Day 41/ Apr 8th – Barbourville, KY to Corbin, KY: Quilting violence

I don’t know if you’ve ever been forced to quit a town’s only hotel and walk twenty miles in chilly drizzle because of a quilting festival.  It is a humbling experience.  We woke up to heavy rain and immediately resolved to stay in Barbourville and wait it out, but the receptionist bore bad news.

“I’m so sorry, but we’re completely full up.  It’s the Redbud.”

The ‘Redbud’ is the annual Redbud Trail Festival and Quilt Workshop, and it had brought to our hotel in Barbourville small platoons of old ladies who sat together in the breakfast room, exchanging tips on machine piecing and sashing while discreetly sliding sachets of Frosted Flakes from the counter into their handbags.

In some ways, it was a relief to be forced to leave Barbourville, because it was a town low on charm.  A pretty little historic square at the heart of downtown had been largely abandoned by its residents in favour of an anonymous cluster of out-of-town malls.  The next event of note on its calendar was the Kentucky Bluegrass Spring Nationals Lawnmower Race in June.  These races began as a bit of April Fool’s Day silliness about twenty years ago but, this being south-eastern Kentucky and there being few other local diversions, it’s since mushroomed into a 20-race season overseen by its own governing body.  The Barbourville race, it seems, is the high-point of the season for ‘mower-heads’.

The town’s sole piece of diverting history concerned the bitter basketball rivalry between its two high-schools, Barbourville High and Knox Central High, whose games were so often marred by bloody violence between rival spectators that the local police banned them from playing one another for many years.  We heard a detailed account of the rivalry from Mike, a local electricity meter reader, who stopped to offer us a lift on the way out of Barbourville.

“What it is, you got two big high schools, both in the middle of one small town.  Game time, we jus’ woulden even talk to ‘em.  You got soccer violence, right?  Ain’t no different.”

Five years ago, Mike said, the games had been restarted and, he added, almost ruefully, there had been very little trouble since then.

Abandoned garage near Rosseland Kentucky

Abandoned garage near Barbourville

It was not an edifying day’s walk to Corbin.  Early on, Sally was sprayed from head to toe with water by a passing truck, and the rest of the day failed to exceed even this rather low bar of enjoyment.  We tramped through mean, tangled woods filled with desperate-looking trailers, most of them surrounded by a debris field of appliance parts, fast-food containers and the rusting skeletons of cars.  Chickens scattered in panic as we walked by, and fat frogs plopped into the creeks by the verge, which were coffee-coloured with run-off from the rain.  Along Rosseland Road, about halfway to Corbin, we passed by an actual swamp – the first either of us had ever seen – with gnarled trees jutting haphazardly out of dark, stagnant mulch.

Swamp near Corbin Kentucky

Swampland near Corbin

Kentucky is the 11th poorest state in America, but walking through these neighbourhoods, it was hard to imagine that there could be ten states poorer in the wealthiest country in the world.  Everywhere, of course, there were small Baptist churches, almost the only permanent buildings along the road.  It was difficult to understand how a place could be so committed to the worship of God when it had been so manifestly forsaken by him.

Baptist church near Barbourville Kentucky

Baptist church near Barbourville

We wondered what Daniel Boone, not only the pioneering builder of the first road to Kentucky but also a life-long booster of the state, would have made of it now.  He is said, perhaps apocryphally, to have woken up one day in his cabin in the wilderness, caught sight of the smoke from another chimney on the horizon, declared the area too crowded and abandoned his home to move further west.  His name is on everything around here, and while he might have been pleased by the Daniel Boone National Forest, Daniel Boone log home kits and several Daniel Boone schools, it’s hard to believe he would have been anything but appalled by the Daniel Boone Motor Inn, the Daniel Boone Trail (a section of Highway 25) and, especially, by the banner we saw by the roadside near Corbin today for the Daniel Boone Motocross Park (‘Visit Us on MySpace’).


One Response to “Day 41/ Apr 8th – Barbourville, KY to Corbin, KY: Quilting violence”

  1. Aaron Says:

    I went to Knox Central from 1984 to 1987. Barbourville (and all of rural America) has changed a great deal in the last twenty-five years. It’s a hard thing about being an American (unlike, I think, a rural Briton) that you can pretty much be sure that if you leave the place that you grew-up in at eighteen, and come back at forty years of age, you will hardly recognize it. Almost everything will have changed – many, many good things will have been disgarded, and replaced by the new, and usually ugly.

    I love my memories of Barbourville, and I am proud that my mother’s family is deeply rooted there. It is a hard place, in many ways – that’s true. People that live there do not have it easy, and rarely have had it easy. Work is usually hard to find, which is perhaps the largest reason why I no longer live there – like so many other young people that became educated and left in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet, I have rarely encountered people more generous, and welcoming. I wish you had been able to spend more time there, and gotten to know some of those people – maybe visited one of those back country churches, or gone to one of those great high school ball games. I think you would have found people treating you quite nice, and very interested in you as English people, and happy to see you visiting.

    I love you blog, which I just discovered yesterday. I’m now kind of addicted to it, and am stealing away from my work to read “just one more” post.

    I want to reccomend a book to you both: “Albion’s Seed – Four British Folkways in America” by David Hacket Fisher. It’s an excellent read, and presents the best theory I have come across for (1) explaining the persistence of American regional cultures, and; (2) there foundation in the regional differances of Britain. You might be suprised (you might not) to discover that Knox County, Kentucky is more like north Yorkshire, Cumbria, and Lincolnshire than you ever thought.

    By the way, I have had the great privilege to enjoy some fine walks in Yorkshire, and a few fine walks way down in Suffolk.

    Should your travels bring you through northeast, Ohio (the Buckeye trail or the Headwaters trail), my partner, and I will be sure to offer you a lift, a meal, or a place to sleep.

    Sincerely, another American cousin you have not met,


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