, passing through on my way to the summer camp I worked in close to Boston. The cousins were all still little kids, and I was still viewing everything through the lens of a kid myself.
Well, not this time. This time, the gloves were off, Kentucky! I was on the cultural and familial Straight Talk Express- getting to the real deal of my family and heritage in Colonel Sanders` Bluegrass State.
I arrived in Loisville airport after about 20 hours on the road- 13 hours flying over the North Pole from Tokyo Narita to Atlanta, then the 1 hour domestic flight to Kentucky, along with plenty of lag time before and between the flights. I was pretty shattered on arrival, and remained jet-lagged for days after. That didn’t stop me hitting the culture trail though, you’ll be glad to hear.
First up was Abraham Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln was born on Sinking Spring Farm in Hardin county, the same county my grandparents live in. He was born in 1809 in a one-room dirt-floor log cabin to Thomas and Nancy Lincoln, pioneers who had moved to that area of Kentucky only years after Daniel Boone had trail-blazed it, following government grants to settlers who moved into the wilderness.
I went to Sinking Spring Farm with my mom, checked out the Sinking Spring, and the allegedly original log cabin Lincoln was born in. I’ve been there many times before as a young kid, so had vague memories of the large pillared building the log cabin is enshrined within. My mom told me as kids we used to go nuts not for the cabin, but just to run up and down the steps.
Inside the pavilion I took a picture- I couldn’t use flash though, so it’s a little fuzzy.
Second, Corn-Hole Toss.
Corn-Hole Toss is a new-ish American yard-game a bit like horse-shoe toss, except you use bean bags not horse shoes, and a tilted wooden board with a hole in instead of a metal spike. You set up two of the boards across from each other, form doubles teams, and take it in turns tossing 4 bean bags to each team back and forth. You get 3 point for a toss into the hole, and 1 point for a toss landing on the board.
My youngest cousins Boone and Emma stand by their Corn-Hole board, while Boone tosses at the opposition board.
Third, Bourbon Whiskey!
Bourbon Whiskey is a Kentucky invention discovered around 200 years ago, its origins somewhat hazy in a fog of possible origin myths. One of them involves the preacher and opportunist distiller Elijah Craig, who shipped whiskey barrels down the Ohio river for trade on the coast. According to myth, when he was barrelling his whiskey he had a fire in the barn, which caused a number of his white-oak barrels to char on the inside. Being a cheap-skate, he went ahead and used the barrels anyway. The long ride down the Ohio lasted around 6 months, and in that time something miraculous happened to the clear whiskey inside the barrels- it picked up some of the color and the flavor from the charred white-oak barrel interior. Yum.
Now all Bourbon can only be called Bourbon if it is aged for at least a year in a new charred white-oak barrel.
I went with my mom to the Heaven Hill Bourbon Distillery near Bardstown, an area filled with Bourbon silo/warehouses, covered with sheet metal but with windows open to the elements, each of which storing something like 20,000 barrels. The Heaven Hill facility had around 57 warehouses in the vicinity. Other distillers had their fermenting tanks and warehouses in the area too- leading Bardstown to be called the Bourbon capital of the world, and leading the air to constantly smell of yeast and whiskey. My mom said it was like that even when she was a kid 40 years ago.
The landscape is dotted with white sheet metal whiskey warehouses.
Inside, thousands of white-oak barrels rest on ‘ricks’ in the 5 story wooden building. The barrels combined weight is so massive, any time they take barrels from one side of the building they have to also take some from the other side too, or the building will collapse like a see-saw weighted at only one end.
Fourth, Pool, including Bush-League Eight Ball and Rotation.
I don’t have any photos of this, but I want to mention it ‘cos my grandfather loves to play pool. We played every day I was there- on the full-size pool table he has in the basement, at least 5 games a day. Sometimes he won, and sometimes I won, but the rivalry was intense. Regularly my grandmother would pass through and ask who was winning, and when we’d answer that it was close, she’d say- “well I knew that because of all the crying I could hear from down here!”
In the summer of 1852 Confederate forces were in trouble, having been pushed out of Kentucky and most of Tennessee. Only two Southern generals still remained in Tennessee, and they were convinced Kentucky was pivotal to the war, and that the Kentucky people would rally to their cause if given the proper encouragement. Lincoln felt similarly about Kentucky, saying: “I think to lose Kentucky is nearly the same as to lose the whole game…”
The stage was set for a climactic battle, which took place over several days and nights on multiple fronts over the hilly plains of Perryville, with 16,000 Confederate soldiers and 20,000 Union soldiers. The turning point came when Confederate general Poe came across a battalion of troops in the foggy night. The other troops fired on Poe’s men, but he yelled out “cease firing, we are your friends!” and then rode over to check their identity. They were Union men. Poe lied and called himself a Union lieutenant. He rode along the Union lines yelling for them to not fire, then went back to his lines, cued his men up, and attacked. It was a rout, but Poe was so shaken by his encounter he didn’t press the advantage home.
All the same- that victory led to a flood of Union forces retreating and Confederate forces chasing them down in the following days. It was a great victory for the Confederacy, but only a tactical one as they could not sustain the supply lines, and so their eventual retreat and demise began.
A cannon on the Perryville Battlefield walking trails.
Sixth, Downtown Louisville.
My aunt Beth the interior designer lives in Louisville, along with her husband stock manager Gary and high school-age son Boone. Boone’s older brother Stuart is now away at University of Kentucky. They invited me up to stay with them and I did- enjoying their generous hospitality, which included lots of HALO 3 on X-box with Boone, the hot tub they have on their deck, a movie screening on their projector-screen cinema set-up in the basement, lots of meals including BBQ on the deck, star-gazing, home-made beer, and a chance to walk round downtown Louisville.
