Days 43-44/ Apr 10th-11th – London, KY to Mount Vernon, KY: Main Street, USA

On most maps of Kentucky, over towards its eastern side, you’ll see a curious green splotch, running roughly north-south and almost bisecting the state.  This is the Daniel Boone National Forest, and today we walked through it on a pleasant 22-mile amble through the woods.  It’s one of 138 national forests in America, which cover an astonishing 300,000 square miles – roughly a twelfth of the land area of the United States.

The national forests are not, as their name may suggest, untouchable woodland preserves.  People can live, camp, hunt, graze livestock and even fell trees in them.  In fact, the US Forest Service, which administers them, until recently spent a great deal of its time cheerfully building roads through the forests (it manages 375,000 miles of forest roads, eight times the length of the entire US interstate system) to allow timber companies easier access to logging areas.  The Service (slogan: ‘Caring for the land and serving people’) actually had to be taken to court recently to block its plans to permit the logging of the fabled giant redwoods in Sequoia National Forest.  One of the Obama administration’s first legislative acts was to re-introduce a ban, partly overturned during the Bush era, on road-building in national forests.

Dogpatch Garage Kentucky

Southern Kentucky sometimes plays up to its bumpkin image

We were glad, at least, of the construction of Route 25, which we followed on its winding way through the forest, along the 18th-century route of Daniel Boone’s Wilderness Road.  Surprisingly, given the local reverence for Daniel Boone, the forest was originally named Cumberland National Forest, after an 18th-century British military hero of the Battle of Culloden.  Given that millions of Kentuckians have Scottish ancestry, it was perhaps a poor choice to name it after a man most noted for presiding over a slaughter of Scots, and the forest was discreetly renamed in 1966.  There is a touch of the 18th century preserved in the forest today, however; the hunting of animals is allowed, rather charmingly, with the proviso that only 18th-century weaponry, namely crossbows and flintlock rifles, may be used.  It must level the playing field between man and squirrel.

Sally in Daniel Boone National Forest

Sally - and dogwoods - in Daniel Boone National Forest

We fell into conversation with Buzz Carloftis, a man of about fifty, who stopped his red pick-up next to us to enquire how far we were walking.  We told him about our trip.

“You’re from England?  I knew a man from Manchester, England.  Was in Kentucky on a business trip.  Decided on a whim to go visit Manchester, Kentucky – thirty miles east of here – to see what it was like.  Loved it so much, he came back three weeks a year for the next thirty years.  And your Queen – she’s come here several times now.”

Buzz recommended various sights on our route through the rest of Kentucky, and warned us off more or less every other state in the Union that we planned to pass through.

“Nebraska?  Wyoming?  Ugh!  It’s like going through the Outback.  Gosh, why would ya?  Lemme tell you, west of the Mississippi, it’s a totally different world,” he concluded, and screeched away in a shower of gravel.

We saw Buzz again that evening, in a petrol station, smiling out of the front page of the Mount Vernon Signal.  It transpired that he’s the rather grandly titled ‘judge executive’ of Rockcastle County, and is currently, like all Kentucky county officials, in the thick of his re-election campaign.  We were rather surprised that he’d had the time to stop and shoot the breeze with us.

We followed a line of pink dogwoods into Livingston, a smart little town of white clapboard houses spread along a mile-long bend in the road.  Although it looked superficially prosperous, almost every business in town had shut down – the only restaurant, Lil’s Fine Food (‘We Try Harder’), was dark and padlocked, and the Victorian brick Livingston Graded School was boarded up and silent.  One of the only functioning businesses was a tattoo parlour called The Marked Man.  There were no fewer than three churches, all, naturally, thriving.

Main Street in Mount Vernon, Kentucky

Main Street in Mount Vernon, Kentucky...

We came into Mount Vernon along its Main Street, a line of pleasant turn-of-the-century brick storefronts with striped verandas and names like Cox’s Hardware, Brenda’s Furniture and Collectables and McPhail’s Pharmacy.  The street was lined with iron lamp-posts, flower boxes and wide pavements, and all in all was one of the most handsome town centres we’ve yet seen in America, yet it was deserted and silent, like an empty film set.  We’ve seen this scene played out now in a dozen small towns – the pretty Main Streets are abandoned first by cars (often because of the well-meaning construction of a bypass), then by shoppers, and then by businesses.  Usually, all that’s left are a few well-appointed offices of lawyers and investment advisers, the odd florist and, perhaps, a valiant local diner struggling against the ten fast-food chains clustered together just out of town.

Instead, small-town life in America now plays itself out in enormous out-of-town malls, bustling cement purgatories with packed car parks surrounding a collection of low plastic boxes with all the charm of shopping in an aircraft hangar.  The irony is that America loves its old Main Streets, reconstructing idealised versions of them down the middle of every Disney theme park and flocking to Europe to shop in them.  But the real ones, just a couple of miles away are, by and large, silent and ignored.

Out-of-town mall in Kentucky

... and a heartbreakingly beautiful out-of-town mall

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One Response to “Days 43-44/ Apr 10th-11th – London, KY to Mount Vernon, KY: Main Street, USA”

  1. Days 57-58/ Apr 24th-25th – Marengo, IN to Shoals, IN: Into the woods « The Walkover States Says:

    […] damp, spindly forest that we were trudging through.  Like the Daniel Boone National Forest that we walked through in Kentucky, Hoosier National Forest isn’t a pristine wilderness – there are roads, fields, […]

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