A Bluegrass Bucket List
A Bluegrass Bucket List
By Sam Terry
Jobe Publishing, Inc.
Back in 2007, Jack Nicolson and Morgan Freeman starred in the movie, “The Bucket List,” portraying two terminally ill patients who break out of a cancer treatment center armed with a list of things they want to do before they die. Since that time, the title of the movie has become a common phrase among those with a to-do list.
While the last morsels of the holiday season are being enjoyed comes the ever-present thought, and oft-spoken comment, “what a shame we (or he, she) didn’t get to….” Americans are notorious for putting off what they want to do, waiting for some magical time to arrive rather than taking the time to enjoy their lives along the way. We are also prone to believe that taking costly trips hundreds or thousands of miles away is somehow better than exploring what’s around us.
For 2017, here’s the beginning of our Bluegrass Bucket List (in no particular order) – things to do and see within a day’s drive and all right here in Kentucky. A few of the items you can do right at home thanks to modern technology. Most tend to take our state for granted, and many spend a lifetime oblivious to the rich culture that makes Kentucky such a unique place. Our list is far from complete, but perhaps it’s a start for a list you will want to add to.
- Unquestionably, the most famous place in Kentucky is Mammoth Cave, a natural wonder millions of years old and now beginning its 201st year of guided tours making it one of America’s oldest tourist attractions.
- Mark your calendar for the first Saturday of August and head west to Graves County for the Fancy Farm Picnic where politicians run elbows with supporters and hecklers and the barbeque luncheon beforehand will leave you in hog heaven.
- Visit the resting places of hundreds of historical figures in Kentucky history at Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Lexington Cemetery in Lexington, or Frankfort Cemetery in our capital city. You’ll walk among the gravesites of the famous and the infamous. In all three instances, the views are breathtaking and in any season the flora and fauna will delight you.
- Learn the words to our state song, “My Old Kentucky Home,” by Stephen Foster who was America’s first professional songwriter. Don’t stop at learning just the first verse – look up all of Foster’s verses and take in the plight of African American slaves lamenting their departure from their Kentucky homes.
- Speaking of our beloved state song and the home that inspired it, make a visit to Bardstown and tour Federal Hill but be sure to hang around until dusk when the hills come alive with every production of “The Stephen Foster Story.”
- Visit the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory in in Louisville and learn the identity of the original “Louisville Slugger.” You can also put your own name on a bat while you’re there.
- Visit Kentucky’s eastern-most county – Pike – where you’ll be in awe of the Pikeville Cut-Through, the largest earth-moving project in the U.S. and second in the world after the Panama Canal. Yes, you can move a mountain, and a river too!
- Stop off in Winchester, Kentucky where the only soft-drink invented in Kentucky is still in existence. “Ale-8-One” (a clever way of saying “a late one”) in the familiar green glass bottles will wet your whistle and its story will entertain you as well.
- Even if you don’t spend the night, spend some time exploring the legendary Seelbach Hotel in downtown Louisville. Be sure to take a peek at the Grand Ballroom that F. Scott Fitzgerald used as the setting for Jay and Daisy’s wedding reception in his novel, “The Great Gatsby.”
- Take a ferry ride across the beautiful Cumberland River in Monroe County on Kentucky’s last, free, 24-hour ferry. While you’re in Monroe County, sample some of the unique barbeque prepared there or claim a place at the counter at the famous Dovie’s for a Dovie Burger. Afterwards, take a stroll on the grounds of the Old Mulkey Meetinghouse and take in the history of frontier religion.
- Visit Henderson, Kentucky where you’ll find the John James Audubon Museum which tells the story of the world-famous artist and his years living in Kentucky. Head toward the Ohio River to see the life-size statue of Adm. Husband E. Kimmel, the Kentuckian overseeing Pearl Harbor Naval Base when it was bombed in 1941.
- Another August jaunt should be to the Kentucky State Fair, one of the largest in the United States where you’ll see everything from our purebred cattle, world famous horses, displays from all 120 counties, and even a giant talking doll known as “Freddie Farm Bureau.”
