Archive for the ‘Kentucky’ Category

Day 42/ Apr 9th – Corbin, KY to London, KY: The Colonel’s secret recipe

April 9, 2010

In 1956, the federal government announced the creation of a new interstate highway, to run the length of the country from the Canadian border in Michigan down almost to the southern tip of Florida near Miami.  While many drivers celebrated the birth of I-75, for Harland Sanders it spelled disaster.  He ran a small restaurant on Route 25 in Corbin, Kentucky, long noted for the quality of its country ham and, more recently, for its fried chicken.  The new interstate shadowed and largely replaced Route 25 and, it was clear, would siphon away most of his passing customers.

Sanders was 66, and could have been forgiven for contemplating retirement after an arrestingly full life.  He was born in Indiana, near the Kentucky border; his father died when he was five, and he left school at twelve so he could help to look after his siblings at home.  His mother remarried, to a violent man who took to beating the young Harland, and soon after he ran away from home, finding work variously as a farm-hand, soldier, railwayman, insurance salesman and ferryboat pilot.

In 1930, at the age of 40, he moved to Corbin, and opened a petrol station on Route 25.  Finding business slow during the Depression, he started a sideline serving food to his customers; this proved a far more lucrative line of business than selling petrol, and in 1932 Sanders bought and opened a small restaurant nearby.  It thrived, and he put down roots in the community.  He was made a Kentucky colonel (though it was only much later that he started playing up to this with his famous white suit) and successfully bounced back when a fire destroyed the restaurant in 1939.

Sally with Colonel Sanders statue

Sally has a close encounter with the Colonel

Still, when the new interstate was announced, Sanders was faced with ruin.  He sold his restaurant, barely covering his debts and tax bills, and found himself on the verge of bankruptcy, surviving on Social Security payments.  There was one glimmer of light: a few years earlier, he had licensed his innovative recipe for fried chicken to a restaurant in the unlikely location of Salt Lake City, Utah.  Now he hit the road, criss-crossing America as a travelling salesman, visiting restaurants and persuading them to start selling his chicken.

He was quite a salesman.  Seven years later, in 1963, he had 1,000 franchise outlets, in all 50 states.  Sanders shipped his secret spice mix to franchisees in 100-pound barrels, carefully stripped of any identifying marks that might betray the origin of the ingredients, and was paid a royalty of five cents for each chicken sold.  He became immediately wealthy and, after his likeness began appearing on the chicken buckets and the restaurant signage, a celebrity, too, appearing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1964.  But for all his commercial astuteness, he sold the American rights to KFC that same year for the comparatively trivial sum of $2m.  He spent the rest of his life building up franchises outside the US, notably in Canada, and building a charitable foundation.  When he died, at the age of 90, in 1980, his face was recognised by 98% of the population of the United States.

We absorbed this surprisingly inspiring story over breakfast in the Sanders Café, the lovingly preserved restaurant built by Sanders in Corbin in 1940.  The interior was dark and homely with panelled wood and cosy booths, as far from the garishly lit KFCs of the modern era as can be imagined.  At the back was a rather austere and industrial kitchen where his recipe had been perfected.  The atmosphere was quiet and almost reverent, and we dutifully pored over exhibits of early newspaper clippings and spice barrels along with a few other passing pilgrims before sampling a trayful of Harland’s genius from a tiny modern KFC counter in the corner.  It was hard to fathom that the eating craze that has blighted a hundred British high streets with low-rent Tennessee, Mississippi and Texas Fried Chickens began here in this pleasant wooden room.

Pear trees in London Kentucky

Two pairs of pear trees

There wasn’t much else to Corbin – now a service town for the same I-75 whose construction changed the face of chicken consumption – and so we left for the walk north to London.  Now that we’ve joined this wide interstate corridor, we’ve entered an entirely different Kentucky from the grim, deprived woods that we’ve been walking through for the last few days.  We spent today in rolling, grassy hills, walking on back-roads lined with brightly flowering dogwoods and pear trees and passing by smart bungalows with their gardens bursting with neat beds of tulips.  We took the unbeatably named Lily Sublimity Road through white-fenced paddocks and freshly painted Baptist churches, and on the horizon a line of pale blue water towers announced the city limits of London.

