Day 49/ Apr 16th – Lexington, KY to Versailles, KY: The fugitive

April 16, 2010

We saw the police car from half a mile away, sitting on the central island between streams of race-going traffic on the highway outside Lexington.  We’d been warned by other transcontinental walkers that American police were very fond of pulling walkers over (to the extent that someone on foot can actually be pulled over) and, on slow days, taking them in for a spot of light questioning.  But thus far we’ve found them to be uniformly agreeable, and always to be relied upon for a beep, a smile and a cheery wave when they drive by us or, more often, when we walk past them dozing in a concealed roadside speed-trap.

This policeman did none of those things.  When we drew level with him, he leaned out of his window and shouted across to us, but the wind and the traffic drowned out his words.  He tried shouting a few more times and then gave up, gestured for us to wait where we were, and drove onto the highway to turn around and pull alongside us.  We rooted out our passports and prepared our meekest what-seems-to-be-the-problem-officer smiles.

“How’re y’all doing today?” he began.

“Very well, thanks.”  We explained what we were doing hiking along Route 60.

“Well, that sounds great.  I just wanted to tell y’all to be careful.  We got a escaped fugitive at large in this area.  Got loose yesterday during a prison transfer.”

“Really?  What does he look like?”

The officer paused to tap on the laptop mounted above his gearstick.

“He’s abaht five foot seven,” he said.  We waited for more, but evidently this was deemed sufficient description for our purposes.  “He dismembered a guhl,” he added nonchalantly.  “Anyway.  I jus’ wanted to tell y’all.  Y’all be careful, now,” he said, and pulled away into the traffic.

We heard about little except Derek Capozzi, the fugitive, from every shopkeeper, motel owner, waitress and local TV anchor for the next two days.  He had been a small-time Boston mafia henchman and member of a drug-dealing gang, and had graduated to the big-time when he cut up the body of Aislin Silva, a 19-year-old girl who had been murdered for agreeing to testify against the gang.  He was convicted in 2005, and given the kind of sentence that the British right can only fantasise about – not even being eligible for parole until 2046.  Despite being shackled and handcuffed, he managed to kick open the door of a van transporting him between prisons.  Everyone had a theory about how he had escaped – was it an inside job? – and where he was now – surely back in Boston being hidden by his gang?

Derek Capozzi mugshot

Derek Capozzi: Probably not someone to bring home to mother

We walked on in a rather more alert mood, looking anxiously out into the fields and woods by the side of the highway lest they should contain a small, highly dangerous man attempting to conceal himself.  The highway was thick with traffic headed for Keeneland for today’s racing,  and with Capozzi getting wall-to-wall coverage on local radio, we got even more scrutiny than usual from passing drivers.  Police cars screamed up and down the highway – as they went by, I tried in vain to look taller than five foot seven – and helicopters buzzed overhead.  At our motel, the young Indian proprietor was in a state of high excitement about the escape.

“It happened directly here!  Just down this road!  By my motel!” he exclaimed.  “I have had police here today, asking me questions.  It is possible federal officers will come to investigate,” he continued.  “They might stay here.”

Courthouse and church in Versailles, Kentucky

The courthouse and church in downtown Versailles

Versailles, as its name suggests, was founded by a Frenchman, Major Marquis de la Calmes, a hero of the Revolutionary War to whom a small statue stands at the edge of town.  Almost as an embodiment of the steady fading of the entente between France and the United States, the town is now known to its inhabitants as ‘Ver-sayles’.  William Shatner owns a horse farm nearby, and his photograph had pride of place on the wall in Debbie’s Diner, just off Versailles’s handsome Main Street.  On the fridge in the diner’s kitchen was a small magnet of the actual Versailles, which made us both feel unaccountably melancholy.

