From bugs to barbecue – Trek across Kentucky reveals a diversity of cultures
September 12, 2005
Editor’s note: This is one in a series of articles submitted by South Lake Tahoe photographer Rick Gunn, who is riding his bike around the world to raise awareness for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Over the next two years, he will be chronicling his journey across the globe for the Tahoe Daily Tribune.
Hovering three feet below the surface of the Mississippi, I emerged from the water frog-style – two eyes just above the surface. Silent and still. I moved my gaze from the eerie strip of moonlight dancing upon the water to the space between me and my bike. They were still there. Waiting. Only now they were gathered in numbers that I could no longer ignore. I remembered a warning I’d received the night before:
“Be careful if y’all go to Cairo … It’s a river town and theys can be mean up-ar.”
That’s when I just made the move. A flat-ass, high-speed, knees-to-the chest sprint out the water toward my bike.
The attack followed instantaneously. A thousand pinpricks all at once.
They started at my feet, then my legs, arms, head and chest. A united battalion of chiggers, mosquitoes and some other horde of unidentified blood-suckers gathered in such number around my head that it felt as if someone had covered it with a biting burlap sack.
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In the 10 minutes it took to set up, I jumped, slapped, twitched before diving into the safety of my finely-netted tent. Moments before sleep the nagging voice returned: “Note to self … tomorrow buy bug spray.”
Bugs were only one of the challenges of bicycle touring Kentucky. Assaulted by a heat wave in the hills outside of Wickliffe, traveling here by bike was less like bicycling than it was cleaving through a thick, hot soup of humidity.
Turning onto County Road 286 it seemed a proving ground – a catalyst of sorts, where mad truckers, Baptists and housewives secretly started their new lives as NASCAR drivers. I envisioned my death time and time again, once with my head tumbling within the wheel-well of a big-rig and another cuddled on the roadside next to the local roadkill.
Witnessing my plight, a portly man wearing an oxygen tube rolled down his window and yelled, “You’ll find Southern hospitality down here, boy, but when we get in our cars we’re @*%$*#! crazy.”
I could hardly argue.
But after 70 hard miles, I was less interested in what Kentuckians did wrong than what they did right. To find out what that was, one need only look to the abundance of ever-expanding waistlines. There between the laughter, music and prayer, there was always food. Not just food, but down-home Southern fried food.
Spotting a hand-written sign boasting “Home Cooking” I parked my bike and slipped inside a tumble-down diner. A handful of rugged-looking farmers drank coffee and spoke in circles. Blue-gray strands of cigarette smoke branched from their hands and mingled with the sound of old-time gospel music that hung in the air. A portrait of Jesus cradling a lamb stared at me from the center of a gold-framed clock. As I pondered the hour of his return, I was eclipsed by the shadow of my plus-sized waitress.
“What’ll it be, hun?” she burped apathetically.
“I’ll take the special,” I replied. In the time it takes to say “coronary bypass,” she returned with my plus-sized plate. It was piled high with crispy-brown chicken, macaroni salad, butter beans, mashed potatoes, gravy and corn bread. It was a plus-sized slice of heaven. Just before shoveling a large spoonful of mashed potatoes, I glanced back up at Jesus, I raised my spoon, and silently mouthed, “thank you.”
I left the diner and rolled down tree-lined streets of Paducah. Once a drug-infested rat’s nest, the city began a tax incentive program aimed at artists willing to relocate and renovate. One by one, the historic southern river homes were being transformed into a neighborhood of cool and funky art shops, nooks and galleries – a testament to the utilitarian power of art.
From Paducah, I rambled east, through a tangle of two-lane farm roads.
Rolling along deeply-carved grooves, horse-drawn carriages would mark my introduction to Kentucky’s Amish community. Christian traditionalists, the Amish eschew the trappings of material modernity for the horse, carriage, bicycle and plow.
I followed a set of grooves into the town of Fairview. Rounding a corner, I crossed the path of a young Amish boy dressed in a straw hat, suspenders, and riding an over-sized bicycle. We both stopped and stared in a wordless exchange. I pondered the simplicity of a life without computers, car payments, cell phones or fax machines.
As I he looked over my bike, I wondered if he thought the opposite. Whatever he was thinking, he looked wise well beyond his years. He looked 8 going on 80. We each smiled and rode away.
I pedaled east, through the towns of Possum Trot, Hopkinsville and Bowling Green, where I ditched my bike and traveled by foot 250 feet underground. At 365 feet deep, and 365 miles long, Mammoth Cave National Park is the longest cave system in the world.
