Neither Georges nor I had ever been to Kentucky. And we weren’t planning to write about our time there, especially not on a blog dedicated to adventures around the perimeter of the country.
But when we returned home to Dallas in March from our Year on the Edges of America, we realized there were just seven states, all clustered in the Midwest, that our beloved comfort egg of a Casita had not yet experienced. Why not extend our travels, we figured, and polish off the rest of the Lower 48 while our feet still itched?
That’s precisely what we did. And the Bluegrass State, as it turns out, provided the denouement, the 48th of 48. So write about it we must, with this post serving as an epilogue to the Postcards from the Perimeter blog.
We loved Kentucky, more than we expected and for a variety of reasons. We attended an historic Kentucky Derby, savored a bourbon tour trifecta, spelunked our way across Mammoth Cave National Park and reveled in the Smithsonian-quality National Quilt Museum in Paducah.
A few of the things we liked best:
The photo that leads this post is of the Versailles countryside about an hour east of Louisville. This is horse country. It’s bourbon country. It’s also just plain beautiful country.
We drove into Kentucky from the north. Highway 36 along the Ohio River southwest of Cincinnati was one of the most beautiful 10-mile meanders of the year, ranking right up there with the Chemin du Roy in Quebec and State Route 1 in Northern California. It was early May so everything was verdant, lush, a resplendent rainbow in variegated shades of green. Big-tree canopies over the smooth, narrow, winding ribbon of pavement … a swollen Ohio River off to our right … fields upon fields of bright yellow flowers, our windshield a Monet painting of rich lemon and gold.
Later, a park ranger would guide us on a wildflower walk nearby, where we learned to identify native columbine and non-native Japanese honeysuckle.
The crouching Jack-in-the-pulpits and blood-red pawpaw blossoms were just past their prime; the purple delphinium and lemony fleabane in full splendor. An indigo bunting flitted by … G thinks he spotted a Baltimore oriole….
We arrived downtown and immediately set out to explore. This very walkable city is named for King Louis XVI, making it one of country’s oldest cities west of the Appalachian Mountains. It’s situated near the Falls of the Ohio River, which are really just a set of rapids. But they form the only significant obstruction to river traffic between the river’s origin in western Pennsylvania and the Gulf of Mexico.
We started with the visitors center. G got a kick out of posing with Col. Sanders. Neither of us realized there was a French version of KFC.
I appreciated the ode to Mohammed Ali. Note Ali’s quote, an ode to his hometown.
The visitor-center staffers were friendly but in the end not very helpful. Most of what they told us about how to get to the Kentucky Derby two days later would prove to be dead wrong. (More about that later.)
We walked to the Hell or High Water Bar on the recommendation of a friend in Texas who’s from Kentucky. It’s an unmarked speakeasy down a side street just a stone’s throw from the high waters of the Ohio, and it’s famous for a bourbon-infused “seated cocktail experience” similar to a night of fine dining.
It took awhile to find precisely the right entrance; I felt like I was actually trying to sneak into an illegal establishment. Finally we found the right small doorway; on it was a taped notice that the establishment was closed for a private party. Bummer.
We meandered over to the bar at Proof on Main, another recommended watering hole. The highballs were great – G’s Campari-infused version with its red vermouth was exceptional – and the charred octopus appetizer wasn’t bad, either.
The art installations in the lobby of the 21c Museum Hotel were as impressive as their hype. Here’s one.
Here’s another. The large portrait looks like a painting at first; check out the detail in the second photo below and you realize it’s not a painting at all.
Later we happened by the Mussel and Burger Bar, where the date and fig salads were delicious and the bartender from Guadalajara (where G and I each went to school briefly before we knew one another) entertaining. As you can see, I didn’t like my Manhattan one bit.
There was a street party a few blocks away so we ponied up the $20 per person cover charge to enjoy the ambiance and big-stage performance by country music singer and songwriter Chris Janson. It was two days before the Derby and the street was already jammed. Plenty of sequins and spike-heeled boots.
The people watching was rich. So were the tables. A table for four on the patio of one velvet rope restaurant carried a $500 minimum. We settled for a Sauvignon blanc at Brazeiros barely a half-block away. We loved the cheese bread balls almost as much as the free-after-6 parking meters.
The Kentucky Derby
We were parked in the Hyatt garage downtown shortly after 9 a.m. and waiting a few blocks way, as advised by the visitors-center staff, for the free LouLift bus running to and from Churchill Downs every 20 minutes. Miraculously, though it was darkly overcast, it wasn’t raining (yet).
We were in full Derby regalia.
