HUDSON IN KENTUCKY
Oh, to have reached the mouth of the Kentucky River so early on in its exploration. To have tied up our flatboat to an exposed cage of a root-bound Sycamore. No fires, all quiet. A sentry hidden in the adjacent bank shrubbery. Others claim this place and paddle the river to enforce their possession!
It’s morning now, a golden tongue of the sun’s warmth, growing out along the river’s silver chin. The river is speaking of unknown wonders, laughing at our feeble approach toward learning what is hiding upstream.
We push into the Kentucky River current, some with oars to steer, others with poles to push us against the current. We slide through the water to the far side of the river. There are shallows here, where the poles, aided by the oars, are more effective at movement. But we are too close to the land, and subject to ambush. Be alert!
This view is magnificent. Kentucky is just what we were told. It is a paradise to behold!
The water is so wide here. The river’s meanders have laid out level land on each side of the bank for the growth of fertile fields and thick forests. Look, buffalo move through on land they lay level. Were the meadows burnt to entice these mighty beasts across the river?
Look sharp, my fellow explorers, buffalo hunters may follow behind closely!
Our boat’s movement is quiet. A creek passes through the southern slope. Steep enough for a water mill. I’ve got to remember that. Remember all the places where we might settle and plow. I am going to return and lay claim to these lands!
The river widens out further in. What mighty waterway now comes in from the north? Eagles roost in the forested teeth of its smiling mouth. Stop the boat. Let us hike stealthily within. It is so long and full, but with slopes sliding tighter down in. So much to explore. I could spend my life wandering about in nature’s halls and ballrooms.
But I’ve got to keep going. They need supplies at Leestown, and I am paid to bring them. But I will return. I will come back and settle here. Someday. That’s what I want to do with my young wife. Settle down here, and raise a new family.
Back to the River, pole further forward. Look, the buffalo cross over the river before me! They travel on a road of their own crushing. An ancient one, judging by its width and obvious compaction!
Stop here for the night. The noise made by the buffalo is deafening. Tomorrow we hunt. Not deer, nor bear, but the meat of those giant prairie travelers.
Where are they going? Let us follow and see.
Springs! Count them, two miles up from the fertile floodplain junctions. Seven springs, all different in composition. Some with helpful minerals, and some with salt. Let us stop and camp by the water. The white slime tells of its healing power. Bring up the kettles. We will boil the water and take out the salt. And while we wait for the boiling reduction, we will explore the headlands above, which seem to be so flat and beckoning.
Is that an Indian mound over there? We saw many such places on the banks at river junctions floating down here. Others were the first to venture into this land of wonder. Did they build a temple on top of this earthen structure?
I will remember these lands. This is where I will bring my family to farm. Maybe I’ll build a place of rest, just like those restful places back east. People will come to escape the summer miasmas and I will make a large amount of money!
That just described above was a journey in the past. But today, you can drive and follow along on a similar adventure! The wonder is still alive. Do it alone, or do it with others, and let your imagination carry you forward into the past on ancient landscapes.
Start at Carrollton, and cross to the south over that famous Kentucky artery. I like to think of it as the “Gateway to a Commonwealth!” Then turn south on Highway 55, but moving quickly left, onto Highway 389. Now follow along with the River proper. There, on Mill Creek, on slightly elevated land to the right [to survive the river’s flooding, no doubt], is the village of English. The railroad brought it into existence.
This rugged looking land with its wide, flat river valley reminds me of the foothills of New York and the rivers running through it. Maybe it looked familiar, also, to those riding those early flatboats down from Pittsburgh. The land looking similar to that found alongside the Hudson River. These pioneers would know how to live here.
Keep going and the vista reopens. It is the mouth of that long Eagle Creek coming in from the other side of the river. The community of Worthville lies low on this junction, and the town of Sparta lies high on its upper reaches. Upstream of the creek’s wider opening, the land surface is more dissected, but the creek is well dressed with ample collars of fertile floodplain. Shale rock geology, I suspect. But drive up Highway 467 that follows alongside that creek, and you will be following along with the railroad, which crosses the River behind you to head over to English.
