Kentucky is known for Caves. With a capital C.
Simple arithmetic adds H+C and gets HC. Horse Cave.
And Kentucky is about to be known for Horse Cave. Right in the middle of downtown is a huge cave opening that is sarcastically called Hidden River Cave. You can’t miss it. And Hidden River Cave is no stranger to innovation. In the late 1800s, a dynamo took advantage of the river current and produced an electric current to make Horse Cave the only lit city in Kentucky outside of Ashland and Louisville. Now Hidden River Cave is ready to be a power player again in the realm of adventure tourism.For years the small cave on the block with the National Park down the road (and another in the same town) struggled to get the same sort of visitation that the others may have received. Their wild tour with helmet and knee pad was on par, but the general tour was missing the OMG element.
Until now. Horse Cave is going to have the world on a string.
Beginning this weekend (June 15), adventure seekers will be able to zip-line over the gigantic cave opening from the street level down. And if that’s not enough, you can rappel right down the same towering cliff wall, too.
It’s a challenge no other zip in Kentucky can provide. And it’s just the start of what is planned for the innovative city in Hart County. Believe me, what they’ve got in store is almost too much. Stay Tuned.
For More: www.hiddenrivercave.com
One with the woods. Surrounded by greenery.
Do a self study on the color itself, and you’ll see a whole host of psychological benefits ranging from an uptick in mood to feelings of adventure.
I’m not a doctor, but I play an Outdoorsman on TV. Little reason why so many are trading the cubicle for the canoe or woodland stroll so often. It’s good for us.
“Good for us” was the reason Kentucky’s first ever Trail Town of Dawson Springs got on the map in the first place. Folks there are trying to replicate the Appalachian Trail town feel of Damascus, Virginia in our own backyard. A town fit for trail relaxation and atmospheric depressuring. While there last week to take in the gaze of old buildings and older woodland, I stopped for a moment to watch the Tradewater River. It flows just south of town near the Governor Steve Beshear birthplace signage. The river was named that way for the location of fur trading between Indians and Whites in the early 1800s. Little else happened around the area until the railroad came through in the 1870s.As with railroads, development began to occur around the depot. A man named Washington Hamby was building a house and an eating establishment for travelers when he struck a well full of mineral water. The first of two found within the town around 1893. Dawson’s depot had “Springs” attached to it (though not really a spring at all, none the wiser), and the rest was boomtown history. Some forty hotels in the new resort town heralded as the premier of the south for folks to enjoy the…water. Crown jewel of it all was The New Century Hotel with 150 rooms completed in 1898. Medical conventions held in the city to promote the quality of the mineral water for ailments worthy of conventions. A town so cool the Pittsburg Pirates and Honus Wagner had spring training there. But then, as with most of the turn of the century towns that blossomed with railroad lore, the automobile came, passenger trains stopped coming, colleges became status quo routine, and generations drove away from birthplaces.
And modern medicine replaced bottled water. Sort of.
These days, Dawson Springs still has the Tradewater flowing out of town like always. Still runs through a woods and beside a trail that leads by a lake and a state park called Pennyrile like the forest and like the flower. And in the long shadow of old traders before wells and hotels, one can still take in the natural sights and sounds of western Kentucky from a canoe ride or hike through miles of woodland. Then hang out and take in history, trail town resort style.
After all, that’s what the doctor ordered.
The “Mountain Eagles” have returned to Pine Mountain State Resort Park. They’re Turkey Vultures, of course, and the park’s Mountain View Restaurant annually provides premiere, window-seat viewing of a large gathering of the great soaring birds from mid February through the end of March.
They muster in February annually and over the subsequent month and a half, park visitors enjoy spectacular views of their avian aerobatics. At Pine Mountain in late winter, a vortex of a couple hundred vultures is observed morning & evening during their period of communal roosting. Now that March has arrived, a menagerie of magnificent soaring birds dominate the skies. The birds roost in the crowns of giant, old growth trees nestled in the heart of the park’s celebrated Hemlock Garden.
In recent years, the event has been embraced as a natural tradition and the annual occurrence provides excellent opportunities to photograph these lesser celebrated birds of prey, in significant numbers, as they pinwheel and pirouette in casual soaring and aerial play.
