From my window seat on the plane into the Blue Grass Airport of Lexington, Ky., all I see is green — maybe even some of that bluegrass Kentucky’s famous for. It’ll only get greener where I’m headed: the Heartland Waterways, a network of rural towns sprinkled along the Green River. My trip is all about getting back to basics. And though my cell phone still gets a signal here, I turn it off to get the full effect.
“How y’all doing?” asks a gentleman as I step off the plane. Hospitality is first with every person I come across, whether it’s a tip of the hat or a friendly hug.
It’s catching: I start to enjoy not having a Target around the corner or constant access to my e-mail. To really grasp the simple-living concept, I head an hour south of Lexington to Harrodsburg, home of the largest restored Shaker village in the United States.
The Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill is set among 3,000 acres of farmlands, with 34 original buildings that provide lodging and demonstrations of trades such as weaving and coopering, the process of making wooden barrels. The Shakers settled in this area in 1805.
Most of the buildings on the grounds of the living history museum have separate entrances and staircases — one side for women, the other for men — emphasizing the brother-and-sister relationship the Shakers believed in. Similarly, my room in the West Family Dwelling typifies the Shaker design esthetic, furnished with a simple Shaker rocking chair, a bed, desk and the signature peg rail workmanship. (Yes, there’s also a TV for those who require such amenities, but I refuse to turn it on.)
From my window, I can see some of the 40 miles of marked trails that I will later hike. Guests can bike, horseback ride or just walk and enjoy nature along what used to be called the 1837 Turnpike back when the Shakers used to trade with the townspeople.
At the Meeting House, I pause to hear an a cappella musical performance. After he finishes, the singer explains that the term “Shakers” came from their custom of performing songs and movements in unison, which to outsiders looked like shaking.
Shakers believed in functionality in everything from furniture (which is available at the Carpenter’s Shop Craft Store and the Post Office Craft Store) to food (a signature Shaker dessert is a lemon pie that incorporates the whole fruit — rind and all). In this simple building, the acoustics are amazing. It’s hard to imagine what 100 people singing would have sounded like.
Even when served by candle light in the historic Trustees’ Office Dining Room, it takes only one bite to realize Shaker lemon pies are a little too tart for me. I prefer the gentler taste of a Kentucky staple: sweet tea.
The next day, on a houseboat in Columbia, I drift on Green River Lake lunching on the commonalities of Kentucky — more sweet tea (I even see Mickey D’s billboards touting this stuff, and by the end of the trip, I’m addicted) and pulled pork sandwiches. I kick off my sandals, listen to the breeze and that’s it. No TVs, no magazines, just me and the wind. A brief storm rolls in, and I close my eyes and listen to the syncopation of the raindrops.
To my surprise, not only are most of the counties in Southern and Eastern Kentucky dry (no alcohol is served or sold), but also the time zones change. When I cross into Campbellsville for a canoeing excursion down the Green River, Mike Daugherty, owner of Green River Canoes, explains that we’ve entered “slow time” — time moves back one hour — and I’m happy to hear it (who doesn’t want an extended vacation?). As we make our way down a 12-mile course, we pass a few private hideaways, one with what Daughtery calls a “redneck hammock” — a mattress tied between two trees. A couple copperhead snake sightings and five-and-a-half quiet hours later, I’m starting to wish I were back on “fast time.” The river is low, and constant paddling is a must. I’m getting tired. Lucky for me, my canoeing partner is strong, with some of that Southern hospitality — and he doesn’t mind if I sit back and take in Kentucky’s simple pleasures.
If you Go:
In its heyday, the Shaker community at Pleasant Hill was home to about 500 people. In 1961, a nonprofit organization was founded to revitalize and restore its legacy. Village admission is $14 for adults, $7 for children 12-17 and $5 for children 6-11; overnight accommodations are $79 to $225. 3501 Lexington Road, Harrodsburg, Ky.; (859) 734-1562 or www.shakervillageky.org
Rent a houseboat or stay in a cabin at the Holmes Bend Marina Resort. Choose from a variety of houseboats (most can sleep from six to 14 people and are equipped with a full kitchen, patio and upper deck with a slide). 1-800-801-8154 or www.holmesbendresort.com
Mike, over at Green River Canoes, will customize a plan for those looking for a five-and-a-half-hour epic trip or a more leisurely adventure. He knows the area well, has lots of stories and packs a mean lunch. Campbellsville, Ky.; (270) 789-2956