North To South: Five Days in Louisville, KY

Fri. Sept. 09, 2016, 9:00 AM (approx.)

            So nerve-wracking. Four months ago I was a boarding pass away from the exact same trip, hindered only by an expired passport. I got it renewed but I still fear something will go wrong. That at any point between leaving my home in Edmonton to landing in Louisville someone will pull me aside and say, “Sir, you have made the following mistake(s). Please go home.”

            I felt the same at my university grad ceremony back in April, too, as if someone would deny me my diploma for some obscure fault. For some fee unpaid, some credit unattended. I was a nervous wreck, certain that anything could go wrong until that piece of paper was in my hand.

            At least with this KY trip something did, back in May. Proof that anything is possible, that the rug could be pulled out from under me before I could fly it like Aladdin. Just before my flight I learned my passport was expired. Embarrassment, sadness and patience soon followed.

            But I’m up here now, 10,000 or so miles or km’s or whatever above the multifaceted landscape of Alberta, moving southward, southeast. And I think something in me still expects a catastrophe. Not even a plane crash or food poisoning, but just someone denying me my trip on some bizarre basis. On a technicality. I really doubt it, but I fear it. More than severe turbulence causing spinal compression, more than losing my luggage. But really the fear is subsiding. Soon all I’ll likely have to worry about is my tape player crapping out on me. Or batteries running out. Or an inconsiderate seating neighbor. I’ll take that over a delayed or missed connection or some other hassle, but I fear the former over the latter.

            But I shouldn’t. Time to let it go.

            Thus ended the first and only journal entry I wrote during my trip – clearly I let go of more than my anxiety. Which arguably was for the better, for the sake of fully enjoying my five days in Louisville, KY.

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            I spent most of that Friday in transit, flying out early that morning and connecting briefly in Minneapolis. Pacing the terminal, killing time by browsing shops and debating food, I already felt I was somewhere somehow different than Canada. My heart buzzed with an anxiousness I’d been feeling for a while leading up to the trip. But as my second flight passed from Minnesota over Wisconsin and Illinois and Indiana and into Kentucky, as we broke gently down through the clouds, my nerves settled. And a smile finally crept onto my face.

            I’ve known my friend Ron (from Louisville) for the past 15 years. But, until this trip, never in person. We met online by way of what’s known as e-wrestling, an online roleplaying game in which strangers create fictional pro wrestlers and “compete” by way of writing promos (verbal diatribes) against other writers’ fictional fighters. The middleman who runs a given e-wrestling federation puts together matches, telling wrestlers who to write promos against, gauging the quality of promos to determine a “winner,” and then writing a show with action and results. At one point my character, “MalevoLance”, was partnered with Ron’s, “Sean Laughreah”. Our tag team endured, over time dominating and becoming tag champions. More importantly, I developed a legitimate friendship with Ron that lasted well beyond the year or so we roleplayed together. Beyond wrestling we connected in terms of music, television, film, literature and writing. And over the next decade-plus we stayed friends internationally, always wondering when we would meet in person but never doubting it would happen. With the power of travel points I decided to go for it, to fly to Louisville and finally meet my longtime friend and his wife Holly face to face.

            I’ve long been fascinated by “the South” of the United States. Or more accurately, the southeastern American states I’ve culturally perceived as “the South”: Kansas, Missouri, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas. It all stems from film and television, the grand purveyors of cultural homogenization and stereotyping. By no means did I grow up believing everyone in “the South” to be farmers, cowboys and oil barons – that’s what some people think of my own Canadian province (Alberta). But neither have I assumed there to be enough similarities for northwest Canada and the southeast United States to be cultures divided by centralized hipsters on both sides of the border. The Canadian-American difference is enough, and beyond that there’s the sub-differences across varying US regions. And in my mind that southeast region has always been partially generalized by notions of, yes, homesteaders and cowboy hats, of southern gentlemen and belles. Of ancient wooden mansions that may or may not have been owned by slaveowners. Of rolling crop fields and cattle ranches and massive trees. And a hodgepodge of fascinatingly varied – but essentially similar – drawling accents. I won’t pretend I haven’t had a cultural crush on those accents perhaps the most.

            But overall I perhaps have held “the South” as somehow being a key half of the true bastion, the true core of American history and identity. My perception partners this with the American North, its history of “modernized” architecture and industry and culture standing in sharp contrast with the horse-drawn pioneer’s visage. And so with that, accurate or not, comes an outsider’s sense of longstanding history and roots, a visit to which would surely provide a truly telling experience. A vital, immersive glimpse into just what America is and, most fascinatingly for me, was.

