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There is no moral to this story.
This was an impromptu trip that went from idea to fruition within about 30 minutes before I left. Other than a few excellent bottles of bourbon, nothing of great import was taken from this trip and no major life lessons were learned. This trip was, to put it plainly, strictly a damn good time.
My wife Amanda was in Florida for the week to visit her mother. I took advantage of my time alone lounging in my underwear, leaving dirty laundry & dishes everywhere, playing my music too loud and smoking my pipe in the house, along with a menagerie of other bachelor-esque behaviors I would never get away with.
Friday evening rolled around, and it was beautiful. I jumped in the Jeep with the dog and left for a cruise around the area. This may sound boring to you, but with the top down and doors off, driving around on a beautiful evening is transformed from average to amazing.
I decided to stop in and visit with our old neighbors. After a couple hours catching up and exchanging various pleasantries, I checked my phone and discovered 13 missed calls and quite a few angry text messages from my wife. I gleaned from her messages that her flight had been cancelled and she was now stuck in Nashville.
I called her back on my way home, and after a few minutes of bouncing ideas around about what to do (the next available flight wasn’t until Sunday evening), she said half-jokingly, “Do you want to come get me?” I immediately answered in the affirmative (I love spontaneous road trips!), plans were quickly thrown together to find a place we could stay with the dog, and I went home to pack.
A couple things to keep in mind about this particular trip. It’s ten hours from Pittsburgh to Nashville. It was already 10PM Friday night, and we would be driving the ten hours back home on Sunday. I had the doors off and top down and the dog was with me. It was not exactly the ideal foundation for an enjoyable experience. Nonetheless, lover of the impromptu that I am, I excitedly packed up our stuff and hit the road by 10:30PM.
(Looking for more pictures from this trip? Find them here)
The Road to Nashville
The first six hours of driving that night were all highway, but the combination of a late start, virtually no traffic, a perfectly clear evening and a nearly full moon made the trip surprisingly pleasant. It was a warm summer night, the crickets were singing loudly, the stars and moon shone brightly, and the only downside was the occasional unpleasant blast of air when a tractor trailer passed me (and the surprisingly bad coffee at my 1AM Sheetz pit stop).
I hit Cincinnati at a little after 3:30AM. If you’ve never been to or through Cincinnati, you should definitely take some time to check it out. Slightly larger and similarly river-bound like Pittsburgh, the Queen City towers over the Ohio River in much the same way as its eastern counterpart. The two cities, though blood rivals in sports, share a lot of similarities (including massive sports stadiums built right on the water).
After crossing the iconic rusty-trussed Brent Spence bridge into Kentucky at nearly 4AM, I was pretty thoroughly exhausted. My original intent of driving through the night and non-stop to Nashville was a pipe dream. I got beyond the hustle & bustle of the non-stop city traffic and found a safe place to sleep for a couple hours. Pulling off and dozing at a rest stop about 30 miles into Kentucky provided me with the rest I needed to complete my journey.
Waking with the first golden peeks of sunlight over the horizon, I freshened up quickly and got back on the road. My original intent was to take all highways and get to Nashville in time for brunch. Dazed by lack of sleep and distracted by the incredibly gorgeous rolling Kentucky hills at sunrise, I mistakenly thought that I needed to either get through Louisville before rush hour hit, or I would have to bypass it completely…. Never once comprehending that there would be no rush hour on Saturday morning!
The mist-shrouded beauty of those lush green hills made the decision an easy one for me. Instead of regretfully passing through quickly on the highway, noting that Kentucky would be our next backroads journey, I quickly plotted a route that would allow me to easily bypass Louisville and lose only a minimal amount of time. It was by far the best decision of the trip.
I could not have conceived of a better conglomeration of characteristics than those I witnessed that Saturday morning: golden yellow streaks of sunrise, cool and crisply refreshing country air, the verdant rolling hills of central Kentucky farm country, and of course weaving and twisting back country roads. Even in a year filled with the superlative-inducing, “pictures simply cannot do this place justice” kind of trips that I’ve taken… I can’t help but feel like the hills of central Kentucky really were the pinnacle of my 2016 back roads experiences.
There are so many things about this multi-hour sojourn through Kentucky that I want to tell you about – the early-morning coffee-and-gas pit stop in the aptly-named Eminence, the incredible beauty of the many picket-fenced pastures, the depressingly closed-on-Saturday-morning Old Sugar Valley Country Store in Bloomfield, the vast-yet-understated wealth of racehorse stud farms dotting the countryside – but the real crown jewel of this trip was the English country lane style trip down Makers Mark Road to the distillery.
A Serendipitous Detour to Maker’s Mark Distillery
Makers Mark Road was a relatively short but intensely moving experience for me. The vast majority of the road was a shockingly narrow single lane jaunt through a secretive and breath-taking portion of the route to the distillery. This was clearly not the way the distillery intended its visitors to travel; yet that ended up being to my advantage, as it lent the trip an almost surreal feeling of traveling back to the whiskey-running days of yore. Even the dilapidated barns and trailers pitched in on the “old timey” feel… and you could quite literally smell the whiskey burning down Makers Mark Road.
I happened upon the Bourbon Trail in general, and Makers Mark Road in particular, strictly by sheer luck. As stated in the beginning, this was a completely impromptu trip with no planning or research beforehand, and as such, I had no idea I had very luckily stumbled right into the heart of bourbon country. I had just gotten onto the Bluegrass Parkway south of Bloomfield when I came upon a sign that literally made me stomp on the brakes and come screeching to a halt:
I had inadvertently stumbled upon the motherlode: Jim Beam and Makers Mark are two of my all-time favorite bourbons. I had also stumbled upon a very serious and difficult decision to make: Because the distilleries were about 20 miles from where I was, in opposite directions, I really only had time to stop at one.
