Days 52-53/ Apr 19th-20th – Shelbyville, KY to Louisville, KY: Take me out to the ball game

When the oil runs out, the sun scorches the land to dust, and we’re thrown into a Hobbesian war of all against all in a desperate search for water and gruel, Louisville will probably be a very good place to hole up.  The city is ringed by four interstate highways that, with a bit of imagination and conscripted labour, would make a formidable network of bastions and moats to keep out the invading gangs of feral New Yorkers, and if they were eventually to break through, you could easily nip onto a boat and escape down the Ohio River.

After so many weeks in the country, being in a city again is a disorienting experience that encourages these dark millennial thoughts.  Having grown used to walking ten miles sustained only by the hope of spotting a Burger King, it’s bewildering to walk into a city and be confronted every few hundred yards by coffee shops offering three kinds of chai latte.  Walking across America is making it gradually apparent how small a proportion of its land is occupied by cities, and seeing hundreds of trucks every day streaming towards them carrying food and liquid underscores the precarious dependency of their existence.  Cities have come to seem abnormal, outside the natural order of things, and doomed eventually to fail.

Louisville, though, was far from failing just at the moment.  A million people live here, on a pleasant bend of the Ohio, alongside a patch of falls and rapids that for centuries has required local expertise to navigate.  It was founded as a port town in 1778, during the Revolutionary War, and named after Louis XVI by a population grateful for French support in kicking the British out (this French connection is most visible in Louisville today in its city crest, composed of three fleurs-de-lys, which is emblazoned on every dustbin).  The city boomed in the early 19th century as trade along the river – especially in slaves – flourished, but it soon developed moral scruples, and was an important stop on the Underground Railroad smuggling slaves out of the South before becoming a Union stronghold during the Civil War.

A teenaged Thomas Edison worked in Louisville for Western Union in 1866 (he was fired for allowing battery acid from one of his experiments to drip through the floor of his office and onto his boss’s desk), and it has remained a centre of scientific research; on our way into town we walked through the University Medical Centre, which forms a city within a city on the edge of downtown.  Louisville’s most famous recent inhabitants, Colonel Sanders, Muhammad Ali and the newscaster Diane Sawyer, beamed down benevolently over the city like South American dictators from colossal billboards on the sides of downtown high-rises.

Colt being exercised near Louisville, Kentucky

It's a horse's life in northern Kentucky

When we set out this morning, we were still firmly in bluegrass country outside Shelbyville, watching men in chaps exercising skittish horses on the aptly named Colt Run Road.  There were miles of luxurious housing developments with carefully focus-grouped names – Notting Hill, Chestnut Glen, Waterstone and English Station – and faux-stone gatehouses and wrought-iron lamp-posts lining streets that two years ago were pasture.  But they were tempting nonetheless – for the price of a small flat in London, we discovered, we could live here in three thousand square feet of manicured tranquility.  Outside one rambling cottage a sign read ‘For Sale: This House Moved to Your Lot – Edwards Moving and Rigging Inc’.  Truly, there is no aspect of American life into which the culture of convenience has not permeated.

We walked into Louisville under two and over two of its four encircling interstates, bemused at the novelty of having restaurants, bakeries, delis and cafés available every few hundred yards.  For the first time in weeks we had to negotiate pedestrian crossings – enough of them to make a difference to our rate of progress – and drivers evidently unused to encountering actual pedestrians on them.  For most of the morning there were no pavements or shoulder to walk on, so we made our way into the city through mall and restaurant car-parks, like a larger-scale version of that game where you have to cross a room without touching the ground.

Sunset over Slugger Field

The sun sets over Slugger Field in Louisville

Louisville is the de facto home of two American icons: the pizza – the headquarters of both Pizza Hut and a rival called Papa John’s are located here – and the baseball bat.  The famous Louisville Slugger is made in a factory downtown, and inspired the name of the local team, the Louisville Bats.  We went to watch them in action at an evening game at Slugger Field, their stadium on the banks of the Ohio, which managed to be captivatingly pretty despite being so close to an interstate highway that trucks on it appear to be driving along the top of the outfield fence.

For the uninitiated (i.e. me – Sally is an aficionado), the striking thing about going to a baseball game was how little interest the crowd seemed to have in it.  Ringing the field were fast-food concessions, souvenir vendors and even a small funfair, and people came and went from their seats – and ate truly arresting quantities of food in them – throughout the game without much regard for what was happening on the field.  The Bats play in the top echelon of the Minor Leagues, and I’d expected to see tense drama as young, up-and-coming players vied to catch the eye of Major League scouts and fading former Major Leaguers tried desperately to play their way back.

Louisville Bats mascot

Louisville mascot Buddy the Bat torments the Mud Hens' first baseman

But the game – against the delightfully named Toledo Mud Hens – was a listless affair.  The Bats went down 4-1, but neither the team nor the crowd seemed greatly troubled by the loss.  This is surely in part because of the number of games a team plays in a season – 140, or more or less one every day for five months – so that winning or losing any individual game doesn’t matter as much as it does in, say, an English or American football season.  It may also be because teams aren’t promoted or demoted between leagues at the end of each season as they are in European sport.  But most of all, it seemed that the role of baseball in American life was to provide, much like cricket does in England, a pleasant backdrop to a summer evening, with the light falling across the river behind the ballpark, the players flicking the ball between the bases, the organ playing between innings, and no one much minding who won or lost.

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