            Which is not to say I didn’t spend a fair amount of time just watching TV on my friend’s couch. It was a vacation, after all.

            My flight arrived in late afternoon. Before landing my mind was filled with emotional possibilities. I walked through the cool Louisville airport still imagining what would happen once I saw Ron for the first time. Laughter? Tears? Big smiles and a big hug, for sure. That’s all we needed, and that’s what we got. I saw my friend through a small swath of people, recognizing his big smile and bigger beard. Rather than letting emotion get to me I simply flung a goofy, signaling hand up in the air and tried to adopt a controlled smile. Really I was glowing; really I was excited and very, very happy. And so we embraced. I kept wanting to say, “This is so weird,” being in the direct presence of someone I’d known only digitally for over a decade. But the really weird thing was… it wasn’t so weird. I felt totally at ease with Ron, and with his wife Holly whom I knew very little about. I hugged her too and the conversation was natural, personable and humorous. Both there and at their house I was made to feel, and truly did feel, at home.

            We couldn’t help but immediately talk of cultural differences, especially in terms of Canadian vs. Kentuckian accents and lingo. They knew I was keen to listen to “Southern” accents, and Holly was eager to hear stereotypical Canadian catchphrases and inflections. This soon became a near non-factor as my friends were quick to shuck labeled notions of Louisville actually constituting “the South”. I knew the history of “North vs. South” within America was a sordid and still somewhat factious thing. Even within a given state will people differentiate between being “really Southern” or a “Yankee”. Fearing an escalated debate, I dropped the subject, but not my fascination.

            Stepping out into the airport’s parking facade I was practically slugged with a pillow of hot, humid air. Even coming from cooler-than-usual early Canadian fall weather I was not expecting this, and I spent the next couple days sweating and wondering why I’d only brought one pair of shorts.

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            As we exited the Louisville International Airport I was immediately fascinated with, of all things, the trees. Maybe it stems from being a kid and thinking it interesting how different regions can have wholly different vegetation. Or maybe it’s because I’d just spent the past summer working for an arborist company, not being made knowledgeable but certainly dealing with various types of trees all day. Either way I was in relative awe in Louisville. Even as my flight grazed the cityscape I felt certain that the thick suburban trees were somehow bigger than those of my own city. On the ground I looked up at them just as much as I did the buildings and homes that Ron navigated us through, an even blend of commercial and rural. The neighborhoods on the way to Ron and Holly’s home felt filled, almost insulated, with green life. Fall may have been approaching but the massive poplars and birches and maples were still as abundant as anything.

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            My focus soon shifted once I realized just how much of the architecture was made of brick. Old, original brick, a dull red bordering on brown and outlined in grey. This to me has always seemed a real measuring stick of age, of history. What a building is made of can tell just what a city is, what its people are. Brick and mortar and wood and nails speak to an absence of the modern, generic concrete and plastic I’m used to. These Louisville houses we drive by describe, to me, an era of craftsmen building homes, building anything, to last. At the least these neighborhoods stand as tangible evidence of age. I live in a city that is all too eager to tear down the old in favor of the new, to replace and expand for better or worse. So it’s understandable to be awestruck by the notion of homes being as old as my own province. Never mind how old Kentucky or its capital Louisville are (each 200+ years). Alberta was confederated in 1905; Ron and Holly’s home was built roughly 15 years prior.

            The relative narrowness of some of the main drags I saw reminded me very much of my trip to Nova Scotia some years back. There I drove what felt precariously close to houses barely separated by relatively small front yards, coupled with relatively narrow “main” roads that constituted highways. Some of Louisville felt the same, with neighborhoods likely originally developed over a century ago with more consideration for the far less frequent traffic of the day. No doubt my tourist’s sense of wonderment caused a bit of illusion, my sense of reverie warping the reality that, my own big city is not really much different (commercialization and branding tends to make a lot of major cities feel alike after awhile). But my appreciation stood just the same. Little differences are still differences, as simple as brick exterior instead of vinyl paneling. Or a glut of front porches that reflect hotter and longer southern summers compared to my colder and thus more homebodied northern winters. Or far more American flags displayed residentially than you might see in Canada, here shifting on angled poles on the fronts of what seemed like every other home. This was America, a suburban depiction before my eyes that only television had shown me before.

