Day 51/ Apr 18th – Frankfort, KY to Shelbyville, KY: Brenda’s Country Café

“Now wait just a minute!  We’re twice as smart as the people of Shelbyville!” – Mayor Quimby, The Simpsons

At a junction near the border of Shelby and Franklin Counties on Sunday morning we passed a black pick-up waiting to make a turn.  There were two men in the cab, who waved to us, and two more in the back, wearing shorts and vests and sitting on lawn chairs.  One of them raised an open can of beer to us in greeting, and belched with some feeling.

“Mornin’ to ya!”

We covered the fifty miles into Louisville in two long, sunny and pleasant days on the back-roads of western Kentucky.  We left Frankfort over a rusting railway bridge over the Kentucky River, on empty roads that suddenly flooded with traffic at five minutes to ten as the devout members of Choateville Christian’s congregation rushed to get to church on time.  The road wound and dipped through farms, fields and stands of chestnut, oak and fir, and the air was filled with the trill and static of birdcalls and the occasional rattle of an unseen woodpecker.  It was hot enough for cows to be wallowing in small ponds in the hollows of fields.  There were stacks of firewood under lean-tos in the yards of bungalows, and farmhouses offering ‘Country Eggs for Sale: $1.50 a Dozen’.

Countryside near Shelbyville

Sally crosses the tracks near Shelbyville

As we’ve walked west this week, the roads have straightened out, as if some giant hand were tugging loose threads out of the tangled spaghetti of highways in the mountains behind us.  We passed through Shelbyville, a fading town full of furtive, loitering men and crumbling, turreted mansions, in one of which Colonel Sanders had spent the last twenty years of his life.  To our delight, a few miles west of Shelbyville was Simpsonville, a juxtaposition so satisfying that we decided to stop there for breakfast.  Simpsonville (‘Home of the Bobcats’) had a pleasant, agricultural feel: a Massey Ferguson tractor store stood next to the Old Folks Country Sausage factory, and at Simpsonville Ware & Feed you could buy firewood and get your propane bottle filled and your chainsaw serviced.  At the entrance to the Simpsonville Christian Church car park was a sign requesting ‘No Trucks Over 10,000lbs, Please’.

General store near Louisville

Roadside general stores: A lifeline for thirsty hikers

Brenda’s Country Diner was an unprepossessing spot from the outside – a dilapidated building by the railway tracks, the glass in its door smashed, looking more like an abandoned hardware store than a functioning diner.  Brenda, a short, solid woman of about sixty, called to us from behind a long counter down the side of the room as we came in.

“Are y’all walkin’?  Oh, ma goodness!”

We told her where we were walking to.

“Across America?  Oh, ma goodness.  Oh, ma goodness, you all.  Oh, ma goodness!”

Her catchphrase established early on, Brenda took our breakfast order and, standing behind her stove like a preacher in a pulpit, launched into a more or less solid one-hour monologue about her life.

“I was born up in a little place called Frenchburg, an’ there was thirteen in my family.  Daddy milked cows, and we would move from one farm to th’other, all over northern Kentucky.  I got married too young, at sixteen – but everybody I think got married in my family by the time they were sixteen.  You get your GED from high school, you get a job, you get out and get your own life.  So that’s what I done.  Kids nowadays – ppff! – they stay home till they’re thirty!”

Brenda had had two daughters – one of whom was blind – before, in her twenties, her husband left her.

“I took him to court six times.  He never paid no support, not a penny.  I coulda drawn welfare, food stamps n’ everything, but I din’t.  I think that’s a bad thing to show your kids.  So I jus’ got a job – two jobs – an’ I worked seven days a week an’ five nights.”

One of her jobs was as a waitress in this very diner, in the Seventies, when it doubled as a hardware store, selling “nuts, bolts, tobacco seeds, canvas, paint, clothes, shoes, an’ a little bit of grocery on the shelf.”  When the owner got into financial difficulty in the Eighties, Brenda had saved enough money to buy the diner from him, and now ran it on her own as “chief cook and bottle-washer”.

“I think some people are born to take care a people.  I think it’s just what you do.  I raised those two kids by myself.  When they left, I raised my mother – bought her a house – and after she passed, then now I’m raising my sister.”

Brenda had given her sister, who was infirm, the house she had bought for their mother after she had died, and now seemed to spend much of her free time driving over to cook her meals and do her laundry.  Munching our ham and eggs, we dared to suggest that she had had a tough life.

“Oh, no!  My aunt and I went to Hawaii in ’88 – or was it ’89? – and stayed seven days, so I been blessed.  And I got a beautiful place in the country – my holler, thirty-four acres, that I go to on the weekends.  I got an outhouse, and a well.  I just hibernate in them woods.”

Brenda was in especially high spirits this morning, having discovered only last week that from July, when she turned sixty, she would be eligible for $1,300 a month from the government from her (now late) ex-husband’s pension – belated justice after all the years when he refused to pay child support.

“I jus’ ‘bout cried.  In’t that blessed?  It doesn’t take me much to live, ‘cuz I’ve learned to live on a little bit o’ nuthin’, so that’s a fortune to me.  I said thank you Lord, thank you Lord.  If you don’t have the Lord with you, helpin’ you, I believe you’re in trouble.”

Brenda' Country Cafe in Simpsonville

Brenda takes a rare break from work

Even with her pension, Brenda’s future was uncertain.  Leggett & Platt, a factory next door to her diner that manufactured metal parts for reclining chairs, had recently closed, taking many jobs – and many of her regulars – with it.  We were the only customers for a full hour.

“That’s really made it hard.  It makes it hard on a woman.  I got a lot of farmers that eat, but it’s hard to make up.  It’s jus’ some ol’ country place here; I get up at four o’ clock in the morning, open at five.  I have my local guys come in, you know, the same people for 23 years, everyone knows everyone’s bidness.  It would be good for me to close for a week or two, just to let them see what it would be without me.  If I have to close, y’know, I’ll be alright, but it won’t be the same here in the town.”

We had to agree.  Brenda’s was more or less the only place to eat in Simpsonville, a town institution that would most likely vanish when she could no longer keep it up.  We’ve eaten in half-a-dozen of these small-town diners now, all of them run by indomitable women like her, all of them clearly struggling against a culture in which people prefer to drive ten miles to eat meals at half the price at anonymous nationwide chains.  They provide much of the irreplaceable spark of small-town American life, and if we were to do this walk again in even twenty years’ time, they will almost certainly all be gone.

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