Day 45/ Apr 12th – Mount Vernon, KY to Berea, KY: Be careful out there

Last year, when we had advanced our plans for this walk to the point where we began to tell people about it, we noticed a sharp distinction between the reactions of British and American friends.  British friends were almost uniformly positive and enthusiastic.

“Ooh, you lucky things!  I wish I could do something like that.  Are you doing it for charity?” (The decline of social sport and the rise of charity telethons in modern Britain have left much of its population incapable of walking further than the local shop for a pint of milk without some of sort of per-mile sponsorship being involved.)

American friends, by contrast, responded to the news gravely and sympathetically, as if we had informed them that we had been diagnosed with a disfiguring illness.

“You know, don’t you,” one friend in San Francisco warned, “that people in the Midwest won’t be able to understand you?  I’m not talking about your accent; they will just not be able to comprehend the concepts that you and I would employ in everyday conversation.”

Red barn in Kentucky

One of the ubiquitous red barns of central Kentucky

Of course, we were familiar with the tendency of coastal Americans to treat their Middle American compatriots like slightly backward cousins who have to be tolerated at weddings and Thanksgiving; in part, our walk was inspired by a belief that dismissive labels like ‘the flyover states’ couldn’t possibly tell the whole story.  But even natives of the region were lukewarm.

“Oh, man,” said one.  “I grew up in Indiana.  You don’t even know.”

Even the American consular official we saw in New Zealand when applying for our visas – whose job description you might think would extend to encouraging people to visit America – was mildly discouraging.

“You realise, don’tcha, that America is a whole lot bigger than the UK?”

Some six weeks into the walk, we’ve accumulated an impressive collection of warnings about America from Americans, including bears, ‘crazy people’, drunk drivers, ‘fake cops’ (especially in Nebraska, for some reason), hillbillies, tornadoes, other walkers and wild dogs.  Almost every conversation we have ends on the same final note: “Be careful.”  The one consistent theme has been a distrust of people’s immediate neighbours, especially to the west, perhaps a folk-memory of the days when the frontier was a place of risk and danger.

Black bear

Bears: One of the many deadly threats in America

“Have you thought about carrying a pistol?” asked a man at breakfast in Lynchburg.  “I doubt you’d need it here in Virginia, but out west, you just never know.”

“You’re in God’s country here,” said Veronica, cutting my hair in Bean Station, Tennessee, “but you be careful in Kentucky.”

“West of the Mississippi, it’s a totally different world,” warned Buzz, in Mount Vernon, Kentucky.

A breezy cab-driver in Corbin, Kentucky went one better.

“I don’t even trust the people in this state.  Hell, sometimes I even gotta watch out I ain’t screwin’ myself over!”

Doubtless people in Illinois will warn us about people in Missouri, people in Utah will warn us about Nevadans, and everyone will keep warning us about Nebraska.  But thus far we’ve experienced little but a vast, spontaneous enthusiasm for our walk and a disarming and often moving kindness from complete strangers.  As Sally observed to me after some boys in a pick-up had screamed some high-speed and mercifully incomprehensible abuse at us:

“There are a lot of tossers out there.  But fortunately, they’re massively outnumbered by really good people.”

These thoughts were much on our mind today as we walked to Berea through Renfro Valley.  We spotted a thought-provoking local election poster – ‘Vote for Richard Dean, Constable 4th District: Strongly Against Drugs and Theft’ – which set us to wondering whether these were policies that set him far apart from his opponents.

Kentucky T-shirt

A helpful wearable map

Renfro Valley didn’t look like it had a problem with drugs or theft, though it was an odd place.  It’s one of a number of towns that styles itself as ‘the birthplace of country music’ (Bristol, Tennessee, which we passed through a fortnight ago, is another).  In 1937, a pioneering country music impresario called John Lair started a regular weekly radio broadcast of country music from the town, the Renfro Valley Barn Dance.  It provided a national showcase for what was at the time still a little-known genre, and made household names of men like Old Joe Clark and ‘Boots’ Randolph.  Its sister broadcast, the Renfro Valley Gatherin’, is today one of the very longest continually broadcast radio programmes in America.

It’s fair to say that the town itself trades pretty heavily on all of this.  There are several large barns along the roadside where live country music shows are held (with our usual immaculate timing, we had arrived on one of the rare days when none was scheduled), and outside the Kentucky Music Hall of Fame, a replica Thirties Main Street had been lovingly recreated and stuffed with shopportunities for concert-goers at twee outlets with names like The Grist Mill and The Craft Cabin.

Renfro Valley barn dance

Subliminal advertising in Renfro Valley

On our way out of town a white 4×4 pulled over and a smartly dressed woman leaned out.

“Hey, d’y’all need a ride?”

We politely declined, explained our walk, and thanked them for the offer.

“Oh, well, good luck!  And hey – y’all be careful.”

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