Well known, a least to folks in Hart County, that a kangaroo can outrun a Derby-ready race horse if they all came down the stretch together. The Aussie anomaly can top out at 40mph while escaping a hungry dingo in the dark wilds of Australia (mate).
However, the pouched, long-footed mammal has had a hard time out-hopping clichés.
-Kangaroo Court: (c. 1853) Phrase coined during the California Gold Rush period of 1848 onward to describe the hastily carried out proceedings used to deal with claim jumping miners.
-Boxing Kangaroo: (c. 1891) After coinage becomes the national symbol of the Royal Australian Air Force, and is stenciled on fighter planes during WWII.
-Captain Kangaroo: (c. 1955) Bob Keeshan’s character headlining the popular children’s show that ran for 30 years on CBS.
And, of course, the kangaroo had a guest starring B-list role for much of the Winnie-The-Pooh saga. Poor Roos. Their down-under novelty just won’t let them be.
Two weeks ago I had a dream that I was on a familiar Kentucky road trip. I saw blue skies, a two lane road, and a creek running on my left that was lined with various brush and canebreaks. Between the road and the brush, there was a pasture hemmed in by barbed wire fence. Within the fence, a kangaroo farm (!). Ten or so kangaroos jostling about while I rubbernecked on the highway. Worse yet, such farms aren’t even legal in Kentucky. No more Copper River Grille for me.
I had to dust out my dream catcher, and in the process of analyzation make a trip to Horse Cave.
Kentucky Caverns has been touring guests for nearly 100 years, and when kangaroos were added to the attraction in 1990, Kentucky Down Under was born. Just this month, the park has brand new management, and it’s being renamed Kentucky Down Under Adventure Zoo. Ambitious future plans over the next few months include a ropes and bridges obstacle course (summer 2013), crocodile exhibits, and a building on tap that will pay tribute to Kentucky’s bourbon heritage. And still, all of the familiar birds, wool weaving, border collies, didgeridoos, boomerangs, and of course, the roos too.
I spent my preseason visit watching a mob of kangaroos hop around, oblivious to the fact they had just made my dreams come true. But then, Horse Cave has that dreamy way about it.
Here’s a town even Andy Griffith could whistle in. A historical district that runs just 2 blocks. Maybe 2.5 next to railroad tracks. Buildings still standing since their stagecoach days. A big honking cave opening right off main street.
If only the bricks in the facades could talk. Oh, but they can! Horse Cave has a walking tour of the city that uses QR codes for your smart phone to tell you in full voice-over what the building’s first purpose was. Maybe an Odd-Fellows Hall. Or a saloon. Or a bank. Or dry goods store. Every town in Kentucky is full of this type of heritage. Horse Cave simply puts a voice to it.
Consider it “Straight from the horse’s mouth.” And that’s hopefully one cliché even a kangaroo can outrun.
For more on Kentucky Down Under Adventure Zoo, visit www.kdu.com.
For more on Hart County, visit www.kygetaway.com.
-Thanks to Candace Forsythe and Sandra Wilson while on site in Hart County.
We posed for a said Mobile Upload, then I noticed he wore a themed shirt to town. Toddlers in the 4T size are notorious for themed shirts that match the day’s activity, or hope thereof. His theme was not his beloved trains on this trip, but rather dinosaurs.
“He must needs go through Cave City.”
The gateway to Kentucky’s fabled national park has seen better decades, no doubt. Amongst the overwhelming mountainous scenery that trumps any on Kentucky’s portion of Interstate 65, historic attractions, storefronts, and property sit overgrown and vacant, waiting and begging for a developer’s dream to deliver itself. If you’re reading and have millions to help this city, please do.Maybe it was all taken over by the dinosaurs fronting the interstate exit. The thankful bright spot downhill from the Guntown Mountain signage. Every car from Chicago to Mobile has a one point rubbernecked at the oversized T-Rex that blesses Barren County.
Dinosaur World. A three year old’s Mecca.Pilgrimage in progress, we spent the next hour and a half looking, pointing, running, and posing for pictures at each new attraction. Walking the rope line to one of a hundred or so life-size dinosaur replicas. Digging for fossils in the sand. Shopping for keepsakes in the gift store. Taking home yet another memory as family. Earning Uncle Points.
