Best Defense

Western Kentuck, I thank you

I’ve been all over this great big world, too often in Third World shitholes to cover civil wars and their ripple effects, but until recently I’d never driven across western Kentucky.

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I’ve been all over this great big world, too often in Third World shitholes to cover civil wars and their ripple effects, but until recently I’d never driven across western Kentucky. Over the last few days, I drove across much of the country, wondering what the hell happened to it. But enough of that.

Western Kentuck was OK to look at — nothing to write home about — but what struck me was the role in American history it played. First, there are family roots. After the British whacked some of my forebears at Guilford Courthouse, my peoples trundled west to land on the eastern bank of the Cumberland River, on Donaldson Creek. Then, when Kentucky started getting too crowded in the 1840s, they lit out for the west. (Perhaps this is why I like a lot of Ryan Adams songs, especially “Let It Ride.” I may have some of the Cumberland River in my blood.) The people they left behind them in Kentucky had nothing to do so they were given some mandolins by immigrants and this led them to invent bluegrass music, which in a nutshell is what happens when Italian folk music meets hillbillies. There’s a lot of Copperhead Road feel to the place. Allison Moorer, this is your exit notice.

Also driving on the badly named highways of western Kentucky, I passed signs for memorials to Bill Monroe and the Everly Brothers. In Muhlenberg County, I drove past the “Paradise Business Park.” John Prine wept.

I walked the dog in Paducah, and was struck by what a central point it is in America — pretty much the only relatively high ground near where the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers meet, as well as where until a few years ago we cooked up the basic ingredients to atom bombs. You could say the geographical and psychological heart of the country. It amazes me that the Mississippi watershed stretches from western Maryland to western Montana. That’s a lot of water to concentrate at the point where Kentucky, Missouri and Illinois meet.

Those are some big rivers. For the first time in my life, I understood how Jim and Huck missed their left turn at Cairo. I drove past the confluence of the Mississippi and the Ohio on a moonless night on U.S. 60 from Kentuck to Illinois to Missouri and was never sure if I was looking at side waters or the main stream. And that was with the headlights and the GPS on.

I came away persuaded that Kentucky has the worst food and coffee in the Lower 48. No wonder they drink so much whiskey. When the best lunch in town is Subway’s, one gots to wonder. My estimate is that bad coffee zone in America stretches from just east of Dallas all the way to Norfolk and Virginia Beach. Hmm — that’s also the hard-right belt. The coffee I bought at a McDonald’s in Sikesville, Mo., was undrinkable, and I say that as someone who has swilled a lot of military coffee at midnight in combat TOCs, as well as weak Navy coffee with midrats.

The following morning I drive down the west bank of the big river past New Madrid and Braggadocio, Mo., and into Arkansas. The land was flat brown mud all the way to the horizon, the sky was huge and cloudless blue, the sun was big and hot. Trees were few. It hit me that the Lower Mississippi Valley felt to me like the Tigris Valley south of Baghdad.

Later that day I drove through SW Arkansas. It amazes me that Bill Clinton, Mike Huckabee and H. Ross Perot all come from that same little backwoods corner that somehow must be the world’s leading producer of bullshit artists.

Image credit: Huckleberry Finn and Jim on their raft, by E.W. Kemble, from the 1884 edition. Project Gutenberg/Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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