Kentucky Quick-look

Kentucky. Just hearing the word made me hungry. As a kid, I associated it with chicken and a Southern white guy in a white suit with a mustache, who wasn’t Mark Twain. Later, I associated it with Boone and bourbon and horses running very fast with tiny little jockeys on their backs and Daniel Day Lewis saying he wanted to head for KEN-TUCK-EE in Last of the Mohicans. What a cool state. And now (back to hunger) I could associate it with something as strangely un-American as Laughing Cow Cheese. Indeed, I could bear direct witness to the fact that it was made there, in the only factory outside of France.

Somehow, I ended up on a Laughing Cow tour one dark night, after hours. A contact in Oklahoma had set me up with her sister, Christie, in Peonia, a small town in central Kentucky. I couldn’t believe my luck when she told me she worked at the Laughing Cow Cheese factory. After a great dinner of steaks and potatoes, hanging out with her neighbors under a slow, scintillating sunset, I followed her to a nearby town framed by churches and Dairy Queens. I was soon adorned in a white lab jacket, rubber boots, and hair and beard nets, waving haplessly at the night-staff. This was the Mecca of soft white cheese. A cheese that didn’t need to be refrigerated, a cheese that’s saved my palette and stomach on many adventures in remote regions around the world, from Vietnam to Morocco, Cambodia to Haiti. Here I was at its source. I received a free baseball cap when I left, accompanied by a stack of cheese cylinders.

How did I get to Peonia? I drove, mostly on back roads. A few days earlier, after leaving my friends in Fort Thomas, I dropped like a weight down I-75 into the Blue Grass area near Lexington, among plenty of white fences and thoroughbreds. From there, I ran from the sun and hurtled Southeast into forests, and rode a chairlift in Natural Bridge State Park, perusing the lush canyons around Red River Gorge. Thin roads led through rounded hills to Richmond where I spent the night hula-hooping in a Walmart Parking lot.

The next morning, off a tip, I visited Berea, home to a college where students made crafts in school programs to help pay their tuition. I met a young man who told me about their famous brooms, and showed me a wooden game with a spinning top they made. I explored Boone Tavern with the smiling doorman, then strolled the Berea campus and craft stores, under a sky ribbed with clouds. The heat blasted off the pavement, dragging the sweat from my pores. It was worse in my van, the Chief, basically doubling as a General Motors oven.

Thus I was glad to escape into the air-conditioning at Sanders Café in Corbin, the origin of KFC. It housed a little museum, a bunch of tables, and statue of Colonel Sanders you could take your picture with. I did. We put our arms around each other. To make him happy, I ordered some Kentucky Fried Chicken and mashed potatoes, a mac-n-cheese, and a lemonade. My daily dose of fast-food box, checked.

I caught the morning at Cumberland Falls. Mist hugged the contours of the valley on the way in, and the powerful white falls pounded with respectful relentlessness on the rocks below. I was the only one there, not another soul wandered the paths enclosed in green. At the river, I let my feet drift into the cool water. I used the vacant parking lot for some wind-sprints, consuming my standard breakfast: cold oatmeal and honey, a shot of vinegar, an apple, and a few gulps of juice to absorb the cocktail of vitamins a friend proscribed me.

Gray clouds hovered over the Corvette museum, where I realized I wanted a corvette, an old one, a convertible. Maybe one day, when I wasn’t living on canned food, being a homeless, unemployed artist sleeping in his car, I could get one. Maybe I could trade a few paintings. I could imagine myself driving a 1959 blue and white beauty, the top down, palm trees around, the engine’s sweet sound, wheels gripping the ground. Do dreams come true? The Chief would have to do for now.

A light drizzle followed us to Mammoth Caves, touted as the largest network in the world. Bring a jacket. Stupidly I went descended its depths in a tank-top and shorts. Deep dark places underground are chilly, and the tour moved as fast as the slowest person in the back. At 250 feet below the surface, I shivered while chatting up the park ranger, asking about other caves worth visiting on my trip. There were stalactites and stalagmites and a couple hours later, I was top-side, back in the rain, entertaining kids on the tour bus.

The hamlet of Peonia was in the country, scattered around the intersection of two small roads. Through Christie, I managed to befriend the unofficial mayor Hubert Clemons, who was born in the area, and raised his family in the area. He was an avid facebooker to boot, among other things. He presided with us over the sunset in his front yard, and chased cows that night, before seeing me off in the morning with a mason jar.

Abraham Lincoln was born nearby so I went there. I walked around the famed log cabin. He grew up at another house not far away, so I went there also to pay passing homage to one of the coolest guys around.  But true homage would be much more appropriate and meaningful accompanied by a glass of bourbon, so I thought. I managed to find one in, of all places, a bourbon Distillery on the Bourbon Trail. I sipped a snifter and breathed a toast to Ol’ Abe. Staring down into the empty glass I imagined, in a very one-sided way, that we were almost buddies, Abe and I. I knew him; I spent several months painting him, dabbing colors onto a giant canvas. I knew every etch in his face, the glints in his eyes.

Heading north, I passed barns with quilted patterns on their walls. I pulled-over at a decrepit drive-in theater to take pictures and was threatened with a bullet wound by an old guy with a beard. Suspicious of swarthy intruders in vans trespassing on his property, he made sure I was a US citizen before warming up enough to invite me in for a cold can of bud. We sat on folding chairs among his piles of junk (his words) regaling me with stories of his rodeo days, and injuries. “I’m a shitter, a getter, and a wild horse rider!” His gentle attack dog, Lady, rolled at our feet. When I left, he waved until I turned onto the narrow two-laner and was out of sight. Ahead,  across stretches of farmland, a warm shower and a real bed awaited me.

When my van broke down in Maryland, my mechanic’s wife introduced me to her friend Kathy on the internet. She happened to be house-sitting not far from the Bourbon Trail. She in turn knew someone who had a piece of my art in California, and offered not only to put me up at the big, beautiful pad in which she sat, but also to let me use her apartment in Louisville. After a wonderful dinner on the balcony playing with the four dogs, we retired to the living room and talked into the night. Crickets chirped outside. I found myself in a comfy bed with two canine companions; they kindly made sure I was asleep, before tip-pawing to their favorite spots on the carpet.

In Louisville I stayed in Kathy’s flat, a large apartment in an assisted-living building with all-sorts of characters in the elevator. I visited the Louisville Slugger factory, walked in the wet-grass among the ornate graves of Cave Hill Cemetery, toured Churchill Downs, and chowed on Crispy Cream donuts. Kathy arrived to help me pick up a local park. I headed upstream to watch the sunset over the Ohio.

Before I left for Indiana, a friend tipped me off to Lynn’s Paradise Café where, under a swirl of color, I gorged on their famous Kentucky Farmhouse Scramble, complete with a glass of Woodford Bourbon. Warmed by the shot, I headed over the bridge, listening to The Psychedelic Furs, “Ghost in You”, on repeat, Kentucky in my blood, Laughing Cow Cheese in my cooler, moonshine in my jar, and Indiana on my mind.