I texted my wife to let her know I would be meeting her for a late lunch (it was already almost 10AM at this point) to buy myself some time… then I called my friend, partner in crime and TBR-contributor Brian. We talked for nearly 15 minutes about all the pros and cons and how I was going to go about making my decision. After much deliberation and hand-wringing, it ultimately came down to a quick peek at the map: Jim Beam was in the opposite direction, whereas Makers Mark was almost directly on the way towards Nashville. Makers it would be.
After making the more-difficult-than-necessary decision of which distillery to check out, I quickly had GoogleMaps plot out the most direct route to Makers Mark. Thank God I did, because if I had followed the rather drab brown signs directing Bourbon Trail traffic, I would have completely missed Makers Mark Road. The road is nothing short of mystical, and the smell of the rye and corn cooking was surprisingly enticing.
Unfortunately, the day had taken a dramatic turn northward on the thermometer, and by the time I reached the distillery, it had already hit the low 90’s. Because I had the dog with me, I knew that my time there would be short – especially in light of the fact that Makers Mark parking lot is completely devoid of any trees or shade. I had already put the top up when I stopped to take pictures of the sign (the doors and windows were all still out), but even with that shade and the water I left for her, I did not feel comfortable leaving Sammy in that kind of heat for long. As such, my visit to the magical grounds of this historic landmark consisted of a brisk walk down the shaded lane across the grounds, into the shop to buy (and wax!) a couple bottles of my own, and walk back.
The Rest of the way to Nashville
By the time I got back to the Jeep, I was drenched in sweat and the dog was panting pretty heavily. I put the windows in and doors back on, and we rode the remainder of the way to Nashville in air conditioned comfort. Aside from a quick stop at Abraham Lincoln’s Birthplace, the trip on KY Routes 52, 31E, and 84 was pretty but uneventful – though I did get stuck behind a mammoth farm tractor that, when paired with the high corn on the side of the road, was strongly reminiscent of my time living in central Ohio. After that, I jumped on Interstate 65S and bowled my way down to Nashville, passing the Corvette factory in Bowling Green but otherwise ready to get the trip over with and have lunch (at Mellow Mushroom!) with my long-absent wife.
Our Experiences in Nashville
I feel that I need to share my reactions to our brief time in Nashville with you. You see, our experience did not nearly live up to the hype. Nashville is a city that I feel has either lost its soul completely, or it has sold it very cheaply. The downtown area of Nashville was pretty dingy and played host to some aggressive panhandlers. Much of the city was touristy and tacky. But our biggest disappointment was in the music scene in the ”Music City.”
We did have an excellent food and music experience at the Blues and Boogie Bar in Printers Alley, but both bands were cover bands (no original music at all) and it was the only good experience we had. There was no original music to be found on a Saturday night in downtown Nashville, though we are partly to blame for that – we had been told about a couple good blues joints further out in the outer limits of the city but chose to stay within walking distance of our hotel instead of Uber-ing out and back. Ultimately, though, it was incredibly discouraging to experience the drunken frat-boy atmosphere that was so pervasive in downtown Nashville. It was all cheap beer, bad pop music, and a general sense of nothing new or unique to be experienced in the city, and that was incredibly disappointing.
The Johnny Cash Museum, though small, was excellent, and as I said, we had a blast on Printers Alley. If we do go back to Nashville, very little of our time will be spent in the heart of the city, and that’s a shame. Even Broadway Blvd, the supposed honky-tonk heart of Nashville, was like some cheapened, countrified version of Times Square. In case it wasn’t obvious, though we were able to find some fun in Nashville, it was far harder than it should have been, and that was a huge disappointment to us. Even the people were a poor reflection of the south, displaying none of the gentility and charm to which we have become so accustomed.
The trip home was long and exhausting – but I did get to make a quick stop at the Jim Beam distillery after all! Fortunately, it was right off the highway on our way home, so of course we had to stop. It was hotter on Sunday at Beam than it had been the day before at Makers, so Amanda and I took turns sitting the Jeep with it running and the A/C on while the other went inside and checked it out. Jim Beam had a far broader range of liquor, food, and merchandising products available at more reasonable prices than Makers, AND had the huge advantage of having excellent food available to purchase and eat on site – whereas there were absolutely no food options available at Makers. In spite of all this, I found the atmosphere at Makers (and the drive to get there as well) to be so much more enchanting and compelling that I STILL would chose going there over Beam if I could only choose one. Beam was simply too commercialized to appeal strongly to me – it had an artificial, almost Disney-World-Attraction feel to it. Makers retains almost all of their tradition-bound authenticity.
The rest of our trip home was relatively standard highway driving – we’d both had very long and exhausting journeys in two completely different ways, and we both were ready to get home. I will say one other thing – having an entertaining, endearing, and highly compatible travel companion with you (or two, if you count the puppy!) makes a journey so much more enjoyable… even if it is virtually all highways! As always, I hope that reading my stories will compel you to get off the highways, explore our vast and dynamic country, and take back roads.
- (UPDATE: There is now a map – which you obviously saw) There is no Google map to go along with this trip for the first time I can recall in the 2+ years I’ve been writing TBR stories. To be blunt, GoogleMaps have changed the format of embedded maps so that they no longer reflect any of the modifications that you’ve made to them. You can only embed the original, Google-recommended directions, in spite of the fact that the Google help page makes claims to the contrary.
- As with the Myrtle Beach Heading North blog, I am simultaneously creating a separate overflow picture-blog of sorts. The blog can be found here, and contains a bunch of additional pictures for your enjoyment.