“Y’all gon’ eat here?” is what I think the guy behind the counter is saying to me, but I can’t be sure. I’ve already asked him to repeat himself twice, so to ask again would likely embarrass us both. I’m in a rustic roadside barbecue joint in northern Tennessee where the only other presence – aside from my friend, who is currently outside and isn’t available to translate – is a television blaring country music video clips. We actually only came in to use the bathroom, since they had been few and far between so far on our back-roads trip from Nashville to Kentucky. But after the confusion, I feel like we can’t leave without purchasing something (after all, we could be their only customers for the day). Soon after, I’m headed out the door with a Styrofoam container filled with barbecue chicken, corn bread, green beans and black-eyed peas. For a locale in the middle of nowhere, the fare is actually pretty tasty.
Having left Nashville mid-afternoon, we are scheduled to have dinner with friends who live in a converted barn in the tiny rural community of Waddy, Kentucky, just outside of the state’s capital, Frankfort. Dusk is embracing the landscape when the GPS lady informs us that we’ve arrived at our destination, but all that surrounds is the rise and fall of emerald hills. There’s certainly not a building in sight. The sun is quickly retreating, so as we ease the car around the tight curves of the gravel road, we keep our eyes on the horizon in hopes of finding our elusive arrival point.
A kilometre or so down the road, an orange barn looms large on the top of the hill, with lush, grassy slopes spilling down each side. In the valley below, a small lake shimmers with the reflections of the moody clouds of dusk. Our hosts greet us with warm hugs, ushering us inside for a hearty home-cooked roast. As space in the barn is tight (particularly with a cat and dog also resident) they’ve generously offered to put us up in one their family’s homes in Frankfort, on the somewhat ominously named Devils Hollow Road. Despite its spooky location, the house itself is charming, complete with horses eyeing us curiously from a neighbouring paddock, and a porch swing swaying leisurely.
Several hours after sunrise the next morning, we head in to wander through Frankfort’s elegant yet diminutive downtown, giggling at the whimsically named streets we pass, with monikers like Petticoat Lane and Catfish Alley. Dogwood trees in glorious bloom form an endearing canopy in front of historic houses ranging from mansions to cottages, most with porch swings (a winsome requisite of Southern living) and an American flag hung proudly from their awnings.
While we are foraging in a small boutique across from Frankfort’s Old State Capitol building, we hear the wail of a train horn fast approaching. As if summoned, everyone browsing the boutique’s wares quickly hurries outside. Within minutes, a freight train’s seemingly infinite procession of carriages rattles through the centre of the relatively narrow street. In an affable show of small-town spirit, most of the people standing on the sidewalk wave cheerfully to the driver, who tips his cap in reply.
Since we’re in the heart of bourbon country, we later head to the most famous local distillery, Buffalo Trace, for a tour. Though I’m not much of a bourbon drinker, when we pull up beside the enormous red-brick warehouses of the distillery, the distinct tang of sour mash mingles with the humidity, and, to my surprise, my mouth begins to water. After wandering the rows of oak barrels emanating the strong essence of bourbon, I’m far more open-minded about the tasting at the end of the tour. As we sample various liquors, we are told the tale of the recent heist involving stolen barrels of Pappy van Winkle, another bourbon made at Buffalo Trace that is considered to be among the world’s finest and often selling for around $1,000 a bottle of the 20-year-old variety. The tale suddenly makes the bourbon all the more intriguing.
Later, as we join our friends at one of the few bars downtown, we decide to split a couple of shots of 12-year-old Pappy van Winkle between us. While it’s slightly cheaper than the 20-year-old, we still fork out $30 for each shot (which can run as high as $50 in Lexington and Louisville). Since I’m a novice when it comes to bourbon drinking, the silken finish of this particular liquor tells me that I might be setting my bar rather high. Just as we’ve savoured our shots, we hear the familiar sound of the train horn bearing upon us. We dutifully set down our glasses and head outside to bid good evening to the driver on his way through town.