American Road Trip: Kentucky & The Southern Appalachians

My first day in the Bluegrass State began with peaceful rolling countryside, continued with tornado dodging and finished with a pedicure as I listened to emergency storm alerts sound on my phone well into the night.

I crossed the state line just outside of Clarksville, Tennessee and was immediately taken with the vivid green and incredibly lush countryside dotted with barns and plenty of horses.  This was the famed Bluegrass Country that has been recorded on film, paper and in song countless times.  You’d be hard pressed to find people in most parts of the world who haven’t heard something about Kentucky even if they’d just seen the name mentioned on a bottle of bourbon.  Kentucky in the flesh did not disappoint.   Life here felt laid back and pleasant.  It was the kind of place where people wave when they drive past you and are easy to get along with.

After paying the princely sum of $8 for half a tank of gas I happily wound my way on a slow north east course toward Elizabethtown where I planned to hook up with the Bluegrass Parkway to Versailles where I’d spend the night.   I lost track of time dallying on beautiful country roads so reluctantly took Interstate 65 toward Louisville in order to speed up the last part of my journey to Elizabethtown so I’d have plenty of time to explore the area between there and Versailles.  Within a few minutes of joining the Interstate I began seeing signs for Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace and I couldn’t pass that by without taking a look.

It was only a short diversion and I soon found myself wandering on a boardwalk through thick forest before I arrived at an imposing Greek columned building that was very Washington DC-esque.  As usual I hadn’t done my homework before I arrived and will admit to a brief second of wondering what the hell kind of log cabins people used to build in Kentucky before realising that this building was erected not only as a monument to Lincoln but also to protect the very small and simple cabin he was born in which can be found sheltered inside.

This was one of those strange travel phenomena where although you are at somewhere impressive and thought provoking it only takes a minute or two to experience.  Sort of like trekking through London to see Big Ben and after being suitably impressed reluctantly realising there is only so long you can look at it.   It can be an awkward moment because you have made a pilgrimage to a special place and are glad you did but in all honesty the experience only takes a moment which is why that saying about the journey being as important as the destination is so very true.

Although I’m glad I saw the cabin and it was amazing to think about how that one birth in a very humble place had such a huge impact on the course of history, I in fact I spent most of my time chatting to the National Parks warden who was guarding it about how on earth she managed to pass a whole day staring at a log cabin.  Apparently they let them read a book so long as there are no visitors watching.   I like to think that when she is alone in there she dances and has maybe invented her own Abraham Lincoln dance that she brings out at parties.

Less than 3 minutes after I entered the building I was outside again making my way down an impressive staircase that was a kind of mini version of the steps to the Lincoln Memorial in DC.  I looked ahead to photograph the view and immediately felt a sense of unease due to the extremely dark sky that loomed in the distance.  I’d heard thunderstorms were coming and this one looked pretty bad so I quickly got to the car and decided to spend the night at Elizabethtown because the last thing I needed was hail damage from a thunderstorm destroying my rental car whilst I was driving it.  If it happened at a motel it would be far easier to deal with.

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It took about a minute to book a motel on my phone then I sped off straight towards the storm that was bearing down on Elizabethtown, desperately hoping I could get there before it hit.  Just a few minutes away from the motel an emergency alert blared on my cell phone.  As the storm was obviously packing a lot of rain and hail I expected to find a flash flood warning like we often got in New Mexico but my worst fear was realised; it was an extreme warning for an imminent tornado in my area.  Crap.  I was only a few minutes from the motel but felt extremely vulnerable.  Where are you supposed to go if you are on a busy road when a tornado hits?  And funnily enough I wasn’t wearing a leather belt so couldn’t tether myself to a handy pipe a-la-Twister the movie.  I was however briefly excited at the chance of finally seeing flying cows.

I made it to the motel just as the sky got even blacker and big fat drops of rain began to fall.  I ran into reception to find a group of guests staring nervously at the TV.  The receptionist was jumpy but friendly as she checked me in.  As I took my key to leave I decided to ask where the safest place would be should a tornado hit and did not feel too confident about her suggested plan to “Just run on down here, bunk in with me and we’ll ride it out together friend”.  That was charmingly Southern but an unconvincing plan.  My room was at the other end of the complex so I didn’t think I’d make it that far notwithstanding the fact that her desk faced a glass wall.  Nope.  I had to figure something out on my own so when I got to my room I assembled a ‘go kit’ in order to ensure that at least my green card, passports, insurance and credit cards were on me then figured out a sophisticated tactical plan that involved jumping in the bathtub with the mattress over me.

