Both of the rival presidents during the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, were born in KENTUCKY, where acute divisions existed between slave-owning farmers and the merchants who depended on trade with the nearby cities of the industrial North. While the state remained officially neutral, more Kentuckians joined the Union army than the Confederates; after the war, however, Kentucky sided with the South in its hostility to Reconstruction and has tended to follow southern political trends.
Kentucky’s rugged beauty is at its most appealing in the mountainous east, which suffers from acute rural poverty but boasts the fine scenery of the Natural Bridge and Cumberland Gap regions. Perhaps the most iconic area of the state is the Bluegrass Downs, home to bluegrass, bourbon and thoroughbred horses. The name comes from the unique steel-blue sheen of the buds in the meadows, only visible in early morning during April and May. The area centres on the reserved state capital Lexington, a major horse-breeding market, and holds some of the oldest towns west of the Alleghenies.
Hipper Louisville, however, home of the Kentucky Derby, lies eighty miles west and offers more reasons to linger. It is also a good access point to the bourbon country around Bardstown. Rural western Kentucky, where the Ohio River meets the Mississippi, is flat, heavily forested and generally less attractive. Meanwhile, in the southern hinterland, numerous small towns retain their tree-shaded squares and nineteenth-century townhouses – and their strict Baptist beliefs – while the endless caverns of Mammoth Cave National Park attract spelunkers and hikers in the thousands.
The Kentucky Derby is one of the world’s premier horse races; it’s also, as Hunter S. Thompson put it, “decadent and depraved”. Derby Day itself is the first Saturday in May, at the end of the two-week Kentucky Derby Festival. Since 1875, the leading lights of Southern society have gathered at Churchill Downs, three miles south of downtown Louisville, for an orgy of betting, haute cuisine and mint juleps in the plush grandstand, while tens of thousands of the beer-guzzling proletariat cram into the infield. Apart from the $40 infield tickets available on the day – offering virtually no chance of a decent view – all seats are sold out months in advance. The actual race, traditionally preceded by a mass drunken rendition of My Old Kentucky Home, is run over a distance of one and a quarter miles, lasts barely two minutes and offers around a million dollars in prize money.
In 1940, “Colonel” Harland Sanders, so titled as a member of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels, opened a small clapboard diner, the Sanders Café, alongside his motel and petrol station in tiny Corbin, ninety miles south of Lexington on I-75. His Kentucky Fried Chicken empire has since spread all over the world. The original hundred-seat restaurant, at 688 US-25 W (daily 10am–10pm; 606 528 2163), has been restored with 1940s decor and an immense amount of memorabilia. The food served is the usual KFC, but it’s an atmospheric little spot.