I make a plan for Kentucky, a plan that feels exciting and slightly scary, if only to me. (I am afraid of everything.) The plan involves an activity I’ve never done in a corner of the state I’ve never seen. But late the night before, when I reevaluate timing and (lack of) money and the distances involved – Kentucky takes something like six hours to cross from west to east – my plan evaporates. So early in the morning, I fall back into familiar patterns, and return almost instinctually to a town I visited in 2010. At the time, I was doing research for a potential writing project, following a story that never went anywhere about a man who traveled everywhere, as fast as he could, but in the end got nowhere at all.
There are more highways than I remember on the way to Bardstown, with heavier traffic merging across more lanes onto longer bridges. But just as I start to worry that my GPS has led me astray, it directs me onto a local road through a green landscape that is soon replaced by neatly arranged small-town streets lined with orderly houses and straight sidewalks, and the approach to this pretty and melancholy place comes back to me.
Here’s what I wrote about Bardstown almost exactly seven years ago:
I was driving on a Kentucky road when a voice on the radio informed me that I was really in a place called Kentuckiana. Just when you think you have life figured out, when you know where you’re going and what you are going to find there, something comes along and throws it all, once again, into confusion. Somebody goes and invents a new state. Now, walking through a quiet residential neighborhood on a late August afternoon, I feel out of place and uncertain. The trees seem to dislike me. Their low-hanging branches swoop towards my head, as if they are trying to shoo me away. It occurs to me that I am trespassing on someone’s lawn. Perhaps I should be concerned that they might shoot me, but I’m not. I am only afraid that they will come out and politely inquire what I’m doing here.
The guy at the front desk of my hotel asked me that. He glanced at his computer screen and said, confused, “You’re from…Connect-i-cut?” He pronounced the “c” in the middle. “Connecticut,” I corrected, uselessly. He looked at me, eyelids lowered over wary eyes. “What brings you to this place?” he asked, like a suspicious immigration official in an unstable country. I suppose I don’t look like I’ve come for the My Old Kentucky Dinner Train. “Just passing through,” I said. It wasn’t a lie. Nor was it entirely true.
It’s not that I don’t know why I’m here, walking along West John Fitch Avenue. I am not completely aimless. I’m looking for a graveyard, where the man who gave his name to the street is not buried. I came to Bardstown, KY (population around 11,000, self-proclaimed Bourbon Capital of the World, and enthusiastic booster of all things Stephen Foster) because John Fitch died here in 1798, and I am slightly obsessed with John Fitch. He is one of those historical figures you come across by chance, probably in a footnote, while reading about someone else. If my history teachers had been aware of his existence, which I doubt they were, I could see why they never mentioned him. The moral of his life story is essentially that sometimes hard work gets you nowhere, and that if you pull yourself up by your bootstraps enough times, your bootstraps eventually rot through and disintegrate in your hands.
The short version goes something like this: John Fitch was born in Windsor, CT in 1743. Despite a life of almost continual misfortune, he managed to become, among other things, a self-taught geographer, watchmaker, silversmith, surveyor, and peripatetic jack-of-all-trades. Somewhere between serving in and selling beer to the Revolutionary army, getting captured by Indians, speculating in frontier real estate, and fleeing a domestic soap opera, he managed to invent and build America’s first steamboat. It attracted the attention of delegates to the Constitutional Convention as it ferried passengers up and down the Delaware at an astonishing seven (or possibly eight or even ten!) miles per hour. But ultimately, it brought Fitch no closer to the recognition and success he unceasingly toiled for. He vacillated repeatedly from failure to acclaim before finally descending into poverty and obscurity and depression. He eventually killed himself with a surfeit of whiskey and opium.
The long version is unbelievable.
What struck me most, when I first encountered this story (aside from the fact that the inventor of the steamboat was not Robert Fulton) is the surprising amount of physical ground Fitch covered in his lifetime. Sometimes he set out purposely, or defiantly; sometimes he wandered haphazardly, hardly knowing where or if he would stop. His Connecticut childhood and his Kentucky demise are short, sedentary brackets around a life of constant rambling. Where he is still remembered, on far-flung plaques and street names or lists of early American notables, it is as an inventor. But in my mind, he is primarily a traveler.