London Kentucky city sign

Home at last

London was the first place in Kentucky that we’ve seen that had a feeling of prosperity, however slight.  Before we got to our motel near the interstate, we passed through a smart little suburb of detached homes on lush lawns (our first hint of the bluegrass to come) and riotous purple dogwoods.  It doesn’t have much in common with the original London – it only really comes alive in September, for example, when a quarter of a million people descend on it for the World Chicken Festival – but even if only in name, it made us feel at home.


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

April 8, 2010

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’).

Day 40/ Apr 7th – Middlesboro, KY to Barbourville, KY: Dead dogs, farm dogs, hot dogs

April 7, 2010

The weather forecasters had been predicting a heat-wave today, and we took them seriously.  Weather forecasts in America are, by and large, much more accurate than in Britain, but then it’s a great deal easier here.  If you’re on the East coast, you look at the weather on the West coast and, hey presto, that’s what you’ll be getting, more or less, in four days’ time.  When we started out, before seven, it was blue and clear, and although the heat hadn’t yet arrived, it was definitely in the post.  In hindsight, this wasn’t perhaps the day to establish a new distance record of 26 miles.  By the time we arrived in Barbourville in the early evening, we were mildly traumatised and extremely sweaty, and when the receptionist at the Best Western volunteered to wash our clothes overnight for no charge, we nearly wept with gratitude.

Cliffs outside Middlesboro Kentucky

Sally striding out of Middlesboro

 We’ve been noticing diminishing levels of gentility as we’ve walked west, much as travellers to the 18th-century frontier must have done.  The comfortable refinement of Chesapeake Bay and the Piedmont region in Virginia gave way gradually to grittier, blue-collar regions in the mountains of western Virginia and eastern Tennessee.  But south-eastern Kentucky is just plain rough.  The animals give it away first; today, we were barked at by 43 dogs (yes, we keep track) and experienced four actual attacks, both double our previous best tally.  These aren’t over-exuberant household pets, but largely under-nourished mongrels, untethered in trailer yards festooned with plastic household detritus and the innards of half-a-dozen vehicles.  For the first time we even saw two dead dogs lying by the roadside, on a residential stretch of road.  We filled a couple of miles mulling over how a person might see the corpse of a dog at the bottom of their yard and come to the decision to leave it there.

Trailer yard near Barbourville

A trailer yard - and lair of psychotic dogs - near Barbourville

It’s local election season here in Knox County, as it has been across the Appalachians.  We were much taken with a new candidate whose poster we saw today: ‘Vote Steve ‘Farm Dog’ Farmer: Magistrate District 4’.  I don’t know about you, but if the day comes when I’m hauled before the bench to answer for some piece of reprobate behaviour, I don’t want to be weighed in the scales of justice by someone who encourages people to call him ‘Farm Dog’.  The amazing thing is, he’ll probably win.  The lead story in this morning’s Mountain Advocate described how the incumbent magistrate, Terry Brown, had been arrested the night before for causing a drunken disturbance at his home.  Brown, it seems, has a bit of prior form; last month he pleaded guilty in court to the baffling but intriguing charge of ‘misdemeanour third-degree terroristic threatening’ of an employee of a local fast-food restaurant.  So it seems that the responsible use of one’s franchise in Knox County might well be an ‘X’ in the box for ‘Farm Dog’.

Steve 'Farm Dog' Farmer poster

You know it makes sense

There are, of course, better people around.  There’s a charming practice of erecting signs on the highway – large, green, metal, permanent and official – celebrating local heroes who live in towns nearby.  So this morning there was ‘Home of Jeremy Elliott, World Archery Champion’ and the heart-warming ‘Home of Melissa Evans, 2010 Kentucky Middle School Teacher of the Year’, though these were more or less cancelled out in the afternoon by ‘Home of Jessica Amber Taylor, 2009 Mini Miss Kentucky’.

