louisville, kentucky: of bourbon, bridles and boxers

Louisville, Kentucky. The city’s nicknames reveal its many sides: Derby City, River City, Gateway to the South, Falls City, The ‘Ville.  Founded by George Rogers Clark and named for Louis XVI, it was my least favorite of the cities I visited during my Midwestern Triangle Road Trip.

Maybe it was the gloomy and cold weather that put me off. Maybe it was the heavy cast iron structures on Whiskey Row. Maybe it was the dark brick, blackened windows and earth colors of the imposing buildings in West Main District.  Maybe it was the lack of a mural arts program such as Cincinnati’s or Philadelphia’s, and a profusion of messy graffiti.  Maybe it was my inability to find charm in any of the neighborhoods. On the day I visited, the steely skies seemed magnified by the colors and heaviness of the buildings, the general dereliction of the neighborhoods.

There were good things of course.  Churchill Downs immersed me in the history and excitement of the Kentucky Derby. I enjoyed the Frazier History Museum, where I learned all about bourbon: the bottles, speakeasies, and whiskey’s artistic side; I learned about bourbon barrels, limestone, wood, farming, grains, crops, and water – all the things that converge in Kentucky to make the perfect bourbon possible.

“The Lewis & Clark Experience” taught me about the Corps of Discovery, the specially-established unit of the United States Army that formed the nucleus of the Lewis and Clark Expedition from May 1804 to September 1806, and what eventually became of them: their keelboat and supplies; York, the only black man in the party — slave and manservant to William Clark since they were young; the young Indian woman, Sacagawea, and her baby and husband, who shared a tent with Lewis and Clark for most of the journey, and whose skills and resilience saved the mission more than once.

I learned about Lieutenant Colonel George Armstrong Custer, a flamboyant figure who rose to fame during the Civil War but met his end at the Battle of Little Bighorn. I saw Teddy Roosevelt’s Big Stick and Custer’s pistols.

I admired watercolors of life along the Ohio River by Harlan Hubbard (1900-1988), who lived with his wife on a shantyboat, floating up and down the Ohio River for five years; he wrote the book, Shantyboat: A River Way of Life.  On the 2nd floor, I saw a German miniatures collection, which soldiers used to plot war maneuvers.

On the first floor was an amazing exhibit of photographs of Americana related to travel — kitschy American places and signs, gas pumps, coke machines and coke bottles from the 50s and 60s. This was the stuff of my childhood, so I traveled back in time in the exhibit titled “Road Map to Heaven,” through photographs taken by Linda Bruckheimer.  After my delightful discovery of remnants of Route 66 last year during my Four Corners Road Trip, I found inspiration in these photographs.  I want to keep taking American road trips and finding evidence of time at a standstill.

I watched the 35-minute film of Kentucky Show! narrated by actress Ashley Judd, a native Kentuckian. I learned about the different landscapes in Kentucky, the economics of coal-mining and bourbon-making and horse breeding and racing.  I heard the voices of famous Kentuckians, including writer Bobbie Ann Mason.  I learned about the importance of the city’s location, basketball in the state, and politics.  The film captured the essence of Kentucky.

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Frazier History Museum

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Bourbon display at the Frazier

I couldn’t figure out what a 30-foot-tall gold statue of David was doing on Main Street.  I walked past the Louisville Slugger Museum notable for the 120-foot-tall baseball bat leaning against it. Erected in July 1996, the hollow carbon steel bat weighs 34 tons and simulates the 34-inch long wooden bat used by Babe Ruth in the early 1920s.  It is covered with the same kind of paint used on battleships.  Since I have little interest in baseball, I didn’t bother to go in.  But I did love that bat.

At Los Aztecas, I sat at the bar and ate lunch of a chili relleno and ground beef taco, with refried beans and pink lemonade.  It was cozy and warm, and here I could see Louisville society in microcosm.

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30-foot-tall gold statue of David

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Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory

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downtown Louisville

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downtown Louisville

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downtown Louisville

At the Muhammad Ali Center, I watched a fascinating movie, “If You Can Dream,” narrated by James Earl Jones and Maya Angelou.  Exhibits showed the famous boxer’s early boxing career during the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. I had forgotten that he was originally Cassius Clay but changed his name when he converted to Islam; he wanted to rid himself of that slave name. He also refused to go to Vietnam when he was drafted because he would not aid in white domination over dark-skinned people by killing.

In his early days, he had quite an ego, and plenty of gusto, confidence and bravado, but he was certainly a man who lived by his convictions. The museum, in a prominent spot looking over I-64 and the Ohio River, was well done, leaving me impressed with this man’s contribution to the world. Ali’s six core guiding principles were 1) confidence, 2) conviction, 3) dedication, 4) giving, 5) respect, and 6) spirituality.