To history though, when it bothers to remember him, his only accomplishment of consequence was the steamboat. Once he conceived of the notion he could not let it go, though he seems to have almost wished he’d never thought of it in the first place. He wrote, “I was so unfortunate in the month of April, 1785, as to have an idea…” I don’t fully understand steamboats, their cylinders and boilers and pumps. But I understand the propelling force of an idea, as well as its potential for destruction. “I have pursued the Idea to this day, with unremitting assiduity, yet do frankly confess that it has been the most imprudent scheme that ever I engaged in,” Fitch wrote. “I am apt to charge myself with being deranged at the time of my engaging in it.” As I walk beneath the ornery Kentuckiana trees, on a self-funded research trip for a story I may never get to write, I understand what he meant.
The morning I left Connecticut, the air was blowing in cool off the water. The seagulls wailed as if they were telling each other that fall was coming, and all too soon winter would be here. In Bardstown, however, it is relentlessly summer still, the kind of Southern summer that is uncomfortable yet strangely redemptive, as if you are working even when you are standing still. I walk two blocks and my makeup begins to liquefy on my face. I walk two more and the bottoms of my feet are burning with each step as if my rubber flip-flops might melt into black bubbling pools on the sidewalk. I plod laboriously through the humidity, moving so slowly that I have time to respond when passing strangers say hello.
Searching for the graveyard, I pass a perfect house, where a group of people are gathered on the front porch. I can tell from their buoyant laughter, wafting above the heaviness of the air, that they are rich and happy and probably drinking mint juleps. They are ideally situated to watch me as I plod by, incongruously clad in a black skirt and tank top. In the North, everyone impatiently abandoned their summer clothes weeks ago, as if they could force a change in the weather by sheer determination and inappropriate footwear. But here in Bardstown the dress code is aggressively pastel, broken only by the occasional bright red t-shirt and jeans.
The cemetery, which I am expecting to be grand and gloomy, is neither. It is tiny, just a yard without a house, covering one square block and enclosed by a wooden fence. There are a few sarcophagi, randomly spaced out, but the majority of the graves have little tilting headstones. These congregate in groups, leaving large empty patches of seemingly undisturbed grass. There’s a historical marker planted in the lawn outside the fence, with text on both sides briefly summarizing Fitch’s life. Even here, the competition is inescapable: Robert Fulton developed his boat, the CLERMONT, In 1807. See Over. Fitch was buried here until 1927, when the U.S. Government decided he deserved a more distinguished resting place, and moved him downtown.
Downtown Bardstown is painfully adorable. Law offices and financial services buildings look like museums, and historic markers are everywhere; you can literally trip over history, all of which seems to have happened in the middle of the sidewalk. If you prefer to view the sites in a less rambling manner than I, you can take a ride around town on a horse-drawn carriage. They pick up passengers at a bench with a little shelter, a sort of faux 18th century bus stop. This kind of twee detail pops up wherever I turn; every shutter is painted in just the right unexpected color and every flower in every half-hidden back garden has just bloomed. There are countless towns like this in America, preserved at the height of their sweetness and lovingly polished ever since. But the discovery that Bardstown is one of these places surprises me. Perhaps it’s because before I came here, my image of the town came only from the story of Fitch in his boarding house, fighting over frontier land claims, saving up opium pills, waiting to die.
Modern Bardstown is almost breathtakingly pretty, and not really all that modern. Only the sight of a UPS drop box, or the sound of hip-hop playing through the open windows of a passing car, remind me what century it is. Fitch had a habit of unwittingly associating himself with places that became towns like this. Even the site where he was captured by Indians is now Marietta, Ohio, which looks as if it was designed for the purpose of one day being named Most Picturesque Small Town by some travel magazine. Perhaps, instead of speculating in land, John Fitch should have speculated in cute.
