Louisville, Kentucky

The Conrad-Caldwell House, built in a Romanesque style in 1895, in Old Louisville.

The Conrad-Caldwell House, built in a Romanesque style in 1895, in Old Louisville.

Beth. We almost never meet, yet I don’t know what I would have done without her. I messaged eight potential cyclist hosts in Louisville, but she’s the only one who responded. She and her boyfriend Forrest not only host, but also drive me around to the sights and take me out on the town.

Our first night she makes pasta with garlic bread, which we start eating standing up in the kitchen because with so much to talk about we don’t get around to sitting down.

From the screen door I peer into the backyard. Roaming the vegetable garden are four ducks of different breeds: Quackers, Fudgesticks, Josephine and Jedidah Puddle Duck. Don’t ask me the breeds. I have enough trouble remembering their names. They share space with a boney cat Beth smuggled out of Mongolia as a kitten.

We move into the living room where I learn more about her. She’s from Cleveland, Jewish and has more interesting jobs than anyone I’ve ever met. Currently she’s a professional stilt walker. She went to Mongolia in the Peace Corps before becoming disenchanted with local leaders squandering funds earmarked for wildlife field research on bottles of vodka. That particular program has been shut down although locals’ affinity for liquor has its advantages.

Apparently Mongolians think cats are unlucky and have no love for them. Beth finds an abandoned kitten destined for death and nurtures it. When her time in Mongolia was coming to an end, she got the local vet drunk and had him falsify vaccination papers.

Ulaanbaatar airport authorities are all too happy to have a feline flee the country. Transiting through China, however, the cat has to be quarantined. The cat was locked in a cage with no water, and Beth had no intentions of waiting four months to see how this played out. She barged into the airport quarantine office, acting like the four months were already over. Fake it til you make it!

The official didn’t buy it, but serendipitously, a Mongolian man needing assistance could not communicate in Chinese or English. Beth translated his Mongolian into English, and as a trade-off, her cat has a new life in Louisville.  

My wonderfully generous hosts Beth and Forrest at President Zachary Taylor's grave in Louisville.

My wonderfully generous hosts Beth and Forrest at President Zachary Taylor's grave in Louisville.

Bourbon & Bathrooms
After dinner we head out for a drink at Proof on Main inside 21c Museum Hotel. Forrest wants me to try the local specialty, bourbon, in the city’s swankiest setting.

Although Beth and I don’t really drink bourbon, three glasses of Blanton’s arrive. We sip the amber liquid and Forrest sips faster. He loves this stuff, but admits this highbrow place makes him uneasy. I’m humbled that he picks up the bill. I’m not expecting my hosts to take me out, much less to a fancy place like this.

Aside from the award-winning bar, this luxury hotel also boasts a contemporary art museum and the highest rated bathrooms in the nation (video here). So cool that I get confused and don’t end up peeing. What seems to be a pee wall looks out into the hallway where people are looking in. At me. Am I even supposed to pee on this glass wall? Unsure of what’s going on, I just wash my hands and walk out.

Meet Forrest
Forest is an interesting guy. Beth met him on Myspace through a shared interest in cycling. They went on to start a pedicab business together, shuttling tourists from downtown hotels and restaurants to casinos and strip clubs on the weekends. The business had potential, but was time consuming to manage.

Couldn’t they rent out the bikes to other drivers, I asked.

Yes, but new issues arise. After one did coke in a hotel room, he came out delusional, freaked out on the bike and abandoned it in the middle of traffic. After Beth got hit by a car while biking they suspended operations indefinitely.

From rickshaws to big rigs, the couple took up trucking, but discontinued driving when they spent more time apart than together. The dishonesty of their two different employers also led them leave. I can’t imagine Beth, petite and sweet, going from pedaling a pedicab to making left turns in a semi.

Forrest is from southern Indiana and currently is a lighting technician, primarily working on service stations in the Louisville area. He left home at 19 and bought a one-way ticket to Montana to attend a Rainbow Gathering. He lived in a National Park for a month and figured, worst case, he’d walk back home. Instead he got a ride on a school bus and it broke down in Iowa.

He tried hitchhiking, immediately got picked up, and realized this was a faster way to move around. Four unknown wheels beats two steady feet. He criss-crossed the country hitchhiking from Colorado back to southern Indiana, onto Key West and then Seattle.

“I’d catch weird jobs and never know what I was getting into. I started playing music and vending food at concerts. I traveled all over the East Coast for that.”

Sometimes he’d jump on freight trains. I had many questions about that, starting with how exactly do you jump on a moving train?

“The rule of thumb is to count the lug nuts on wheel. If you can’t, it’s going too fast.”

And where do you hide out on the train, I wondered.

“Don’t pick a box car. Never there,” Forrest says. “They are usually older and the door can close and lock from outside. They can also get dropped off in the middle of no where.”

The best ride is in the grainers, he explains, or the caboose, which is electrified to help push the train up a hill. He got arrested once for trespassing, but only got stopped that once. I think I’ll stick to the shared bike.

Between hitching rides with cars and on trains, Forrest has seen a lot.

“I’ve traveled pretty extensively in the country. I also went to Canada and had three jobs, under-the-table landscaping jobs. I illegally immigrated up there, and they called me ‘ice back’ as a joke.”

“I have a rule… don’t keep your job for more than two years. Unless you’re moving up very quickly there’s no reason to stick around.”

Forrest and I don’t have much in common, but this I can really relate to. I haven’t worked full-time for someone else for more than two years. It’s just not worth the degradation you suffer at the hands of bosses who have no interest in you as a person—only as a piece that keeps the profit flowing. That defines my experience in corporate event planning at two different agencies where I was treated with the dignity of an interchangeable part of a machine I’ll never go back to.

Now charting my own course, I am inspired by kind-hearted people like Forrest and Beth who lead an entrepreneurial life on their own terms while making life work for them. They plan to move out of their house and buy a farm in southern Indiana, which I’ve already learned is home to great people (and drivers). They’ll fit right in.  

What else did I do in Louisville? Here are Instagram posts from my time in Louisville.

When in #louisville, pay respect to Colonel Sanders, founder of #kfc #kentuckyfriedchicken.

A photo posted by Jeffrey (@countribike) on