We waited. And waited. No bus. The Galt House’s concierge confirmed we were in the right place. After waiting some more, we checked in with the cops directing traffic – only to learn that they’d been there since 7:30 and hadn’t seen any LouLifts coming or going.
They suggested trying the bus stop a couple of blocks south.
So we did. And waited some more. (Still no rain, thank goodness.) It was after 10 a.m.
Finally, a LouLift presented itself. It was even a Route 1 bus, which we’d been told would get us within a few blocks of Churchill Downs. (Cars, Ubers and Lyfts can’t get within a couple of miles of the famous racetrack; only traditional cabs and special buses are allowed closer, but still several blocks away.)
Except that the driver said no.
I don’t go near the racetrack, he said.
But doesn’t Route 1 go by Churchill Downs?
Usually yes, he said, but not today. The police are running the show and I can’t get closer than two or three miles to Churchill Downs.
What should we do? The driver and the nice young man (clearly a local who had also been waiting for the bus but wasn’t headed to the racetrack) suggested we snag a different bus and plan on a good walk to the racetrack.
Fine. We stepped down. The bus roared off.
We looked for another bus. Except I’m tired of waiting. A cab flew by. I waved; he stopped. We climbed in. He said he was on his way to begin shuttling visitors back and forth to the Derby. He’d take us “no charge.”
Did I hear him right? The cabbie was from Mauritania; maybe I misunderstood. Whatever. We were finally on our way. (We learned later that Uber and Lyft charge a flat $45 each way; cabbies are on the meter, which puts the charge closer to $20.) We got to the racetrack in less than 15 minutes and the drop-off point was barely a block from the entrance. G gave the cabbie $30, cash. All three of us were very happy.
Twenty minutes later, we were through security. (No umbrellas, backpacks, purses over 12 inches, ice, ice chests, glass, flasks, liquor….) Finally, it wasn’t yet noon, and we were At The Kentucky Derby.
Still no rain. What could be better?
We walked the grounds. It wasn’t crowded yet. There were as many cigar kiosks as drink vendors. I promptly ordered a mint julep ($15, cash only).
We could see the fourth race on the humungous video screen – it’s the biggest in the world, wider and longer than the monster screen at Cowboys stadium in Arlington – but at this point we were more interested in the infield.
Apparently, the dress code described on the website – no jeans/flip flops/excessive skin visibility – isn’t enforced here. We saw everything…. And what’s with all the hats?
According to local lore, Col. Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., (grandson of the famed explorer), founded the Kentucky Derby and modeled the race after European events that required full morning dress for men and women. He recruited high-class women – with big hats – to attract the elite to his event.
At the 145th Kentucky Derby, even the comfort dog wore a chapeau.
Soon it was misting. My hat was playing bumper car with other hats as I tried to move through the crowd. Get a load of this hat – and her date’s suit.
This woman hardly needed a dress for decoration.
These two guys really got into it.
At one point, a well-dressed middle-aged man sauntered up to us, commented that we looked like race veterans, and asked for directions to the paddock. (I’m out sure what distinguishes a “race veteran” but decided to take it as a compliment.) Sadly, we had to disappoint the man; we didn’t know where the paddock was either.
But we eventually found it. And this was the best part.
We settled onto a bench just by the horse statue and roses, with a clear view of the scoreboard and screen.
The cigar-puffing man sitting next to G was clearly a track regular. In his mid-60s with expensive leather shoes, manicured nails and fashionably spiked hair, he kept a carefully marked betting sheet and moved easily between the bench and betting window.
He also was a keen observer of the human condition, marveling at one point to G at the number of people who obviously don’t have mirrors in their home, “otherwise they’d never leave home looking the way they do.”
The mist turned to drizzle. We moved inside. From under an awning we could watch the horses parade out and back between the paddock and the track before and after each race. Here’s a short video.
I felt like I was living a Dick Francis novel, minus the murder. In between races – and rain showers – I could get within a couple of arms’ lengths of the horses and the jockeys.
Here’s the horse I bet on in the 12th. I could almost feel his breath on my arm as he pranced past me to the track.
Actually, it was a scary Derby. They didn’t reclassify the track from fast to sloppy until the 12th race. By that time, the track was such a mess that it looked more like a sea of mud than any sort of cultivated surface. I was afraid a horse would slip and get hurt, or worse, somebody would get killed.
Improbable lived up to his name. He went off as a favorite at 4-1 but didn’t finish in the money – not even when the horse that crossed the finish line first was disqualified, something that had never happened before in the race’s history.
