Sweet Home Kentucky

Chained Rock in Bell County, Kentucky, USA

From boone to bushwacking, banjos to bourbon, it's the call of the wild in rugged Kentucky

By John Crossingham / Photos by Stefano Barbera

I’m not sure what it is about baths and “eureka” moments, but much like Archimedes himself, I’m having a soak when it hits me. It’s Friday night—the end of my fifth day in Kentucky—and I’m staying at the recently renovated Boone Tavern in the tiny liberal arts utopia of Berea. The hotel’s namesake, Kentucky icon Daniel Boone, is in a loose way the reason for my being here in the first place. “Follow in the footsteps of Daniel Boone”—that was my original mission statement.Of course, it was hardly that precisely planned and when I come to think of it as a sort of thesis for an article, it’s left me at sixes and sevens.

Sure Kentucky in some ways remains the land of Boone, but what I have discovered over the course of my trip goes way beyond that tight pigeonhole. Kentucky has become the best-kept secret of adventure-loving travellers and its evolution as such has given this state an exciting new identity—one it’s still growing into.Just before getting into the tub, I put on a CD that I bought earlier in the day.

The musician in question—Rufus Crisp—was a Kentucky banjo competitor and raconteur of some note for much of the first half of the 1900s. The warm hiss-and-crackle of the old recording emerges from the speakers as the record whirrs to life. Slowly and casually, notes tumble from an old banjo—only long enough to establish a quick theme—and then stop as a voice begins to speak:“Now, now, here’s the way most of the pickin’ banjo players in this country pick ‘Shout Little Lulie.’”

As it turns out, there’s an awful lot I didn’t know about Kentucky, but if it has a “double shuffle”—a hidden, yet truer, identity—it can likely be best described thusly: it’s one of the best places to spend your time outdoors in the United States.

The banjo playing resumes at a gentle, bouncy trot, demonstrating about 20 seconds of the song “Shout Little Lulu.” And again, the voice returns…“Now this is the way I give it the double shuffle!”

This time, the banjo positively drives through the song. Spirited and joyous, the man is soon singing along to his picking in a voice that is pure folk music—honest, backwoods and front porch. The underlying message is clear: “You other banjo pickers may think you know how to play this tune, but y’all don’t know how to really live it like I do.”

As I soak and listen, Crisp’s message becomes recontextualized in my brain and rings immediately true: You think Kentucky is like this, but really, it’s like this. As it turns out, there’s an awful lot I didn’t know about Kentucky, but if it has a “double shuffle”—a hidden, yet truer, identity—it can likely be best described thusly: it’s one of the best places to spend your time outdoors in the United States.

And the last people to know about it just may be us.

It’s Monday afternoon, and myself and photographer Stefano—a reptile enthusiast with a white-dude afro who will spend every waking moment of our hikes searching for (and thankfully not finding) wild snakes—and I have just arrived at Lexington’s Blue Grass Airport. Greeting us is a congenial, clean-cut guy on the verge of 30 with impeccable manners and a well-manicured hint of Southern drawl. We exchange greetings and I like Matt right away, which is a good thing—he’s our guide much of the way.

The stunning, rolling greenery of Kentucky accompanies our journey to the first night’s lodging—Natural Bridge State Resort Park, which is surrounded by the Daniel Boone National Forest, the stomping grounds of that career-hunter and pioneer.

Rolling Hills Kentucky

The lush greenness of Kentucky.

In 1769, Boone began a hunting expedition in what was at the time a wild and untamed Kentucky; years later, he was captured by Shawnee Indians somewhere in this area. The Shawnees regarded Boone as a poacher and demanded he leave their lands.

He’d be back, spending the better part of the next decade engaged in battles through the land and eventually leading a party of settlers to a new life in Kentucky.

Despite being an overcast day, Stefano and I spied the brilliant lawns and white fences from the airplane and they look even better up close. In between some gently political getting-to-know-you chat, I privately reflect upon what this trip is really about. Despite being pretty well travelled through the United States, my only contact with Kentucky can be traced to 21 years back, when my family spent one day visiting the famed Mammoth Cave National Park while en route to Florida.

Kentucky is a state with an identity crisis. Many use the terms “fly-over” or “drive-through” to describe the state—referring to the sad fact that many travellers enter Kentucky without the intention of actually visiting it.

Rather, they’re just passing through on the way to the “more attractive” confines of places like Florida, Texas or Louisiana—just as my own family did in 1988.

Neither a star attraction nor some entirely unheard of diamond in the rough, it seems the state has that all-too-familiar misfortune of being misunderstood and in the middle. It’s one of those interior states that everyone gets wrong on a blank map. Culturally, it has the rather unique distinction of being defined at times as both a southern and a midwestern state. It was neutral during the Civil War and has been adaptable to conflicts ever since. Up until the recent election in 2008 it had backed the previous seven elected presidents, whether Democrat or Republican.

Ask the average person to describe the state and you’ll likely get something along these lines: bluegrass, bourbon and the Derby. But we’re really here to check out the emergence of the state’s secret weapon against a biased public: adventure tourism. A point driven home by the fact that the very first activity of the new day will be, of all things, rock climbing.