Back in the office of our motel was a curious fat plastic cylinder, about eight inches long, with a handle in its side.  You turned the handle and the name of an American city appeared in a thin rectangular window on the cylinder, with its distance in miles from Versailles in a second window alongside it.  Unable to resist, I rolled the wheel to ‘San Francisco’ and checked the mileage box.  It read ‘2438’.  I felt suddenly very, very tired.

Interstate mileage counter

2,438 miles to go: We probably didn't need to see this

The following evening, the local news announced that Capozzi had been recaptured.  Far from being spirited away to Boston by accomplices, he had spent three days and two cold nights skulking in the woods in Versailles before being recaptured by two local men hunting for him with a baseball bat.  According to police reports, he was cold, hungry, “spent”, and “wanted to take a nap”.  We considered the prospect of two-and-a-half thousand more miles to walk, and knew just how he felt.

Derek Capozzi arrested in Kentucky

Capozzi: After three days of fun, thirty-six more years in prison


Days 47-48/ Apr 14th-15th – Richmond, KY to Lexington, KY: A day at the races

April 15, 2010

We set ourselves a 25-mile walk into Lexington to earn ourselves a day off at the races, and so for fuel we ventured this morning into the local Waffle House.  It offers portions of hash browns described as ‘regular’, ‘large’, ‘triple’ or ‘all the way’.  We plumped for ‘large’, and were presented with a tottering Kilimanjaro of singed potatoes that took us until the start of our 25th mile fully to digest.  God only knows what ‘all the way’ is like.

For the first time today we longed to be walking on the interstate, specifically I-75, which ran flat and straight alongside our own road, Route 25, which dipped and bucked as if damaged by a severe quake, presenting us with a series of stiff hills to negotiate in the morning heat.  The interstate glided serenely across a magnificent iron bridge over the day’s main obstacle, the gorge of the Kentucky River, while our little road wilted into three miles of squiggling switchbacks down one side of it and steeply up the other.

I-75 bridge over the Kentucky River

I-75 crosses the Kentucky painlessly; we don't

Had we launched a raft into the river here and floated a few miles downstream, we would have arrived at the site of Boonesborough, a short-lived 18th-century settlement founded by Daniel Boone, which was one of the first English-speaking communities west of the Appalachians.  Significantly for us, it marked the end of the old Wilderness Road, which we’ve been following for several hundred miles from western Virginia.  The only nod to it here is Boone’s Trace, a ‘gated golf community’, with a faux-stone gatehouse from which a bored security guard watched us without evident interest as we sweated up the hairpins out of the gorge.

On the other side of the river the world changed.  The air was filled with the spitting of sprinklers and the whirring of mowers, and on either side of the road Hispanic men moved along the verge with strimmers, like a platoon on patrol in Vietnam.  The road was barely visible through the grass cuttings that had blown onto it.  We were in horse farm country.  All around us were black four-tier fences enclosing vast, undulating oceans of closely mown grass, some with tiny figures on ride-on mowers moving across them like fishing boats far out at sea.  At their centres were great brick mansions, most of them with garages larger than our entire house in London, with names like Champagne Run, Windswept, Greenfields and, I was pleased to note, Richland.  Some of the estates were so colossal that all we could see were their stone gateposts and driveways disappearing behind great hills of grass.

Horse farm in Lexington, Kentucky

Another grim trailer park outside Lexington

This, surely, was the entire planet’s supply of grass in one place, covering every inch of unbuilt ground and extending to every horizon.  It was lush, thick and deep, and on a hot day like this just looking at it made us feel cooler.  The bluegrass, as it’s called, isn’t even native to America – it originated on the Russian steppes, and was probably brought over by some nameless 19th-century emigrant.  It thrived immediately on the limestone just beneath the soil, infusing the bones of the horses that munched on it with calcium and turning them into world-beaters on the racetrack.

