The Ultimate Road Trip: THE SILVER SNAIL : A solo woman's full-time RV adventure
THE ULTIMATE AMERICAN ROAD TRIP
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Bardstown, Kentucky

I chose to stay at My Old Kentucky Home State Park - mostly for its central location in Bardstown, but also because I liked the sound of going to "my old Kentucky home" - what must surely be a warm, inviting place with fond memories. It wasn't crowded this time of year, so I had a handful of sites to pick from that were available for a week or more. I chose a site next to a solo woman camping out of her dual duty horse trailer, sans horse. Her name was Cyndi. She made the drive from upper Michigan to volunteer for the week at the World Equestrian Games at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. She was also in her final year of studies for her Masters degree in finance and had a major test to take while she was here. I thought that was pretty cool. She took a break from her husband and farm to camp out in Kentucky, be around horses, and still get her Master's degree using the free wifi at the McDonald's down the road.

BOURBON
This is the land of bourbon - whiskey that can only truly come from Kentucky's limestone-filtered waters. I knew I liked Maker's Mark and Woodford Reserve and I also loved a good Manhattan. That was about the extent of my bourbon experience. So I started my distillery tours with the familiar and popular Maker's Mark.

On their neatly-manicured grounds, with buildings painted in their trademark red and black colors, the tour group was taken through Maker's distinct distillation process and then offered a taste of the goods at the end, with a chocolate called a Bourbon Ball to finish it off. Knowing what Maker's Mark tasted like, I was more interested in this new chocolate confection. It was heaven. They were piled high on a silver platter resting on the bar, apparently an all-you-can eat invitation. With the texture of soft fondant on the inside, the Bourbon Ball's obvious star ingredient is bourbon. It's covered in dark chocolate, then topped with a pecan half. It's the perfect finish to any bourbon. I had my very first one at Maker's Mark and didn't realize until later that this was standard fare at every bourbon tasting.

Maker's Mark entrance

Maker's Mark whisky bridge

The free Maker's Mark tour was a good start, and next I made the drive to Woodford Reserve. It's closer to Lexington, where the World Equestrian Days were being held. It's a gorgeous drive to Woodford's, once you get off the highway and start meandering the winding roads through wealthy horse farms. This is the land of world-famous race horse champions, and it oozes pride and privilege. The same lime-stone filtered water that makes Kentucky bourbon so good, also seems to help raise champion thoroughbreds.

lexington

lexington horse

lexington drive

Woodford Reserve, modestly perched on the side of a hill at a turn in the road, charges $5.00 for the tour, presumably to cover the 10-cent plastic shot glass they give you for the tasting at the end. Still, it was a very good tour - historically beautiful and more informative. I liked it better than the Maker's tour, and I prefer their bourbon over Maker's. They also happen to have the best bourbon balls. It might have something to do with who makes them, though - Rebecca Ruth Candy store in Lexington - a beloved fixture in these parts since 1921.

Woodford Reserve

Woodford Reserve

Woodford Reserve

Since Heaven Hill was literally walking distance from my home, I decided it was worth a visit. They don't really have a distillery tour, more of a tour of the rickhouse (where the oak barrels are aged) across the street and an explanation of their process. Their Bourbon Heritage Center has scale models of their Louisville distillery and loads of information on the history of bourbon, so it is is a good general stop for any bourbon enthusiast. Heaven Hill is one of the largest producers of bourbon, and also makes a ton of other spirits, Pama Liquor being one of my favorites. At the end of the tour, they offered a tasting comparison of two of their more popular bourbons. I asked for a special tasting of Elijah Craig's 18 year old single barrel and was hooked. I also asked to taste their wheatie, Bernheim Original, and was surprised that I didn't like it so much.

I was loving this education and its discoveries. I seemed to be favoring the smoother, sweeter bourbon with "less bite". This usually meant more wheat, and less rye, but it's not as simple as the recipe. It's a very fine art of recipe, age, alcohol content, and magic. Bourbon's appeal is very personal and with so many bourbons to sample here, it would take me awhile to sift through them and find my own. What helped orient me was a beautiful magazine called The Bourbon Review. Targeting visitors like myself, it provides articles and reviews of the local goods and culture. Armed with my newly-identified taste for bourbon bearing strong vanilla-caramel-chocolate notes, I narrowed the list of must-taste bourbons, and called to see if free samples were available at the distillery tours. No dice - I wasn't going to be able to get free samples of my apparently top-shelf taste, so this was going to get pricey.

Most bourbons on my list would be about $10-20 a pour at a bar. After calling The Old Talbott Tavern, my local pub, to confirm that they would offer smaller tasting pours, I stopped in. It caters to the tourists, but for the sake of convenience, I gave them a try. Their tasting pours ended up being a flight of full-size servings. Not only would that break the bank, but I wouldnt' be able to drive home, so I opted for a $10ish serving of Blanton's, and I found another new love. The more I tasted and discovered, the better the treasure was. I decided to make a pilgrimage to The Bluegrass Tavern in Lexington, where every bourbon imaginable was available. If I couldn't get small tastings of everything I wanted to try, at least I would be able to taste the notoriously hard-to-find Pappy Van Winkle's 12 year old Lot B.

The bartender at The Bluegrass Tavern was very friendly and easy-going and agreed to cut me a break on sample pours, though officially they weren't on the drink menu. I tried his favorite, Vintage 17 yr, and that was definately good. Then I tried each of Pappy's 12, 15 and 20 year. As they age, they nearly double in price, so I was happy to discover that I genuinely liked the 12 year best. Best of all, in fact. Finally, I tried Basil Hayden's, and this was surprisingly very nice - light with a peppery finish. I knew Basil's recipe had more rye in it, so I didn't think it'd appeal to me, but it was sublime. I think the lower alcohol content helps.

