When travelling, one of the ways I measure an experience of seeing a new place is through asking, how disappointed am I to have to leave and how eager am I to visit the place again.
Spoiler- I was disappointed to leave and I want to go back Louisville.
Driving the 165 to Louisville
Approaching the Indiana/Kentucky State line from the North, the 165 runs straight through the heart of Indiana. There are National Parks to the east and the west, while smaller towns and cities such as the self declared “mid-century modern architecture “mecca” of Columbus, Indiana, dot the interstate itself.
(Pictures of Columbus, Indiana, including the Common and the Mill Race Park, a form industrial area converted into green space)
(Photo by Leonard Perry)
Or take Lafayette, the quiet, unassuming home of Axle Rose and Purdue University, the school of choice for a number of famous people including Neil Armstrong, and perhaps most importantly the birth place of the “chicken nugget”.
(Photo by John Schanlaub- Downtown Lafayette, Indiana)
It is here that those familiar with indigenous history and relations can pass through the battleground for the Battle of Tippecanoe at Prophetstown State Park, a major turning point in the ongoing efforts of the Indigenous Peoples to create a functioning Confederacy that could withstand the ongoing push of the American conquest and settlement, a battle that essentially paved the way for the war of 1812.
Lafayette also represents a familiar characteristic of many of the towns and cities that mark this route, which is preserved or redeveloped historical river fronts and old, Victorian era architecture that follow these towns all the way into Louisville. Now mere remnants of a failed dream, Lafayette used to be an epicentre for the longest canal ever built in North America, the Wabash and Erie Canal that closed after operating only for about a decade. It becomes a bit of a treasure hunt to track down traces of the old canal these days, but one of those places is a restored 10 mile historic section of canal trail that connects to Delphi along the Wabashi river, a short drive from Lafayatte. You can even take a wonderfully quaint canal ride on a restored canal boat or walk the trails to gain a glimpse of the canal’s grand past.
You can see the canal tour here:
Also worth noting is the restored canal in Indianapolis.(Picture from Indianapolis monthly of the Indeanapolis Canal)
Which brings us to Louisville, where an unintentional detour (also called missing our exit) took us straight through the heart of downtown, an experience that became one of my favourite moments of the drive.
Welcome to Louisville
Our initial destination in Tennessee was Knoxville, the point at which we would be dropping off our group of students at a conference and splitting time between the Smokies on the East and Nashville on the West before picking them up and making the journey home. Arriving in Louisville, our planned stop for the night en-route to Knoxville, the interstate junction offers you two options- the 165 heading straight to Nashville or the 164/175 route veering East/West. We needed to take the East exit towards the infamous horse mecca of Lexington situated on the Western side of the Daniel Boone National Forest, and then eventually continue South on 175 to Knoxville.
Crossing the Ohio river ahead of this junction gives you a great view of the downtown skyline and Louisville Waterfront Park. But it was our missing our 164 East exit, which would have veered us directly away from downtown Louisville, that offered us a spectacular up close and personal view of the park, the skyline and the Big Four Bridge (a joint effort to connect the Indiana/Kentucky state line which is divided by the river) right before looping us back through the heart of downtown in order to get us heading back East.
I have a huge appreciation for skylines, and one of my favourite things is the experience of driving into view of a city skyline for the very first time. And there is little question Louisville is a beautiful city. There even happened to be a festival going on in Waterfront Park at the time, and as we started our descent off the elevated freeway and towards downtown we were offered a perfect view of Jimmy Eat World playing on stage with the Ohio River and waterfront situated right behind them.
(Image Source: Practical Wanderlust)
Getting off the interstate took us right past a series of quaint and stylish downtown streets known for their pedestrian friendly atmosphere, old Victorian architecture, the Lousiville Slugger Museum and of course the downtown bars and distillery’s (one third of all Kentucky Bourbon comes from Louisville).
Worth noting and one of my big regrets is that in getting back on the 164 from this point we drove right past Cave Hill Cemetery, the gravesite of Muhammed Ali, on one side and the historic Frankfort Avenue on the other, two places I would have loved to get out and spend some time in.