Only three of these such “worlds” exist in the world, and Cave City is the headquarters for it all. Consider it a hiking trip to the Mesozoic Era. Your 3 year old will love it. And the three year old at heart will love it, too.
For more on Dinosaur World, click Here.
For more on the vision of Cave City, click Here.
-Special thanks to Nicole Randall while in Cave City.
Every true Kentuckian carries with them that narcissistic blugrassian belief that the entire universe revolves around blessaid Kentucky.
You better believe it absolutely does the first Saturday in May.
But what of the other 364/120? You bet it does. Where else but Kentucky can one launch off in 1750 at the Cumberland Gap leading to a Wilderness Road construction paved with pioneer hearts onward to early Fort Boonesborough and Fort Harrod, then prosperous Lexington spawned from early Transylvania colony with eventual turnpike to Limestone Landing to catch up with the steamboats down the Ohio to Louisville pitched camp at the Falls?
Rivertowns along the Ohio, Green, Barren, Cumberland, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Mississippi bursting asunder with progress too quick to reckon. Railroads expanding the reach like spokes on the wagon wheels that carried settlers west in the first dawn of a new Kentucky era.
Tobacco, horses, coal, whiskey. A worldwide economic leader still uncontested in categories 220 years later.
Sports prowess. Naismith invented basketball. Rupp and Diddle perfected it in Kentucky.
Cars invented northward near Detroit. Perfected in Bowling Green.
Soft drinks fashioned first further south. Sweetened, albeit Late, in Winchester.
Eastern seaboard no doubt has the early American history of the 1600s, but Kentucky has that second wind of fresh history like that extra dream one gets after pressing the snooze button. Call it the Bluegrass Bonus.
We got Lincoln.
And the biggest Cave.
It does kick. It kicks the dirt up on Black Mountain, it kicks the coal dust up in Harlan, it kicks the spurs in Lexington, it kicks the tires in Bowling Green, it kicks to country music in Pikeville, it kicks under skyline in Louisville, and it kicks back at days end under a quilt in Paducah.
Kentucky Bred? Why Leave?
Somewhere Else? Get Over Here.
I love Kentucky. And I’ll keep kicking till I hit the bucket with a final swing.
Sometimes a large signboard with maps and a fancy rooftop, park benches nearby, and paved walkways to the trees aligned perfectly with shiny store-bought blazes. Or, more often than not, an obscure plot of dirt in the middle of nowhere for a parking lot, spray painted tree bark here and there as a rough guide through the forest (if you’re lucky). But they all have a start.
Daniel Boone hadn’t a trail blaze at all in 1767. Standing far side of the mountain in Virginia, the laurel and cane breaks were so thick they made finding any passage to Kentucky land holdings nearly impossible, not to mention the big honking mountains smack in the way of things. But Thomas Walker from the east had explored it as early as 1750, built a cabin there, and in speculative terms, reported a near heaven on earth. Boone saw green dollar signs waving in the blue grass. His business was real estate as much as legend has him an explorer. Regardless, he wanted into the expansive Kentucky County of Virginia.With backing from the short-lived Transylvania Land Company, he found a Gap in the wilderness, a loophole in the woods. A buffalo trail that had later been traversed by Indians. We had ourselves a way in. A Wilderness Road. And over the next 50 years, some 200,000 used it to find themselves a new life in America’s first wild west.
* * *
My junction with Boone would come over 200 years later. It started out by staring at a computer screen in early 2009. Facebook was still in its infancy then, but already grappling its hooks into the lives of people worldwide. It would steer fate for me sure as a buffalo trail through a mountain.
A girl interest had deleted me from “friend” status. I sat staring at the blocked off portion of the page I was still privy to. A name, one picture, and bits of common-knowledge information was all that remained accessible. I was shut out. “De-Friended,” a word only recently added to discourse. In short, dejected. What else was I to do? I chose the woods.
It had been a slow month. I was in the midst of an early spring voluntary layoff from my auto-industry job as the country itself was in the midst of an ugly recession. Everyone was in money saving mode, living day to day. My ploy had been to simplify while drawing unemployment insurance, staring at the computer screen, surfing the internet. I had also made plans to occupy myself by hiking here and there, terming them “layoff hikes.” I had been on trail a handful of times since the start of the decade, but nothing outstanding, a couple of hikes a year. I was just two trips in on the day I was deleted. Both of them had come at Mammoth Cave National Park.Catalyst moment at the de-friendment. I logged out of Facebook, shut off my computer, walked out my door, and got into my truck. A midst fell in early May on the windshield in front of me as wipers waved to and fro. Grey skies colored a greyer heart. My destination: a meager trail in the thick of a residential area of Bowling Green. Lost River Cave and Valley had seen visitors since the 1700s. The town had literally grown up around it. It was a two mile hike among hedge apple trees and blueholes sapped of their color due to the overcast conditions above. Fitting, perhaps. But thoughts circulating in my head calmed themselves faced with the dosage of ruggedness before me. I was done in less than 30 minutes. I bought a grey logo shirt in the gift shop as a token.
I drove back to my apartment and uploaded the pictures I had taken while I poured a cup of coffee. A feeling of “been there, done that.” A slight smile on my face.
Boone could relate to the heartache mixed co-parts with the exploration of the wilderness. Discovery, yes, but constant loss in his life, both with family and later finances. But he kept going to the woods as if he had no other choice. So did I.The morning after I went to Lost River Cave I drove 20 miles north of town to another known woods: Shanty Hollow. I was first shown this particular waterfall trail in 2006, and had been there just one other time. This would be the first of 75 more to the Hollow, which would forever attach itself to my heart and soul as a personal Walden.
The clouds stayed in the skies for the remainder of that week, but I observed the cloud in my mind lifting as I traveled consecutive days to Lake Malone and Pennyrile Forest. Before layoff’s end that June, I would have been to 20 locations statewide, the finale being the first of seven trips to Cumberland Falls. First trips to Green River Lake and Lake Cumberland. First trips to several state parks, in fact. By year’s end, 47 hiking trips that crossed Kentucky.
The passion grew as blossoms in the spring after a long winter. The next year saw 57 hiking trips, then 58 in 2011. All while laying the foundation to help others hike with the introduction of www.coryramseyoutdoors.com. By the dawn of 2013, I was 4 trips from 200, and had been to all 120 Kentucky counties.
Two-hundred would come on a day of dreamers, January 21, 2013. Dr. King Day. Boone’s Trace the choice at Levi Jackson State Park. The state’s first “trail,” if you will. London, Kentucky had grown up around this once remote outpost in Indian country on the Wilderness Road. The pioneers had some trouble here in a terrible slaughter on an October night in 1786, and the park has remained a steady historical draw for that reason.
I sat out for 200 on a path that now ran in full view of a residential area, cars zooming by every few seconds at a steady pace. A weathered marker mid-trail paid homage to the past of the area, simply reading “The Middle of the Wilderness.” I looked around. Wilderness no more. Twenty yards later, another marker, presumably newer. “Boone’s Trail continued on other side of mini-golf course.” Progress. The wilderness had been overrun with infrastructure. But wasn’t that the idea in the first place? Boone foresaw settlements. He foresaw civilization for the west, for Kentucky. And 200 years later, on his trail, that dream can be seen for reality. And 200 hikes later, my passion can likewise be seen for personal progress. Perhaps motivation for others to cure life’s ills with a short walk in the woods.
Thank you, Mr. Boone for finding a path. And thank you, Kentucky, for letting me play in your woods the past several years. It started with a Gap, both literally and figuratively. A Gap that has since been happily conquered 200 fold.
Growing up near the flyway didn’t hurt. Each year thousands of fowl make their way south with a slight rest stop at the Reelfoot National Wildlife Refuge. Bald eagles are no exception. But that wasn’t always the case. A pesticide called DDT got into the food chain in the 1950s and poisoned the fish that the eagles fed on. A genetic change occurred, not really poisoning the adult bird but softening her eggshells. She would lay them per usual, and set on top of them, only to have them bust open, scrambling any chance of future bald eagles being born (that last use of vernacular went “over easy” huh?).
