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