I´ve dreamed to go to the Kentucky Derby ever since I started riding horses as a child. I heard it was an epic meet of the rich and famous with the drunken and pretty, some tens of thousands of people all coming to watch (some very expensive) horses run a mile or more for a lot of money.
Hats and fascinators are a thing, and nearly every woman had some colourful decoration on her head, while most men atl east wore a handsome hat or colourful bow tie or suit. The Twin Spires at Churchill Downs have an infield and the grandstands, split into different sections. The most expensive box seats will cost more than $3000 per person, which isn´t much when people are betting $1000 on the winning horse of the Kentucky Derby, which this year, paid out 65-1, and walk away with more than $60,000 in winnings.
I spent the weekend in Louisville couchsurfing with an ex-military Trump supporter, and although we had our political differences, we became great gambling friends. He walked me to Jeffersonville, Indiana, another state I had never been to, or really planned on going to, but the views over the Ohio River from the Big Four pedestrian bridge were a memorable highlight.
I had flew into Cincinnati airport to start this adventure, which I assumed would be in Ohio, but lo and behold I accidentally landed in Northern Kentucky and felt a sigh of relief when my rental car had been rented from the right airport. I planned on enjoying the warm, sunny spring time to road trip thru the south, since Louisville is considered the northernmost city in ´the south.´ My friend Stef from NYC came and we headed thru Kentucky, stopping at a friends in Lexington, and into Tennessee. She would be married a week later in Eastern Tennessee, and without any sort of real invitation, we had already decided we´d try to crash her wedding.
We couchsurfed when we could, and rented Airbnb´s for no more than $50 or $60 a night, and drove a hybrid Ford Fusion that cost $30 to fill and lasted 500 miles, so the expenses were few. We tried to splurge on food and drinks, but that was also cheap, and I was most excited about eating my $3.99 drumstick meal from Kentucky Fried Chicken, in Kentucky! It reminds me of Viggo Mortensen´s quote in the Green Mile: Kentucky fried Chicken! in Kentucky! whens that ever gonna happen? We ate a lot more fried chicken, from random other small chains I had never heard of, some with waffles, others with biscuits and gravy, and gained at least 2 kg´s in deep fried goodness.
We hit Nashville and Memphis, getting our full dose of country Music, honky tonks and soul music. We visited Graceland and boarded Elvis Presley´s private plane, the Lisa Marie. We took a steamboat cruise on the Mississippi river, with views to Memphis and Arkansas state, and drove over the bridge to Arkansas just to say we´d been there. But there wasn´t much there. Except that liquor store we stopped at.
We them drove through northern Mississippi and Alabama, meeting two of our loveliest hostesses. In Tupelo, we visited the birthplace of Elvis and stayed with a lovely woman and her two cats, who I´m sure I´ll see again as she´s been designated as my informal guide to Mardi Gras in New Orleans 2020 for my 33rd birthday. In Huntsville, we couchsurfed a mansion, with a couchsurfer and her parents, who cooked us an amazing meal and her mother took me running at the crack of dawn with her running buddies.
Next we carried on back north, thru Tennessee, and did indeed crash Eileen and James´wedding in the romantic foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. We managed to visit a bourbon distillery, twice, and even a local winery in Kentucky. We spent a night in Asheville, beer tasting at Highland Brewery, couchsurfing with a crazy cat couple, who were really well meaning but actually allergic to us. Other spontaneous plans included caving at Great Mammoth caves and spelunking in Raccoon Mountains caverns, horse back riding in Kentucky and finding the trail of the Woodbooger – southwest Virginia´s own version of Big Foot.
We slowly made it back into Kentucky, just barely missing the opportunity to also visit West Virginia. Our last night was spent in Pikeville, where we ran into a crew of Kellog´s workers at a local bar, joining (and significantly strengthening) their trivia night team. After a week and a half on the road, we had hit 8 states, and I dropped Stef back off to Cincinnati airport (in Kentucky), before finally driving myself into Ohio. Stef had said it would be the armpit of America, and jokingly refused to set foot in the city, so my expectations were low, only to be blown out of the water by some incredible local hospitality.
I spent my last night with new couchsurfing friends, who I know I´ll see again (I´ve already seen one since!). I stepped foot on more than just the bridge to Cincinnati, trying my first taco turtle (so good!), taking a spin thru the nightlife, and getting pulled over in a topless BMW by a trooper (I was the passenger, not the driver, who didn´t get a ticket FYI). I was pleasantly surprised to find a Burning Man exhibit at the Art Museum. It was slightly more relatable than the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, where Taylor Swift´s presence came as a surprise (isnt she pop?) and I hadn´t a clue who most of the other artists on exhibit were. But being temporarily transported back to the playa, with snipits of Black Rock Desert to reminisce on, I realized that many of my travel experiences in the US were similar – culture shock, only slightly different, followed by total submersion. The south now has a special place in my heart.