Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Trip to the South

J and I drove down to the Ohio River on Saturday--a short jaunt from Lebanon, really, but one that ended up consuming our entire day as we wound up and down the Ohio and Kentucky banks. For J, this trip into Kentucky was his first venture into "the south except for Disney World," and for me, I hoped it would be a confirmation of my love of the raw and unrefined relics of southern Ohio and northern Kentucky. In between the rusting, abandoned hay balers and the darkly weathered tobacco barns, I wonder how I grew up only forty minutes from another world stuck in another time.

Our first stop was on the Ohio side of the river--Ripley, Ohio. A quick Google search told us that Ripley offered us two sure-bet stops.

First, the Rankin House, a home-turned-underground railroad stop whose reverend-owner helped over 2,000 slaves to freedom over forty years. After two missed turns, one settler cemetery and two wild turkeys later, we found our way to the startling top of a ridge where the little home teeters at its peak.

From the home's modest front steps, you can see the Ohio-Kentucky border carved for miles in either direction by the river. I stood at the crest of the hill with November wind licking at my face, imagining the people who stood on that very spot 150 years before me and wondered what they thought as they faced south from this summit, whether they too looked at the landscape as a map and saw it as if it charted their lives--at the bottom of this hill was their past to the south, and through the threshold of the door behind them was their future in the north.

It was not easy to keep these lofty thoughts in mind as J and I entered the museum/house itself. Neglect in the late 19th and early 20th centuries had worn the floorboards and walls thin, and a stuffy, self-important 30-something curator was droning in contemptuous monotone to a couple with two anxious kids in what used to be the family's dining room and now served as the gift shop. J and I opted to do the self-guided tour, which was a pretty quick one since there weren't many signs to read and the family's original furnishings have all gone on to posterity. We hit up the gift shop on the way out, paying our $3 each to the curator who seemed miffed that we handled the house without him.

On our way out of town, we made our second stop at a Ripley, Ohio winery (they exist!) for a wine tasting. While I had expected the rolling hills of the river valley to house a picturesque olde-tyme Gothic Revival farmhouse with rows of faded fall grapes around it, I was dead wrong. Instead, John and I rolled up to a 1970s Ranch house three blocks behind a McDonalds in a totally residential neighborhood.

WINE TASTING, proclaimed a sign to reassure us that we wouldn't be knocking on some poor old lady's door if we dared approach it. After I parked, J and I took a good look around us and then at one another.

"Are we going in?" J asked.
"I guess so," I shrugged, checking out the middle-aged ladies decked out in faux fur coats and home perms who were carrying two cases of bottles each.

When we did get the courage up to leave the car, we discovered that the house had been gutted. Where floor-to-floor carpeting and La-Z-Boy furniture should have greeted us, concrete floor and dozens floor-to-ceiling barrels consumed the room. We opted for the $6 wine tasting option--two glasses with the winery's insignia and tastings of four different bottled wines. We mingled with only one another, avoided bumping into other tasters for the obligatory chit chat that might follow, and scarfed down crackers and Kraft cheese. It was awesome. At the end of the fourth glass, we decided to buy their new release, a 2005 Petit Verdot, fermented right there in those barrels. And we kept the glasses.

As we crossed into Maysville, Kentucky, J took a shot of the WELCOME TO KENTUCKY sign, commemorating his first trip "south." Appropriately enough, Maysville appeared totally shut down for the day (it was about 3 P.M.) and nothing seemed open. We did, however, drive by the town's theater which displayed a plaque that boasted Rosemary Clooney's childhood in the town.

A few miles down the road, we hit up Augusta, another town that claims Rosemary Clooney (this time with a Rotary International clock in her honor). More exciting Clooney claims lie in a house just off the state highway in Augusta, where George grew up. (We hoped to glimpse him at home for the holidays, but we didn't have any luck.)

Having been driving for several hours in what felt like a haze of November gray, I realized my body would shut down in a matter of minutes without a dose of caffeine.

"There has to be a Starbucks here."
"There's a cafe over there," John pointed to a quaint, hand-painted sign that did, in fact, say CAFE.
"Do you think they have Starbucks?"

It was here that I realized I am a city dweller. I grew up in a town that got its first Wal-Mart when I was nine and its coffee shop my junior year of high school, and where, up until recently, the only shops on our main street (other than the 200-year-old Golden Lamb and staple Ice Cream Parlor) were antique markets, and this whole daytrip, I had been explaining the art of tobacco making and covered bridges to J. But here I was--in a town of 1,200 people where between the antique shop and general store on Main Street there is literally a trailer home parked in an empty lot--and all I want is generic coffee, in a thick paper cup that I can carry.

We parked the car ("Look, J! No meters!") in front of the cafe, and peeked in. A friendly woman with dirty blonde hair swished up, carrying Christmas decorations.

"Oh!" she smiled, surprised (there was no one else in the restaurant). "Y'all just caught me puttin' up the Christmas decorations! It's that time of year alrea'y. Now, y'all want somethin' to eat?"

"Um, actually," I said, becoming increasingly aware of my cheeks flushing in embarrassment, "do you have coffee? that we, um, can carry out?" I glanced nervously at the white-washed chairs and bead board walls, well aware of how my conscience was yelling at me to be polite and sit down for a whole meal since, after all, it was Saturday and she had no business.

"Oh, of course! I just finished a pot!" she smiled again and proceeded to describe what amounted to Starbucks grinds in a coffee pot in back with such a flourish that it sounded like she had grown the beans herself and my mouth watered.

"Sounds wonderful," I said and then poked around the Christmas decorations and handmade soaps while we waited.

Some minutes later, her high school-aged daughter reemerged from the back, carrying my coffee and J's peppermint hot chocolate, her eyes locked on J with a shy smile on her face. It occurred to me that probably not many 20-something guys pass through Augusta on vacation, and I smiled too--partly for the feeling of knowing exactly how that girl felt, and partly because that home-brewed Starbucks was the best damn coffee I've ever tasted. We walked down to the river bank one last time, and then got in the car, ready to head back home.

1 comment:

Stephanie Reed said...

Really late to comment on this post, but I agree that Rankin House is a beautiful place. I tell about the family and their Underground Railroad work in my Across the River series--the second book, The Light Across the River, comes out in April. You can watch a book trailer preview here: