I've never been to the Kentucky Derby, and I've never toured a bourbon distillery. Western Kentucky isn't quite as brochure-ready as sites such as Churchill Downs and the Lincoln Memorial, but we have plenty to be proud of — and if you're traveling through the state on I-65, you can easily access much of it. Here are my north-to-south recommendations:
1. Mammoth Cave National Park, Mammoth Cave, KY.
In my short story "Allegory of a Cave," Ben, an earnest sixth grader, is promised a trip to Mammoth Cave — but his father takes him to a strip club instead. You, however, shouldn't miss a tour of the world's longest known cave system: "367 miles explored," the website promises. I've been on the two-hour Historic Tour several times — it's a rite of passage for Kentucky elementary schoolers — and hope to someday return for one of the more rigorous hikes, such as the Snowball Tour or Violet City Lantern Tour.
2. The National Corvette Museum, Bowling Green, KY.
Fathers figure loom large in my story collection, and the father in "Proof of God" insists to his son that "Corvettes...[are] the only American vehicle worth a goddamn anymore, and made in Bowling Green, Kentucky, at that. Good for the local economy." If you're a car enthusiast, this is worth the very quick detour off of I-65. If you're like me and would rather have a plate of barbecue, hold tight.
3. Old Southern Deposit Bank, Russellville, KY.
There are two major sources of civilian pride in my hometown of Russellville, Kentucky: One (and I can't get definitive Internet confirmation of this) is that Russellville was briefly the capital of the Confederate States of America; the other is that Jesse James and his gang robbed the Old Southern Deposit Bank in 1868. The bank is a museum now, and if you can delay your travels until October, you'll be treated to Russellville's Tobacco and Heritage Festival, where a reenactment of the infamous robbery is staged with real horses and fake pistols.
4. Roy's Pit Bar-B-Q, Russellville, KY.
The real reason for Russellville civic pride, if you ask me: shredded, seasoned pulled pork (or beef, or mutton), served on bun or cornbread cakes, delicious with or without the optional hot and mild sauces. My parents like it Carolina-style, piled high with coleslaw, but why gild a lily? The scene in my story "Good Girl," in which Jacob first meets Helen, takes place at Gary's Pit Bar-B-Q — which is Roy's, down to the UK prints on the walls and the shaker of Lawry's Seasoned Salt on the table.
5. A cheat, with apologies.
The honest Kentucky saleswoman in me would direct you to Shakertown at South Union, Kentucky, where you can tour a Shaker village and learn about the lifestyle and craftsmanship of one of America's most fascinating religious sects. But I have an unhealthy appreciation for oddities, especially misguided ones, and so I can't help but mention as well the Jefferson Davis monument in Fairview, KY, which is southwest of Russellville. A smaller replica of the Washington Monument in D.C., this concrete obelisk juts out over gently rolling farmland like the proverbial sore thumb, memorializing a man that many would sooner forget. Highway 68's a beautiful drive, though, taking you through some of Kentucky's Amish country — and along the path of the annual 400-mile yard sale — and this odd attraction is worth at least a conflicted glance along the way.