From there it was south, and seemingly back in time, to the rarely touristed streets of Tompkinsville.
“Do you know where I can find some home cooking?” I asked a nearby teenager. “Two blocks down ‘ar,” the boy said, pointing over his shoulder. As I looked back, he smiled as if holding back a secret. Turning off the main street, the neighborhood digressed.
Rows of ramshackled homes in various states of disrepair held a universe of garbage and junk scattered indiscriminately from one house to the next. A teenage mother, no more than 15, held her baby and silently rocked. She pointed and giggled. A voice reached out from across the street. “Where’d y’all get that carrier?” the voice said.
I turned my head to see a poor white family of perhaps 14, all dressed in rags sitting on torn-up furniture. “I got it (the bicycle trailer) at a bike shop,” I said, not quite knowing how to reply.
They stared back without emotion – vacant, fettered and listless. It was as if they were waiting for someone or something to arrive. I learned later that after the coal companies had drained the last of Kentucky coal mines, they simply up and left, leaving thousands without work. In 2004, the State of Kentucky Census Bureau reported that 15 percent of the population, or just under 700,000 people, now live below the poverty level.
I tipped my helmet and moved on.
Two blocks down I found the R and S Barbecue and stepped inside. All eyes turned. I suddenly became aware of the color of my skin. “Can I help you?” inquired a woman through the window of a smoky kitchen. Behind her a 10-foot grill sizzled with every type of meat imaginable.
“I’ll have the special,” I said, remembering my former success.
A few minutes later she handed me a paper-plate heaping with a square-foot of pulled pork, macaroni salad and baked beans. I was in hog heaven. Moving well past the point of over-eating I was side-swiped by a smile and an inquisitive voice of owner Anita Hamilton.
“Where’d y’all ride in from?” she asked.
“San Francisco,” I returned.
“I had this feelin’,” she replied, then disappeared into the kitchen. She came out a moment later with something I hesitate call a sandwich. It was more like a 15-inch slab of meat looking ridiculous hanging out of either sides of two slices of bread.
“Tell me how you like it,” she said and walked away. With a triumphant smile I ate again and scanned the walls of the cinder-block building. They were plastered with photos and quotes from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King had visited Kentucky in 1966 during a civil rights rally in Louisville. His message was simple: “Love or perish. Hate is not the answer.”
King was assassinated some time thereafter.
As I finished my tour, Eastern Kentucky seemed to save the best for last.
In an exploding crescendo of flora and fauna, I rode beneath a never-ending canopy of beech, basswood, ash, walnut, maple, elm, oak and pine. Besides the trees, eastern Kentucky housed wildly variant population of canines curiously united in one over-arching intent – that was to peal the flesh from my shins like a ripe banana. This included a way-too-near miss by a Rottweiler and a valiant attempt by a three-legged collie. Nearing the border of western Virginia, my attention turned to the wrath of an angry female.
Her name was Katrina, and she was headed my way. On the highway between Williamsburgh and Middlesboro, I pedaled against head winds approaching 70 mph. Time and again I was brought to a virtual standstill. A continuous wind-blown rain forced me into a hotel where I turned on the TV. I got the first glimpse of Katrina’s wrath. There, on the TV screen, stood a black man who held his son in tears. He said he’d been caught in one the sweeping torrents and was losing his grip on his wife’s hand as she clung for her life. No longer able to hold on, the man told of his wife’s last spoken words.
“Take care of our child; I will always love you,” she told her husband. Then she perished.
Turning off the TV, I wept openly, unobstructed. Although I didn’t have much to give, the next day I sought out a place and donated $5 to the Red Cross. It was a fourth of my daily budget. If you’re reading these words right now, and haven’t already done so, I hope you will do the same.
Aug. 20-29, 2005
Paducah, Bowling Green, Mammoth Cave, Red Banks,
Monticello, Cumberland Falls, Middlesboro
Mileage log: 2600-3200
elevation: 100-800 ft.
In the South, the breeze blows softer … neighbors are friendlier, nosier, and more talkative. This a different place. Our way of thinking is different, as are our ways of seeing, laughing, singing, eating, meeting and parting. Our walk is different, as the old song goes, our talk and our names. Nothing about us is quite the same as in the country to the North and West. What we carry in our memories is different too, and that may explain everything else.”
– Charles Kuralt in “Southerners: Portrait of a People”
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