Southern Stories
7 Things Kentucky Taught Me in 24 Hours
Aug 29/16

7 Things Kentucky Taught Me in 24 Hours Posted by: Rod Ford | 0 Comments


1.) Never trust your navigation system.
Somewhere along the winding, wild-turkeyed back roads in the dense forest surrounding Mammoth Cave in southern Kentucky, I was a grown woman, no kids in her car, lost on her way to Dinosaur World and too embarrassed to pull over at the park’s visitor center and ask for help. I stubbornly looped the roads, following my infallible GPS system to the dot on the screen that marked where the park full of life-sized, googly-eyed dinosaur statues should be. As the little green dot floated over the little red dot, I pulled into a driveway full of  “no trespassing” signs and political propaganda, threw the car into reverse and hightailed it back down the dirt road before the homeowners could read the opposing political opinion stuck to my rear bumper.

2.) Let your inner child guide you.
After aimlessly snaking down more empty roads, a little scared and half-expecting one of those pasty cave creatures from “The Descent” to manifest on the road in front of me, I gave up on finding the prehistoric paradise my inner child had been looking forward to for weeks. I brokenheartedly left the park and headed to the highway, cruising down Old Mammoth Cave Road past the rock shops, zip lines, Yogi Bear amusement park and giant knight statue. I began to suspect my subconscious had been tampering with the GPS all along, trying to lead me here because this was most certainly the place to which inner children all over the world gravitate. I could settle down in a teepee at the Wigwam Village Inn and start a new life here. As I planned my farcical future, a pterodactyl swooped into my reverie and landed on a collection of oversized, red letters that spelled DINOSAUR WORLD. Dreams really do come true.

3.) Mind your time zones.
As most adults aren’t as excited about plaster dinosaurs as I am, I won’t wax poetic. After T-rex-walking through the entire park, I hit the trail — the Bourbon Trail. I had two hours to make the one-hour drive to catch the last tour at the Maker’s Mark Distillery. Twenty minutes into that leisurely drive spent fiddling with the radio to find bluegrass stations and ogling barn quilts, I passed a sign that read: EASTERN TIME ZONE. My heart sank, and my foot sank like lead onto the gas pedal. Black barns blurred as I sped down the rural highways, only slowing for Amish carriages and a brief glimpse of Abraham Lincoln’s bizarrely tiny boyhood home (the low ceilings couldn’t accommodate a stovepipe hat).

The barrel aging houses finally rose on the horizon like country skyscrapers, and I skidded into the parking lot 11 minutes after the last tour’s scheduled departure. It took my saddest sad face pressed against the visitor center window to persuade the sweet old lady inside to unlock the door and catch me up with the final tour group. She wasn’t the first or last person on the trip to serve as proof that Kentuckians have more hospitality in their little fingers than the Mississippi River has drops of water.


4.) Not all distilleries are created equal.
I’ve been to a lot of breweries, distilleries and other booze birthplaces, and the Maker’s Mark Distillery is as close as distilleries get to being the Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory of alcohol. They let you walk right up to the centuries-old mash barrels and scoop up the sour, bubbly mixture — It tastes a little like tart oatmeal — with your bare hands. Then, once they get you rosy on Maker’s White, unaged Maker’s that’s only available at the distillery, you can don heat resistant apparel and dip a bottle in the signature red wax.

5.) Bartenders know best.
After closing down Maker’s Mark, I drove to nearby Lebanon, Ky., to the most legit-looking restaurant in town, The Stillhouse, and after perusing the hodgepodge buffet and turning my nose up at all-you-can-eat boiled shrimp and roast beef, I settled for a beer at the bar with a view of the barrel wall and the blasé bartender. I asked him, “What else is there to do in Lebanon?” His straight-faced reply: “I think you know the answer to that.”

Some persistent small talk warmed him up, though, and unlocked a vault of knowledge — and a lot of friendly sarcasm — about bourbon, bourbon ale, bars and small town Kentucky. He sent me to Lexington with some honest critiques of Kentucky nightlife and watering hole recommendations.

Upon checking into the prettier-in-pictures motel and securing my belongings in my room with the broken-off chain lock, I headed to craft beer drinker heaven, Lexington Beerworks, because as you’ve probably deduced by now, I came to Kentucky to drink.

Via generous beer samples, Bartender No. 2 helped me confirm that there is no beer better than beer that’s been hugged by the charred, vanilla walls of a bourbon barrel. As the bourbon-soaked beer soaked into me, my loud mouth and mispronunciation of the word “Louisville” drew a small crowd. Shake your head and let your lips flap when you say it, so it’s more of a drunken slur, the bartender instructed, demonstrating his technique. For all the Kentucky ears nearby, I praised the Bluegrass State for its lush scenery, unpretentious attractions, incomparable intoxicants and witty, straightforward citizens eager to poke fun at a tourist.

6.) Go to Al’s Bar.
That sense of humor carried on a few blocks down the road at Al’s Bar, where I got another taste of Lexington’s laid-back, unpresumptuous, good-time-havin’ attitude  (and a few more tastes of bourbon ale). The bartender urged me to stay for the main act that night, not really explaining what I was in for, but giving me a “you’re about to have your mind blown” wink.

Kentucky band Technology vs. Horse took the stage and introduced me to a whole new genre of music: hardcore, inappropriately hilarious nerd rock. Between tracks from albums with titles like “Sorry That I Knocked You Up” and “Bearula: The Bear Dracula,” singer Michael Farmer’s jokes knocked listeners backward in their booths and he coaxed the entire bar into chanting that he was “the best singer in the world. He’s got more range than Adele.”


7.) Just breathe.
Lit up with laughter and a bourbon ale glow, I called it a night and headed back to the motel. As I climbed the steps to my room, I paused, trying to put a finger on a familiar smell in the early morning air. It was warm and homey, like fresh-baked bread, and I closed my eyes to let my senses swim in it. Then it hit me: it was the aroma of mash, either carried on the wind from the nearby distilleries or my mind’s invention. I stood on the balcony, facing the breeze, and promised myself I’d come back there someday.

Arkansas writer Willa Dean did survive the hangover caused by the aforementioned events. She attributes that survival to the amount of bourbon in the air. It served as “hair of the dog.” Got recommendations for her next Kentucky trip? E-mail her at or comment below.



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