In person – let’s be plain about this – the people of south-eastern Kentucky are fat.  This may sound like a banal, even cruel, observation in a poor part of Middle America, but there is a concentration and ubiquity of obesity here that is unusual and remarkable.  We’re not very far from Huntington, West Virginia, recently identified as the ‘fattest town in America’, where Jamie Oliver is even as we write focusing his campaign against childhood obesity (as far as we can tell, he’s been met with a resounding ‘fuck off’ from the local townsfolk).  We’ve found ourselves no longer noticing that people are fat unless they are of such a weight that you half-expect a documentary crew to be filming them.  Instead, we’ve started noticing ‘skinny people’, who, it takes a few moments to realise, are of normal, healthy size.  If this has happened to us in a few weeks, presumably it happened to the people here a long time ago.  You don’t feel fat at 250 pounds if everyone around you is 300.

This cheery disregard for personal well-being extends to Kentucky’s motorcyclists.  Unlike Virginia and Tennessee, riders are not required by law to wear helmets here, and to a man, they seem to have decided to do without.  (Kentucky law, fascinatingly, does oblige riders aged 20 and under to wear helmets, as though after the age of 21 the skull hardens to a sufficient degree to prevent harm.)  They may be responsible for the increasingly exotic roadkill, which, in addition to dogs, has recently expanded to include snakes and turtles.  Turtles, we can confirm, are bright red inside.

Knox County is a ‘dry’ county, meaning that no alcohol can be sold here.  We learned what this meant in practice when we stopped for a rest in a petrol station shop near Barbourville.  A skinny man of about fifty in a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops was haranguing the queueing customers with a tale of woe.

“Damn!  Y’know what happened to me last night?  I got fined by the police – four hundred forty-nine dollars! – for walking down the street with a beer in my hand.”

He looked over suspiciously at a boy of twenty sitting at a table in the corner, sipping from a brown glass bottle.

“That a beer?”

“Nah.  Root beer.  ‘Bout all you can buy ‘round here.”

“You enjoyin’ it?”

“Well, I ‘bout cain’t eat a hot dawg without one.”

We’d always associated dry counties with the South, but you find them all over America, in places as unlikely as Alaska, Massachusetts and even New York.  Even almost eighty years after the repeal of Prohibition, almost 500 counties in America (of just over 3,000 in total) ban the sale of alcohol.  And so we spent the rest of our walk into Barbourville trying to imagine what Knox County would be like with booze thrown into the mix.

Days 38-39/ Apr 5th-6th – Middlesboro, KY: Bedded at the Billionaire’s Convenience

April 6, 2010

“Soon after, I returned home to my family, with a determination to bring them as soon as possible to live in Kentucky, which I esteemed a second paradise” – The Adventures of Colonel Daniel Boon, Formerly a Hunter 

In almost all of the motels we frequent there is a rack of brochures by the reception desk that aim to entice the weary guest to attractions in the region.  They have titles like ‘Lexington: Bluegrass Country’, ‘Mount Vernon: Gateway to Bluegrass Country’ and ‘South-Eastern Kentucky: Within a Surprisingly Manageable Drive of the Gateway to Bluegrass Country’.  We read through the last brochure over breakfast, and it soon became clear that we’ve arrived in a region of America with a striking paucity of tourist attractions.  There are a couple of scenic forests, the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken, a tunnel back into Tennessee for people who positively can’t stand it any longer, and that’s about it.

Posters and road signs in Middlesboro Kentucky

The heavily used road out of Middlesboro

For us, though, Middlesboro had one compelling attraction: a bookshop.  We had long since run out of reading material, and had been reduced at times to perusing receipt stubs and even the Employee of the Month wall of local fast-food restaurants.  The great oracle of Google Maps had indicated that a shop called Book Haven was close to our motel, and after calling to check it wasn’t a Christian bookshop (about three out of four book retailers around here are) we wandered over with high hopes. 

Book Haven was a second-hand shop, the only outlet not closed down in a forlorn strip mall surrounded by fast-food restaurants.  It stocked perhaps ten thousand books but, wandering down its aisles, we realised with growing despair that almost every single one was a pulp romance novel.  They were mostly from an outfit called Harlequin, which specialised in highly literal, rather unreconstructed titles. 