Lexington is nicknamed ‘The Thoroughbred City’ and ‘The Horse Capital of the World’, and its numberless horse farms – as well as more than a hundred parks – form a doughnut of green space around it.  It’s a city built, essentially, on a three-hundred-square-mile lawn.  We walked through four uninterrupted miles of lush suburbia – Lakewood, Tabor Oaks, Zandale and Lansdowne – some modestly middle-class, and others graced by the kind of houses that make Wisteria Lane seem like a trailer park.  Apple, pear and cherry trees were in blossom on the lawns, and little children flashed past us on razor scooters and pink Schwinn bikes trailing glittery streamers from their handlebars.

Suburbs in Lexington, Kentucky

Suburbia Lexingtonia

Lexington has always been an affluent place; in the 19th century it was one of the wealthiest towns west of the Appalachians, and boasted the West’s first millionaire, John Wesley Hunt.  It’s the home of the University of Kentucky, a sporting behemoth that is regularly, if ungrammatically, lauded as the ‘winningest’ college basketball team in the country.  As if this were not enough, it’s also the birthplace of George Clooney and the home of the world’s largest peanut butter factory, so truly it offers something for everyone.

We walked to Lexington’s racetrack, Keeneland, past the Lexington Christian Academy (‘Education with Eternity in View’) and the city’s tiny airport, with private planes screaming in over our heads bringing in high rollers for the weekend’s racing.  We’d arrived in town during a two-week racing festival here that leads up to the Kentucky Derby in Louisville at the start of May.  The highway was gridlocked with cars queuing to get into the course, and down the long avenue leading up to the stands marquee and tailgate parties were in full swing in the sunshine.  The car park was so vast that people were being driven to the front gate in golf carts.

Keeneland is one of America’s prettiest racecourses – the racing scenes in Seabiscuit were filmed here – and it’s been hosting race meetings since the Thirties.  It was packed on this Friday, with a crowd that was Royal Ascot meets Jersey Shore – roving bands of spray-tanned young girls in high-waisted posh frocks, tottering coltishly in unfamiliar stilettos and wedges, trailing orbiting gaggles of boys looking self-conscious in the American male dress-up uniform of chinos, loafers and striped button-down shirts with the reassuring little polo player nestling by their nipple.  There was a more democratic and eclectic range of dress on display than at a British race meeting, with a strong representation from the polo shirt, baggy shorts and flip-flops brigade, as well as from willowy couples in lounge suits and couture.  Even so, very few people had made as bold a statement as we had in hiking boots and sweaty leggings, and I like to feel that we cut a dash as we moved through the crowds.

Girls at the races in Keeneland, Kentucky

The flower of young Kentucky womanhood at the races

There was a decidedly superior betting system, too, to that employed by British bookies.  You went up to a little counter and explained to a tired-looking attendant what race and horse you wanted to bet on and what sort of bet you wanted to place, and when you had bored them for long enough they pressed a hidden button and a pre-printed betting slip squirted out of a slot.  The odds were short and stingy compared to British courses: anything much over 4-1 was a decided donkey.  We milled around behind the private boxes studying form for a good hour before venturing a princely sum on Citizen’s Arrest in the sixth race; he finished third, and is probably even now filling a bottle of glue in a stationery shop near you.

Racing at Keeneland, Lexington, Kentucky

The field gallops by at Keeneland

Day 46/ Apr 13th – Berea, KY to Richmond, KY: A tale of two colleges

April 13, 2010

It can be disorienting to be British in Kentucky.  The headline of today’s Lexington Herald-Leader read ‘UK Defense Has Big Holes to Fill’, and I was momentarily puzzled why a local Kentucky newspaper would be writing a story about the crisis in British defence budgets.  But it turned out to be a feature about the University of Kentucky basketball team, which, after Christianity, is probably the major religion in this state.