I find Fitch’s grave on Court Square, named for the old courthouse, now the Welcome Center, which looks like an elaborate gingerbread palace in the middle of a roundabout. A simple yet dignified monument stands atop stone steps. Fitch is depicted in bronze on its front. Next to it is a weathered wooden replica of his first steamboat, 1/25th of the original size, its primitive paddles hanging by its sides like oars. While looking at it, I notice a sign advertising an apartment available in a building across the street. That’s how easy it would be: rent a room in Kentucky, spend your days tinkering with a small model steamboat on a nearby stream, fade away.
I head back to my hotel room, avoiding the lobby in case my interrogation is not over. I don’t know why I’m reluctant to say what brings me here. I could just say I’m writing about John Fitch. But then I might have to explain about travel and restlessness and obsession, about ideas so strong they might as well be powered by vaporized water and a paddle wheel, and following them wherever they lead, even if they lead to failure.
In August 2017, Bardstown seems a little less special, a little less sweet. It still has the same historic buildings, and the same central roundabout anchoring the square. But this time I notice the town’s worn edges, and the ugly cars in front of the 18th century facades and postcard-worthy storefronts. I don’t know it it’s because I’ve seen more of America since then, or because the nation itself has shifted, become coarser and less trusting, turned itself into the unstable country I’d imagined in that hotel lobby years ago. Now, mundane modern life seems to have fully infiltrated the place that struck me back then as a memory of the past suspended in a bubble. No one is gathered on a porch, no one says hello on the sidewalk, and the languid tree branches seem to have been cut back.
But there are still white fences and Kentucky bourbon, and there is still plenty of Stephen Foster, but the song that becomes lodged in my head isn’t one of his: instead, I walk around town with the Squirrel Nut Zippers “Ghost of Stephen Foster” bouncing inside my brain: Camptown ladies never sang all the doo dah day no no no.
The downtown commercial buildings are adorned with tiny plaques, commemorating the businesses that have occupied them over the years. Most of the little shops have bright ribbon-festooned flags that say OPEN beside their doors. But other signs compete for attention and overpower them. Lawn signs, like those used for political campaigns, offer prayers and support for an area family that suffered double tragedies last year. But I have to look this up to understand it; something about the design and phrasing of the signs seems almost confrontational, more aggressive than usual for such expressions of love, so I assume at first that the people of Bardstown are taking a side in some local dispute. One otherwise adorable storefront is dominated by a sign that reads: Police Lives Matter. And then everything seems vaguely threatening, like the innocuous ‘80s country lyrics that blare from a restaurant patio: They call us country bumpkins for sticking to our roots. I walk past before Barbara Mandrell sings the next line: I’m just glad we’re in a country where we’re all free to choose.
On John Fitch Avenue, the perfect houses don’t seem all that impressive anymore. Nearby, Fitch’s monument and the steamboat replica still stand. I take a few pictures of the wooden boat and read the short biography under Fitch’s bronze image. It ends with, “He reaped neither profit nor glory from his inventions, which contributed toward the revolution of navigation.”
As Fitch tells it, his idea began not with a boat, but with a sort of car. “…I walked to meeting on foot,” he writes in his autobiography, “but on my return found it to seize me pretty severely in one of my knees. And in the Street Road a Gentleman passed me in a Chair with a Noble Horse. A thought struck me that it would be a noble thing if I could have a carriage without the expense of keeping a hors.” I have abandoned some of the dreams I had the last time I walked through the streets of Bardstown, and some of the optimism. But I am still naively driven by the power of ideas and the impulse to keep moving. I have learned over the years what Fitch knew: that it’s hard – nearly impossible – to succeed in America without good looks, connections, and money. But I do have a car, so at least I can drive out of Kentucky.
On the country roads leading out of Bardstown, I can drive away from my failed travel plan and from all the failures cluttering my mind, past and present, personal and national. On the highways, no matter how congested or crumbling, America is still what they promised us it would be, a place where despite knowing better I can agree with the sentence John Fitch wrote just after the one about the carriage without the horse: “A query then rose immediately in my mind Thus viz what cannot you do if you will get yourself about it.”