Nuclear and biological novels at Book Haven in Middlesboro

Book Haven had some pretty esoteric departments

We dithered between ‘The Millionaire Boss’s Reluctant Mistress’ and ‘The Millionaire’s Chosen Bride’, though other volumes recognised the corrosive effects of long-term inflation – ‘Mistress: Hired for the Billionaire’s Pleasure’, ‘Billionaire Doctor, Ordinary Nurse’ and ‘Bedded at the Billionaire’s Convenience’.  As well as extreme wealth and mild sexual coercion, the other dominant theme was what my grandmother might call ‘swarthy men’ – ‘The Ruthless Italian’s Inexperienced Wife’, ‘Claimed by the Desert Prince’ and even ‘Sheikh Surgeon’.  If you are reading this and you happen to be a) a doctor b) very rich c) of Mediterranean or Middle Eastern extraction and d) an enthusiastic rapist, then hie you immediately to south-eastern Kentucky, where a legion of women would appear to be ready to fall at your feet. 

Book pile at the Book Haven

Millionaires, billionaires, doctors and Italians. Swoon.

Middlesboro is built in the crater of a large meteor – the only town in America that has this distinction.  The meteor struck this area about 300 million years ago, wiping out all life in the immediate vicinity and, more importantly, punching a neat hole into this stretch of the Appalachians, which is one of the main reasons why Cumberland Gap is such an ideal pass through the mountains.  Not much else happened in the town until 1879, when surveyors discovered significant local deposits of coal and iron, triggering an investment boom, led by a British industrialist called Alexander Arthur.  Arthur built steel and iron works, and laid out a new town on a grid plan to house all the workers who poured into the town.  Middlesboro became the first place in the Appalachians to have electric lighting and running water, and was nicknamed the Magic City.  It built one of the first golf courses in America, and had just completed a 700-room resort hotel when a stock market crash triggered the failure of many of the British banks backing all this investment.  Arthur fled to Alaska to join the Klondike Gold Rush, and Middlesboro fell into a long decline.  Looking around at the charmless strip malls, fast-food outlets and discount cigarette shops that dominate it today, it was tempting to conclude that another meteor strike might be just what it needs for a fresh start.

Day 37/ Apr 4th – Tazewell, TN to Middlesboro, KY: Three states of matter

April 4, 2010

“After a long and fatiguing journey through a mountainous wilderness, in a westward direction… [we] saw with pleasure the beautiful level of Kentucke” – The Adventures of Colonel Daniel Boon, Formerly a Hunter

Wilderness Road to Cumberland Gap

Sally climbing the Wilderness Road path to Cumberland Gap

There are certainly more famous mountain passes in the world – the Khyber and Karakoram in Asia, the Brenner and Roncesvalles in Europe – but Cumberland Gap is, arguably, the most famous and important mountain pass in America.  It was used for centuries as a war-path by Cherokee and Shawnee Indians, who would periodically travel through it to give one another a good scalping; in a curious later echo, during the Civil War both sides expected a massive attack from the other through the Gap, and heavily fortified their end of it, thereby ensuring that no such attacks ever came.  After the British bought what is now Kentucky from the Iroquois (a clever piece of business, as they didn’t own it), it was the route chosen by Daniel Boone for his Wilderness Road trail from Virginia to Kentucky in 1775. 

The Gap immediately became an escape valve for a huge pent-up population of potential westward settlers.  By 1792, when Kentucky became a state, 100,000 people had already made the gruelling journey through it to start a new life beyond the mountains, and at least the same number of people again passed through over the next twenty years.  By the 1830s, other routes to the west had opened and the importance of the Gap waned, but by then it had already changed the pattern of settlement in America forever.

