October 02, 2006

To Louisville, Kentucky

It’s not much fun driving across America on one Interstate freeway after another. So when I got past Knoxville, Tennessee, and turned north toward Chicago I took some of the back roads instead. I had never been to the South, and I wanted to see it.

Tennessee Highway 1.jpg

Tennessee is a beautiful state, and you can hardly see any of it from the freeway.

Tennessee Highway 2.jpg

This place must be incomparably beautiful in the Fall. I barely missed the changing colors.

Tennessee House.jpg

Some of the leaves were just starting to turn as I drove past.

Tennessee Scenery 1.jpg

Most of Tennessee’s topography is mild compared to that in the West, but it’s still rugged enough to be interesting.

Kentucky Sky.jpg

Once again, the weather shifted as I crossed a state line. First the clouds thickened up.

Strunk Kentucky.jpg

Then the clouds became solid.

Kentucky Highway 1.jpg

I took a smaller road off the main highway to get deeper into the woods.

Kentucky Forest 1.jpg

Here is the Daniel Boone National Forest in Southern Kentucky.

Kentucky Forest 2.jpg

You can’t tell, but it was raining when I took this picture.

Kentucky Fall Colors.jpg

There were occasional clusters of trees that all started changing their colors at once.

Kentucky Campaign Signs.jpg

I saw more election posters in Kentucky than in any other state so far.

One billboard promoted someone for the county jailer. I loved that strong word and could almost hear the door slam: Jailer. Kentucky does not mess around with its criminals.

Kentucky Highway 2.jpg

If I wanted to get to Louisville before 2:00 in the morning, I would need to get back on a major highway. So I drove onto the parkway going west across the southern part of the state. I had the whole thing to myself even though it was Saturday. That part of Kentucky is not densely populated.

Kentucky Highway at Night.jpg

I saw occasional oncoming traffic, but for the most part I owned the road.

Louisville Victorians.jpg

The Interstate leading into downtown was closed. So I had to get off and drive on surface roads through the city to reach the center. I didn’t know it at the time, but Louisville (apparently) has the largest intact Victorian neighborhood in America. The entire inner city south of downtown is packed with block after block after block of perfectly preserved 18th century houses.

(It was dark when I arrived, and I went back and took these pictures after I woke up the next morning.)

Louisville Victorian Up.jpg

Somehow Kentucky garnered a reputation for being a trashy state where cars can be found up on cinder blocks and everything from used tires to refrigerators are strewn across people’s front lawns. The second photo in this Onion spoof article pretty much sums it all up.

If I lived in Kentucky I would be pissed off at how my state is perceived on the outside. I didn’t see anything trashy, anywhere, and instead found Kentucky to be a beautiful, clean, tasteful, and dignified place. (Maybe I didn’t see the “right” parts.)

Louisville Victorian Corner.jpg

I suppose every region of America is unfairly stereotyped by people who live in other parts of the country. I wondered how Oregonians are thought of in Kentucky. Are we all lumberjacks? Hippies? Computer nerds?

I bought some road food (don’t ask) and an atlas of all 50 states at a Kentucky gas station. As I placed my items on the counter the old lady behind the cash register said, in a Southern accent, of course, “Looks like yer gettin’ some travelin’ fooooood.”

“Yep,” I said.

“Where ya goin?” she said.

“Oregon,” I said.

“Don’t know nuthin’ about it,” she said. “Don’t even know where that is.”

At first I thought she was kidding. Then I realized she wasn’t. She didn’t even know enough about Oregon to think we’re all a bunch of vegans or geeks. And so I felt slightly less bad about how her state is thought of by people in mine.

Louisville Victorian Sidewalk.jpg

An antique storefront in old Louisville.

Old Downtown Louisville.jpg

An old building in downtown Louisville. I took this picture while stopped at a red light, and I couldn’t tell you what it is. (Someone in the comments probably knows.)

Jewish Hospital Louisville.jpg

Louisville’s Jewish hospital surprised me for some reason.

Colonel Sanders Louisville.jpg

The city is famous for its Kentucky Derby. But the entire state is famous for, uh, southern-style fast food.

Louisville at Night.jpg

Urban sprawl killed off far too many downtowns in American cities. Portland, Oregon, where I live, has reversed the hollowing out trend perhaps more than anywhere else in America. Louisville has not yet recovered. But it looked to me like the recovery was getting started. Fourth Street was hopping on Saturday night. A whole section of it was closed to automobile traffic so drunken pedestrians could jam up the streets while going bar- and club-hopping.