Pappy Van Winkle 12 year old

While tasting and chatting away with the bartender, a group of people settled in next to me and all ordered Four Roses. Through introductory hellos, I learned that two of them (Dan and Patty) were sales reps with Four Roses. They were there with a couple of guys from a liquor store in Knoxville who were in Lexington to taste and choose a single barrel all for themselves. Well, not just for the two of them, but for their store to sell bottles of "personally selected" single barrel. Pretty cool that Four Roses does that, I think. Of course, they had to ask me what I thought of their bourbon and I had to admit that I hadn't tried it because I'm a design snob and the label and bottle doesn't appeal to me. Oh no no no, they said, you MUST try Four Roses bourbon...and proceeded to order me a sample of each of their bottlings. And yes, I very much liked what they produce, particularly the Small Batch, and it's affordable. It just goes to show that you can't always tell a book by its cover or price.

 

BERNHEIM ARBORETUM AND RESEARCH FOREST
In between all the bourbon drinking, Harley and I still had to find some quality walking time together but My Old Kentucky Home just didn't cut it. There were no trails there. The best we could do was cross the street to the picnic area and back, but it wasn't long enough. An online search pointed me to Bernheim Arboretum and wow! what a beautiful surprise. Not only are there nicely manicured, paved arboretum trails, but there's a whole wilderness of trails too, and a very friendly visitor center with a cafe. Lucky for us, it wasn't too far from home, either.

Bernheim arboretum

Bernheim Arboretum canopy walk
CANOPY WALK

 

WORLD EQUESTRIAN GAMES (WEG)
I was impressed to see my neighbor Cindy studying by lamplight at the picnic table after dark. I liked her as soon as I met her, but it was hard to catch up with her since she spent all day at the WEG and her evenings studying. Every so often we had a moment to say hello, though, and on one of those moments she offered me two tickets to the dressage event at the WEG. She bought them in advance and now that she had seen some of the event already, she felt like her time would be better spent studying. I was thrilled. Nevermind that I know absolutely nothing about horses or horsemanship. This was a huge event happening in our country this year - like the Olympics - and yeah, I'd take the free tickets to catch a glimpse of the action.

It was a cool day and it would be a long one away from home, so I brought Harley with me. I figured he could relax on the bed in the back of the truck while I wandered about the horse stuff. I got there late in the morning, so I had to park far from the entrance gate. There were a lot of people here wearing a lot of snap shirts and cowboy boots. Seemed to me that there were a lot more women than men, too. I made my way through the maze of tents and pavilions and found the main arena where the dressage event was happening. This is what I had tickets for, and what also allowed me access to all the other stuff.

The dressage event is a tough thing to understand when you have no idea what is involved in the competition. To me, it looks like a very finely dressed person on an equally fine horse walking around rather stiffly. I came to learn that it is all in the details of how they walk and move as one, with little visible/verbal direction from the person. Or something like that. I watched for awhile, but I really wanted to see horses up close, so I went to look for them.

WEG 2010 dressage

WEG 2010 dressage

WEG 2010 dressage

WEG 2010 dressage

I went around to the back of the arena, where the next horse and rider were warming up, but they were still a pretty good distance from where I could go. Even when I banked on my monster camera and surreptitiously crossed the spectator line, common sense prevented me from getting too close. Foreign languages floated around me, reminding me of the the international significance of this historic event.

As I scouted around, I explored the pavilions and tents that made up the majority of the park's activities. There was a building dedicated to showcasing the glorious state of Kentucky. There was a big multi-plex corporate-sponsored pavilion that advertised the corporation's future in technology and also offered a petting aquarium and free Dippin' Dots Ice Cream. Then there was the marketplace, a huge complex of tents selling everything a horse-lover could imagine. They even had a section of RVs to walk through, including a Prevost, but you had to have reservations for that one.

The place was big and I made it through the commercial circus unscathed to the other end of the park, where a big crowd was gathered around a small arena with a sign that said "Clinic". Apparently a clinic was in progress, and I assumed that meant the cowboy on the horse was teaching some tricks about how to handle your horse, because I didn't see anybody hurt or any first aid being administered. But there were horse stalls here and I thought for sure this must be where the horses are, except they were all empty. There was another show happening nearby, with a couple people on horses, but they were just talking and nothing was really happening. It finally occured to me that the public wasn't allowed to see any horses behind the scenes. Like any good show, they were only visible when they came on stage. So the secret Horse Green Room was off-limits to me. I should have have forged a press pass. With my gigantic lens, I probably could have gotten away with it.

I suppose if I was a horse person, or had a horse person with me, I would have found everything to be a lot more interesting than I did. As it was, my only hope was to wade through the masses and leave with candid portraits of horses and their people. But even that wasn't in the cards. Still, I got a lot of good walking in for the day, discovered snap shirts, and know just a little bit more about what it was like at the 2010 World Equestrian Games.

WEG 2010 portrait

 

LOUISVILLE HOT BROWN
I often like to taste local culinary delights, and will easily go out of my way for good food and drink. So a joy ride to Louisville to sample the Brown Hotel's Hot Brown was a day well spent. I found this local dish by doing a search for Kentucky cuisine. Besides mint juleps and bourbon, I didn't think that Kentucky had any particularly noteworthy culinary contributions. I was wrong. Invented at the Brown Hotel in the '20s, the Hot Brown has become a Kentucky tradition with worldwide appeal. In simple terms, it's an open-faced turkey sandwich. But let the chefs at the Brown Hotel make it, and you are served a decadent plate of juicy turkey covered in bubbling cheese and Mornay sauce and topped with perfectly crisp bacon. It sounds like a heart attack on a plate, and in the wrong hands it might be, but here it's quite perfect.

Hot brown

 

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All images and words © Sharon Pieniak
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