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            The next day we visited a morning farmer’s market in a courtyard park. I was still more interested in trees than the vegetables or confections on sale, and so I looked straight up with my camera at the towering green maples that provided generous shade. I didn’t say much; I just took it in. And I listened to accents as Ron and Holly spoke to vendors about peppers and ice cream and ginger ale. It was a struggle to characterize all the voices as being distinctly or universally “Kentuckian”. Nor should it be. It’s not some all-encompassing caricature of bolo ties and tilted derby hats. But confusion would still set in whenever someone sounded more Texas or Atlanta than whatever I perceived a Kentucky accent to be. I was charmed nonetheless. And if anything it made me keener to take it all in.

            We walked a street closed off for the Highlands Festival. Vendors hawked arts and crafts, promoted events, displayed adoptive cats from no-kill services. Ron bought a green shirt that loudly stated in military block print, “Be kind to animals or I’ll kill you!” Drinking no longer-cool water from an orange sport bottle he’d lent me I wondered why I didn’t foresee such heat. I’d spent the better part of that summer working punishingly hot, outdoor days and thought I’d seen the last of them. Now I felt like I was swimming inside my green, full-length khakis. Thankfully the festival was just a short walk from Ron & Holly’s place. Soon I was sitting in their upstairs bathtub with relief on my mind and less stress in my heart.

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            The evening took us to a football (soccer) match between Louisville City FC and Virginia’s visiting Richmond Kickers. Louisville Slugger Field is a round, wide open facility that hosts sports and concerts and a whole lot of team spirit. Rumors of light rainfall gave way to a gorgeous sunset skyline. Hues shifted and clouds melted to create a pantone of soft, ripening colors. I wish I could describe the spectacle, the brief moments of a sunset’s glowing red perfection. But it was hard to focus on this while standing amidst the superfan section of a high quality football team warming up and kicking off. Purple and yellow and white team colors were everywhere, shirts and jerseys and hats and bandanas. Even I wore a borrowed scarf that depicted a line of Louisville buildings. The superfans are notorious for an amateur drum corps that begins its rally in the upper concession area and works its loud-and-proud way down to behind one of the goalie nets. The crew set up camp and got to work. Chants rolled pretty well nonstop before and during the game, mostly taking well-known choruses and crafting them to support the LC team. Most bizarre: the oldschool punk band Misfits’ “We Are 138” was changed to “We Are 502,” as per Louisville’s area code. The rotating cast of chant leaders sounded themselves like they could sing in punk or hardcore bands, and I was surprised there wasn’t a Dropkick Murphys chant. I’ve never been one for sports or team spirit, but I can appreciate it. I can get into it, as I did that night, cheering and applauding LC’s successful defense and goals. By the second half I’d wrapped my team scarf around my forearm, throwing my fist in the air as we rolled on to a 2-0 victory. There absolutely was a fun atmosphere that night, positive and infectious.

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            A bright Sunday morning took us North across the Ohio River and into Indiana for some seafood brunch. It’s a simple enough proposition, taking a sizeable bridge across a sizeable river. But when everything you see is new to your eyes, it’s still an adventure. Even the industrial districts we passed through just before the river felt unique. It’s still just warehouses and cranes and stacks of pallets; it’s still just the working class, no different than jobs I’ve held. But it’s still not my city, or even my country; it’s not my culture. And so over hushpuppies and fish and fries we talked over differences between our homes, subtle yet relevant, each side fascinated with the other. The North Saskatchewan River runs through Edmonton, but it’s not as big as the Ohio. Our river hosts more dragonboat racing than river barges. But we also have a riverboat, just as Ron and Holly and I saw one slowly rolling on the Ohio River that morning. Even then I draw a distinction: I imagine this Kentucky/Indiana boat as a signature, a remnant of riverboating culture older than the 20th century. A truly oldschool archetype of Americana. And I’ve never even been on my city’s riverboat.

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            I don’t like to travel without purposes. Some travel for the trip itself, to simply get away from home for a while and see something new. And that by all means was a factor in my Louisville visit, short as it was. But apart from meeting my friend and his wife, apart from wanting to see “the South” for the first time, I made sure an event of some sort was on the agenda (beyond the football match). Being a music lover, concerts are always a default idea, and I lucked out on this one. Living in Western Canada, not every amazing band comes through to perform. And it really seems that the more unique an act, the less likely they are to play anywhere but Toronto, AKA the city that seems to suffice as “Canada” to some outsiders. So the notion of being able to see post-rock instrumentalists Explosions In The Sky live was both a bonus for this trip and a pure pleasure. They performed at the Iroquois Amphitheatre, a gorgeous 2,300+ seating open space almost 80 years old. The grounds are surrounded by thick tree lines, still richly green at the time. The bowl seating gently tapers towards the stage under a massive, partial wood canopy braced with imposing vaulted trusses. The stage somehow feels miniscule, or the ceiling abnormally huge.

