I’ve been south in the US, but never to any of the former confederate states (read: Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina) with the exception of Texas and Florida. And while it’s a part of the country I find forever intriguing, it is hard to plan a trip when there are options like California, Oregon, Illinois, Massachusetts, Alaska, Arizona and New Mexico calling. Nonetheless, this past Thanksgiving I found myself in the heart of Kentucky. A friend with bluegrass roots had invited The Intolerants to his hometown for a long weekend stay. “It’s time,” he told us, “for you to see what the real America is like.” Needless to say, we took him up on his offer faster than Colonel Sanders could fry a couple drumsticks of chicken.
For the uninitiated, Kentucky is sandwiched between Tennessee to the south, the Virginas to the west, Missouri and Illinois to the east and Indiana and Ohio to the north. With a population of almost 4.4 million people, it’s a state known for horse breeding and racing, automobile manufacturing, coal (formerly), fried chicken, tobacco, college basketball (go Wildcats!) and, of course, bourbon.
We landed at the North Kentucky Cincinnati Airport and rented a car for our drive to the southwest of the state. After rolling under a blue sky, across slick roads for the better part of 2.5 hours, we arrived at our destination: the sleepy city of Somerset. A large town with a population of 11,300 and a short drive from Lake Cumberland and the Daniel Boone National Forest.
Over the course of three days The Intolerants were integrated into our friend’s family. We had the pleasure of seeing things that normal visitors to Kentucky don’t get to witness. We went to places I’m pretty sure the average traveller doesn’t make it to. We also ate food we’d probably never thought about indulging in, anywhere else, at any other time, and heard amazing family stories about the generations who’d made Somerset and the surrounding counties their home. Because I’m still processing certain details of my bluegrass adventure I’m not entirely sure how to detail my story and narrate my time there. There were so many lovely things that I learned about the state, which were accompanied by fistfuls of sad realities as well.
That said, I figure I’ll list a couple of the things I found either surprising, beautiful or notable about Kentucky and I’ll throw some more pictures in as a way to entice you to go and check out this beguiling state for yourself.
1. Of course I’ll start with food, as it was (admittedly) a challenge to eat in Kentucky. The use of dairy seemed to be the norm and was found in countless items: buttermilk biscuits, ham fried in bacon, cheese grits, cheese with eggs, cheesecake, croutons with cheese, even salad was bound to have a healthy helping of cheese on top. I came prepared and had packed several raw bars and apples (thankfully), but I was really surprised at how much dairy and gluten were dietary staples.
2. Still on the subject of food: everything, and I mean everything, is fried in Kentucky. Ok, maybe not everything, but almost. There was fried chicken and turkey, fried steak and fried ham. Not into meat? Well there’s fried courgettes and fried carrots, or fried corn if you’re a fan of maize. Seriously, think right now of a food that you wouldn’t normally fry. Now Google that food + Kentucky + fried, and add state fair if you’d like. I bet you a dollar that someone in Kentucky is 10 steps ahead of you and long ago fried that item of food. Trust me, if it can be put in a vat of oil and cooked, it will be done.
3. The landscape is breathtaking and there’s plenty to do if you’re the athletic/adventurous type. There are countless state parks across that boast hiking trails, bike routes and horse tracks. If you’re into camping you can spend the night in Cumberland State Park, and there’s plenty of fishing to be done if you like to wield a line and a rod.
4. If you stay in Cumberland or the surrounding area try to do so on a full moon night and pop in to see the Cumberland Falls. If it’s your lucky night you might get to witness a moonbow. A natural phenomena that’s created by light reflected from the surface of the moon and consequently refracted off moisture (or spray from a waterfall) in the air. A moonbow is essentially a lunar rainbow and it doesn’t happen just anywhere, there’s only a few places in the world where you can catch a “true” one including Yosemite National Park, Victoria Falls in Africa and…of course…Cumberland Falls in Kentucky.
5. Kentucky is known for many things but the most important are probably: horse breeding, fried chicken, basketball (Go Wildcats!) and bourbon. *throat still burns*
6. That said, if you’re into bourbon then Kentucky is the place to be. While the Belgians have their beer, the French their wine and the Swedes their vodka, the Americans are all about their corn-based whiskey and Kentucky is the place you’re destined to find some the best drink around. In production since the 1700s, residents of Kentucky (whether they imbibe on the spirit or not) take pride in the quality of their bourbon stock and it’s possible to visit several of the more notable distilleries by taking a trip along the Kentucky Bourbon Trail.
7. If bourbon’s not your thing and horses are, there’s the Kentucky Derby, which takes places the first Saturday in May and is part of the US Triple Crown of Thoroughbred Racing. Naturally, we didn’t get to see the derby, but we did stop into at the Kentucky Horse Park, where you can see the place where these muscular animals are bred and trained. The grounds are quite beautiful.
8. There’s plenty of artisans who call Kentucky home and make beautiful items (wood furniture, glass blowing, textiles, jewelry, you name it) available for purchase. Check out the folksy town of Berea for presents and souvenirs. At the home of Berea College (a private liberal arts college) you can stop in for the morning or afternoon on your way to/from Lexington to take stock of the various art festivals and historic buildings the city has to offer.
9. Kentucky used to generate a lot of revenue from coal, particularly in the early 20th century, however the industry has been in steady decline since the 1980s. There are currently 442 coal mines operating in the state, which employ around 18,000 individuals directly. Because so many mines have closed in the last 20 years, countless people have been laid off and in the wake of these once thriving communities are ghost towns that have become former shells of themselves. They’re places that boast a KFC, Hardee’s and a drug store and cater to people who live meager existences. People who stand dangerously close (if they haven’t slipped over already) to the poverty line.
10. It’s the south and kind of conservative, which means there are taboo topics in most homes. If you’re staying with someone it’s always best to check beforehand on what you can and can’t bring up (think: politics, religion, sex and alcohol) for discussion.
11. The main thing I noticed, regardless of where I went in the Bluegrass State, was how courteous and neighbourly Kentuckians are. I thought the whole “southern hospitality” idea was a big fat myth, but I was proved wrong at almost venue I walked into. The only times I would say this rule doesn’t apply is if you 1) cut people off on the road, 2) have brought up one of the taboo topics at dinner, or 3) are braving Wal-Mart, JC Penny or any other department store on Black Friday or Cyber Monday.
Any other time you’re good to go.