“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”
“I don’t much care where –”
“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.”
― Lewis Carroll,
Alice in Wonderland
The 74-year-old bridge that spans the Ohio River at Owensboro, Ky., was somewhat of a mystery.
It served a purpose, connecting the farms and small towns of southern Indiana to the third-largest commercial center in Kentucky.
But it amazed us how many longtime residents of that small city never once drove across. Surely, curiosity about a neighboring state was worth a few minutes and a dollar’s worth of gas.
The Glover Carey Bridge, known locally as “the Blue Bridge,” was built in 1940, originally opening as a toll bridge. The 4,622-foot, two-lane metal structure sits atop three massive concrete piers that push through the muddy bottom of the Ohio to bedrock.
It didn’t really connect you to anything special, just a lot of flat cornfields to the north until you hit the stop sign at Reo.
If you yearned for the harness races at Ellis Park in Henderson, the smart move was to avoid the winding Kentucky roads to the west and instead shoot north. The straight and narrow Indiana 161 may have been boring, but it was safe. When you hit the T intersection at Reo, you had two directions to choose from, west or east.
A left took you straight through Yankeetown, past the big Alcoa Aluminum plant, past the quaint riverside shops at Newburgh and into Evansville, Ind. Because the river had meandered since the days of statehood, a sliver of Kentucky — and the track — found itself on the north side of the Ohio.
Upriver from Owensboro, the next crossing to the east was just 17 miles. There, you could slip across at Maceo on a modern span to Rockport. That route, while maybe the best route to Louisville, took you much too near a paper mill that — on days when the Ohio River Valley air sat stagnant and festering — made your eyes water.
For more than three years, we lived in Kentucky in a house on a hill looking across the Ohio into Indiana. We weren’t that close to the river, but we had a clear view of the giant stacks of the coal-powered electric plant on the other side.
Owensboro thought of itself as the “barbecue capital of the world,” but we never could get our heads around the idea that mutton cooked in any fashion could be considered barbecue.
It wasn’t a backwater town. In fact, the little city had spawned a number of famous names, among them Florence Henderson of The Brady Bunch, the Waltrip brothers of NASCAR fame and actor Johnny Depp.
But it was a town people came from, not to. It was a place where 85 percent of the population was born there, where 92 percent had been born in Kentucky, where some “outsiders” like us continued as members of the Newcomers Club for 22 years. The city had its own ways, its own history, its own way of dealing with people. Breaking in was difficult.
We were all homesick for Texas. Dallas was 764 miles and more than 11 hours away by car. So, when the walls started crowding in, the best thing to do was pack for a road trip and put some miles on the car.
The urge to explore was much too strong, and we often headed out on weekends, whether on winding country roads or the rolling Western Kentucky Parkway — any road leading out of town.
For those three-and-a-half years, Owensboro was a jumping off point — to photo safaris all over what was admittedly a beautiful state, to Churchill Downs and the riverboats of Louisville, to the stone fences and beautiful horse farms of Lexington, to the poverty and coal mines of Pike County and West Virginia, to the wonders of Nashville and mysteries of Memphis. We ventured into the Appalachians, to Georgia and deeper into the South. We drove to Toronto, then back through Niagara Falls to celebrate a daughter’s 15th birthday.
It has been 20 years since our last visit to Owensboro. The Executive Inn, a large 1940s-era hotel that once perched perilously on the edge of the Ohio, is gone now. In its restaurant we had enjoyed Sunday brunches as we watched towboats push fleets of barges, 15 lashed together in a single tow, beneath the old bridge.
In its ballroom we had enjoyed a bit of Texas on two joyous occasions when Willie Nelson — sensing our loneliness, I’m sure — belted out “On the Road Again” from the stage just above our table.
A riverside park sprawls where the hotel once stood, but the 74-year-old bridge still stands looking down on the muddy, swirling currents and towboats pushing fleets of barges up and down the river.
I read in my old newspaper that last year the Kentucky highway department finally shut the bridge down for repainting. It had faded away to a dirty off-white and needed a face-lift.
Since reopening to traffic again in November, its bright blue adds a splash of color to the somber grays and browns of the Ohio River Valley in winter.
I’m glad the old bridge is still there.
I don’t plan to ever cross it again. But, unlike many who still make their livings along the Ohio and enjoy life in that little western Kentucky town, I’ve been across the river.
Dave Berry is editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph. His column appears every Sunday. Next week, join me in the tire shop and I’ll tell you how a summer of repairing split rim truck tires helped shape my future. Thanks for reading.