Continue back to the road running next to the River. As the low banks and high cliffs close back in, they seem to take on the aspect of the Hudson River back home. And the road you’re traveling on is like the one that parallels the Hudson on its east bank in that Empire State. Only earlier in time. Longer ago. Before it became more like today and left us too busy to notice.
Driving this stretch of Highway 389 is like driving through history left in place. It is as though progress slowed as the passing freeway sucked up all the new modern methods. It is slower here, more peaceful, and the pavement only patched, not replaced. There will be no bridges crossing over this powerful river until Gratz, further isolating this stretch of such interest for your personal visit.
Drennon Creek is next to the south, and cannot be passed by any interested party without first entering in. So wide and inviting, with the creek immediately folding in onto itself like an Egyptian Cartouche, announcing the location of the mysterious Sacred Springs above. Would the Pharaoh’s Barge dock here, and their Regal Procession follow the Sacred Buffalo upstream?
Take Route 202 into its drainage. Follow the creek and its rich, fat floodplain. Then follow the road as it jumps upslope to the flat, fertile lands hidden up there. Surely this is the Promised Land of Henry County. The land of prophets, like Wendell Berry!
Pass the Smith-Berry Vineyard and Winery, and head into the county seat of New Castle. Visit the Berry Center, which supports Wendell’s writing and the sustainable agriculture he heralds. Check out their bookstore and library. This is a famous place in which to be reading.
Let’s drive, now, further into the world of history and fiction. The world surrounding that well known, and living, novelist and poet, Wendell Berry. Head north onto Highway 421, turning right on Route 193 toward Port Royal. What a beautiful peninsula of Henry County Heaven. A world of its own that completely surrounds the drainage of Canes Run to give it character! The “Back Roads of Kentucky” are referring to places like this. Hidden, not stirred.
Watch carefully and turn quickly to the right on Route 574. You will be riding on the flat headlands between creeks draining these lands. And don’t be greedy. You will immediately want to move out into this rustic love-of-land spot in Kentucky! Don’t worry. Kentucky is full of them. Kentucky is Paradise, you know!
Look sharp again. You are going to turn left onto a one-lane, paved entrance to the enchanting lands of Canes Run. Take a look at the terrain view on your smart phone map. You are truly crossing through a self-enclosed world, where Hobbits might hide, or where the Headless Horseman still rides. The magic of imagination. No wonder Wendell Berry lives around here!
Rise back up and enter the center of this community, Port Royal.
Stop at the Parker Farm Supply store and get a sandwich. Life is lived at a slower pace here, just as meaningful as yours, perhaps just more appreciated. Nearby, down on the river, you will find Jayber Crow and the town of Port William imagined by Wendell Berry in his writings. They will come alive in your heart when you read more of his stories. Seeing what he is writing will bring more meaning to what he is thinking. He has something to say, and your thoughts will sprout with his cultivation of our human condition. Humanity described in his novels, poems, and short stories about this hidden oasis.
We carry out our salt to the boat on the river. Pole forward, boys, we are now carrying treasure. Look at that Eagle flying high. Far away, it still looms large with a cloud white head and a yellow beak.
Where is it going? Tie up, again, over on the right bank of the river. I can see, now, that the Eagle is leading us to a magnificent body of water [Benjy Kinman Lake] now cut off from the River. I bet the fishing is terrific in there! This bird is a symbol of an American heaven!
Judy CederholmOctober 30, 2021 at 7:38 am
Makes me want to jump in my aging Volvo to begin exploring the KY River right now! Thank you!
Virginia MeagherNovember 1, 2021 at 8:05 pm
One of a kind writer. Yep! Makes me want to take the Kentucky River Tour through Henry County. Someday…