Monday, November 16, 2015

Across Kentucky

It wasn't until my third night in Kentucky that I had a campsite emblematic of the state--among the trees of the Daniel Boone National Forrest.  My first night I had to resort to the large cemetery in the town of Falmouth.  I was periodically serenaded by howling coyotes and jarred by chugging freight trains just below my campsite on the fringe of the cemetery, but otherwise it was a peaceable night.  The next night I hadn't fully escaped the sprawl of Lexington and made do with a pasture, having to untie the cord on a gate after being denied by several others that were equipped with chains and locks.

It wasn't until the next night that I was deep into the woods and away from any vestiges of humanity, other than the gunshots of deer hunters in the morning.  I fully embraced the honor of camping in a forest named for the legendary frontiersman Daniel Boome, the man who pioneered the settlement of Kentucky in 1775, and who spent a good part of his life in woods such as this.  Boone established the Cumberland Pass Trail into Kentucky.  His son Nathan was the first white born in the territory.  Boone was a reknowned figure even during his life, on both sides of the Atlantic.  Books were written about him, and Byron mentioned his exploits in a poem in 1822, two years after his death. Even though he had a wife and ten children, he would go off for weeks and months at a time on long hunts into regions never explored by whites.  He claims, though, never to have been lost, "just confused once for three days,"  a perception I try to adopt in my wanderings.

My route through the center of the state included four of its twenty-seven Carnegies, two of which I had previosuly visited.  I was lucky to have dropped in on the Carnegie in Paris in 2007, as it was presently closed while it was undergoing a huge, unsightly glassy expansion to its side  that I couldn't bear to give more than a glimpse to. Paris is the largest city in Bourbon County and evidently felt the need of a larger library than its cozy, unmarred Carnegie. Its librarian must be devastated.  I vividly recall being invited into his office where he showed me his collection of postcards of the library.  Whenever one turned up on ebay, he purchased it.  He couldn't have enough, so much did he treasure his Carnegie. 

There was no mistaking I was in Bourbon County.  Business after business identified itself with Bourbon in their name, the corn-based whiskey primarily distilled in Kentucky.  The drink was subtlety promoted and endorsed by Bourbon Dental, Bourbon Hairdresser, Bourbon Florist, Bourbon Taxidermy, and, of course, Bourbon Liquors.  Later, riding through Lexington, businesses replaced Bourbon with Blue Grass, also synonymous with the state.  I was reminded of its horse racing heritage, as well, with the many pastures of horses and a boulevard on the outskirts of Lexington named for the Derby champion Man of War.

I met another Carnegie-lover in Newport, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati.  It was the owner of the library, now a facility for fancy events, just like the East Branch Carnegie in Cincinnati.  She had bought the library in 1998 for $650,000 and spent $1.3 million dollars renovating it. She had installed lavish furnishings and chandaliers.  She wasn't fully informed though on the Carnegie legacy.  She said his grants had the stipulation that a building had to be used as a library for one hundred years before it could be put to another use, and that she acquired it just after its one hundredth birthday.  

Neither of her suppositions was true.  This library was actually built in 1899, and Carnegie made no such demand on their years of service.  She also said that there were twenty-five basic architectural plans for his libraries.  There was no standard whatsoever.  I did appreciate though her enthusiasm and her desire to maintain this historic building.  When I started asking about it, she wondered if I had patronized the library when I was a boy.  When I told her my story, she bubbled with even more excitement and told me about a bike shop three blocks away that she thought I'd want to visit as well.

I had another warm, sincere, southern-tinged conversation with the receptionist in the former Carnegie in Lexington, now the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning.  It had served as the city's main library until 1989.  The large, imposing building had lost none of its luster.  It sat on a hill on the back half of a full city block facing a grassy expanse.

The receptionist invited me to help myself to whatever books I'd like in a room to the side with several book shelves packed with donated books. If my panniers weren't packed, I could have left with a handful of worthy titles.  This was a veritable goldmine compared to the "little free libraries" I frequent.  She told me to go upstairs for a gallery of art work inspired by Hunter Thompson.  The Center had had a reception the week before honoring his "Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas."  

Thompson grew up in Louisville and was in Kentucky's Writers Hall of Fame.  A wall had photos of all the authors enshrined, including Robert Penn Warren and Wendell Barry.  This was the fourth year the Center had paid tribue to a seminal book, though the first time it had a connection to the state.  The previous books had been "Catcher in the Rye," "The Great Gatsby" and "To Killl a Mockingbird."  She said Thompson's selection had been a great success. The Center had been decorated in 1971 Vegas-style.  There was live Rock music from the era and many people came dressed as Thompson.  The evening included a Gonzo competiton.

The Center offers a variety of classes and workshops for aspiring writers.  There were classes on writing kids' books, historical fiction, writing your own obituary, poetry and how to write a novel in thirty days.  One could also sign up for a variety of writer's groups (sci-fi/horror, fiction, nonfiction).  With it being a university town, there was an abundance of writers.  A brochure listed more than a dozen of them with their photos and credentials who could be hired for $45 per hour for personal mentoring.  

I have biked across Kentucky several times over the years, but had always steered clear of Lexington, not caring to get entangled in its sprawl. I had felt the same about Louisville until last November. I am glad to have made the acquaintance of both of them and will be happy to return any time to get to know them better.  But I still feel a greater affinity for Boone and being in the forest.

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