As soon as we knew our ticket didn’t win, we bolted for the exit and hustled the half-dozen blocks to get in line for a cab. It was during the 30-minute wait in the taxi line that we learned of the objection, the inquiry and, ultimately, the disqualification of Maximum Security.
That set off quite a murmur. A couple standing about a dozen people behind us in the cab line had bet on the 65-1 long shot, Country House. His surprise victory triggered the second-largest win payout ever at $132.40 on a $2 bet.
That couple behind us suddenly got very happy.
Finally, we settled into a cab just before 8 – there has to be a more efficient way to move cabs in and out of the area! – and reclaimed our car from the Hyatt garage. The $10 fee for all-day parking at the hotel was about the only piece of advice imparted by the visitors center that turned it to be accurate.
We were snugged back in our Casita at the campground, enjoying leftover homemade pasta bolognese, by 9 p.m. Some 28,000 tourists would fly home from the Louisville airport the next day, four times the typical 7,000 daily passenger load. It was nice not to be among them.
I never liked my mother’s bourbon balls as a kid, but in recent years I’ve developed a taste for Sazeracs, Manhattans and Old Fashions. So when a friend at Woodford Reserve offered to put together a trifecta bourbon tour for us, we jumped like silver fish at the opportunity.
We started at the Brown-Forman Cooperage near the airport and learned the importance of proper barrel making. Brown-Forman – which owns brands ranging from Woodford Reserve, Old Forester and Jack Daniels to El Jimador, Herradura and Korbel – is the only spirits company in America that makes its own barrels; everybody else out-sources the work.
It’s easy to see why B-F places a priority on its cooperage. One hundred percent of a bourbon’s color and 50 percent of its flavor comes from the barrel in which it’s matured.
To qualify as a bourbon – which is a type of whiskey – the barrel must be made from America white oak. It also has to be at least 51 percent corn, as opposed to rye or malted barley; be made totally in the U.S. with no ingredients beyond grain, water and yeast; aged in a new charred oak barrel; and meet a protocol of specific alcohol-level proofs at various stages of the process.
(By contrast, rye is another form of whiskey with majority rye instead of corn. Scotch is “whisky” made in Scotland with majority malted barley.)
For its barrels, Brown-Forman locally sources all its wood, using nearly every scrap of what it harvests. The company produces less than 1 percent waste that goes to landfills.
B-F has been making barrels here since 1945. The day we visited, one barrel raiser had just celebrated his 50th anniversary on the job.
A barrel raiser typically makes 300 barrels on a shift, starting each one with 28-30 staves, or strips of carefully cut wood. This plant makes 2,500 barrels a day, 600,000 a year.
Once the staves are in place, the barrel raiser adds six hoops to shape the barrel and hold the staves in place.
The iron wraps are called head irons, quarter irons and bilge iron. The barrel shape dates to the Romans and is designed to make the heavy barrels manageable, e.g. “rollable”, by an individual.
Then the barrels are flamed. The degree of charring will affect both the color and the flavor of the bourbon.
Each brand of bourbon has its own barrel “recipe.”
The disks that form the barrel tops and bottoms are also made from their own set of shortened staves. The barrels have no nails, screws or glue. Everything is compression fit.
It takes just 45 seconds for a skilled worker to raise a barrel. Then it’s steamed, toasted, charred. A bunghole is drilled and air and a gallon of water is pressurized inside to check for leaks. Any imperfections are corrected on site by coopers. Less than 3 percent of the barrels need any fixes.
Then the barrels roll off the assembly line.
From the cooperage, we drove downtown to the Old Forester Distillery Co. It opened here on Main Street in 1882, moved away during prohibition and only reopened on the original site last year.
B-F is the only bourbon company to be continuously owned and operated by a single family before, during and after prohibition. A Scots-American, George Garvin Brown, founded the company; today his great-great-grandson, Campbell Brown, is president of Old Forester.
The magic is said to be in the water.
A few other details of note:
- Old Forester’s yeast string dates to the 1930s; the fermentation process takes 4-7 days.
- B-F uses trees 40-50 years old and does no clear cutting. Tree supplies “look good” for the foreseeable future. They plant two trees for each one they take.
- Each barrel is filled with 53 gallons of “white dog.” All bourbon under four years must contain an age statement. Most Old Forester is aged 4-6 years.
- Women, who have more taste buds than men, are moving into the industry’s elite tasting ranks. Woodford Reserve’s master distiller, Chris Morris, is said to be grooming assistant master distiller Elizabeth O’Neill as his successor.