- When you’re in far western Kentucky make a point to stay around to see the sun set on the Mississippi River at Columbus-Belmont State Park where you’ll see the chain used to keep northern forces from moving south on the river during the Civil War.
- Also related to the Civil War, as you cruise along the southern tier of counties, visit the Jefferson Davis Monument located at his birthplace. While Davis is known for his role in the Confederacy, learn about his work to make the U.S. Capitol building an object of American pride.
- In central Kentucky, make a stop at the Ephraim McDowell House in Danville right across from Constitution Square State Park. On Christmas Day 1809, McDowell removed a 22.5 pound ovarian cyst from Jane Todd Crawford, the first successful abdominal surgery that transformed the world of medicine.
- Cheer on the Kentucky Wildcats at a home basketball game in Rupp Arena in Lexington. Even if you don’t consider yourself a part of the “Big Blue Nation,” you’ll gain an understanding of basketball mania in the Bluegrass state.
- The Kentucky Bourbon Trail has become a mecca for tourists and those who love the amber colored liquor famously associated with Kentucky. Visit at least one of the distilleries for a tour. At Maker’s Mark in Loretto, you can even hand-dip the familiar red wax on your own bottle.
- Head to Corbin, Kentucky where locals and tourists learned that Harland Sanders’ chicken was finger-lickin’ good long before the rest of the world caught on. The Col. Harland Sanders Museum and Café will whet your appetite for some fried chicken where it all began.
- When you’re in downtown Louisville, visit the historical marker telling the story of Patty Smith Hill, the kindergarten teacher who wrote the world’s most-sung song: “Happy Birthday to You.”
- Take a trip to Shaker Village at Pleasant Hill near Harrodsburg where you’ll step back in time to the simple lifestyle of the Shakers and marvel at the beauty of their restored buildings and farms. Always make time for a meal that will delight all of your senses while at Pleasant Hill.
- As you travel the highways and byways of the Bluegrass State, slow down for a look at some of the places with unique names. You might even want to take a selfie in Goodnight in Barren County, Monkey’s Eyebrow in Ballard County, Uno in Hart County, or Rabbit Hash in Boone County.
- Use modern technology to listen to Kentucky songwriter, composer, and bandleader Billy Vaughn’s first #1 song, “Trying” which he wrote for The Hilltoppers, a male quartet introduced to the world by Ed Sullivan. Learn more about the Hilltoppers at their alma mater, Western Kentucky University where the Kentucky Museum offers an exhibit about the group.
- Head to Louisville to Churchill Downs, the location of the fastest two minutes in sports occurs annually on the first Saturday in May. Not ready to splurge to attend the Kentucky Derby? Opt for The Oaks the day before with all of the springtime spectacle in full force.
- For a different perspective on the Derby, read Louisville native Hunter S. Thompson’s article, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.”
- You’ll find the rolling hills of Perryville Battlefield eerily quiet as you stroll the Civil War battlefield where one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War took place in 1862.
- Enjoy one of Robert Penn Warren’s books. The Guthrie, Kentucky native was the United States Poet Laurette and gifted author. All the King’s Men or World Enough and Time will leave you spellbound.
- Middlesboro holds multiple unique places in history making it worth a visit. It’s the home of the oldest continuously-played golf courses in the United States. The entire city is built inside a meteor crater known as the Middlesboro Basin.
- Cumberland Falls is also known as the “Niagara of the South” where you can see one of only two moonbows in the world (the other is in Victoria Falls, Africa) when the conditions are right. Also in the area, Lake Cumberland is the largest manmade body of water east of the Mississippi River and a perfect place to enjoy being on the water.
- Our Capital City of Frankfort is steeped in history at every turn. While the Capitol and Governor’s Mansion are obvious stops, don’t forget other places such as the spot where William Goebel was shot in front of the Old State Capitol, or the former residence of the man who said “dog is man’s best friend,” or Daniel and Rebecca Boone’s graves atop a bluff overlooking the city.
- Loretta Lynn is more than just a coal miner’s daughter, she’s the Queen of Country Music. If you have the opportunity to hear her perform live, by all means do it. If that doesn’t work out, at least watch “Coal Miner’s Daughter” for a glimpse at real Kentucky.