The Cumberland Gap today runs from a town called Harrogate in Tennessee to a town called Middlesboro in Kentucky.  There are thousands of these curiously disorienting English names in the eastern US, and we’ve spent the past weeks walking through assorted Richmonds, Somersets, Amershams, Bedfords and Bristols.  It’s always struck me as odd that after America threw off the British colonial yoke that it didn’t systematically rename, Constantinople-to-Istanbul fashion, all these places that were named for British towns, nobility or royalty (there are still seven states named after European monarchs*).  The Gap itself was named after William, Duke of Cumberland, a hero in the mid-eighteenth century for his massacres of Scots at Culloden.  Given that many of the immigrants who passed through it to Kentucky were Scots-Irish, it’s remarkable that the name wasn’t changed.  It’s as though Vietnamese emigrants to America today were to settle without complaint in a town called My Lai.

We were looking forward to crossing the Gap, not least because of the novelty that our route today passed through three separate states: Tennessee in the morning, Virginia briefly as we entered the Gap and then Kentucky for the rest of the day (and, indeed, the month).  The omens this morning were ambiguous: outside the Tazewell Church of God were large white letters erected on the hillside reading ‘Prepare to Meet God’ (“But we smell dreadful,” I said to Sally).  We stopped in at the R. O. Giles Flea Market (‘An East Tennessee Tradition’) on the road into Harrogate, where more than a hundred stall-holders were selling everything from fishing rods, plastic flowers and body jewellery to hens, dogs and goats from cages at the back.

“Don’t take too many photos,” warned Mike, the organiser.  “A lot of the people here… well, let’s say they’re not real good record-keepers, and they might not welcome it.”

R. O. Giles Flea Market Tazewell Tennessee

The R. O. Giles Flea Market in Tazewell, Tennessee

We came into Harrogate through fireworks shops and catfish restaurants, and past the brick Toytown of Lincoln Memorial University (‘No Weapons, No Hunting on the Premises’).  The town is essentially a last rest-stop for drivers before they plunge through the Cumberland Gap Tunnel, an engineering marvel that was built – at a cost of $280 million – as part of a laudable century-long effort to restore the Gap to roughly the appearance it had in its pioneer heyday.

Cumberland Gap Tunnel sign

Fortunately all of our explosives are Class 2

We had lunch in the village of Cumberland Gap, a delightful two-street hamlet underneath a looming bluff that forms one side of the Gap.  It had all the essential trappings of an American Main Street in the 1930s: a busy diner, a venerable motel, a tiny brick post office and a drugstore.  Our meal took longer than expected because of a phenomenon that we’ve been noticing for weeks but which today drove us to distraction: modern American restaurant patrons are unable to order a meal without asking to substitute, like fussy six-year-olds, ingredients and side-dishes for others that they prefer.  The result is that a table of five next to us took fully ten minutes to place their order, while the harassed waitress scurried back and forth to the kitchen to check that hash browns could be served with grits and that a Caesar salad could be substituted as a side order in a steak lunch.  It is, we decided, the final, weakly flickering flame of American liberty, non-conformity and individualism.  The modern American citizen feels himself oppressed on all sides by intrusive government, and while he can no longer stake a claim, pan for gold or shoot an Indian, he can insist on coleslaw instead of mashed potato, goddammit.  It is his last permitted rebellion.

In the afternoon we walked through the Gap.  The government’s lavish spending on the tunnel has restored the Wilderness Road along this stretch to a lovely and peaceful two-mile path through forests of oak, beech, chestnut and maple, being used on this sunny spring Sunday by a total of precisely ten other walkers.  At the very centre of the Gap, where two mountain spurs came together, the Road, this celebrated nation-building highway, was a leafy, stony track perhaps five yards wide.

Cumberland Gap view to Kentucky

Looking into Kentucky from the middle of Cumberland Gap

In the distance ahead there was a curious sight.  A large red bucket was visible, slowly rotating, above the level of the treetops, on the end of a tall pole.  If you squinted, you could just make out a strangely familiar white avuncular face on the bucket.  We were in Kentucky.

*Did you get them all?  Virginia and West Virginia (Elizabeth I); North and South Carolina (Charles I); Maryland (Henrietta Maria); Georgia (George II); Louisiana (Louis XIV)