Neither G nor I are particular bourbon connoisseurs but in the three-glass tasting at Old Forester he liked the Old Forester 100 Proof Signature; I had a slight preference for the newly released clove-influenced Statesman.
Loved this collection of decanters from the 1950s and 1960s!
From there it was off to Woodford Reserve, sponsor of the Kentucky Derby. The grounds are an hour’s drive east of Louisville through some of the state’s most iconic landscapes and horse farms.
This distillery house, dating to 1838, is the oldest in America and a national historic landmark. We inhaled a wonderful aroma reminiscent of raisins and yeast and oak as soon as we walked in.
Here are a couple of the vats in which the mash ferments.
Woodford Reserve came to this property 1990s. But its process is ancient. Here are three of the traditional copper stills required for triple distillation…
…and the “spirit safe” where the experts determine the proof level at each stage of distillation.
See the notebook on the stand to the right? The distillers actually record the levels by hand on those pages. No computers or electronic tally machines. These state-of-the-art experts use a historic device known as the pencil.
Barrels are 100 pounds empty. It takes barely a couple minutes to fill them and plug with a poplar stopper. Now they weight more than 500 pounds. Here’s how they’re stored.
Bourbon must be matured in new barrels; the used barrels go to other companies and countries to be reused for aging wines. We saw some weeping barrels, known as “barrel candy” because you can scrape the dried bourbon crust off the barrel and suck on it.
Bourbon isn’t aged. It’s matured to a flavor profile. After four years, a small hole is drilled into the barrel and the bourbon is tasted. (Yes, by an actual human.) It’s also subjected to a chemical analysis. Once the master taster approves, all the barrels of that vintage are pulled and bottled.
It was here that we learned how to do a proper tasting. Never judge by the first sip; that one is harshest and wakens the taste buds. The second and third sips are what matter.
Armed with this advice, we proceeded to taste three of Woodford Reserve’s best – the Distillers Select with its vanilla flavors, the Double Oaked with its heavier and spicier influences, and the Rye Whiskey with its molasses overtones. We both preferred the Distiller Select.
Naturally, this is the bottle we HAD to have.
Special thanks to Chris Poynter and Woodford Reserve for a fabulous and memorable experience.
Mammoth Cave National Park
This is the most extensive cave system on Earth. According to the park’s website, the full extent of this water-formed labyrinth remains unknown even after 4,000 years of intermittent exploration.
There are 412 miles of surveyed passageways, which makes Mammoth Cave more than twice as long as any known cave. Geologists think there could be another 600 miles of undiscovered passageways. Some 130 life forms are found here.
The park service offers nearly a dozen tours ranging in price, duration and activity level. We took two of the lengthier ones. The first was a two-hour, two-mile stroll through a largely dry portion of the underground cave. It involved some 540 steps going down and then back up, equivalent, we were told, to climbing an 11-story building.
The next day we did another two-hour tour, this one featuring a mere 500 steps and originating at a newer entrance through a sinkhole with an airlock entrance to a “wetter” portion of the caverns. This portion is more similar to what we’ve experienced in Carlsbad Caverns in New México and Kartchner Caverns in Arizona.
The caves were formed by water seeping through limestone cracks and crevices, around the sandstone and shale that form the “ceilings.” The formations are spooky and dramatic.
At times it was hard to tell what’s more impressive, the cavern itself or the structure constructed for us to view it. The narrow staircases and narrow bridges – most built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s – slither like serpents through the long and shadowy confines. It’s as interesting to look down at the delicate infrastructure as it is up into the caverns.
These tours aren’t for everyone.
The stories about the people of the caves are as interesting as the science. Stephen Bishop, for example, was an early slave explorer who first mapped the area in the mid-1800s. He ultimately earned enough from this work to buy his freedom. It was his great nephew, Ed Bishop in the early 1900s, who led some of the earliest public tours of the area.
The first tour took us through some of the earliest discovered portions. The “graffiti” here is remarkable. We saw signatures on the walls and ceilings dating to the 1830s. In most cases, these black markings were tediously created by a smoking candle held for hours near the ceiling rock at the end of a long stick.
I found the portions of the cave more recently discovered, e.g. in the 1920s, most interesting. We walked through the Sesame Street Room, named for boulders in shapes of squares, circles and triangles, and along a scallop-edged lake. We saw formations that looked like popcorn, fairy castles, a lion cage, even bacon.
Our tours went down to level three of the cavern’s five layers. A few other interesting cavern facts:
- The caves are a nearly constant 54 degrees. In the summer, cool air blows out of the cave entrances and sinkholes. In winter, the cave sucks air in.