Poor eagles. Luckily, science stepped in, found out what was happening to create the declining population, and eventually stopped production of the pesticide. Some 30 years passed before the bald eagle was removed from the endangered species list. Now Kentucky is thick with them. Each year, the Kentucky State Parks and Department of Fish and Wildlife collaborate to give eagle tours on the two lakes that put the L’s in LBL. In 2010, I sat sail aboard a yacht called the CQ Princess on Kentucky Lake and caught sight of 58 eagles on a cold January day that had the bays frozen solid, forcing every bald bird to the main channel and clustered in groups. Some nesting, some flying, all majestic. Only a flock of American flags flapping in the wind could have mustered the same feeling of patriotism. There’s something about seeing an bald eagle that makes you realize it’s a rare moment to be cherished.
I’ve had a few glimpses since. Last month I was near the Barren River north of Bowling Green when a large black bird flew past me, white tail feathers quickly giving its identity away. Now ‘Vette City has an eagle, too. My first hike of 2013 took place New Year’s Day in Greensburg. After a walk in the woods, I drove through the historic district of the town that lines US 68 and then turned around to head back home. Greensburg is close to Green River Lake and the tailwaters that continue the state’s longest river eventually make their way past the city. I looked back towards the tree line that sat on the banks and spotted a white dot in the branches. Score an eagle on New Year’s Day.
But the closest I have yet to come to a symbol of freedom in the wild? Twenty feet. Close. Way close. Talk about it in a newspaper column close. As fate would have it, a day when I didn’t have a camera on me. I was at Reelfoot Lake, near the old Airpark Inn and had a guest along for the ride. At the time, I was dating a young blonde TV journalist, and as one could imagine, I was so captured by the beauty at the moment that I failed to capture the beauty of the moment. Hindsight wishes I had just taken the close-up eagle picture instead. It‘s as if I could have reached out and touched freedom. Perhaps the bird stayed there and didn’t care I was looking at it because he knew no picture would be snapped on this occasion. Maybe next time.
If you get the chance, schedule a boat tour this month or next to see the eagles on our nearby lakes or at Ballard WMA. Information is online at www.parks.ky.gov. Or just keep looking for the white dot in the air, or in the woods.
-Originally published in the Hickman Courier January 10, 2013.
Lord Bless the Purchase, adopted stepchild of Kentucky. It wasn’t fully part of the Commonwealth when it became a state in 1792. A quarter century would pass before Andrew Jackson and company helped negotiate a buy from the Chickasaw Indians that gave the frontier bluegrass state more ground southwest towards the Mississippi. Another quarter century later, Fulton County was formed, birthed from Hickman County, and Hickman (the town) was christened county seat. At that time the big river ran, sans harbor, right at its doorsteps and by the mid 1800s the loud whistle and churn of steamboat traffic could be heard, river wake lapping ashore in Hickman from the paddlewheels of the big boats. Thank you, Robert Fulton.
Tis’ the river that prospered early Hickman and Iron Banks, and the river that still brings some dollars and tourism to the Jackson Purchase today. Much has happed since the prime of the two towns, and much to blame for the decline from the glory days. Floods, fires, and such. It’s said you never pass through the same river twice. I guess the same could be said for the towns that dot Kentucky’s portion of the Great River Road. Here’s an American Scenic Byway that runs from Minnesota to the Gulf, headwaters of the Mississippi on down. Wickliffe picks it up here on the Mississippi Valley Highway of US 51, but I would tour the route on Black Friday starting with KY 94 at the Tennessee line.
I’ve been down this road a time or two.
“Welcome to Kentucky.” But no river, at least in view. Ah, but evidence of it, the flat bottomland unmatched for richness in the entire state laid out before me. Surely once host to the river as it changed course now and then over eons. One could argue the road actually runs on the great “river bed” because at one point it probably would have been so. Kentucky’s first outpost a couple miles north of the refuge is Sassafras Ridge. Only a couple of vacant buildings and the old Western School remind one of an earlier time in bottomland life. Cotton once king.I would turn right towards the river and ride atop the old government levee towards Hickman. This embankment broke and flooded much of the area in April, 1912. Little Hickman was featured for a week on the front page of the New York Times along with Cairo and other local towns. Lost the news cycle a week later when the Titanic sank. But Hickman would rise from the floodwaters, build a wall, and prosper till the 1940s when the Mengal Box Company burned to the ground. What’s left 75 years later are only photographs and memories of a once wealthy river town. A beautiful courthouse, an empty iconic hotel, and a literal handful of wilting downtown structures that once stood for several blocks. One can only go forward from here, and that’s the motto of Fulton County these days. I hope they will. Onward, the road would take me to Cayce which marks the birthplace of famous engineer and railroad hero Casey Jones, subject of numerous folk songs and movies about his death on the tracks in 1900. The town Cayce had a few old mercantile buildings of its own next to a trackless railroad bed till the early 1990s when they too would eventually collapse and disappear. All that really remains now is another old school building. I’d continue on to Oakton, then Iron Banks. Perhaps the most scenic stop of all on Kentucky’s portion of the Great River Road is found at Columbus-Belmont State Park. The view of the river atop the bluff here is one of the best overlooks in the entire state. Called the “Gibraltar of the West” during the Civil War when it served as a Confederate fort, Columbus was at several times in history considered an alternative to Washington for the nation’s capitol. Today the only government connection here is the post office, slated for closure soon.
