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2018 Apr

By the Green River

The water was just a few inches deep as I kayaked along Kentucky’s Green River in early summer. Normally flush with water in June, the river barely trickled in spots due to an ongoing drought. Sometimes when the river curved around bends and funneled into narrower necks, my kayak and I sailed effortlessly along rippling currents for a few moments of pleasure. More often the bottom of my kayak scraped along river rocks while I scooted, leaned, and wiggled, seeking deeper water.

Despite the low water levels and the extra muscle power I had to expend, I was happy to be floating along the Green River, communing with nature in this peaceful green slice of paradise. In nearby fields cows mooed, and distant trains whistled. Birds twittered all around. Occasionally a fish jumped. Overhanging trees offered respite from the afternoon sun, and when the heat became too intense, I glided onto a shady riverbank and took a dip in the cool river water. 

As I journeyed, I felt a strange sense of déjà vu. There was something eerily familiar about this place, like a forgotten dream. But since I’d never visited Kentucky, I couldn’t make the connection.

Suddenly a favorite tune bubbled up from the depths of my past: “Oh, Daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg County, down by the Green River, where Paradise lay.” As the lyrics to John Prine’s 70s hit, Paradise, washed over me, I felt the thrill that occurs when two disparate elements of life collide in an unexpected, serendipitous way. “Where the air smelled like snakes and we’d shoot with our pistols, but empty pop bottles was all we would kill.”   

The air did smell like snakes along the Green River: a swampy-sweet odor slithering from beneath gnarly tree roots along the muddy banks. And I did pass by target ranges of rusty cans lined up with care, each marked by BB’s and bullets many times over. At intervals during my float downriver, I passed happy children splashing and swimming, a reminder of simpler days when finding pleasure meant cooling off in the river with your best friend.

John Prine’s song carried its own set of memories: singing with friends in old houses with sagging porches, warmed by woodstoves and six packs of beer. As guitars and harmonicas reached crazy crescendos, our voices joined together without inhibition—and we shared the pure joy that singing brings. To celebrate my memory, I sang a few bars of Paradise as I continued downriver, my paddles splashing in rhythm.

The town of Paradise lamented by John Prine in his song is no more, but I think paradise is a state of mind. Where we are doesn’t matter so much if we can evoke a memory of a place and time that brings a smile to our faces. My memories of this float on Kentucky’s Green River would always be colored by John Prine’s classic ballad. The two memories would be linked, like skipping a stone on the water’s surface, taking me back to the Green River and then back further to circles of friends playing guitars and singing without worries or regrets.

While Paradise, Kentucky, lives on only in song, you can find your own paradise in the Bluegrass State without trying very hard. My travels took me to an area south of Lexington known for its rolling hills, horse farms, and simple charms. One of the first things I noticed was how nearly everyone in these parts drives a pick-up. The second thing I noticed was how friendly folks are. One morning I walked along a country lane alone, clearing the cobwebs from my brain, when a happy fellow in a pick-up truck pulled alongside me and asked, “Are yew walking for exercise?” After I nodded, he said, “I thought so, but I was jest checking,” He drove off, his Kentucky drawl, slow and melodious, echoing in my ears.

Outdoor lovers flock to Green River Lake, created by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1969, to find their own version of paradise. Boating, fishing, swimming, hiking, and camping are among the activities to enjoy on the 8,200-acre lake. One unique vacation option is renting a houseboat. Holmes Bend Marina Resort, for example, rents houseboats ranging from 46’ (sleeps six) to 72’ (sleeps 14). I enjoyed a day on the lake putting around in a 72-footer, even taking the helm for a spell.

For those who haven’t piloted a boat before, the challenge of steering a huge houseboat may seem daunting, but I found it wasn’t as hard as I thought. “We give folks a ten-minute orientation and then I go somewhere and hide,” joked David Butler, the owner of Holmes Bend Resort. Weekly rates range from $1250 to $3250 depending on size and season. Cute cottages on the lakefront also make fine accommodations and are quite affordable.

At the other end of the lake, close to Campbellsville, Emerald Isle Resort and Marina offers a peaceful retreat for vacationers seeking an escape. Surrounded by tall pines, modern condos offer all the comforts of home, including cozy verandas, perfect for watching the sunset over the lake. A sandy beach with a shallow swimming area makes this resort ideal for families.

And when the fish are biting, you can just hop into a jon boat and motor off in search of muskie, bass, catfish, bluegill, and crappie.  I’m not a big fan of fishing, but if I were, Green River Lake would be my idea of paradise. Horseback riders, hikers, and mountain bikers will find a well-maintained network of trails in Green River Lake State Park, where there’s also a waterfront campground equipped to handle every kind of camper from tents to RVs.

For me the appeal of Green River Lake is its natural state. Commercial development is limited, and since the Army Corps of Engineers owns the lake, no private homes are found on its shores. Whether you’re a fisherperson seeking a cozy cove to drop your line or a group of friends wanting to hang out on a houseboat for a week of R & R, Green River Lake is paradise found.

