Posts Tagged ‘Kentucky’

Right Place, Right Time, Right Action

In 2002,  I decided to stage my escapade through Kentucy and Indiana from Louisville. From there, I would take day trips to Lexington, Abe Lincoln’s birthplace,  Mammoth Cave, and George Rogers Clark National Historical Park.Most times when I take my park excursions, I plan at the last minute and don’t do a ton of research. And most times I find myself disappointed by the uninspired mundanity of my accommodations, and the realization I may have missed something grand or at least interesting.  However, for once, my lack of foresight had good consequences. I figured Louisville would be a typical, decaying, Middle American city, with typically craptastic restaurants and nothing much to see or do. Well, as occasionally happens during my ill-planned sorties,  I was shocked and pleasantly surprised. Louisville actually has a hoppin’ Bohemian district!

This place was great. Lots of restaurants, high-end shopping (which meant cadres of good looking women), used book & music stores, antique shops, and great clubs & brewpubs. It had head shops, tie-dye stores,  acupuncturists, and even a Church of Scientology (located in some sort of run-down, drive-through bank building). I couldn’t believe it. Here — lying in stark contrast to the decidedly Christian backwater that comprises the rest of Kentucky — is this little nook of cultural strangeness. Hard to believe this section of Louisville is in the same state as the Creationism Museum with its displays of man peacefully co-existing with dinosaurs….

Of course, it is only a couple square miles. One can’t expect more in this part of the country. Heading northwest from the city, it doesn’t take long to get back to what one would expect:  a traditionally decaying mill town; surrounded by smallish, uninteresting suburbs; dropping into Indiana corn country.  It’s not a bad ride to Vincennes, really. Yeah, it’s a bit boring, but the countryside is moderately unspoiled and you do pass through the Hoosier National Forest. There are worse 2-hour drives in the country, I’ve been on some :coughwesttexascough:


Poor, forgotten George Rogers Clark. A Revolutionary War general, he’s sadly missing from the text-book lists of American founders. That’s a big list: Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Lee, Lafayette, Kosciuszko, Hancock, Adams. Yet Clark’s vision ensured the westward expansion of a post-revolutionary, fledgling United States of America. It’s actually a funny story (in a geeky, history-buff kinda way).

It all started with the settlement of interior North America. The French got their first and got busy. By the mid-18th century they had settlements from modern-day Quebec down the St. Lawrence River to the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi to New Orleans. They also had spots on the Ohio River and other tributaries. They were in a pretty good position actually, but their settlers were more concerned with fur trapping and trade than continental domination. The Seven Years’ War with England (called the French and Indian War by us Yanks) came along, the French got beat pretty badly and, in the Treaty of Paris, England gained possession of all those forts. Of course, the Brits being the Brits, they figured they could just plop some redcoats in the forts and claim lordship over the lands. The French settlers still worked their farms, collected fur pelts, and paddled up & down the river in trade like they had for a generation, while theoretically under British “control”.

Then along came the American Revolution. The thirteen colonies wanted their independence, and badly. Unfortunately, the colonists also knew the British would be a problem even if they won. The Brits would control almost all the fledgling country’s borders: their territories to the north (modern-day Canada) and all these forts along the lakes and rivers to the west. So even if the colonies gained independence, the new nation would still be bottled in, and likely harassed in perpetuity, by Great Britain. Kinda like living in your mother-in-law’s house after the divorce. Awkward!!

George Rogers Clark saw this problem. He beseeched the Virginia militia commanders, who saw the brilliance of his proposal and lent him a band of raiders to harass these forts. Up they marched to the Ohio River, and then down to the first fort … which they took without much of a fight. Then they  marched to the next fort, and … took it, too, without much of a fight. Why? Well, the French settlers kinda didn’t give a crap for the British, and basically told the militia “well, go ahead and take it, we don’t care. We just want to kill some fluffy little animals.” The two or three Redcoats manning those forts, realizing they had no logistical support, high-tailed it out of there or just sat drinking their tea and said “meh”. Result: the colonial powers now owned the Northwest Territories, the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi down to Louisiana. Hardly any casualties (other than long marches in the wilderness would claim).