I rode from Oxmoor Mall on the bus into the city center. As the bus filled up, I noticed that I was the only white person on board. I guess that says something about inner city life and wide gaps in racial wealth. Black people don’t have cars. I know that’s not a new observation- but it was weird to see just how obvious the gap is.
I wandered downtown Louisville, along Main Street, past the the Franklin Museum of History and the Sluggers museum with it’s giant bat, past some art installation building with suicidal penguins on the roof, past numerous jockeys on horses in celebration of the recent Kentucky Derby (looking a lot like the Cow Parade), down to the Ohio river, and back up to 4th Street Live! where I waited for Beth.
Crazy horses painted like the Cow Parade.
Seventh, Bobby’s Farm and Stewart’s Guns.
On my penultimate day in Kentucky, my brother Joe arrived with his girlfriend Vicky. Due to scheduling of my work and his, we could only have one day to hang out before I had to fly out, so we made the most of it with an all-family gathering at my grandparents place. First there was gift-giving and re-meetings: Joe hadn’t seen this wing of the family for 11 years, since he was about 14 years old. I gave samurai swords to the boys, and kimonos to the girls. Then we had bbq dinner, then moved onto pool, corn-hole toss, and finally the movement out to my uncle Bobby’s farm.
First off, Bobby is a crazy looking wild man of the hills type, but very gregarious and friendly- see him in the photo to the right. He owns two cycle stores in the E-town area. When Joe (standing on the truck looking bad-ass) and I last visited together we worked for him cleaning and assembling bikes. He lives in E-town with wife Patty and younger daughter Emma (far right), their older daughter Katie (middle) is away at College in Cleveland.
Second off, Bobby’s farm is less of a farm and more of an outdoor pursuits area, at least that’s how it’s always been to us. We’d go camping there, hiking, spelunking in the few caves, walking dry Crystal Creek looking for white crystals and Indian arrow-heads, watching amazing shooting star displays, hay-riding, and kayaking/inner-tubing down the creek.
This time however Stewart brought his guns. He has 5 guns, 3 rifles, 1 shotgun, and one handgun, and plenty of ammo. We set up water bottles filled with water and a wooden target, and let rip.
Joe, me, Stewart, Boone.
Joe was a British soldier for 5 years so he knew his way around the guns, able to load and unload and set up for firing easily and smoothly. I’ve fired I think a very low-caliber rifle before, at an overnight cowboy camp in Arizona, but never something with the kick of Stewart’s rifles. For my first shot I took one with a telescopic sight, aimed carefully at one of the water bottles about 100 foot away, and pulled the trigger. The bottle exploded, but I could barely focus on it as the gun’s report nearly deafened me. After that I stuffed my ears with tissue paper.
We shot a bunch more, the handgun, the shotgun- including some clay-pigeon style shooting. The first skeet out of the gate was a dog-frisbee, which Joe blasted, sending it whizzing away at a high spin.
Eighth, that’s about it really. I said at the start I was going to get to the bottom of things with my family and KY culture- and I really did. I learned again how friendly, giving, open, honest, funny, and just plain decent my family over there are. They are the reason I’ve identified with America. They have been role-models for me all my life, always welcoming and glad to see me, and my brother and sister too.
Culturally, I think I saw most of the things Kentucky has to offer- or at least sampled most of them. It was great every day to wake up, play some pool with my grandpa, then roll out with my mom to some interesting well-thought out museum or monument, eat some great Kentucky-style food (fried green tomatoes, fried chicken, buffalo steaks), then roll back in the evening to watch the news of the coming election all together, or play Rook or Scrabble.
I also got an insight I feel into the extreme religiosity of parts of America. It’s just so big. The spaces between everything, between homes, between your home and the mall, to the horizon, across the sky, in every direction it’s just wide open, lonely, maddeningly empty space. In this still-wild and undomesticated country, having an all-father or over-soul to watch over you, to give meaning to your obviously small life, to give you a reason to come together with your fellows once a week and show them that you care, to feel strong and welcome amongst them, that really means something. It’s Us/Them. It makes sense. It makes sense to get a bit crazy about your religion, as it’s the glue that binds your group together, and differentiates your group from other groups. Getting crazy makes your group cohere more tightly, which makes you feel more special, which makes you feel stronger and more secure.
While I was there I saw new mall-like mega churches, and churches with tag-lines out front saying things like- ‘Save your eternal soul! Sundays, 9-12am.’ I saw ads railing against abortion. I stayed in a ‘dry’ county, where you have to cross the county line to buy alcohol.
It’s a whole different country, America. But it’s changing. The internet and new mobile devices, plus more people, creeping urbanization, these things are shrinking the spaces which the over-soul lives in.
I’m rambling now. The point is, I had an excellent time. On my last night, when my grandmother said- ‘I’m glad you could make it, because you never know when we may pass on’, my eyes welled up. It’s true. They’re old, and though still active and hard-working as they can be, they won’t be around forever. That reality, that inclusiveness I feel from staying at their house and foraying out into their world, that won’t always be there.
I guess I’ll be going next year too 🙂
Me and my mom at the Lincoln Memorial.
You can see my other Voyages/Trips articles in the Voyages/Trips Gallery.
If you like this post, why not click one of the bookmarking links below to let other people know about it? Thanks!