I’ve spent a good minute trying to navigate past this one tantalizingly close ridge. My arms feel dead and my legs are vibrating with spastic urgency. I’m going to have to fall off. 

“Miguel’s is the hangout for all the climbers,” says Matt as we wander over to a smallish, yellow pizza joint tucked into a little bend in the road in the Red River Gorge. Tents are scattered around the building like homes nestled around the cathedral of some 12th-century European town. Despite the fact that Stefano and I shared pizza on our layover at O’Hare, I’m starving and game to once again tear into some ‘pie.’ I would also really like a beer, but it appears that Miguel’s isn’t licensed. No worries, my next favourite type of beverage is waiting to be discovered: the local soda. Ale-8-One—a play on ‘A late one’—is like ginger beer without the kick (that doesn’t make it ginger ale by the way) and is only made in parts of Kentucky. I could even go so far as to say that its status is the equivalent to Texas’ Big Red, but I may have lost some of you there. At any rate, its regional charm more than makes up for the lack of alcohol.

As I wait for my slice to arrive, I notice trails of conversations in foreign languages (I’m guessing Spanish or Portuguese) drifting around the room. Not unlike surfers travelling to Hawaii or New Zealand in the pursuit of the ultimate wave, Miguel’s is crawling with world travellers who are drawn to the challenging rock faces of the Bluegrass State. That they came halfway around the world to a spot as unassuming as this immediately hints at how uninformed my casual opinion of Kentucky has been—and makes me curious as to what my novice-climbing ass is up against tomorrow.

Maybe I do need some booze…

When I was around 12 or so, my father enrolled me in sailing school—one of many failed attempts to invest his son with an adventurous and/or athletic spirit. Instead, I spent every morning that summer dreading the fierce winds and undulating waters that would once again test my paper-thin courage and weak stomach lining. Let’s just say the drive toward our rock climbing location brought back some memories.

“It doesn’t look so high to the top,” I say, completely full of shit.

Climbing Kentucky

Beginning the climb.

 Up until now, I have tried to put on a brave face about this eventuality, but strapping myself into the harness, I’m not doing so well. I love to hike, love being on the water (I guess it worked after all, Dad!), but rock climbing pretty much freaks me out.

Kieran and Amy, who run a local climbing business, point me in the direction of a beginner route. Tall, lanky and blond, Kieran fits the mould of the thrill-seeking drifter right down to a vaguely California vibe—although not from the west (or Europe), he too has travelled the world visiting all the choicest sites for climbing, before settling in the world-class Red River Gorge. His chilled vibe calms my nerves to the point where I’m actually striding to the base of my route. Then, as I receive my final instructions, I look up to the left and notice the dude who took my pizza order last night has climbed high enough to wash the windows of the Chrysler Building. Crap.

Kentucky is rich in porous sandstone, making it ideal for rock climbing. It’s mercifully full of notches, nooks and grooves that welcome my desperately searching fingers and toes. Use your legs, I think, recalling the advice of my brother-in-law. Your arms will tire out super fast. Which they do.

“It doesn’t look so high to the top,” I say, completely full of shit.

By the time this happens, I’ve spent a good minute trying to navigate past this one tantalizingly close ridge. My arms feel dead and my legs are vibrating with spastic urgency. I’m going to have to fall off. I’m strapped in, of course, but primal fears don’t allow me to peel off the rock face so gracefully. I spy a loophole drilled into the rock for their harnesses and slip my finger through as I finally lose my grip.

“Take. Your. Finger. Out,” calls Kieran with gently applied urgency. Turns out, that’s a swift way to break a digit. I reluctantly comply as Stefano snaps a roll of me ashen-faced and clinging to the rope for dear life.

Half an hour later, I try again and reach the top of the route. Oh, sweet self-respect.

Wall Climbing Kentucky

Don't look down: Scaling Kentucky's rock faces.

“Boat’s up the river and it won’t come down,

Then I believe to my soul, Lord, that I’m waterbound.”

The lyrics from the infamous bluegrass song “Boat’s Up The River” float through my mind. It’s 6 p.m. Natural Bridge State Resort Park is in the rear-view and I’ve dozed off and woken up to find us half an hour outside of tonight’s destination: Cumberland Falls State Resort Park. The falls themselves are often referred to as Niagara South. And as someone who spent my late teens working at the vortex of the highly trafficked Niagara Falls, I’m beyond pleased at how natural Cumberland Falls is.

We visit it first at night. Although the word is that we’ve missed our chance by a couple days, the falls is one of the few places in the world where one can see a moonbow—basically a rainbow in the mist by the light of a full moon. Emboldened by weeks of above-average rain—April 2009 was Kentucky’s wettest April in ages—the water rushes with a serene vigour that dominates the night. The pounding resonance of gallons crashing into more gallons shifts into cascading bursts—like a sonic version of what you see when you shut your eyes tight and stare hard into your lids.

“This is crazy,” I barely hear Matt say over the din, referring to the sheer volume of water. “I’ve never seen it like this.”

