Kentucky and Tennessee

Horse farms. Bourbon. Bluegrass. The Appalachians.

That wasn’t all we saw while driving recently through Kentucky and Tennessee.

There were also the three older white couples eating breakfast near us one morning, discussing local politics. One laughed and said, “They’re spending so much, you’d think they were Democrats!”

They didn’t wear masks inside our hotel. Neither did most people in the other indoor spaces we visited, even in some government facilities with “masks required” signs.

In Nashville, at the Hermitage home of President Andrew Jackson, we visited replica houses of enslaved people who picked his cotton and built his fortune. In Gatlinburg, a restaurant owner wearing a cowboy hat vented to us about Joe Biden. As we drove across Knoxville, Lexington, Louisville, Nashville, and the Great Smoky Mountains before heading home to Durham, our radio dial was filled with country music and Christian preachers.

Kenneland racetrack, Lexington

As always happens when we travel, we experienced a world beyond our Blue Bubble. We were visiting Red America but also encountering a diversity more complex than simple labels. America surprises you when you explore it, as we’d seen in West Virginia a few weeks earlier. A young man there told us in a thick accent about the nearby mountain holler where he grew up, not far from where he met his husband.

At dinner on our first night in Tennessee, we were seated next to a group of young professionals holding a Bible study group, discussing Jesus while drinking beers. In Louisville, a couple from Bowling Green told us about the Corvette auto plant where he works. The next day we visited Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace, Mammoth Cave and a quirky “Kentucky Stonehenge” in a family’s yard. In Nashville, we chatted with young women dressed up for Dia de los Muertos and ate hot chicken while listening to a band playing country hits on Lower Broadway.

Donny Lee and his band perform at the Lucky Bastard Saloon in Nashville.

We saw sites ranging from Fort Boonesborough in Kentucky to the Parthenon in Nashville. We visited craft stores, ate barbecue, strolled atop the Ohio River and hiked through forests ablaze with autumn reds, yellows and greens. We won some money at the Kenneland racetrack in Lexington but lost about ten dollars more, then visited the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs in Louisville. We met wonderful people.

It was time well spent as we slowly emerge from our long pandemic lockdown, eager to travel again but still cautious about going abroad. Kentucky and Tennessee reminded us how many places we have yet to explore — and learn from — much closer to home.

In Great Smokies National Park, Tennessee

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