Our first impression of Bowling Green, KY was… not good. We arrived late and just wanted a comfortable place to sleep, but found the only hotel options to be on the side of a busy highway. We checked into the cheapest one and tried not to touch anything. The following morning, after “breakfast” (note to hotels: non-dairy creamer is not milk, dry crispix is not a meal), we set off to find… anything.
Sure enough, there is a cute little town square with maybe a dozen shops and everything else vacant and for sale. In the center of town is a beautiful park. The vintage architecture is definitely worth saving, but it appears the community has already begun building new and is letting the old crumble. I wish I could have seen it 20 years ago.
After a few hours at a coffee shop, we migrated across the park to Tea Squares, where the owner complimented Mike’s “End the Fed” shirt. That’s the Bowling Green I was hoping for! We sat at Tea Squares, chatting a bit with the owner and one of the employees, until they (and the rest of the town) closed at 6. We also managed to get to the town candle/craft store as they were closing, where the manager once again gave Mike a thumbs up on the shirt. Two in a row! Although he admitted to being a GJ man himself, which is somehow very funny/inappropriate, being in Rand’s hometown and all.
We picked up a magnet and set off to Nashville, once again taking local roads. Poor giant Native American man…
We passed a sign for Gallatin, the school at NYU that I attended for a year and also one of Mike’s favorite people— and we decided to explore.
As has been the trend, there wasn’t much still operating in Gallatin, TN, but the layout and architecture of the town was great. There were a few walkable blocks, and even though many of the older stores have closed, the neon signs have been left up and most still work.
There is also a little pedestrian square, currently a large parking lot and some offices, but I like to think that at some point they were stables or something equally quaint.
We also passed the Corn Crib— again closed— but look what an epic use of space!
We arrived in Nashville to a beautiful sunset and half decent motel (finally!). The next afternoon, we made our way downtown.
We grabbed lunch at the Arcade, a kind of glorified alleyway that has been covered with a glass ceiling, but is still open on both ends. The result is an awesome experiment in pedestrianization and a great place for bums to hang out. It’s filthy and sketchy but also super charming.
We also walked a bit on Broadway, the Times Square of Nashville. Being a print geek, I had to see Hatch Show Print, which was just as amazing as I could have hoped except I wanted to live here and wasn’t permitted to do such. We kind of rushed through some other stores and back to the car… work always beckons.
We took off to JJ’s, a convenience store near the Vanderbilt campus. When we pulled up, I could tell Mike was very scared. You walk inside and it’s… just a convenience store, and an old one at that.
And then you keep walking and… couches! and coffee! and wifi!
So clearly we lived here for the rest of the day. We also surprised a friend from NH after he posted his location (about a mile away from us) and had some interesting conversations with the people at Liberty on the Rocks, a monthly meetup in Nashville.
I wish I could say that we stayed out all night listening to bluegrass and drinking whiskey, but we were passing out in our drinks and it was about to start pouring so we called it a night.
We checked out of our hotel in the morning and drove back to the Vanderbilt campus, after being intrigued by it the night before. I found Fido, what sounded like a diner, on Yelp. Unfortunately, it was more of a coffee shop with a food menu (and a lonnnnng line) and a sign that they turn off their wi-fi during busy times. Blerg.
So we found another coffee shop and worked, and spent some time walking around the neighborhood. I took no photos because I was grumpy.
We also visited the Parthenon. If you didn’t know, the city built a full-scale model in a park. Kind of breaks our tourist attraction rule, but we didn’t actually go inside so it’s still a gray area.
Next stop, Knoxville!
Louisville was supposed to be a one-day stop. I knew nothing about it so I Yelped a good coffee shop, a cheap motel, and a few places to eat. When we woke up, we immediately made our way to Quills Coffee in the Highlands.
Lo and behold, the Highlands is like a small town unto itself. And a cute one, at that. We settled in at Quills and ordered some smooth cold-pressed iced coffee and a perfectly poured latte. The mood is semi-pretentious, but I kind of appreciate that the people here know what they’re doing and aren’t afraid to show it off.
We worked for a few hours, ultimately deciding to stay the weekend (3 more nights), in order to attend Forecastle, a hippie music festival we just randomly came across. We also realized that we could never get through all the great restaurants, microbreweries, and cute neighborhoods in one day.
We drove around downtown, drank in a converted church, drank in a converted gas station, and met a man with a pet tortoise. It was a pretty awesome few days.
Saturday, we got lunch at Against the Grain and headed to the waterfront for Forecastle. The pouring rain and lack of signage led us to a gap in the fence and, ultimately, to accidentally sneaking in to a festival we had actually paid for (oops!). It was around 2:15 and gates were supposed to open at 2:30, so we explored having the entire park to ourselves. And then, at 2:45 a quick check of the Forecastle facebook page informed us that they’ve delayed the opening time to 4. Now we have to pretend that we’re either VIPs or volunteers for an hour and a half alone in the rain. Kind of awkward.
We ended up catching a performance of the March Madness Marching Band and their supreme hula hooping dancers, which was pretty cool.
At 4, the gates opened, and Wye Oak began playing at 4:15. We spent the rest of the day listening to music, eating burritos, and drinking Bacardi (who seemed to have a monopoly on festival booths… it was either that or $6 PBR…)
The closing act of the night was My Morning Jacket. I’m going to anger a lot of people by saying I don’t care for them. One Big Holiday is a fine song, but everything lacks oomph and is a bit over-commercialized and over-polished for me. We hung back in the audience so the real fans could get ever-so-slightly closer. It ended up being a good decision during the encore when they began throwing bananas at the audience… it’s almost like we knew.
