Kentucky Derby, wedding crashers and the south

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.

in the grandstands at the Kentucky Derby

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.

a paddle steamer sails between Indiana and Kentucky on the Ohio river

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.

the roadtrip hybrid

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.

Eileen and James´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.

the Lisa Marie at Graceland

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.

Stef and I, after crawling thru some caves in Tennessee

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.

sitting on a draft horse with a western saddle is like sitting on a whisky barrel

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.

the woodboogers!

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´ve definitely seen this bike before, at Burning Man 2009

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.

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The Cheltenham Festival in the UK

If you are visiting the United Kingdom next March we recommend that you enjoy some British heritage by going to the Cheltenham Festival. The Festival is not a music festival but rather the second biggest horse racing event in the UK. The event takes place over four days and is a great way to experience an important part of rural British culture.

cheltenham-day-1According to the Cheltenham Festival website, racing at Cheltenham dates back over 200 years. Very quickly the race became one of the most popular sporting events in Victorian Britain. The races at Cheltenham have survived many events including two world wars and is now considered the biggest racing meet in the country after the Grand National. Crowds of over 200,000 will descend on the racecourse during the course of the four days. The best way to understand why this event holds such as special place in the UK sporting world is to visit the festival.

treadmill-1201014_960_720The Cheltenham Festival is a great chance to experience British culture and even see the Royal Family who come to the races with their own horses every year. If you feel like dressing up for the races then Ladies Day on the second day of festival is when people come in their best. Women will wear elaborate hats with elegant dresses while the men will wear their finest suits. If you need some inspiration for what to expect then The Guardian did a photo article on last year’s event.

Tickets range greatly in price depending on where you want to watch the races. They will cost between £25-£200 for the big days but no matter where you decide to view the race you won’t be able to help but get wrapped up in the excitement. Be sure to place some bets down to get the full experience.

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The town of Cheltenham turns racing mad for four days and the city will be alive with race related events. It is impossible not to get swept up in the atmosphere. The town of Cheltenham is famous for its quintessential Britishness and is one of the UK’s most famous examples of Regency architecture. Surrounding the town is also the beautiful British countryside that is perfect for walking in if you need a breather from all the excitement. Cheltenham is easy to get to as there is a direct train line from London, which takes less than 3 hours making it the perfect day excursion.

So if you are in the UK in March and want to experience some British heritage be sure to come down to the races. UK horse racing specialists Betfair who cover the event call it the “the greatest four days in jumps racing”. There is certainly no event like it and you will get to encounter a side of the British population that can’t be found in the city.