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            This in a sense matched Explosions In The Sky’s massive sound, a six-piece group pushing powerful tones between anywhere from three guitars to two basses at once. Cacophonous, borderline shoegaze, thoroughly immense in scope and composition. The group played a lengthy, nearly continuous mix of material spanning their 17-year career. The sun set as their set progressed, but unnoticeably; the light show we were focused on was the band’s. In long strips in front and behind their gear were rows of digital lights that shifted a variety of colors and, most interestingly, rolled back and forth like an oscillating lawn sprinkler. This coupled with a generous amount of machine’d fog make for a thrilling, deceptively dynamic visual experience that supported the music perfectly. Shades of blue and green would pulse and morph with the band’s ambient passages; simple white light behind the group made it seem they were performing with moonlight on the horizon; reds and oranges would burn with the heavier material. What spoke the most to me were the masterful color pairings of brassy pink-oranges and white-blues, or the shifting rainbow tones that my camera couldn’t quite capture – true proof that technology can’t match being there in person.

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            Indeed there was much to take pictures or even video of during this trip. But even from a tourist’s standpoint, it’s not always necessary. I’ve taken many pictures during the few travel excursions I’ve been on. It can be a pleasure, and it can be time-consuming to the point of counter-productivity. It’s likely that I took fewer pictures in Louisville because I hardly had any alone time. Which is not to say I took none at all, anymore than it was a conscious decision to not shoot as many. And the opportunities were there. We drove past one of the childhood homes of Hunter S. Thompson, an author Ron and I bond over. The house stood simple and firm, nestled beneath tall thin trees that reached smooth like currents in any direction. A blue City of Louisville flag hung out shortly from a patio column, and it seemed there was no one home. I didn’t even think to take a picture until Ron and Holly suggested it.

            And of all the things to not take pictures of: we swung by Churchill Downs, the racing grounds for the annual Kentucky Derby. It’s a place you only ever hear of (or see) in terms of the action within as opposed to how it looks without. From the outside the architecture looked fascinatingly elaborate, the white and green layered design almost like curtain walls on a castle, rising taller up to the track’s signature twin spires. My thoughts were just as much on Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” as they were on the more immediate appreciation of a piece of pure American history just over 140 years old. And yet from neither standpoint did I feel compelled to snap a picture. I simply appreciated it for what it was, and we drove on.

            On my last day in Louisville Ron and I tried driving up to a lookout point situated atop off Iroquois Park, a tall, winding hill that the Iroquois Amphitheatre is nestled near the bottom of. We navigated bends and switchbacks, past joggers and parks, all the while enveloped in full trees of green on a sunny Monday. A radio station on Ron’s stereo played a great selection of classic garage rock – a great soundtrack for a sunny cruise – and I noted several songs for future reference. This voyage was an idea on Ron’s part, suggesting that it was the most ideal vantage point, the highest and best way to view his hometown. We rounded a corner and were unfortunately met with a closed gate. Ongoing renovations to the upper areas were still that: ongoing. This was a brief bummer for both of us – I wanted to do some sightseeing and Ron was keen to oblige – but not a letdown. We descended the hill quite near the Amphitheatre, heading back north. We got ice cream; we moved on.

            Really that was the spirit of my time in Louisville, KY: a loose set of ideas and possibilities, with relatively little structure or certainty. The concert and the football match were locks; friendship and hospitality were without doubt. But everything else was a game of chance. Maybe we’d swing by Hunter S. Thompson’s house (we did); maybe we’d check out a flea market (we didn’t); maybe I’d find some cool vinyl records (some places I did, others not); maybe we’d summit Iroquois Park so we could get a bird’s eye view of this expansive city, this modern blend of everything past and present in America’s history. This home of my friend who claims he was born here and will die here, with pride. We weren’t able to reach that vantage point, not on that day. But I’d like to think my short time in the Bluegrass State’s capitol gave me an absolutely decent glimpse just the same.

            And someday for sure, I’ll be back for more.

© 2016 Andrew Hall Writes

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2 thoughts on “North To South: Five Days in Louisville, KY

  1. I really enjoyed this little travel log….you should do more of this. Just realized that you do. I will read more in the future.

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