Louisville at Night 2.jpg

Police officers cordoned the area off and checked IDs. You weren’t even allowed to walk on the street if you weren’t 21 years or older.

Inflatable Man Louisville.jpg

A group of young women with an inflatable man insisted I take their photo as they played with the man’s inflatable “penis.” They all laughed when I snapped the picture.

“We’re gonna be in the pa-per,” the black woman said.

Better than that, girl, you’re on the Internet!

Howl at the Moon Louisville.jpg

Club-goers wait in line to get inside.

Lucky Strike Louisville.jpg

Milling around in front of the Lucky Strike bowling alley.

Makers Mark Louisville.jpg

A Fourth Street bar, downtown Louisville.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at October 2, 2006 10:03 PM


More great shots, thanks.

"Don't even know where that is."

And does "not knowing" mean her opinions about right and wrong, good and evil, how to live a happy life -- are her opinions inferior to those who are more sophisticated?

I'd guess married folks who don't know are less likely to get divorced than married sophisticated folks.

I thought you might comment on what looks like very comfy racial integration. PC anti-racism seems to have had the effect of pushing both the appearance of total racial tolerance, and likely a huge increase in the real thing.

Posted by: Tom Grey - Liberty Dad at October 2, 2006 10:58 PM

Awww, come on Tom. Nothing Michael wrote suggests that he thought the lady was a bad human being or even that her opinions were invalid. He just implied that not knowing were Oregon is fits the sterotype most people have about Kentuckians. And well, it is pretty bad to not know generally where each state is.

I too noticed the seemingly effortless integration of people of different races too. I thought that was interesting, although I've always heard that black and white Southerners are more comfortable with each other than those in the West and North. I don't know if there is much truth to that, but it seems to be confirmed in these photos at least.

Posted by: Fern R at October 3, 2006 01:25 AM

Everyone, pay attention here. Mike just did a better job documenting TN and KY while passing through for a day or two than any MSM reporter I've ever read who was somewhere for days on a full-time paid assignment.

For those who want to complain about the quote from the gas-station employee, I can tell you for sure that you can find ignorant (in the literal sense) people in any part of the country, even Oregon. Plus, if a southerner went to the Pacific Northwest they'd have some equally parochial reactions to certain things. In other words, relax. It's just a little sign that the entire country isn't as homogenized as it often seems. That's a good thing!

Posted by: Stacy at October 3, 2006 04:07 AM

Stacy: I can tell you for sure that you can find ignorant (in the literal sense) people in any part of the country, even Oregon.

Of course. Most educated people in Oregon (and California and Washington) scoff at the South and the Midwest and know very little about these places.

Kentucky does feel comfortably integrated, by the way. But so does Oregon (even though it is a whiter state than Kentucky) so that didn't really stand out for me all that much. Our "black" neighborhoods are more than 50 percent white and Hispanic. And lots of the white people who live in those neighborhoods are yuppies and hipsters.

One thing I forgot to mention: Tennessee and Kentucky are friendlier than anywhere else I have been in America, friendlier even than Iowa and Wisconsin which previously won that distinction.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at October 3, 2006 04:28 AM

Michael, thanks again for your always interesting observations, and the pictures. One minor correction, Louisville homes are 19th century, not 18th. This part of the country was still frontier in the 18th.

Yes, much of America is filled with interesting, friendly people, even in whole regions that seem, in the aggregate, to be bland or stultifying. The fascination of this country is that by digging just a little deeper one can easily find enclaves of quirky, distinctive local culture. Such as what you already briefly experienced in Pennsylvania Dutch country, Appalachia, and the mid-South. If only you had time to explore so much more of this astounding land, and share it with us...

Posted by: Seppo at October 3, 2006 05:15 AM


The unidentified building is the Louisville Courthouse/Mayor's Office. The statue just across the street (visible in the picture) is of Louis the 16th, Louisville's namesake. The statue is something of a rarity, since he is not the kind of king that France wants to immortalize- at least not with his head still attached.
There is a lot of lively debate as to whether Louisville is a city or just a big town. Regardless of how you define it, it is a very friendly place.
Another interesting fact about KY that you may have noticed while driving through, is that we have more counties per square mile than just about any other state- One hundred and twenty. California, for the sake of comparison has fifty. Indiana, our neighboring state to the north has about seventy five.