The next morning, we rolled out of bed and on to the Bourbon Trail. We only made it to two— Woodford Reserve and Buffalo Trace. As it turned out, two was plenty… some combination of the booze, the heat, and the winding country roads left us craving Chinese buffet and a nap.
Woodford felt very organized and commercial. They’re owned by Jack Daniels and it shows. Everything is perfectly Kentucky… the deep porch with rocking chairs, the high-beamed ceiling, the sparkly-clean distillery with plenty of room for large tour groups….
But obviously it was still a beautiful tour through an amazing space. So many barrels!!
The tour was $7 each and included a small shot of Distiller’s Select, bourbon balls, and the shotglass.
Next up was Buffalo Trace!
Buffalo Trace was a much more grassroots operation. The guide kept getting sidetracked and repeating himself, and they didn’t have the whole operation accessible to tourists. They just showed a video and brought us into one of the aging facilities and one of the bottling rooms.
The tasting included 5 different products— Rain vodka, White Dog (the distillate before it is aged), Buffalo Trace, Eagle Rare (small-batch), and Bourbon Cream. The cream is only available at the gift shop and a few liquor stores within Kentucky, but it is freaking delicious. Once everyone was half done with their little shots, the guide offered to top us off fresh Kentucky root beer, turning the drink into a mouthwatering root beer float. The tour was free, the tasting was free, and we ended up spending $40 at the gift shop. I’m sure we aren’t the only ones. Good job, BT ;)
From there, we spent the night in Lexington, home of the University of Kentucky and Transylvania University.
Lexington is more of a Southern city. There is a main suburban road with all the drug stores, fast food, gas stations, and low quality casual dining your heart could desire. There is a small town area near UK with maybe 10 bars and restaurants and a few shops. And there’s a central square with a shopping mall and a park. Not much of a tourist destination, except that it contains the Keeneland race course. People don’t come here for culture, but we were determined to find it anyway.
We started out in the UK campus area, admiring the beautiful architecture and mid-day margaritas.
We moved on to the Victorian Square mall, a renovated block of buildings re-purposed as a shopping center. The stores weren’t very interesting (and most of them closed at 5 or earlier) but the architecture is quite pretty.
We also came across this random field, right in the middle of downtown. I love the fence— it’s the same style most farms nearby use, and it makes me feel as though there should be some horses grazing. Turns out this is the future site of a horrendous building, so I’m glad to see it while it was still just a random downtown field.
As we set off to our next destination, we crossed one of the prettiest scenes I’ve ever witnessed in real life… and to our surprise I could find nearly no information online about it. There was no parking or scenic lookout nearby, and no human walkway on the bridge even if I had gotten out of the car down the road. Above is the only photo I got… sorry about the quality. Off in the distance you can see Wild Turkey distillery (which we didn’t visit, unfortunately).
Here is Google’s version, and also our view as we were approaching when the railroad crossed overhead. Notice at this point you can’t even see that the road is about to bend to reveal the river and gorge.
From what I can find online, the rail bridge is the Young’s High Bridge aka Tyrone Bridge, operational from 1889 to 1985 and amazingly never altered since construction. This fellow was brave/lucky enough to take a hike out on the bridge from the Wild Turkey property and the photos are stomach-sinkingly beautiful (and also terrifying).
There is a non-profit attempting to convert these tracks to a hiking/biking path… hopefully they are considering adding guard rails. Would be a beautiful path, though.
Our first planned stop that day was yet another distillery: Four Roses. I just can’t leave Kentucky without having bourbon for breakfast daily. This tour was the least organized of them all, with guests welcome to come and go at their leisure (one couple joined just for the tasting).
The facility was shut down for the summer and the barrels are aged off-site, so there wasn’t much to see. The exteriors of the buildings are pretty though.
And as for the bourbons, I didn’t care for these much. They brag about being smooth and mellow, but I found the signature yellow label kind of boring, the small batch too spicy, and the single barrel uninteresting. Any would be fine for mixed drinks, but I wouldn’t have any of them straight up. This tour was also free, and the tasting glasses were available for $4 but not a mandatory purchase.
We worked for the day in downtown Lawrenceburg, a dying town with a lot of character and almost no commerce. One of the other patrons at Heavens to Betsy (a bakery with surprisingly good sandwiches, and apparently the only place open on a Tuesday afternoon) claimed this used to be a thriving downtown when she was a kid, which explains some of the beautiful buildings, unfortunately now held together with bungee cords.
We took local roads towards Bowling Green, our next stop, where we passed the above traditional music-store-in-what-looks-like-an-old-Cracker-Barrel-in-the-middle-of-a-cornfield. The parking lot was totally full and we knew we had to go inside. Mike needed a quick fix on his guitar, anyway, and we had to know what was drawing presumably the entire population of Campbellsville, KY to this store.
Inside, the room was filled with a large gospel/bluegrass band having their weekly practice (this isn’t all of them, I just didn’t want to be obnoxious and gawking while trying to get the right angle).
Mike and I browsed banjos and listened in while an employee fixed his guitar.
The rest of the country road was equally pretty. We passed a bunch of caves and towns that exist due to the tourism industry of the caves. Are caves really that much of a draw? Can’t say I get it. But it was scenic anyway… lots of beautiful, worn out tobacco warehouses and cows swimming in ponds.
When we arrived in Bowling Green we officially felt like we were in the south. The suburbs were bigger, the hotels were ghettoer, and the food contained about 200% more butter. The local roads also widened by about 4 lanes and suddenly everything was a car dealership. We thought about trying to find Rand Paul but decided it, like him, would be a lost cause.
I think this is the longest post I’ve ever written about anything. I’ll stop here and recap Bowling Green in the next post. Til then…….