Bluegrass

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Before you reach a shrine to bourbon, though, you will come to Pleasant Hill, where a community of Shakers took root and was flourishing along with the whiskey and horses nearby. The life was going from Shakertown long before 1900, and the buildings were put to a variety of hard and heedless uses before they were restored. It is a testament to how well these people built that all stand solid and intact. And despite the fact that their ways are hardly in keeping with our era—the Shakers were strictly celibate—the severe beauty of everything at Pleasant Hill is so soothing and restorative that you leave feeling you were in the presence of a spirit that was sympathetic and even modern.

Both Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln were nurtured on Kentucky springwater.

I next went west along Route 152 to another sort of restoration, the Maker’s Mark distillery beyond the gritty little hamlet of Loretto. Bourbon whiskey has been produced there steadily since 1805, but things had fallen into disrepair when Bill Samuels, Sr., found the place in 1953. A sixth-generation distiller, he rebuilt the works, which are maintained at a standard exacting enough to put one in mind of the Shakers. There are daily tours, but I arrived on a Sunday, when the distillery was closed. In the empty hush of noon, the black buildings with their red trim and the tidy lawns are so prim and clean that only a yeasty, sour, living smell suggested something more than architectural reverence was going on here.

Farther along Route 152, past more tobacco, you come to Knob Creek and a sign announcing Abraham Lincoln’s boyhood home. It turns out not quite to be: it was reconstructed on the site in the 1930s, with the help of a man who remembered tearing down the original one in the 1870s. A hundred feet away from the small cabin is a particularly effulgent souvenir shop, offering such relevant memorabilia as a battery-powered Uzi water machine-gun. It doesn’t matter. The same old hills rise steeply around it, the same old sky flows by overhead, and the place is very moving.

So is the spot where he was born, a few miles away. Thomas Lincoln’s cabin is there—it is almost certainly his—and in 1909 a great pink granite and Tennessee marble monument was built around it. You get to it by climbing fifty-six steps—one for each year of Lincoln’s life—and at the top you pass through a majestic portal and see a wood-and-mud hut bathed in green-pink light. If there’s something a little ludicrous about this, there’s something thrilling too. It was a powerful, confident nation that put that desperate little shack in its classical reliquary, and you wouldn’t have had such a nation without such huts.

A hundred miles to the west is Jefferson Davis’s birthplace. Both Davis and Lincoln were nurtured on Kentucky springwater; both men were, to a degree, products of Kentucky vicissitudes. Neither Davis’s father nor Lincoln’s could hold on to the title of his land. One went north to Illinois, the other south to Mississippi. When the storm broke, thousands of Kentuckians followed them, and although the state stayed with the Union, its fragmented county governments guaranteed the years and years of bitter internal battles that followed the war.

I drove north to Louisville and checked into the Seelbach, the lavish, splendidly restored 1905 hotel that is a monument to another phase of Kentucky’s growth. Down at the waterfront that evening, I saw the Belle of Louisville, an honest-to-God steam-driven stern-wheeler, push off from the quay and move, sparkling and fuming, out into the Ohio. Although built in 1914, she represents yet another, much earlier era of Kentucky—the river traffic that was being supplanted by the railroads even before the war.

Many strands of Kentucky’s past reveal themselves in a relatively short drive, but when I came to put this down, I found myself remembering not bourbon or horses or the Union but the look of things as I came over a hill and saw some cows sunning themselves by a sagging barn, and a man lifting his small son out of the back of a battered pickup, and the whole smoky red and yellow valley beyond. I thought of home.

—Richard F. Snow TO PLAN A TRIP