- The cave system is so expansive that it extends underground beyond park boundaries. If all of the park service tours were laid end to end, they would total just 13 of the 412 miles of caves discovered so far.
- The forest in the area is dense and lovely, but the trees have slender trunks and narrow canopies. Ranger Randy explained that the area had been largely cleared for agriculture purposes when the cave system was discovered. The Civilian Conservation Corps planted it as forest in the 1930s as it became a park. Today, it’s dominated by beech, tulip poplars and maple.
The National Quilt Museum
Paducah may sound podunk, but it’s not. This town of 25,000 at the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio rivers boasts a lovely city square, an intriguing war history, dynamic public art, several top-notch restaurants and one of the best museums we’ve ever been to.
Here’s G in front of just one of the dozens of painted murals along the Ohio River.
And here’s a plate of crawdads (in Texas we call them crawfish) we tackled at Doe’s Eat Place on the main square.
When I first mentioned visiting the National Quilt Museum to G (I’d read about it online and thought it sounded intriguing), he sighed, smiled wanly and adopted the patient posture of a man who subscribes to the “happy wife, happy life” philosophy of marriage.
As a former quilter, not surprisingly, I loved the museum. More significant is the fact that after two hours meandering through the facility’s three halls of exquisite textile art exhibits G pronounced the displays “outstanding.”
Here’s an example. This one is totally hand designed, pieced and quilted. To call it impressive is like calling the Mona Lisa interesting. It vastly understates the case.
And here’s another hand-made quilt. It’s called “Star Struck.”
If you look very closely in each of the two lower quadrants – use your fingers to enlarge the photo – you’ll see a small group of Elvis Presley heads. (I’ve drawn arrows to them on the photo below.)
Unbelievable. I will never again call myself a quilter.
This was G’s favorite.
I had so many favorites I don’t know where to start. Here’s four of them. (The first is an alphabet quilt, #19 in a series of 26, each featuring the alphabet in one form or another.)
The American Quilt Society was founded by Bill and Meredith Schroeder of Paducah in 1984. The first AQS show was in 1985 and lost money. But it’s not lost a dime since. Nowadays, some 30,000 people descend on this town for the show each spring – more than doubling the town’s population.
They see magnificent quilts like this one, which I’ve photographed from both the front and the back and is so heavy due to the glass jewels sewn into the back that it requires a double-sleeve hanger.
The museum opened in 1991. It boasts more than 600 quilts, 50 of which are on display at any given time. The Schroeders started collecting in 1970s, about the time the TV series Roots and the country’s bicentennial celebrations sparked international interest in quilts. The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York was the first major art museum to include quilts among its exhibits.
All the quilts on display in the museum are original designs. Some are made entirely by hand; others by home sewing machines. There are also examples of free-motion quilting with more industrial long-arm machines.
A machine-made quilt won AQS top honors for the first time in 1989, sparking huge controversy; hand quilters reportedly refused to attend the awards ceremony. Our guide said such unrest has since faded away, though purist hand-quilters certainly still exist.
I was bowled over by the intricacy of the designs, the piecing, appliquéing and quilting. Here’s an example of an exquisite pinecone quilt, a technique associated with African-Americans and the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina. The second photo is a close up of a small portion of the same quilt.
There are also “whole cloth” quilts that are hand dyed and stitched to create their design, traditional oak leaf and reel quilts, Lanjiaxie love quilts from southeastern China, portrait quilts from West Africa and so much more…. Here’s a West African quilt, with a close-up of the child’s head to show the detail of the quilting.
Here’s another example, this of a lovely shoreline scene, with a close-up of the detail.
Thirteen of the quilts on display were made by men. Here’s one dedicated to flight.
Here’s another entitled Wisteria.
Some 120,000 people in more than 40 countries around the world see these quilts each year, either at this site or via the museum’s traveling exhibit. This Kentucky Derby quilt tells the story of Affirmed’s triple crown in 1978.
Some of the most impressive were the miniatures. Here are a couple of examples, with G’s finger carefully included for scale, and an additional one in all red that I couldn’t take my eyes off.
And check out this “quilt” in the conference near the museum’s entrance. It’s actually not a quilt at all.
Fraser Smith of Tampa made this floating wooden quilt of laminated basswood. I had to actually touch the wooden block to the left to believe it, even after sticking my nose up to within a microscopic hairbreadth of the actual display to examine it.
Love the Bluegrass State
We don’t know when we’ll get to Kentucky again, but it really doesn’t matter…. We’re still humming strains of “My Old Kentucky Home” – and hope we never stop….