On the Road

Music—or to be more precise, song lyrics—offer great insight into our culture.  If we were to gather up all the song lyrics ever written, love would undoubtedly be the most common subject. Following closely behind, though, would have to be songs about the road.  Sometimes love and the road are even linked, as in that classic country song, Thank God and Greyhound she’s gone. (really. look it up.)

Yes, there’s something strangely romantic about a road trip.  It’s the stuff movies are made of—Who could forget the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby-Dorothy Lamour road pictures of the 40s, or the more modern, if less wholesome, Thelma and Louise or Wild Hogs.  It is on the road where the people in movies discover themselves.

Perhaps that is what makes travel images stir our imaginations.  It may have something to do with our history as explorers—our manifest destiny.  Or it may be the power of suggestion that a good movie or country song provides.  We may no longer get our kicks on Route 66, but now we thrive on I-75. I find myself on Interstate 75 almost daily, and have for most of my adult life.

In case you were wondering, Interstate 75 is 1,775 miles long, spanning from the Canadian border to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, crossing six state in the process.  We have 191.78 miles of the road in Kentucky.  Thousands of people travel along the route every day, most of them it seems at the same time I need to go somewhere. Eighty percent of the nation’s residents are within a 2 day drive of I-75 in Kentucky, helping to explain why we have so much truck traffic. In some parts of I-75 near Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, a truck passes every 2 seconds – 47,500 per day!

As I travel the interstate day after day, my mind tends to wander.  Sometimes I think of the day ahead of me or the one just behind.  I plan out my weekend, or compose my shopping list. I listen to NPR or the occasional podcast. And I study my fellow travelers.  Do you ever wonder where all those people are going, and why?  I think I have many of them figured out.  Collectively, they are a metaphor for our society.

In the early morning hours you can find the carpenters and plumbers and electricians and general laborers on their way to a hard day’s work, making our lives easier and better.  They drive pick up trucks, and usually travel in twos and threes.  They’re tanned, almost always wear baseball caps, and are often handsome enough in a rugged sort of way to make even this 50-something wife and mother take a second look.

A bit later, white collar drivers take to the road.  Their crisp, fresh-from-the-dry-cleaner shirts give them away.  They’re usually in a hurry and talk on their cell phones a lot. The car of choice is either a nice conservative sedan or an “I’m the boss” SUV.

While the office mavens are scurrying to work, moms and dads are also rushing to get their kids to school. The parental taxi service continues into mid-morning with the assorted field trip and during the summer months with swimming practice or baseball games.  Volvos, mini vans and SUVs are the vehicles of choice.

By midday, the Shoney’s gang is out in force. That is the group of retired people who travel from one end of I-75 to the other, back and forth all year long.  South in winter, north as the summer comes. They try to stay within a few miles of the Interstate, and will only veer from the course to spoil a grandkid or annoy a daughter-in-law. They eat at restaurants like Shoney’s, Cracker Barrel, or Denny’s and drive Oldsmobiles and Lincoln Town Cars or sometimes RVs. Did you know there is actually a book about I-75 for such people?  It contains restaurant, motel, shopping and sightseeing listings along the entire length of the Interstate.  Now there’s exciting reading.

The evening brings out the trucks. Long haulers from faraway places like North Dakota or Ontario. I-75 is referred to as the Industrial Corridor of the Nation for good reason.  It has about twice as many trucks as most interstate highways, they say. And I believe them. Those trucks carry our country around on their 18 wheels.  They bring our food, our shampoo, our lumber, our gasoline, and even our children’s X-Box games. As much as we curse the truck driver who whizzes past on a rainy evening, we depend on him, too.

For each of us who travel I-75 or any other Interstate the journey is unique. Different destinations, different agendas, different interests and needs. But each of them—each of us—is alike, hoping to be happy, to be productive in our endeavors and reach our homes each evening safe and secure.

As I leave the Interstate each evening, I can’t help thinking of one more song lyric.  Country Road, Take Me Home.

Down in Kentucky

I live in Northern Kentucky, and have for about two years.  Before that, except for a brief time in Missouri (Go Mizzou!) I spent my adult life in Central Kentucky, and grew up in South Central KY.  I have fond feelings for each of these places, many pleasant memories and dear friends.

Northern Kentucky is different, though.  People here can’t really decide where they actually live.  Sometimes it’s in Greater Cincinnati, sometimes it is in the town or county they live in, usually it is just Northern Kentucky.  As in, “Where are you from?” “Northern Kentucky.”  or “Greater Cincinnati.” Never “Kentucky.” In fact, most people seem to be embarrassed that Northern Kentucky is part of Kentucky at all.

img_0209.jpgIn my two years here, I have heard the phrase, ‘down in Kentucky’ so many times, I can’t even count them.  The definition of ‘down in Kentcuky’ is anywhere not in Boone, Campbell or Kenton counties. It’s kinda like that old New York poster (from New Yorker magazine?) that had Manhattan with all it’s buildings and landmarks, a little detail for Queens, Long Island, Brooklyn, etc.  and none for the rest of the country.  Northern Kentuckians think about the rest of KY that way.

Down in Kentucky is such a generic term, it could mean Lexington, Louisville, Lake Cumberland, the Appalachian region or anywhere in the state, really.  A friend of mine referred to the movie Elizabethtown as taking place near where her own father’s family lives.  Since I have spent a lot of time in and around E-town, I commented, “oh, really, where are they from?” To which she replied “Floyd County.”  The two places are like night and day in culture, terrain, population, and are probably about 5 hours apart.  Northern Kentucky is closer to either than each is to the other.  Yet, because they are both ‘down in Kentucky’ they are practically the same in her mind.

And the rest of Kentucky often forgets that Northern Kentucky is even up here, too, despite the fact that the region is responsible for much of the state’s sales tax revenue, job growth and economic development.  Development that helps the rest of the state.

I get so confused with it all. I have started calling this region the great state of Northern Kentucky.  There’s a WEST Virginia, a NORTH and SOUTH Dakota and Carolina, so why not a NORTH Kentucky?  Makes as much sense to me as ‘down in Kentucky’ ever will.

A good life

A friend was buried today.  I didn’t know him very long, but I knew him well.  He was a good man. Loved his family, his community, his church, his motorcycle.  He loved to laugh, have fun, meet people.  He was sometimes too loud, sometimes said things that were a little insensitive.  ‘Politically correct’ did not hold much sway with him. But he cared about people, never ever meant to hurt anyone.  In fact, he tried to lift others up.  If he heard something nice about you, he told you.  If he noticed something good in you, he mentioned it.  He willingly shared his knowledge. All who knew him are better for the experience.

He was a friend, and the world – and I – will miss him. I’ll miss his hearty laugh, his ready smile, his bad jokes, his kindness.  And I’ll remember what it means to care about others, and hope I can follow his example.

Jack, I am glad I knew you.