Wickliffe would be the next stop on the route, but first through little Berkley. A county road here off the path leads to a Fish and Wildlife boat ramp where one can sample the river from a lower angle. Once back on the road, I stopped shy of Wickliffe at the giant Cross at the Confluence on the site of old Fort Jefferson. The early settlement history of this spot dates back to the fort George Rogers Clark built in 1789, and would later host Lewis and the other Clark on their journey westward in 1803. The Ohio River can be seen in junction with the Mississippi here. Seemingly all of Kentucky draining into the big river at this point, with exception to the Obion and Bayou de Chien further southwest. In season, one can stop at Wickliffe Mounds State Park and see evidence of a once bustling Native American Culture here, long before either of the Clarks arrived.
All done tour wise (bridge and back) I would return to Fulton via the alternate route of US 51, but not without a stop for catfish at Luke’s Restaurant in Arlington. A fixture for well over 50 years as a truck stop and diner, it still serves the weary traveler today. Having been filled with my loaves and fishes, I thanked my God and went home. My true home, on the Great River Road. Take a trip in your back yard this Christmas. This familiar landscape is your family, too. And simply asks for the gift of another glance.
-Originally published in the Hickman Courier, December 6, 2012.
Kentucky County, Virginia.
In 1776, we were still joined hard to the original Commonwealth but at least split off from Fincastle County. Four years later again fractured into three newer counties, Fayette, Jefferson, and Lincoln (the other Lincoln). These later petitioned to secede and formed the foundation for the State of Kentucky, admitted as the fifteenth in 1792. From then until 1912, some 120 counties were carved out of those first three, usually from locals disagreeing with the existing county government and in order to have a close courthouse to settle disputes. Only Texas and Georgia have more than Kentucky. Luckily, an amendment to the new state constitution in 1891 made it tougher for an additional county to be formed, else we would have a thousand of them by now.
However lain, one county or one-twenty, Kentucky still unfurls itself over a lot of bluegrass. From Stopover eastward in the mountains of Pike County westward to the Madrid Bend cut off from the rest of Fulton County. Curled up top and back by rivers, a whopper jawed border south of LBL supposedly due to drunk surveyors centuries ago. But who really knows? That’s our Kentucky (There’s only one…).
That’s a lot of horses, bourbon, coal, Corvettes, Camrys, lakes, rivers, mountains, woodland, farmland, and fried chicken. And more horses. Blue collars, white collars, coal stained collars, and bib overalls (no collars). Rural heartland and hustle-bustle Louisville. Basketball, football, NASCAR, baseball bats, and the Derby. Over 120 festivals from pecans to Hatfield and McCoy. And the thought of actually seeing every county still seems mystical even in this age of 40mpg. Anyone who has done it is suddenly surrounded by a goldenrod glow and a choir cooing “ahhs.”
Parkways don’t cross all of Kentucky, and just the typical handful of interstates belt the big dots on the map per usual nationwide. So a good majority of the Commonwealth rests unassuming in uncommonly known locales. My hometown is one. Hickman slinks beneath a bluff against the small portion of the state the Mississippi River routes beside. Its once prominent downtown plagued more than Egypt in the Book of Exodus. One fire so bad in the 1870s it made the New York Times. A few floods, more fires and a whoopsie from engineers in ‘86 took a 100 year old historic district to near complete demolition. Only a handful of steamboat era buildings remain. From that quiet corner came the quest for 120.