- The hard lives of miners in eastern Kentucky isn’t the only Kentucky lifestyle. Watch the Civil War era drama “Raintree County” filmed in Danville and starring Elizabeth Taylor for a glimpse of life for the state’s landed gentry of the 19th century.
- Explore a bit of yet another real Kentucky lifestyle with a visit to one of the Amish or Mennonite communities where you’ll be warmly welcomed and astonished by the variety of goods produced for sale.
- See the statue honoring the most famous horse in history, Man-o-War, at the Kentucky Horse Park. Make a point to learn the story of his life-long groom Will Harbut who said he was “the mostest hoss that ever was.”
- Switch from horses to horsepower with a visit to the Corvette Museum in Bowling Green adjacent to the world’s only Corvette assembly plant.
- When you visit the William Whitley House also known as “Sportsman’s Hill,” you truly are stepping back in time to the earliest days of our Commonwealth. The historic site was the location of the first clay horse racing track in the U.S. It’s also where horses began racing counter-clockwise around the track.
- Get back to nature with a stop at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest at Clermont where you’ll find thousands of acres of natural habitat preserved for future generations and programs offered throughout the year.
- Travel into the silent realm of the Abbey of Gethsemane near Bardstown. Step into the world of theologian and social activist Thomas Merton or spend a peaceful, thoughtful retreat to refocus your life. The monks make their living selling their world-famous fruit cakes – and even if you don’t like fruit cake, you’ll love theirs.
- While you won’t get anywhere near it, make a visit to Fort Knox, home of the United States Gold Depository where $6.2 billion worth of gold is stored. In the same neck of the woods is the Gen. George Patton Museum.
- Take a stroll through the opulent confines of the Brown Hotel in downtown Louisville where you can dine on a Kentucky Hot Brown in its birthplace.
- In Lexington, make a point to visit the only shrine to an American First Lady, the Mary Todd Lincoln House. Overshadowed in history by her famous husband and rumors of her emotional instability, Mrs. Lincoln had a fascinating story for a woman of the 19th century.
- Take a tour of the Pope Villa in Lexington. It’s the best surviving example of domestic architecture by Benjamin Latrobe who designed the original portion of the U.S. Capitol. You’ll be astonished to find that the home is filled with rectilinear and curvilinear rooms.
- Spend some time reading the works of Silas House, one of the younger generation of Kentucky authors. With the first of the year at hand, a good place to start is “What I Know: A Prayer Essay.”
- Kentucky craftsmen will be found statewide but the earliest effort to continue the state’s tradition will be found at Berea, Kentucky. Be sure to have lunch or dinner at the legendary Boone Tavern.
- Pull off of the Dixie Highway (U.S. 31-W) in Cave City and take a look at one of the two remaining Wigwam Village roadside motels in America. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and one of the most unique overnight accommodations you’ll find anywhere.
- While the use of tobacco products aren’t what they once were, tobacco was king in Kentucky and helped generations live, be educated, and thrive. Drive through the backroads in the summer and see the bright green leaves, or the cut plants being harvested. Take note of the thousands of no-longer-used tobacco barns quickly leaving our landscapes. Make a point to stop at one of the tobacco sales and listen to the melodic chant of the auctioneer. It’s a way of life that continues to rapidly change.
- Take in some genuine Kentucky bluegrass music at one of the numerous festivals but be sure to visit Rosine, the home of the father of bluegrass music, Bill Monroe, where the “Blue Moon of Kentucky” is always shining.
- Savor the words of Wendell Berry, Kentucky poet, author, and environmentalist. His books are numerous and his thoughts are provoking. Even better, watch for a speaking engagement featuring the man truly in tune with nature.
- Go to the Thoroughbred horse races at Keeneland. If just once, splurge a bit and watch the races from the clubhouse where the old traditions are alive and well. The historic grounds are among Kentucky’s most picturesque and worth a visit between race meets.
- Make a point to visit Red River Gorge, yet another of the natural wonders unique to Kentucky. It’s a date with nature that will delight you no matter what the season.
- When you’ve checked off all of the above and perhaps some other items along the way, have a seat on your porch, watch the sunset, and give thanks for Kentucky and your chance to savor it.