Monday, July 28, 2014

Kentucky Vacation - Why Kentucky?

Why Kentucky? 

That was the question we invariably were asked by every person we told we were going to or in Kentucky for vacation. 

Our short answer has been and will continue to be: why not?

Why go anywhere for vacation? As we were taught growing up as military children: We go places because there is something there to experience. 

The long answer goes back to something we noticed in Japan and solidified while we were driving cross country from Gig Harbor, WA to Newport, RI. It was in Kentucky when it really struck home: we had seen and experienced more of Japan than we had of our country. 
We witnessed several Japanese suffer from the problem of "seeing more of a foreign country than the one we born in and from." Our Japanese acquaintances were always amazed by where we had been that they had not, and often those were places they had not heard of. 

As an example of seeing more of Japan: this picture was taken at the Izumo-tiasho in 2013.  It is the location of the convocation of the all Japanese gods during the 10th lunar month.  Several of our Japanese friends did not know what we were talking about until we explained what it was and then told us they had never been.

Why should we leave our country as undiscovered except in stereotypes, assumptions, and misconceptions created by movies, news, biased versions of history, and ignorance? If we are going abroad as unofficial ambassadors of the United States, then, in addition to being a prime example of our country, we should carry with us as complete an understanding of what it means to be American as we possibly can.  

It is fine to say "I've driven through Kentucky," but it is something else to say "I experienced Kentucky." The first is impressive only in the fact that the person has seen the scenery of the state--another state on the tally of states physically visited--while the latter requires some comprehension of the people, their culture, and the state's interaction with history. 

Inside the Kentucky State Capital Building in Frankfort.  I recommend going for the tour.  We spent an hour wandering through this beautiful building.

We drove through the state last year on our way to Virginia. We saw the state from Interstate 64 at 70 miles per hour with a stop for lunch and a single rest stop. We read the religious and political billboards and probably made assumptions of the local views. We did not get a feel for Kentucky. 

We did see signs for attractions that we thought were interesting, such as the Bourbon Trail and Mammoth Cave. After making time to see Glacier National Park, Yellowstone, the Saint Louis Arch, Mount Rushmore, and Crazy Horse (the latter two we stopped at on our cross country drive in 2004), we looked at how much time we needed to tour a single bourbon distillery or see the cave. The time crunch to get to Virginia did not allow for the several hours needed in driving and touring these attractions specific to Kentucky. 

When we realized that we had never really looked at the fly-over states, we promised to come back and experience Kentucky. It looked like there was more than the perceptions we get from television, and we needed to explore that. 

Buffalo Trace bourbon barrels in their racks.

With Jessica's best friend from college and her boyfriend, we rented a house in Louisville for a week as our base of vacation. From there we were able to drive to the capital, Frankfort, several bourbon distilleries, and several other things. We went zip lining in old mines in Louisville. We toured Churchill Downs and the Kentucky Derby Museum. We sampled local cuisine like the Mint Julep, Hot Brown, and Derby Pie. We toured Kentucky's state capital building in Frankfort, which included the state supreme court, law library, and both houses of the state legislature. We listened to live bluegrass and chatted with locals. We went to four different bourbon distilleries, which included various embellishments on their company's unique history, but all included history lessons ranging from racism to national legislation on proper labeling. We also sampled four variations of bourbon and now understand the difference between Whiskey, Scotch, Bourbon, and moonshine. 

Samples at Maker's Mark.  They gave us a taste of Maker's White (also called White Dog, which is also Moonshine), Maker's Mark, Maker's 46, and over-matured bourbon.

We set out to learn about our country, including the places our prior assumptions eliminated through stereotype. We now know that Louisville is a testing ground for chain restaurants because the demographics of Louisville match the country as a whole. We know that the Louisville Slugger the company takes its name from died in his forties and was an alcoholic because of ear problems from a childhood illness. We understand that it was Jim Crow laws that pushed African-American horse trainers and jockeys out of those positions when they were prevalent in the early years of the horse racing and the Kentucky Derby. We learned that Prohibition closed all but 4 distilleries overnight and put their employees out of work and into the bread line. We experienced the differences between bourbon made with rye and bourbon made with wheat, and know what kind of bourbon we like and don't like. We experienced the temperament and culture of Louisville and the bourbon history of Kentucky.

This is the front of of Churchill Downs.  Off to the left is the Kentucky Derby Museum, which does tours of Churchill Downs.  Barbaro, the horse, is actually buried under the statue.

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