It took three decades. And I never really looked into it for the first 2.9. The Jackson Purchase came by default. Louisville and Lexington of course conquered in my youth. A Governor’s Scholars study in Danville. A Boy’s State in Morehead. A VICA conference in Paintsville. A college education and eventual encampment in Bowing Green. But honestly, who sets out to see all 120? And why would one want to? I only knew of two people that had.
Most Kentuckians I know don’t venture too far from their regional hub, that is to say, “City where the Wal-Mart is.” Other than that, they’ll travel to Nashville or Gatlinberg or Gulf Shores before trekking across their own homeland. Tall tales abound of one lane slippery mountain pass roads and toll bridges guarded by hillbillies and trolls (and to all of Lexington eastward, is there really a western Kentucky, or is it a figment?). I remained westward of Somerset for the most part until 2010. That’s when Pineville and the Cumberland Gap were visited, then highway 119 all the way to Kingdom Come and Black Mountain at Cumberland. A year passed. Then 2011 brought a stop in Hazard and highway 15 through Jackon to the Gorge, eastward then to Greenbo and Carter Caves near Grayson. More time passed. 2012 featured US 23 from Pikeville up the gut to Ashland, and a US 60 road trip on Father’s Day from Owensboro to Paducah. I started tallying counties. Only 86. Really? That much travel, and still 34 unbridled jurisdictions to go? Where’s Fincastle when you need it? Summer 2012 became the official quest. I would try to visit them all before year’s end.
First came Monroe County in August. Then Mclean and Hancock (with lunch midway at Moonlight, of course). A nine hour jaunt one Sunday to Taylorsville Lake northward to General Butler and back in a big loop that took me near Cincinnati at one point. In one weekend I saw both the headwaters of the Kentucky River at Beattyville and its mouth at Carrolton. Another Saturday I was looking at what was left post-tornado at West Liberty on my way to Inez in Martin County. Tally: 12 still left. My God.
November 2nd I turned 32. On the 3rd, I set out to finish the job. An early morning drive in the rain to Lexington and the horse corridor of US 27 to Paris. Kentucky’s money clip (you gotta see that stone fence). Then to Cynthiana north to Falmouth and Kincaid Lake, where deer were the only patrons. A lunch and adoration in downtown Maysville, rain pelting me while I looked at the Ohio from Limestone Landing. Followed by a night at Blue Licks Revolutionary War battlefield in the long cast shadow of Daniel Boone.
The next morning, I drove my car across the Johnson Creek covered bridge in Robertson County before heading eastward to Flemingsburg and then Vanceburg, where Meriwether Lewis stood and stared at the river there on his way to rendezvous with Clark for a similar epic. I bet he thought Kentucky was big, too. I still had to return on the AA Highway to Newport for a meal on the levee looking across to the skyline of Cincinnati. Kenton County received a meager exploration via 275 (I’ll be back) and I linked up with Interstate 71 for the final destination. Owen County. Who would have thought?
Perhaps fitting that the quest would start in a small town like Hickman, population 2,400, and finish in a smaller town like Owenton, population 1,300. I pulled off of 71 somewhat emotional as 127 dropped me further to the goal. Till fate threw a curve ball. A set of rail cars stalled on the tracks at Glencoe, stopping me short 2 feet from the county line. Traffic was snarled al la Louisville, but no chopper in sight to alert motorists. Reroute.
Finally reaching Owen County, there was no fanfare south of Sparta. No parade, no confetti, no tickertape. Just a picture of the county sign and realization of accomplishment while onlookers wondered what in the world I was doing.
It was the end of a 30 year journey, yet the beginning of true love. Leaving Owenton, 127 would take me into Frankfort. Some 220 years of a Commonwealth bound by historic signatures on paper. Thoughts of a land utilized to the core (literally). Thoughts of towns that both rose and died. Thoughts of families, generations worth, reared, toiled, and buried on its soil. Thoughts of wars fought and passions sought. Dreams that were both released, and sometimes captured.
As I drove home to Bowling Green the sun set quietly in my Kentucky. I had seen all that it was, and it was good. My Home.
THE OFFICIAL SITE OF THE KENTUCKY DEPARTMENT OF TRAVEL
Capital Plaza Tower 22nd Floor, 500 Mero Street, Frankfort, KY 40601