Posted by: Sand Squiggles -- Richard Modlin's Blog | July 29, 2010

Blue Highways 1


Blue Highways 1:  Huntsville, Alabama to Kelly’s Island, Ohio

Let me share a trip my wife and I took a few years back, where I stay on back roads that took us from Huntsville, Alabama to Kelly’s Island, Ohio, a trip of about 800 miles.  Had we driven the Interstates, this trip would have taken ten to twelve hours.  Instead we chose to avoid freeways and large cities in Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana and Ohio.  In total of fourteen driving hours we arrived at the ferry dock in Marblehead, Ohio on the shores of Lake Erie.  Actual travel time, however, was two days, because we decided to spend a night in a cute town along the way.

Like Columbus, DeSoto, Balboa, Lewis and Clark, and others explorers we discovered many surprising secrets that lie in the land between the Interstates.  

Just across the border in Tennessee and surrounded by beautiful horse farms with miles of attractive fencing, is Shelbyville.  My wife, a horse lover, knows this place well.

About 120 miles north is Hodgenville, Kentucky, the birthplace and boyhood home of Abraham Lincoln.  In the town square we encountered, and were entertained by, several local politicians stumping for reelection—how about that, ol’ time political enthusiasm still filling the air.

A few miles up the road from Hodgenville is Bardstown.  Here the air took on an odor I’ve smelled before—in a saloon.  But in this city the scent is in its purest form.  Bardstown, Kentucky, the Bourbon Capital of the World, is the home of the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History, and the well known Maker’s Mark and Jim Beam Distilleries. 

This capital of fine whiskey is steeped in early American history and stark contrasts. Stark contrast?  Yes, because just before you get to the whiskey capital, you encounter The Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani.  This is the oldest functioning monastery in the United States.  It was made famous by the author and monk, Thomas Merton, who lived here back in the mid-1800s.  The present day Trappist Monks are in the Order of the Cistercians of Strict Observance.  They devote their lives to prayer and work, and study the mysteries of the Roman Catholic Church. 

When I passed through Bardstown, I wondered, monks being who they are, if they sampled the city’s famous elixirs?  They must, because the Monks of Gethsemani are known as the Bourbon Fudge Monks.  And, I can assure you they make the finest fudge I’ve ever tasted.

Moving on to the north, we exited the blue highway onto a beltline freeway to circle around Louisville.  Then I drove east a few miles on I-71 to a back road that took us to a precipice above the Ohio River.  Down we went to the only bridge between Louisville and Cincinnati that crossed this famous river. 

Across this bridge is Madison, Indiana, a river port town where you expect to meet Mark Twain strolling down Main Street.  And, where high-water marks on sides of building show levels the Ohio River reached during previous flood stages.  I’m glad I wasn’t here when one of these major inundations occurred.  The high-water mark is located two stories above the porch of the Victorian style café where we stopped for a snack.  The peak of its roof was the only part of this building to be above the waves.

 After lunch, we continued to drive north into Indiana.  The road ran straight for about twenty-five miles, paralleling a military base where herds of deer ate peacefully behind a chain-linked fence topped with razor wire.  After crossing under several east-west freeways, we arrived that evening in Greensburg, where we stayed overnight.  

Greensburg, Indiana is where a twisted cedar tree grows atop the cupola of the courthouse, 110 feet above the city’s square.  This anomaly is visible from a few blocks away and becomes more difficult to see as one nears.  As we passed next to the courthouse—I wondered if anyone ever trims the tree.  It didn’t appear so.  Our necks strained and twisted from trying to get a good look at the tree, we continued on to Portland. 

Between Portland and Geneva, Indiana the highway contains lanes, which accommodate Amish buggies. 

A fascinating culture, the Amish are a people who live close to the land and without modern conveniences.  Along the highway their well-kept farms had a subtle absence—no power lines connecting them to the infamous national power grid. 

We stopped to enjoy this culture at Amishville, which is located roughly halfway between Portland and Geneva and well off the main road, a sort of Amish Knott’s Berry Farm.  To find it just follow the signs along the buggy lane.

Approaching Geneva, the highway passes through a portion of the Limberlost Swamp, a wetland made famous through the writings of naturalist Gene Stratton-Porter.  Her home, now a museum, is in the city of Geneva.  

Up the road a few miles is the city of Berne, where a beguiling Swiss ambience met us.  Chalet-styled facades, from which flapped colorful flags, tried to entice travelers to alpine splendors and tasty chocolate.  Chocolate they had, mountains?  This is the flatland of Indiana. 

Soon we shot east passed the manicured farms of western Ohio, Heidelberg College in Tiffin, and the Hayes Presidential Center in Fremont.  Then north again to Marblehead, where we stopped at Cheesehaven, our favorite fournisseur de fromage.  After purchasing some delectable cheeses, and groceries and supplies at the local Walmart, we drove the short distance to the pier and caught the ferry to Kelly’s Island.


© Richard Modlin, 2010


  1. Now that’s the way to travel. Slow and steady allows one the chance to enjoy the many sights, sounds, and flavors to often missed. Well done.

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