This was met with great “huzzahs!” by the Continental Congress and Washington’s army, and deservedly so. Now the country had a chance to not only be independent, but have the breathing room it needed to keep it safe and sound for the foreseeable future. Clark was heralded and promoted and eventually fought in actual combat situations. But he’s honored at a humble little shrine in Vincennes, Indiana for basically ensuring the Brits wouldn’t be on our flank for all time.

If there’s a story to take away from Clark, it’s this: it’s not only about being in the right place at the right time, but taking the right action. And it helps if the French don’t give a crap.

[Sadly, I didn’t own a digital camera when I visited GRC NHP. All pics are public domain from Wikipedia or the links referenced below. Some also came from www.earlyamerica.com, a nice, simple site on American history I thought worthy of blogrolling to the right.]



George Rogers Clark National Historical Park

The Highlands of Louisville

Creationism Museum

Neat Kentucky history link

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Competitive Religion and the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet

Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap

Nobody talks about Daniel Boone anymore. Folks my age remember Fess Parker as Daniel Boone on NBC between 1964 and 1970, and there was some interest during the Bicentennial in 1976. But now, no one cares or probably even knows who he was. Unless there’s a Hollywood movie about someone, no one knows or cares. If no one knows about Daniel Boone anymore, it’s doubtful anyone knows about the Cumberland Gap, that pass through Appalachia exploited by Boone, resulting in the nation growing beyond the Original 13. Nowadays, the Gap is both paved over by Hwy 25, and a chain of crappy clothing stores stretching all across Generica.

Cumberland Gap is in the Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky. True to stereotype, Appalachia is poor, there’s no doubt about it. Driving around the region, I was unsurprised to see economic distress & ramshackle housing. If you drive by with the windows down, you can practically smell the meth cooking. It’s pretty sad, really, for when I went (late 1990’s), the country was at the height of its economic cycle. Nowadays, with the nation on the precipice of the next Depression, I can’t imagine what’s going on down there. Of course, those nearest to the bottom don’t have as far to fall, but I digress.

Jesus Saves

There is one business in high gear in Appalachia: religion. I’m not a religious man, but I do acknowledge and respect religions. I think if I didn’t collect National Park sites, I’d drive around the country and take photos of churches. Large stone churches or modern glass-and-metal churches or one-room stick buildings, I wouldn’t care. Say what you will about all the controversies: the history, diversity, and evolution of religion in America is fascinating.

In eastern Kentucky, the story of religion is the story of competition. Throughout the region, you’ll see small stick church after small stick church, each having one of those quick-change trailer-towed portable billboards in front, mismatched letters stating “Newcomers Welcome”. It’s not just “Jesus Saves”, it’s “Jesus Saves Quicker Here Than the Church Around the Corner, They’re Really Pagans Disguised as Christians Anyway.” I wonder if there are Save-Offs, where the various hardscrabble churches meet and compete on which church wipes away sin quicker?

These quick-build churches really are competing for parishioners, each one scratching around for followers in a sparsely populated area. There’s a lot of poverty and a lot of want, but there aren’t a lot of folks. Hard conditions foster hard-core fanaticism, and it appears that hard-core fanaticism fosters hard-core soul-saving competition. A smart sociologist could have a field day here, studying religious competition in Appalachia. There’s definitely a cool doctoral thesis in there somewhere.

Golden Corral

There is one topic that has received much study, and that’s of obesity amongst the nation’s poor. Shortly before I took my trip to Kentucky, I heard of the theory that the poor are more likely to be obese than the rich, primarily because of bad food choices in local restaurants and grocery stores. Our twisted application of agricultural policies coupled with the borderline unethical practices of the nation’s fast-food chains makes it cheaper to eat fatty, corn-syrupy garbage that will surely kill you, than to eat fresh vegetables and lean meats.

