Kentucky Backroads… Presidents, Poets, and Camels, Oh My!
“Why do you go away? So that you can come back. So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors…Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”-–A Hat Full of Sky, Sir Terry Pratchett
Since my first day home this summer, my senses went on high alert as they do when I’m traveling/living abroad. With intense appreciation I smelled, heard, saw, and tasted southern culture foreign to Morocco. I love my wings that landed me in Africa but also my roots where my life journey began as a girl in Kentucky and continued as a mom in Tennessee. I’ve learned happiness is a blend of the familiar and the exotic–each strangely blurring depending on where I’m doing life at the moment. In Kentucky where my mother still lives, I drove along country roads to feast on green cornfields, blue sky, and red tin-roofed barns–sights as satisfying after being away as the green cacti, blue tile and red regal riads I see and savor in Marrakesh. This is the land of my father’s people.
My Great Uncle Sonny’s farm and grandmother’s childhood home
Though a gate kept me from seeing my Aunt Jane’s house at the end of the lane, I remember the cow trough in front of the red-roofed barn my cousins and I swam in one summer and the dinner bells we loved to ring. Once when our Volkswagen Bug slid off the road in snow, my grandmother lifted the back end and set us on our way again.
I grew up hearing “back door friends are best.” So are backroads and the Southern stories and tall tales that go with them. I traveled from Mom’s in Hopkinsville, Kentucky to Nashville, Tennessee four times in five weeks. On one of those trips, just as I cruised the farms on my dad’s side in Christian County, I took the “back way” to Nashville through Todd County to see again where my mom’s parents were born. I drove through Fairview, birthplace of my grandfather and a famous Kentuckian. Across the street from where Granddaddy was born and my Uncle Henry had a store and home is what I grew up calling the “Jeff” Davis Monument. When I was a kid family reunions were spent in park shelters on the grounds. It was the tallest building I’d ever seen and steeped in family history. My Dad’s cousin, Lela Catherine, dressed like a belle of the ball in Gone with the Wind
in the Miss Confederacy pageant held there. The 350-foot obelisk replicating the Washington Monument was completed in 1924, and my Uncle Jay ran the elevator to the top after my Uncle Karl’s brother put the cap on it.
Uncle Henry’s homeplace
Debates over racial relations in the US due to incidents that have happened over the last year have fueled chronic concerns around the Confederate flag and sites like the birthplace of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederate States of America. Some see modern symbols of sedition or oppression; others see history.
Born in Kentucky, Davis grew up on cotton plantations in Louisiana and Mississippi. Some consider the plantation owner a racist traitor, others a rebel -with- a- cause for defending the right of states to secede from the union (something he argued as foundational to democracy but others considered a coup). Service in the Mexican- American War led to his becoming senator where he proposed the Gadsden Purchase. Made Secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce, he argued in Boston
for states’ rights to secede from the Union in principle but against it in practice : “My friends, my brethren, my countrymen…I feel an ardent desire for the success of States’ Rights Democracy…alone I rely for the preservation of the Constitution, to perpetuate the Union and to fulfill the purpose which it was ordained to establish and secure.” When the decision was made to form the Confederacy, he was elected its leader.
I realized the irony I didn’t understand as a little girl who on a road trip to see The Stephen Foster Story
visited the birthplace of another famous Kentuckian just 100 miles away. His name was Abraham Lincoln. And I discovered a connection between Jefferson Davis and Africa where I now live. Davis proposed and pushed through the US Camel Corps, importing camels from Tunisia and Egypt to carry military supplies across the US Southwest.
Down the road in Guthrie, Kentucky, I showed my son again the birthplace of Robert Penn Warren, the first US Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize Winner for his novel, All the King’s Men
. While at Vanderbilt University he was one of the Fugitives, literary writers and scholars who founded New Criticism, the main mode of textual analysis in English in the early 20th century, and the Southern Agrarians who wrote a collection of essays published in 1930 called I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition.
He later denounced the work’s stereotypes and oversimplifications that romanticized the “old South” as well as his own prejudices. He argued for racial integration in his essay, “Divided South Searches Its Soul,” and his books, Segregation: The Inner Conflict in the South
and “Who Speaks for the Negro?
, a collections of interviews with civil rights leaders including Malcolm X and Martin Luther, King. While studying in Rome he and Ralph Ellison became close friends and were interviewed in Paris on America’s civil rights movement. The core messages of I’ll Take My Stand–
valuing nature, growing our own food, supporting local, living a simpler lifestyle–are embraced by many today, such as the Mennonites who now farm much of the lands of this native son. Robert Penn Warren also cowrote my college literature text, An Approach to Literature and has been a part of my life as have other Southern authors.
Closer to home, in Guthrie is the train station near the old Tasty Freeze below where my mom went to meet my grandfather when he came home from being stationed in Virginia for two years during WWII. He left when she was four, came home on leave twice, and returned for good when she was six and her baby brother (my Uncle Preston) who he hadn’t met yet was six months old. I have a new appreciation for servicemen who are separated from their families after being away from mine the last year. How hard it must have been for my grandparents and my mom who remembers missing her father terribly.
Back in Nashville, my children and I set out on another backroad–Tennessee’s Highway 100. We’d travel near the Natchez Trace
, a historic trail I hope to drive next time home that ends in Tupelo, Mississippi. But this time we were on a food odyssey just southwest of Nashville…. (to be continued)