We stayed just outside of Louisville that night, but that brief time in Louisville was more than enough to capture my attention and leave me wanting to go back. It reminded me of our time in Omaha City, a place we expected nothing from but fell in love with at first sight because of the pedestrian friendly downtown and downtown life, the canal and the incredible river front, along with the interesting history seemingly existing in the middle of nowhere.
Louisville: A City of Welcome Contradiction
As we started our ascent the next day into the Appalachian Mountains, the story of Louisville would turn out to be a great foreshadow for what was to come in the Knoxville, Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg area, otherwise known as the entry point to the Smokey Mountains. Not unlike those towns, which I hope to talk more about in my next blog, Louisville is a place of seeming contradiction and misrepresentation, which is largely a product of its close confluence with the Mountains themselves.
One of the things I learned on this trip is that it is the are stretching from Gatlinburg through to Virginia and North Carolina on one side and through to Louisville on the other that was most impacted by the civil war because of the way the Southern Appalachia of the way the Union and Confederate loyalties congregated in these areas. This led not only to heated battles over these different ideologies, but it also led to intermixing in the mountain towns as well, resulting in an odd conglomeration of ideologies, a reality that surfaces most visibly in the different historical narratives you tend to encounter as a tourist. And this oddness reaches well into the Louisville culture, a culture that often gets associated with Southern stereotypes and sensibilities, but in actuality represents a rather eclectic and unrestrained cultural voice that in a sense deconstructs those sensibilities.
This characteristic reaches both forwards and backwards into many aspects of the Southern Appalachia.
Take Daniel Boone for example. His story has developed into a legend that appears to serve both sides of a competing political view, on one hand as an icon and symbol of conquest and Western expansion who is depicted brutally scalping and murdering the “savages” threatening their progress and their lives, while on the other hand representing someone who shunned images of early American civilization and development by removing himself from these areas and establishing positive relationships with the indigenous people in a life lived isolated from the ignorance of the cities themselves.
In the reality it becomes apparent that the real Boone was somewhere in the middle, and perhaps an even more heroic figure than the legends on either side give credit for. Louisville remains an homage to Boone’s role in positioning America’s Western expansion through important and necessary civil discourse and civic development, while at the same time fostering and supporting healthy relationships with the indigenous groups that shared the land with them. He was in a sense attempting to reflect the hopeful aspirations of both worlds.
And as with the Knoxville/Gatlinburg area that lies ahead, modern Louisville’s tendency to be in constant ideological flux affords it a neat and intriguing, if confusing atmosphere that is at once progressive and refreshingly moderate at the same time. Often misunderstood based on its Southern roots, the city is in actuality a largely undefined, cultural expression that carries through its attempts to speak through the divided lines of North and South.
As journalist Jeffrey Lee Pucket puts it in an article for the Courier Journal discussing Louisville’s complicated character,
“Despite siding with the North in the Civil War, Kentucky didn’t abolish slavery until after the war was over, K’Meyer wrote. It then chose to be Southern in order to grow the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, instituting a Jim Crow system which was just slavery-lite even as Louisville gradually built a community that embraced religious diversity and immigration.”
“In its heart, Louisville is a Southern city primarily because it desperately wants to be seen as Southern, meaning friendly, slow-paced, elegant.
But Louisville also clearly wants to have its cornbread and dip it in Vermont syrup, too, because it has long identified with big-city aspirations associated with Northern culture, such as civil rights, cutting-edge arts and sarcasm.
We’re Southern when it suits the narrative and greatly enjoy adopting a persona dressed up in string ties and hats that double as flower arrangements. But when it comes to the South’s more deplorable legacies – racism, segregation, poverty – we’re quick to look northward.”
And this long standing relationship with pre-civil war history, civil war history and the modern age continues to shape the life of the area today, permeating the stories of its many cultural markers from horse racing to Whiskey and Moonshine heritage. All of which makes it not just a beautiful landscape, but also a beautiful tapestry of the sort of unhinged and multi-cultured expression that can help reshape our imaginings and stereotypes of the South while perhaps playing a role in healing a divided land. And after engaging with this city over the last number of years of armchair travel, seeing it in person I can’t help but begin to understand what enchanted spiritual giant Thomas Merton back in 1958 towards this same end.
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness… This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud… I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts, where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time.”
– Thomas Merton (Conjectures of An Innocent Bystander)
*unless otherwise noted, photos courtesy of visitor pages