First Days: Bourbon County to Bourbon Street
Itinerary: Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana
Miles Traveled: 945
Many journeys begin with the time-honored tradition of a drink and we hoped to begin ours the same way. We expected make toasts to getting through all the details and distractions of preparation. Or have a beer to recover after packing the car. Or do a shot in honor of having the guts to just get up and go. Unfortunately, when we began our trip the last thing we wanted to see was alcohol.
It was New Year’s Day; symbolically chosen for obvious reasons. Our green Ford Escort sat cold and pack-heavy in the driveway, while we were tired from champagne toasts and too many sweets the night before. We didn’t want to say goodbye to the family we’d stayed with for the holidays but regardless, at a few degrees above zero and less excited than we expected, we faced our car with hats, scarves and frosty breath. A few minutes of warm-up, a teary wave goodbye to the family standing in front of the garage, and we were on our way. Destination: New Orleans.
Several hours later we were feeling a little better. We had seen the highway, the interstate, the road. The reason we took our trip was coming back to us and at about 150 miles down I-70 we were ready for our drink. Was it a coincidence we were in Bardstown, Kentucky, rightfully self-proclaimed Bourbon Capital of the World?
Bourbon was born in and named for Bourbon County, Kentucky in the 19th century, near what is now Kentucky bluegrass horse country near Lexington. Limestone and pure water streams run past rolling fields and long, white fences. Out of one of these streams was born bourbon, invented by Baptist Minister Elijah Craig in the mid 18th century. In this area of Kentucky, we drove through fields, gingerbread Victorian towns and rows of tall, thick bourbon storehouses that have the look of prison-like industrial complexes. These houses and the smell of mash were everywhere. We decided to stop in Bardstown, stay the night and spend some time exploring.
We stayed our first night in an unassuming Days Inn, eating Taco Bell, watching HBO and resting up for our first big touring excursion. The next day, we visited two bourbon factories, Makers Mark and Jim Beam. Jim Beam is a five-generation family company and an enormous part of the bourbon heritage in Bardstown. Jim Beam himself is buried in Bardstown Cemetery and the company’s current master distiller, Booker Noe (Jim’s grandson) lives on one of the sidestreets near the town square. At the Jim Beam factory, we learned about the distilling process, visited a family home on the premises that is currently a national historic site, and saw the oldest still in America. We also sampled some of their fine, aged small batch bourbon. It was worth the trip.
At the Makers Mark factory, we toured distilling rooms, packing rooms and their barrel storage house. We also got to go into the bourbon production rooms where we dipped our fingers in giant tubs of bubbling, fermenting sour mash and watched workers coat the tops of filled bourbon bottles in Makers Mark’s signature red wax. The only thing we couldn’t do was sample whisky. Kentucky is a religious state and ironically, most distilleries are located in a dry counties where it is illegal to sell or serve liquor in public houses. Residents of the county who want to drink need to go to private clubs or purchase alcohol from somewhere else.
By late morning we’d gotten our fill of Kentucky’s Bourbon heritage and wanted to do more exploring. We weren’t dissapointed with what we found. In Kentucky, there are mansions with sweeping ribboned driveways lined by long, white horse fences. There are also areas where 19th century frontiersman, anti-slavery activists and writers lived and worked. Buildings everywhere speak to this heritage. For example, a 200-year old jail was used as a bed and breakfast while the historic tavern where we lunched once housed Washington Irving, Jesse James (who shot two bullet holes in the tavern wall), Daniel Boone and Abraham Lincoln as a young boy.
Kentucky is as much a state of Lincoln as is Illinois. Our 16th president was born and spent his boyhood in Kentucky until his family lost their home due to a title dispute. Lincoln’s father struggled to farm in the rough country soil and we saw firsthand how difficult the land could be. Knotty tree roots and rocks were everywhere on the hilly, wooded dirt.
We visited two Lincoln historical sites: his boyhood home, and his birthplace. While the former site was all but empty and seemed nearly forgotten by Kentuckians, the latter is better preserved under cover of a granite, Greek revival monument that would fit in well in Washington D.C. Both cabins were unbelievably small, and impressed upon us his family’s pioneer spirit. Parents and children slept, cooked, worked and relaxed in a room the size of a studio apartment. How different this was from the luxury of the White House, or from the Kentucky Plantation where Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy was raised. After seeing these cabins, we respected the Lincoln family and other frontiersman for their endurance, hard work and fortitude.
We were eager to get to New Orleans and the states passed quickly after Kentucky. In Nashville, Tennessee we walked through the Grand Ole Opry Hotel – a Vegas resort without the gambling. Luxurious decoration, rows of rooms, and a complex of restaurants, piano bars and outdoor tropical pools awed us. Unbelievably, guests could pay $5 to travel around the resort’s food court by boat via an indoor river built into a garden courtyard. We only spent a brief time in Nashville but were awed by its lavish and glittering country music scene.
Our next stop was a visit to Memphis, home of Elvis and world famous barbeque. As the place where Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, the city was also home to a large part of the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. We went directly to Beale Street. It was surprisingly depressing, devoid of people and under mid-winter construction. We walked past rows of closed restaurants and dance clubs, with only a few other people to keep us company. When we were hungry we decided to grab some lunch at a place that looked promising – the Rum Boogie Cafï¿½. We weren’t disappointed. Even in a mid-winter lull it was some of the best barbecue wings we had ever had. The atmosphere was just as good. Guitars covered the walls autographed by a diverse array of blues and gospel artists including Billy Joel, the Stray Cats, and Jerry Lee Lewis.
We left Memphis after lunch, stopping at Elvis’ Graceland on the way to the highway. Although we didn’t tour the premises, the outside of the building struck us with its simplicity. Nothing would have distinguished it from any other Kentucky Mansion except for tour buses across the highway and graffiti on the gate outside.
We spent the next day traveling through Mississippi, past Civil War battlefields, plantation homes and the Mississippi steamboat junction of Natchez. Inching closer to New Orleans, we finally found ourselves on the southern-most section of Interstate 52 and the highway began to take us past miles of the swamp we’d come to see. It was full of waterfowl and dark lacy vines heavy with moss. Eventually, the highway became more of a bridge stretching over the soupy waters for miles.
Just before we entered New Orleans we got another treat as the highway curved through one of the city’s above-ground cemeteries. The spooky, gothic structures and monuments awed us. At last, we were beginning to get a taste for the place we’d chosen to stop and explore. We couldn’t wait to see what we’d find next.