In 1805 a group of Shakers came to central Kentucky to create their own special paradise.  They settled in Pleasant Hill about twenty-five miles southwest of Lexington. This religious group, which originally hailed from Liverpool, England, was known for its peaceful way of life and its belief in gender equality and celibacy.

By the 1820s Pleasant Hill grew to become a thriving community of 500 Shakers owning 4,000 acres of farmland. After the Civil War, however, the community declined and eventually dissolved, its buildings and property passing into private hands. In 1961 a non-profit organization formed and began to restore the village. Today Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill is a worthwhile tourist destination and offers a chance to not only learn about the Shakers, but also experience their lifestyle.

I stayed overnight in one of the village’s 81 guest rooms spread among 15 restored buildings. Wood floors, creaking stairs, and simple décor provide stark contrast to luxury touches, such as Temper-Pedic mattresses and wireless Internet. The rooms are furnished in signature Shaker furniture, pieces that testify to the Shakers’ dedication to simplicity and quality.

In fact, their goal was to create heaven on earth, according to Susan Hughes, education director. “The beauty was in the utility of the item,” Susan explained. “They believed in doing everything to the best of their ability.”

The Shakers were known for their progressive farming techniques, as well as their impressive architecture. Among the structures at Shaker Village is the Centre Family Dwelling, which at 24,000-square feet was the largest stone building in Kentucky when it was completed in 1834. Made of local limestone, the 40-room building stands tall and proud today and contains original Shaker furniture and artifacts. Guided tours offered by costumed docents shed light on the society’s belief system.

Other buildings and areas are open for self-guided tours. You can watch skilled artisans engaged in broom making, woodworking, spinning, and weaving. The Meeting House, another architectural masterpiece, is a must-see. Considered a technical marvel, the 1820 Meeting House used inverted hanging trusses to provide a large interior free of internal supports. This enabled the Shakers ample room to dance and twirl during worship services.

Besides dancing, the Shakers also worshipped God through song. “They loved to write music and wrote at least 20,000 songs,” said Phillip Multhall, a volunteer at the village. “All songs were meant to be sung a capella, just voice.” As I sat among other visitors on simple wooden benches, Phillip sang “T’is the Gift To Be Simple” in an amazing voice that rolled and trilled like the Kentucky hills.

T’is the gift to be simple.

T’is the gift to be free.

T’is the gift to come down where you ought to be.

And when we find ourselves in the place just right.

It will be in the valley of love and delight.

Their belief in simple ways extended into the kitchen. That evening I dined in the Trustees’ Office Dining Room on hearty Kentucky fare complemented with Shaker specialties. A relish plate brimming with olives, pickled okra, carrots, spring onions, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, and miniature corn provided a healthy start. Next I tucked into a plate of delicious fried chicken, mashed potatoes with mushroom gravy, and green beans. Although I was full, I had to try the unique Shaker lemon pie with preserved lemons, which proved to be tart and sweet—a delightful finish.

After a sweet sleep on my Temper-Pedic mattress, I got up early to go for a run among the 23 trails that thread through Shaker Village’s extensive acreage. Map in hand, I started out and immediately became enchanted by the beautiful landscape. Natural prairie habitat teeming with wildflowers and adundant wildlife provided a splendid backdrop for my morning run. Rolling hills—gently ascending and descending—made for a tougher workout, but my surroundings were so pleasant, I hardly noticed.

While I ran, I thought about the Shakers and how their simple lifestyle offers us lessons in what’s important: community, simplicity, utility, equality. I thought about how nature teaches us, too, to take pleasure in the moment—whether it’s fishing, kayaking, or swimming in a cool river on a hot summer day. I thought about how music and song bring people together. I vowed to remember these lessons when I returned home from my Kentucky visit.

Then a new memory began. As I rounded a bend and trotted up a small hill, a huge buck stood ten feet from me calmly chewing grass. I paused a moment, and we stared at each other, his brown eyes deep and mystical. It was as if he were saying, “Remember: paradise lies within. You only need to pause long enough to find it.” I walked slowly by and then began my run again, feeling reinvigorated, renewed. What more could you want from a few days in paradise?

For more information:


• Green River Paddle Trail and Canoe/Kayak Rentals: 270-789-2956

• Holmes Bend Resort: www.holmesbendresort.com or 800-801-8154

• Emerald Isle: www.emeraldisleresort.com or 888-815-2000

• Pleasant Hill Shaker Village: www.shakervillageky.org or 859-734-5411  

For more family travel adventures, go to www.tidewaterfamily.com/travel

Peggy Sijswerda

Peggy Sijswerda is the editor and co-publisher of Tidewater Family and Tidewater Women magazines. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Old Dominion University and is the author of Still Life with Sierra, a travel memoir. Peggy also freelances for a variety of regional, national, and international magazines.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com

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