Christopher Rowe

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UnCommonwealth: Nelson County: The Only Real City in America
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The Only Real City in America

We were drinking whiskey under a stone gate. The gate was carved up with letters that read Pax Intrantibus. It was good bourbon whiskey, the kind of whiskey we liked best.

We had walked into those hills from everywhere else, fleeing oblivion. Everything else had slid away to someplace unreal. Everything else, everyone else, everyplace. We watched it slide away for a long time before we walked here.

We drank all the whiskey before we went to pull the bell rope. One of us flung the rope away, though. “That’s not how to do it. Do it like this,” scurrying over by a window then and saying “Brother! Brother!”

There was no answer, so we spread through the whole place, filling it like rainwater pouring into a forgotten cistern.

We rested until we were too hungry. None of us were afraid of hunger. Hunger just meant work. Our hands and feet were calloused and gnarled. None of us were afraid of calluses, though we didn’t understand them as well as we understood hunger.

After a long time, there was a shout from up on the tower. We could see that nothing had washed up on the hills from the west and east. But it broke on the rocks and receded back a little. There was plenty of food by then, and we’d found more bourbon whiskey.

Too soon, some of us began to think about why everything had gone away, and then we started feeling less and less like us. Because some of us knew that everything had slipped away, and some of us only knew that we saw everything slip away.

The point was so fine, we didn’t notice we were bleeding.


According to historians, Nelson County was formed from Jefferson County by the Virginia legislature on November 29th, 1784. According to bureaucrats, it was formed on January 1st, 1785. Either date of formation finds it to be the fourth county in the Commonwealth. The county was named for a Virginia governor, Thomas Nelson, who was signatory to the Declaration of Independence.

Straddling two of the traditional geographical regions of Kentucky, Nelson County’s topography grows more rugged from east to west, as the Outer Bluegrass meadows give way to the Bluegrass Hills, then finally to the rugged Knobs, which make up the county’s western third.

Perhaps no other Kentucky county is prouder of, or more aware of, its importance in the history of the Commonwealth. This history is acknowledged and celebrated in the county seat of Bardstown, site of Federal Hill—immortalized in Stephen Foster's song as "My Old Kentucky Home." Bardstown is also site of The Old Talbott Tavern and of the Oscar Getz Museum of Whiskey History.

The county’s official tourism publication notes that “Nelson County’s heritage is bathed in bourbon history,” and this is born out each autumn, when people from all over the world gather at the annual Kentucky Bourbon Festival.

Not to be outdone, another of the county’s incorporated towns, Bloomfield, offers an annual Tobacco Festival. A third community, New Haven, is the site of the Kentucky Railway Museum.

Nelson County has a rich Roman Catholic tradition, as can be seen by the presence of “the cathedral in the wilderness,” The Basilica of St. Joseph Proto-Cathedral; of the Motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth; and most famously, of the Abbey of Gethsamani.

The invaluable Kentucky Atlas and Gazetteer has an entry on the county here.

Thanks to Judy Cissell of the Nelson County Extension Service and to the staff of the Kentucky Room at the Lexington Public Library. As always I owe a great debt to the editors of the Kentucky Encyclopedia and to Robert M. Rennick for his Kentucky Place Names.

One of the great souls of the twentieth century, Thomas Merton, made his home at Gethsamani for many years. It was he, overwhelmed by his first visit there, that described the monastery as “the only real city in America.” This story was written with the words of Thomas Merton in mind.

In his Thoughts on Solitude, he wrote: “...I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end.”

And half a lifetime ago, as ignorant a sixteen year old as Kentucky has ever seen saw fit to underline this passage in a used copy of Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain:

“...this terrible situation is the pattern and prototype of all sin: the deliberate and formal will to reject disinterested love for us for the purely arbitrary reason that we simply do not want it. We will to separate ourselves from that love.”

Pax intrantibus, reader. Peace to those who enter.

God save Nelson County, and God save the Commonwealth of Kentucky.

This is a work of fiction. All characters and events are either fictitious or used fictitiously.

Copyright © January 2004 by Christopher Rowe. All rights reserved. This work may not be reproduced by any means without the author’s prior consent.

Earlier entries in the UnCommonwealth series can be found by following the links below:

Lincoln County: Not That Lincoln
Jefferson County: Powers and Principles
Fayette County: This Deep Blue Pool

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