This museum showed the best of Louisville.  It took a hard look at racism and the immorality of the Vietnam War, as well as the struggles of the 1960s and onward. Our country to this day grapples with racist attitudes, police brutality, and the dehumanization of people of color.  Muhammad Ali fought to bring these issues to the forefront.  He was a boxer, yes, but he was more importantly an activist for African Americans at a time when they were beaten down at every turn.

I came face to face with a painted horse standing on a bourbon barrel, part of the 2015 Gallopalooza, an event held every five years that bridges artists and sponsors, and holds an auction that finds homes for these life size horse statues.

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Muhammad Ali Center

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Display at the Muhammad Ali Center

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downtown Louisville

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colorful horse on a bourbon barrel

I went on the Speakeasy Tour at the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience.  I had to whisper a password to get into the “illegal and secret” establishment. I am not a big fan of bourbon, but since it’s one of Louisville’s claims to fame, I figured I’d partake. I downed my first glass and then found I was supposed to “chew” it, or swish it back and forth in my mouth so I got used to it. I never got used to it and failed to see the appeal.

Later, I dropped into KMAC, or the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft, where there was an exhibit of Clay Bodies by Sarah Crowner, as well as fabulous paintings by young students.

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Evan Williams Bourbon Experience

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Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts

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a gloomy downtown Louisville

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a beaded stretch limo

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street sculpture looking a little worse for wear

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Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory

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KMAC Exhibition

After leaving downtown, I drove around looking for certain neighborhoods that were in my guidebook, hoping to find an appealing restaurant for dinner. The neighborhoods seemed derelict, rough and uninviting. I was frustrated that there seemed to be no place where I could walk up and down a street and find a restaurant that invited me in. It was only when a restaurant randomly came up in my Instagram feed that I found Ditto’s in Bardstown.  In that cute and cavernous restaurant, I had a crab cake on a salad of lettuce, cranberries, carrots, purple cabbage and broccoli, all accompanied by a mint julep. For dessert, I treated myself to a delicious chocolate brownie torte with a layer of marshmallow and raspberry sauce.

The friendliness of Louisville came out in that Ditto’s waitress, and I felt at last, as my day came to an end, that I was at home in Louisville.

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street art in Louisville

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fading ad in Louisville

I live in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., in northern Virginia, but I go periodically into the city for explorations.  Washington is the nation’s capital and it has some beautiful neighborhoods.  Wide avenues weave through the city between white or colorful buildings.  Some of the best museums in the country (including the Smithsonian museums, which are free to the public), and multitudes of monuments, are on offer.  Washington also has more money, filled as it is with expensive real estate owned by a plethora of politicians, lobbyists and lawyers, than a city such as Louisville. Of course, as in many American cities, it has its share of derelict and crime-ridden neighborhoods. Somehow there is plenty in D.C. that seems inviting, whereas I didn’t find this in Louisville.

Maybe, as an outsider, I simply wasn’t looking in the right places. And possibly, my opinion of it is colored by my politics. I know Kentucky is a red state that voted for Trump in 2016. They also keep that loathsome senator Mitch McConnell seated in Congress.  Virginia, my home, is a blue state, and northern Virginia is actually quite liberal compared to the rest of the state, parts of which are very conservative. I prefer places that embrace diversity.  But Washington itself can be awfully conservative, dowdy, and prim and proper to a degree I find annoying.  Louisville didn’t seem to have pretensions, as D.C. does. Louisville does the down-to-earth thing much better than Washington.  That I appreciated.

*Friday, March 1, 2019*

*Steps: 8,254, or 3.5 miles*

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“PROSE” INVITATION: I invite you to write up to a post on your own blog about a recently visited particular destination (not journeys in general). Concentrate on any intention you set for your prose.

In this case my intention was to tell about something I didn’t like about my destination:

Describe what it is you don’t like and then compare how the culture is different from what you’re used to in your part of the country. Consider how the way something in another culture is done could be better than how it’s done in your own culture.

It doesn’t matter whether you write fiction or non-fiction for this invitation.  You can either set your own writing intentions, or use one of the prompts I’ve listed on this page: writing prompts: prose. (This page is a work in process.) You can also include photos, of course.

Include the link in the comments below by Monday, August 12 at 1:00 p.m. EST.  When I write my post in response to this invitation on Tuesday, August 13, I’ll include your links in that post.

This will be an ongoing invitation. Feel free to jump in at any time. 🙂

I hope you’ll join in our community. I look forward to reading your posts!