On my trip to Cumberland Gap, these two factors: bad food choices and competitive religion, threatened to steamroll me into oblivion. Hungry after hiking through the park, I headed to nearby Middletown, KY, for dinner. Choices were, of course, crap. Fast-food outlets and all-you-can-eat buffets as far as the eye can see. I hate buffets almost as much as I do fast-food outlets, they’re usually bland as hell and festooned with pasta, meatballs, over-fried chicken and mashed potatoes, not exactly healthy eating.

I finally sucked it up and headed to one (buffets beat out starvation, that’s for sure). I pulled into the parking lot … right behind a church bus carrying half a dozen 300-lb. Bible Baptists. I had to politely let them go first (I tend to avoid fire-and-brimstone moments as much as possible), and was worried there wouldn’t be much left for me. I headed to the salad bar, figuring it’d be totally avoided by the locals (it was), for a feast of brown iceburg lettuce & rock-hard cherry tomatoes. Mmmm, feast of champions.

Honestly, I managed to get a sizable dinner there, and survived the post-processing. I only had “firsts”, surely I looked like an outcast, one of them there rich folks that don’t likes fatty vittles. I didn’t care what they thought, I was confident I could outrun them all.

[I didn’t own a camera when I visited Cumberland Gap. All photos are,  I believe, in the public domain. If you know any differently, please let me know and I’ll get the owner’s permission or remove them outright.]

[Special note to readers: I was contacted by http://chriscrawfordphoto.com/index.php about my use of one photo that belonged to him. I honestly don’t remember where I found that photo in the first place (this post is five years old), but I was clearly in the wrong and have removed the photo. My apologies to Mr. Crawford.]



Cumberland Gap National Historical Park

Frontline: Why Poverty Persists in Appalachia

Child Obesity in Poor Neighborhoods

Church Sign Generator

Google map to Cumberland Gap

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Stupid Questions

“So, this is original, right?” I asked, pointing to the log cabin inside the granite mausoleum.

“No, it’s a replica.”

Cabin (courtesy of National Park Service)After this almost mandatory exchange, I asked the ranger how many people ask her this stupid question every day. “A lot”, she replied. Of course the log cabin at Lincoln’s Birthplace isn’t original. The original one was surely torn down and replaced by the next residents after the Lincolns moved to Indiana (log cabins were not known for their longevity). The ranger did proceed to discuss what was really important: the thoughts and writings of our greatest President, Abraham Lincoln.

One of my regrets during my NPS travels is I never get the names of the rangers and volunteers who staff these sites. Some of them, including this woman at Lincoln’s Birthplace, are truly stellar. She was very smart, and a very good communicator. She also knew a lot about Lincoln. Not just the contents of some script for park employees to parrot out on command, but she really studied and respected the man. She read a great many books on the subject, and spoke with a fluidity that only true knowledge can sustain. I was absolutely captivated when she spoke. It didn’t hurt that she was attractive as well, brilliant and beautiful is a great combination.

It’s a shame to hear that the Park Service doesn’t pay particularly well, nor do they adequately fund or staff these parks (the fault of an uninterested Congress). Even with those obstacles, some of their employees are terrific.

The Man, The Legend

It’s amazing how well liked, or even loved, our 16th President is in the U.S. There are no less than five National Park Service sites dedicated to Lincoln, and many educational and cultural institutions (and more elementary and secondary schools than you can shake a stick at) are named after him. Of course I’m looking at this through Yankee eyes (having been born and raised in Massachusetts), but I think he’s even loved in the south, although probably not as thoroughly.

Lincoln (public domain photo courtesy of Wikipedia)We should ask ourselves “why?” Why would a man who presided over the one and only War Between the States (the worst human bloodletting ever witnessed on the North American continent), a man who initiated the first widespread draft in America (leading to riots in New York City and other places), a man who suspended many legal rights (an act used years later as justification for Japanese interment and the Patriot Act), still be so loved by the American people? Not only loved, but perhaps even deified.