Good luck in your future travels

Posted by: Steve Cambron at October 3, 2006 05:48 AM

You know, Michael, I am beginning to understand what "soft power" is... I am in love with America!
It started with Forrest Gump running from East to West and that beautiful scenery. I just wish I had another life (and a lot of money) to roam around the US and see everything that I mostly have only seen in movies (I only know New York, Miami and Orlando).

I feel like an urge within me to just go there right now! And this is something very difficult for an Argentinian to say :)


Posted by: Fabian at October 3, 2006 06:23 AM

Love your travelogues and pictures! I'm slightly envious of your job and the chance to travel. I was also enchanted with southern Kentucky when I visited Ft. Campbell a few years ago.
I don't think ignorance about the country's geography is limited to the South. Once I was in NYC and met a man who didn't know anything about the West, where I'm from. Sometimes it's good to get out of our comfort zones and learn about other people. No matter where we live, we have more in common than we sometimes realize. Happy travels and keep up the good work!

Posted by: Sallyo at October 3, 2006 06:37 AM

I'm from Alabama, and yes... we do think of Oregon'ers as lumberjacks, hippies, and computer nerds.

Posted by: James at October 3, 2006 06:39 AM

Awesome pics Mike, but remind me to never allow you to take photos of me with my favorite blow up doll. Well, dolls in my case. ;-)

ps - Pretty horrible what took place in Lancaster right after you left, huh?

Posted by: Anonymous at October 3, 2006 06:47 AM

As one born and raised in Kentucky, I was delighted to see your description of my state. It is rare to see "fair and balanced" coverage of the nation's favorite state to look down upon. Now that I am transplanted in Terre Haute, Indiana, I hope you pass through this way on your journey. If so, drop me a line and I will buy you a meal!

Posted by: QuantumDefect at October 3, 2006 07:12 AM

Great pictures of Daniel Boone National Forest. The Red River Gorge area of the National Forest is some of the most pristine back country in the nation. When I take people backpacking in the fall they are blown away by the beauty, the colors, the rock formations, the history, and how many cars with Colorado license plates line the trailheads.

Posted by: Furious George at October 3, 2006 07:52 AM

My guess is that she knows about Oregon the state but couldn't believe that Michael was driving the whole way there from Kentucky. So she assumed that he was referring to a town called Oregon that she wasn't familiar with.

If someone in Pittsburgh says that they are driving to California or Indiana, we usually assume California, PA or Indiana, PA.

Posted by: John Davies at October 3, 2006 08:20 AM

Michael --reading your travelogue as you go cross-country is so much fun and really fascinating. Thanks!!

Posted by: Yael at October 3, 2006 08:37 AM

You may find those used tires and refrigerators in some parts of my state... back up the hollows of eastern Kentucky! Travel on down the road, you will find a double wide trailer and within a mile you may find a $250,000 home or more! Are they neighbors? Sure they are and may also be friends .. One of them just has a bigger mortgage

I love my state and yes we are portrayed rednecks and hillbillies , but we don't care what others think. Most of use wear shoes and have more than 3 teeth...sorry to disappoint anyone! We are just people trying to get along with our lives.

The lady who said "She didn't know where Oregon was". She does..she knows it way out in the northwest with all those lumberjacks..she was just joking a bit with you. At least I hope!!!

We are also know for our politicians and how some elections shouldn't be won! But that is another story!!! Some elections have been decided by a coin toss !

Thanks for showing the better profile of our state .. (except for the girls with the blow-up doll) We may not be the cosmopolitan capital of the world..but we have beautiful people and beautiful country!What more could anyone ask!!!

Posted by: William at October 3, 2006 08:57 AM

I've driven in every US state but two (AZ and NM), and have done a lot of what New Englanders call "shun-piking." It's really the only way to get a feel for the country (I'm Canadian)...those back roads are always interesting, you meet fascinating people, and the small towns are terrific. Stay in Ma and Pa motels, have a beer in local bars. Avoid the interstates, which are great for going from A to B, but teach you nothing about that great country or its (usually) friendly people.

Posted by: BillBC at October 3, 2006 09:33 AM

If I lived in Kentucky I would be pissed off at how my state is perceived on the outside.
If I lived in that big estate in your 3rd picture surrounded by miles of forest on all sides, and knew that millions of people on the coasts were spending millions each for rowhouses, or paying rent on a studio that was higher than my mortgage, I would hope their prejudices stayed intact forever.

