Kentucky is geographically close to Illinois. In fact, they share a border along the Ohio River. But when you live in Chicago, Kentucky is actually very far away. Anyone who has driven across Illinois from north to south, or vice versa, can tell you how far it really is. The same is true of New York, if you’ve ever driven the Thruway from east to west. Driving the width and breadth of most states gives you a new appreciation for their physical size.
My daughters get a week off from school for Spring Break, and our family custom is to pick a state and see what it has to offer. One year we did this with Arizona, another year was Virginia, and lucky winner for last year was Kentucky. Louisville and Mammoth Cave were the main attractions, but Cumberland Falls was also in the mix. And then there’s Corbin, the birthplace of Kentucky Fried Chicken. I must point out that it was entirely incidental to already being in the state. I love KFC as much as the next guy, but I wouldn’t plan a vacation around it.
As we were driving south, from Louisville on our way to Mammoth Cave, I realized that Lincoln’s birthplace is also in Kentucky. Having grown up surrounded by all things Lincoln, and living near several Lincoln-related sites in Chicago, it occurred to me that we could learn something about the earliest days of Lincoln’s life in Kentucky. And so off we went.
After spending some time at the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, and driving across the Kentucky countryside, we arrived sometime after 4:30 PM. We did not consider that there would be visiting hours, so we parked the car and walked up the hill to where the birthplace is located. Then we heard some rather ominous warnings that the site would be closing at any minute. To say we were being rushed out would be an understatement.
Atop the idyllic hilltop were the monument is located, it was kind of nice, especially with the springtime’s blooms all around us. But, unfortunately, there was orange construction fencing ringed around the structure that exists there. It was built to resemble a log cabin, most likely, but there was no way of getting close enough to see. That was certainly a bit disappointing. But I took a few pictures, tried to imagine how it must have been back in the winter of 1809, and got back in the car. I pulled away with a sense that an opportunity had somehow been missed.
But it wasn’t over yet. Located not too far from Lincoln’s birthplace is Lincoln’s boyhood home. We briefly debated whether or not to see it, since we didn’t know whether or not it would be open. But since it was a sunny Spring day, we decided to go and check it out.
After a short drive, we arrived at the site, which is located about 20 minutes away. (We don’t measure the distance in miles, but in time.) It was still bright and sunny, but the visitor’s center was closed up, and there was nobody prodding us to leave.
We came upon a large field with a split rail fence, where my daughters posed for some pictures. We then decided to walk around and explore a little bit. We found a stream, and that’s when it hit me: structures come and go, but nature endures. I knew that the stream was there, just where it was when Lincoln was a young boy. Lincoln once knew that stream, when he was a young boy without any idea of what was waiting for him later in life. But he was once there, at the same stream that I was looking at.
It felt like time stood still, as my imagination carried me me back across the centuries. A much different world had once surrounded that stream, one where slavery was legal and a young boy encountered it for the first time. That boy had to make sense of what it meant, while being surrounded by adults who had never known, and could scarcely imagine, a world without it. It took many decades for him to right this wrong, but he did it and then paid for it with his life. At that moment, I felt a real sense of amazement and gratitude at what Lincoln was able to accomplish.
We left after about ten minutes, with my kids telling me they wanted to get to our hotel and the indoor pool that it offered. But I was glad that we made the trip, and I would not have traded the experience for anything.