“Honest Abe”. “The Great Emancipator”. “The Man Who Saved the Union”. Lincoln was not always honest, he had to lie often during his Presidency (a wartime President is rarely blessed with opportunities to be honest). Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was done to turn the heat up on the Confederacy, and had a great many flaws. And was it simple Northern arrogance driving him to maintain the Union (under Northern control, of course) at such a heavy price?

I offer up three reasons why Lincoln, of all the Presidents, is held in the highest regard, and has so many marble structures bearing his name:

He Won.

Americans love a winner. We always have. Washington. Jackson. Grant. Eisenhower. Colin Powell. The 2007 New England Patriots. We love those who win, and will imbue them with talents far beyond reality. Winners can do no wrong. In the end, Lincoln won. Yes, he wasn’t a direct military commander, but it was his war, his battle. It was his dogged determination, and eventually his appointment of Grant as commander of the army, that led to victory over the Confederacy. And it was a true, military victory, not some negotiated settlement or stalemate. We salute Lincoln because he was the victor.

He Died.

It’s a horribly cynical thing to say we only admire people who are struck down early. In the case of our Presidents, it’s not always true (who knows anything about William McKinley or James Garfield these days?). But it is true enough that we put people on pedestals after they die, especially when they die before their time. Was James Dean really that good of an actor? Was Kurt Cobain more talented than Eddie Vedder? Was Abraham Lincoln really the best President ever? Or do we put a better spin on those who leave us before they really should? The story of Lincoln’s death is tragic, but it came at such a special moment – days after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox – that it will forever be held as the stuff of legend.

He Was Right.

Above all else, I feel Abraham Lincoln is worthy of mention as America’s greatest President for one simple fact: he was right. He was right to free the slaves, even though his Proclamation was half-baked. He was right that the Union should stay together, for divided the nation would have been weaker. And he was right that the Confederacy should be defeated and not bargained with. There would have been conflict on our soil between two nations (or perhaps more) for generations afterward (witness the strife that plagued Europe for hundreds of years).

Emancipation Proclamation (public domain photo courtesy of Wikipedia)But there is another meaning to the word “right”. Lincoln was also the right President at the right time. People tend to forget the mess this country was in before Lincoln. The “slave problem” was a menace, a canker, a tumor on the very heart of America. It ate at the very core of our beloved Constitution. America, a nation supposedly founded on freedom, held hundreds of thousands in thrall, was a nation of hypocrites.

This canker led to a cancerous government, for we not only had a collection of weak-willed, spineless Presidents (from Harrison to Buchanan, find me one worth a damn), we also had a divided, rudderless Congress, and a court whose decisions were at times abhorrent (the infamous Dred Scott decision). We even had riots in the states and territories (Bleeding Kansas, John Brown’s Raid). I will even suggest that slavery was harming Southern culture; it enabled a decidedly undemocratic aristocracy, more interested in pomp, grandeur, and socializing than education, social betterment, industrialization, or agricultural advancement.

The American Civil War was such a tremendous turning point for the United States. We became a much better nation after Appomattox than we ever were before Fort Sumter. The transfiguration is glaring, in fact it’s shocking. The elimination of slavery, and the resolution of the simmering North-South conflict, revitalized this nation and sent us on the path to becoming a true powerhouse, and Abraham Lincoln was there, right when he needed to be, a nexus between barbarity and enlightenment.

In the end, we are right to deify the man named Lincoln, faults and all.

Memorial (courtesy of the National Park Service)

[The photos on this entry are public domain, and come courtesy of the National Park Service and Wikipedia] 


Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site

An Analysis of the Emancipation Proclamation

An Essay on Pre-Civil War Southern Stagnation

Google map to Lincoln’s Birthplace

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