Posted by: bgates at October 3, 2006 10:54 AM

Care to give us a report on the new buggy? (I've had my eye on one of those for awhile.)

Posted by: Gene at October 3, 2006 11:44 AM

Michael: great looking car! By the way, do you know you bought a car almost exactly idential to mine? Same make, model, and color. Funny.

I think the obvious question that everyone's afraid to ask is this: who has better beer? Tennessee or Oregon?

Posted by: Jason Holliston at October 3, 2006 02:49 PM

Hey Mike,

I've been enjoying your blog for a few months now. I'm from Portland and I remember playing basketball at Sewelcrest Park (on SE 32nd off Hawthorne) a few years ago and playing with a guy was going back and forth between Iraq, mostly on his own dollar. I think his name was Mike, but maybe I'm filling that in in retrospect. I was wondering if you are that fellow?


Posted by: nate at October 3, 2006 04:05 PM


I've lived in Louisville and now Portland. I love Portland but I agree that Kentucky is incredibly beautiful. Portland has a lot more unique restaurants and breweries. But Louisville has better mountain biking than Portland, believe it or not. In the smaller towns outside Louisville, you notice a lot more the cultural nuances of country life...to be polite. People here in Portland can be a bit pretentious compared to the good ol' boys and girls in Kentucky.

Posted by: Travis at October 3, 2006 08:37 PM


I am not the person you played basketball with. I haven't played for more than ten years.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at October 3, 2006 08:55 PM

But Louisville has better mountain biking than Portland, believe it or not.

How can that be? You need mountains to go mountain biking... ;-)

Posted by: rosignol at October 4, 2006 08:31 AM

Louisville’s Jewish hospital surprised me for some reason.

I went to a Jewish wedding in Louisville once. The rehearsal dinner was at the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs - which was pretty cool.

Weird, but cool.

Posted by: SoCalJustice at October 4, 2006 11:05 AM

Good post. Nice photos.

One thing though, the Victorian period only started in the 19th cent.

Posted by: brian at October 4, 2006 11:34 AM

MJT, you drove through Kentucky and Tennessee without visiting a single distillery?

Posted by: Solomon2 at October 4, 2006 02:11 PM

Great pictures, great stories. Keep them coming an drive safe.

Posted by: Justin at October 4, 2006 03:57 PM

You're driving the same route I took to go out west from MA back in the 1970s; it was lovely then and it's lovely now.
What I find interesting though is the early on-set of fall colors. So far only a few trees here in MA have even begun to change, and I expect it's because the south had a drought while New England was flooded heavilly during the spring.
If you are taking the Southern Route, be sure to visit Taos and the Grand Canyon.

Posted by: John Costello at October 4, 2006 08:47 PM

I knew you would be impressed by the hospitality of the South. Now, if you want to see the epitome of hospitality and kindliness you need to keep heading in a southwesterly direction til you get to the Lone Star State.
What we Texans lack in mountains and forests, we more than make up for in charismas and friendliness! Not to mention the beautiful cities of San Antonio & Austin as well as the uniquely gorgeous Hilll Country....
(stay away from Houston, however).

Posted by: Rommel at October 4, 2006 09:49 PM


If you really want to see a Victorian neighborhood, come to Richmond VA and visit the Fan. It, too, is known as one of the largest continuous Victorian neighborhoods.

If you're ever in DC, take the 2 hr trip down 95 and check out the city

Posted by: nick at October 5, 2006 07:01 AM

Looks like you found the right place to call it a night (last pic). Great post.

Posted by: flyer at October 6, 2006 01:28 PM

When I meet someone from Oregon, I always have a nagging curiosity about their feet--Are they webbed? :)

Posted by: Idaho at October 7, 2006 06:41 PM

The city is famous for its Kentucky Derby. But the entire state is famous for, uh, southern-style fast food.

Yet, oddly enough, the first KFC franchise was in Salt Lake City and was still there last I heard. Likewise, the first J.C. Penney was in the small town of Kemmerer, WY, maybe 80 miles east of here. Believe it or not.

I too noticed the seemingly effortless integration of people of different races too.

One Southerner I know summed it up this way: Southerners accept blacks as individuals but not as a group, Northerners accept blacks as a group but not as individuals. Don't know how true that is, probably a bit broad, but I thought it sounded cool.

Posted by: chuck at October 9, 2006 11:25 PM
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