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Traveling in Style : HOLY LAND OF THE SOUTH : A Drive Along the Back Roads of Kentucky Between Louisville and Lexington Yields a Few Surprises: Peaceful Monasteries, the Virgin Mary and Good, Honest Whiskey

March 05, 1995|Fenton Johnson | San Francisco writer Fenton Johnson's most recent novel, "Scissors, Paper, Rock," (Washington Square) is set in central Kentucky and on the Northern California coast.

As any Flannery O'Connor fan knows, the Catholic in the South occupies a peculiar terrain in which the incense-and-holy-water traditions of Rome cohabit uneasily with their Bible-thumping New World offspring. Nowhere is that contrast more apparent than in the countryside south of Louisville. Travelers from distant parts usually find themselves here for some horse-related reason--touring the horse farms of the Bluegrass or betting the races at Churchill Downs, where, on the first Saturday in May, the Kentucky Derby draws thousands of julep-sipping fans.

But the region also offers rewards for those seeking another kind of journey. On a scenic overnight tour, that traveler will encounter what's best and what's left of two very different versions of old-time religion. Locals, given to hyperbole (they are Southerners, after all), call this countryside the "holy land of the South" because of its concentration of 19th-Century Catholic abbeys, convents, priories and parishes.

In the space of a few miles, the spiritual landscape shifts from the plain clapboard churches of the Bible Belt to statues of the Virgin sheltered by inverted bathtubs half-buried in the earth and painted pale blue. The fundamentalists' plain wooden cross gives way to the flamboyantly bloodied Christ of the Roman crucifix.

English-heritage Catholics fleeing discriminatory taxation in western Maryland settled here in 1785. Through the labor of Father Stephen Badin (the first Roman Catholic priest ordained in America and a founder of Notre Dame University) and the French bishop Joseph Flaget, the area developed into a headquarters for the grooming of a religious hierarchy to serve America's growing Catholic population.

In these hinterlands, the high road--in this case, U.S. 31E--acts as an artery joining the countryside to the outside world, coursing with the contemporary, here-and-now blood of travelers and commerce. Visitors who venture off the well-beaten path remove themselves from the flow of time, stripping away one decade after another until, in places like Holy Cross or Howardstown, they find little blood, little commerce, no travelers. From these churchyards, they may look a long time before finding evidence of the 20th Century.

Sixty miles south of Louisville, in Hodgenville, a granite-and-marble temple enshrines the log cabin traditionally identified as that in which Abraham Lincoln was born. In his letters, Lincoln mentioned the surrounding hills as the landscape of his earliest memories. A walk or drive through them offers a particularly evocative homage to America's secular saint, born to compromise on this border state.

Hodgenville epitomizes the small villages of the Protestant South: the Southern Baptist church crowns the town's highest point and the sale of alcohol is forbidden. But journey north a few miles and across the Rolling Fork River and suddenly liquor is legal, preachers are priests and living takes on a more boisterous edge. The idyllically pastoral countryside, with its limestone cliffs, placid rivers and forested hills, evokes a less civilized version of western New England.

If time is really of no importance--which is to say, if you have taken to heart what it means to be a Southerner--the children in the schoolyard of St. Ann's Church (founded 1787) in Howardstown, about nine miles from Hodgenville, will give directions to the gravel road that leads to the now-abandoned Gaddy's Ford Bridge. Along the road, a spectacular display of native wildflowers blooms in abundance, from the Dutchman's breeches and pure white trilliums of early spring to carpets of flecked orange jewelweed and brilliant purple ironweed in late summer.

Just past Howardstown, following the Rolling Fork north on KY 247, a small gravel road off to the right leads into the St. Ann cemetery, whose crest offers a sweeping view of the winding river, the cliffs and the small village below. Farther down the road the casual driver once caught above the trees a heart-stopping glimpse of the steeple at the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemane near New Haven, where Thomas Merton wrote "The Seven Storey Mountain" as well as other books that became beacons for legions of contemplatives in both Western and Eastern religious traditions.

Forty-fiveTrappist monks arrived from France in 1848 to found this monastery. A century later some of their more rambunctious brothers crept from the enclosure to cross the hills to my parents' back yard, to drink beer and smoke cigarettes and watch football games on television. The steeple is gone now (victim of a renovation), and age and modernism have decimated the monastery census--today the monks' average age hovers around 65. But they still file into the austere abbey church to sing the canonical hours, beginning with matins at 3 a.m. through to the best-attended and most elaborate vespers near sunset.

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