We’re all alone at the base of this wisely unfettered natural monument, and it’s awesome.

Back at the lodge, I fall asleep quickly.

Chained Rock Kentucky

The beauty of Chained Rock Trail.

It’s only the next day—in full light—that I get a sense of just how much the recent rain has affected the area. As we hike around the falls, we continually find whole portions of our route underwater. Adding to the obstacles are fallen trees courtesy of a freak ice storm that hit much of the state earlier in the year. As much as it would be nice to hike the trails as they were intended, there’s something far more primal and engaging about these natural interventions. After all, if I am to be following in the footsteps of Boone—one of America’s most legendary frontiersmen—surely it would only add to the experience to be cut off by a swirling eddy of water or a rough tangle of branches. I’m guessing the man dealt with far worse.

Besides, there’s no taking away from the quality of the landscape that we hike while in Kentucky. In total, we hit four state parks—Natural Bridge, Cumberland Falls, Pine Mountain and Cumberland Gap—and at each of them I find myself asking the same question: I’m a pretty worldly guy—how did I not know anything about this place?

Driven from a place of complete naïveté, stripped of any artifice of what’s cool, people travel halfway around the world to excitedly visit places that many of us pass over even though we could reach them in a day or two by car. What’s our problem?

The breathtaking features that Kentucky boasts—and there are many—are of a more subtle nature than many of its Western Rocky Mountain cousins. It’s not just the falls or the sheer, precise rock formations at Natural Bridge. It’s the tightly winding caverns under the Cumberland Gap (which served as an army hospital during the Civil War and even boasts graffiti dating back to the 1850s). Or the intriguingly, yet illogically bound boulder found at Chained Rock Trail in Pine Mountain State Resort Park (so chained to “prevent” it from smashing the town of Pineville below). All are sterling examples of both the aged majesty of the Appalachians, and the ways that Kentucky’s natural formations are like the set of some forgotten storybook. But they lack the youth and in-your-faceness of the Rockies. Which is probably why I knew a lot more about Crater Lake or the Grand Canyon than I did about, say, Cumberland Falls.

It’s our last day and it’s a radiant one—the nicest since we’ve been here. The water, though still high, is rolling beautifully in Elkhorn Creek and we’re at Canoe Kentucky, who are taking us out today. Although there are ample opportunities for challenging whitewater rafting in the state, I like this pace the best—relaxed and lugubrious, it’s like a massage. Kentucky may indeed be presenting itself as a prime destination for thrill seekers around the world, but I think the part that I’m most falling in love with is the honesty and lack of pretension of its personality.

It makes me think a lot about the nature of a “vacation.” So often we gravitate toward the spectacular when we travel—the further away, the better. The distance adds instant allure. When I learn that Canoe Kentucky has a franchise in Japan, it hammers the point home. Throughout my trip, I’ve learned of the pull that all things Kentucky have to the Japanese—apparently, the franchise owner insisted on using “Kentucky” in the name to boost its appeal.

Places such as Hokkaido have many horse farms modelled after the examples set by the Bluegrass State—many farms are populated by stock bought from Kentucky itself. Japan also loves whisky—bourbon is big news. In the Buffalo Trace Distillery in Frankfort, we see empty bottles of their single barrel signature, Blanton’s, awaiting labels printed in full Japanese. It is the only language other than English that the distiller prints.

Kentucky View

Enjoying the view.

When I first heard about that, it made me laugh, but there’s something not only intriguing, but also downright inspiring about it. Driven from a place of complete naïveté, stripped of any artifice of what’s cool, people travel halfway around the world to excitedly visit places that many of us pass over even though we could reach them in a day or two by car. What’s our problem? What else do the Japanese know about our surroundings that we can’t figure out ourselves?

There’s another song that Rufus Crisp sang on that record called “Cumberland Gap.” The gap is a natural lull in the otherwise steady wall of massive Appalachian rock that blocked what is now the eastern border of Kentucky from the rest of the colonies. Its discovery—and subsequent clearance and passage—was a major factor in the continued expansion into the West.

Sitting at the tri-state junction of Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia, the gap was one of the places where the significance of a man like Boone hit home. Yes, his history, as most remember it, is littered with falsehoods. But lost among the exaggerated feats of strength and that erroneously placed coonskin cap that he is shown wearing on his own bloody grave, is the fact that at this very place, Boone helped secure the safe passage of more than 200,000 settlers into Kentucky. Today, it’s a highway that knifes through the blasted rock, but it doesn’t take much imagination to see it as it was centuries ago—a gateway, a golden ticket. A chance.

Matt was fond of pointing out that Kentucky had “more navigable waterways than any state other than Alaska.” I know what he’s saying, but, y’know, the phrasing is kind of stilted. Now, three kinds of water to wash your face. I like that. Its literal meaning—if it even exists—is irrelevant. I’m done with trying to nail down what makes Kentucky tick. It just does. Sometimes, that’s more than enough.

Up Next: Discovering Arizona's other canyon, the Canyon de Chelly

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