Being all alone in a flimsy motel in a place you don’t know during something like this is not a pleasant feeling but there was a lot of comfort in knowing that anyone I cared about was far out of harm’s way and that I didn’t have any property with me that couldn’t easily be replaced.  I can’t imagine how it feels to face down an immediate tornado threat knowing that everyone and everything you care about are potentially in its path.  I have a lot of respect for people who face that on a regular basis.

Although a tornado did touch down in Mayfield, Kentucky that afternoon doing a lot of damage but thankfully causing no fatalities, the worst thing that hit Elizabethtown was flooding and high winds that downed some trees in the area.  To my knowledge there were no casualties.  Still the radar showed severe storms rolling through the region until late so it was an uneasy night with frequent emergency alerts from both my phone and the television.  I decided to distract myself with a pedicure then lull myself off to sleep with back-to-back episodes Law & Order.  Never fails.

The next morning I wanted to get as close to the Blue Ridge Parkway as possible but was having a really hard time figuring out what town I needed to head to so in the end settled on Roanoke, Virginia.  Google said it would take about 8 hours but as I was up early I thought I may as well hit the road and just get as far as I could that day.  My longest drive was 11 hours a few years back from San Bernardino to Las Cruces so I figured this was doable.

The drive through mountain country in Kentucky was beautiful for the most part.  I was essentially in the western foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and although these weren’t full on mountains the road was often steep and windy through endless forest. It wasn’t the most enjoyable drive of my life.  My main issue was the careless and dangerous driving of others on the road that made for a stressful and frustrating journey.  On more than one occasion I’d be doing 10mph over the speed limit on a winding mountain road in order to keep up with traffic.  As a New Zealander who grew up on narrow mountain roads that were much worse than these I was comfortable with that.  What wasn’t okay was the huge commercial trucks aggressively tailgating me despite the high speed, the kind of tailgating where all you can see in your rear mirror is the front grill of the truck.  It also seemed that every second driver was talking on their phone and I lost count of the times I saw people cross the center line or veer off onto an almost non-existent shoulder.  I couldn’t wait to get out of there and was too busy making sure nobody killed me to notice the landscape or towns.

I breathed a sigh of relief as I crossed the state line into Virginia on a high mountain ridge where the traffic suddenly lightened and slowed down.  Unfortunately that was short lived because I got my credit card stuck in a gas pump.  As in no movement.  Even with the help of tweezers.  Thankfully there were lots of friendly mountain men buying beer at the gas station who also happened to carry tools in their trucks so after a quick rescue via a pair of rusty pliers I was once again on my way to Roanoke.

The traffic was light and even once I got to the busier mountain highways everyone just seemed a lot more chilled out than they were on the Kentucky side.    This was also pretty country but soon I was on Interstate 81 which was horrendous.  I might even go as far as saying it is the most awful stretch of Interstate I’ve experienced.   There were more trucks than cars, all were speeding and I estimated some were doing in excess of 80 miles per hour.  Most of it is only 2 lanes yet jam-packed and a lot of the pavement is in poor condition.  To top that off, less than 10-minutes from the motel and after 9-hours of traveling I got stuck in a major traffic jam that kept me on that godforsaken road for another 45-minutes.

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Once again my relief at getting off the road was short lived when I checked into the worst motel room I’ve ever seen.  It was the kind of place where you won’t let your bare feet touch the floor and worry that the shower will make you dirtier than when you started.  So strictly for medicinal purposes I found myself some gin & tonic, checked the mattress for bed bugs then once again let cable TV lull me into a peaceful sleep.  Luckily things were about to get a whole lot better on the Blue Grass Parkway so standby for that in my next update.

Highlights:  Basically everything about Bluegrass Country.  Add it to your list!

Something I didn’t know last week:  People in the South can understand my Kiwi accent and don’t even comment on it.  This is actually quite momentous and lovely.  I couldn’t go to the local Walgreens in New Mexico to buy something personal without either a) someone making a big deal out of not understanding me in front of all the other customers or b) having to tell my life story in order to explain where I was from or what I was doing there only to have them understand about 25% of what I’d just said.  I’ve been visiting parts of the American South for years but it only just dawned on me that they understand everything I say.  Even in the UK they don’t understand me this well.  I have no idea why or how but after spending the best part of 16 years outside of New Zealand not being fully understood it is heavenly.  No need to fake an American accent at the McDonalds drive-thru in these parts.

Songs I played the loudest:  Angel, Jimi Hendrix  |  Angie, Rolling Stones  |  Another Chance, Roger Sanchez  |  Asleep at the Wheel, Bloodhound Gang  |  At Last, Etta James  |  Atomic, Blondie

Trip Map

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