After more than a week in southern and central Kentucky, we felt like we were getting the measure of the state: rolling farmland, feed silos, dingy diners, farmers in dungarees, bare-chested boys haring around in souped-up pick-ups, and women in sizes large and extra-large.  Berea, however, provided the first sign that the north of the state might be different.  As we walked into its centre through a line of grand old houses on Chestnut Street, we were passed by a middle-aged couple languidly pedalling a tandem bike.  This may sound to you like the mildest of eccentricities, but it’s been several weeks since we saw a cyclist, much less a tandem pair, so the sight threw us.  Further on down the street, we saw more cyclists, as well as two skateboarders on the opposite pavement and – most unusually of all – several people walking around the streets, very casually, as if they did it every day.  We stared at them like visitors to a safari park.

Campus of Berea College Kentucky

The shady lawns of Berea College

Berea is a college town, and home to what must be one of the most extraordinary seats of learning in America.  Berea College was founded in 1855 by the abolitionist John Fee, and from the start was both co-educational and integrated, the first college in the South to be so.  It was forced briefly to close during the Civil War when a local pro-slavery faction seized power, and later forced to segregate for almost half a century when Kentucky outlawed integrated education.  But, for the most part, it has always been an extraordinary beacon of liberalism and tolerance in an area not historically noted for either – a sort of polar opposite to Farmville, which we walked through last month.  Perhaps most incredibly of all, Berea College charges no tuition to any of its students, who are largely drawn from low-income families in the Appalachian region.  Instead, all of its students work part-time for the college in some capacity.

And it was a lovely place, with a set of imposing brick faculty buildings on lush lawns shaded by mature oaks, facing a line of bookshops and coffee houses in an immaculate mock-Georgian terrace.  We stopped in for breakfast at Berea Coffee & Tea, where the chalkboard menu offered half-forgotten exotica like biscotti and pesto, panini and frappés, espresso and bagels.  Our last three meals had been taken at Denny’s: we nearly burst into tears.  The coffee shop was filled with students in shorts and Tevas, carrying backpacks and complaining about last night’s essay crisis.  None of them, we noticed, spoke with an Appalachian twang – all of their accents were East Coast neutral.  When one of their professors came in, they stood to greet him and called him ‘sir’.  To find an island of liberal academe in this part of Kentucky was as surprising as finding a thriving Amish community in Manhattan.  We munched on our panini with a faint sense of disbelief.

Inside Berea Coffee & Tea

Yuppie food heaven in Berea Coffee & Tea

Berea is also a major craft hub – its first students in the 19th century paid for their lessons with exquisite home-made bedspreads, and the crafting tradition has continued to the present day.  As we left town, a sign pointed to the various departments of the college Craft Centre, including Woodcraft, Broomcraft, Wrought Iron and Ceramics.

We followed Route 25 into Richmond, a hot slog along a busy road whose builders had neglected to include a shoulder, so we spent much of the morning stepping off into shin-length nettles to distance ourselves from especially large trucks.  The town was ringed by half-a-dozen white and pale blue water-towers, like an army of Martian tripods.  Richmond was also a college town, but without a tenth of the charm of Berea: Eastern Kentucky University’s campus covered its south side in a sprawl of Seventies brick and concrete.  It was the alma mater of Lee Majors and, more surprisingly, Thaksin Shinawatra.  He doesn’t seem to have spent any of his billions improving the college architecture.

Eastern Kentucky University Campus

Strolling through EKU campus on Kit Carson Road

We walked down Richmond’s Main Street, culminating in a handsome courthouse in a sunny hilltop square.  Fully a quarter of the buildings downtown were dark and empty, and, as usual, most of those that were occupied were law offices.  America has more than a million lawyers, and judging from their plush premises, most of them seem to be weathering the recession rather well.  Over dinner, we read about one recent local lawsuit in the Richmond Register, in which the lead story was ‘Burglary Suspect Attempts to Flee’.  An 18-year-old man had been caught by police breaking into a restaurant while drunk in the middle of the night.  He was being charged, the article said, with intoxication, first-degree burglary and ‘second-degree fleeing’.  We’re planning some first-degree fleeing of our own from Richmond tomorrow morning.

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

April 12, 2010

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.”

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

April 11, 2010

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

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)