REMEMBERING MELISSA: No Wasted Days or Wasted Nights in the Bluegrass State

SATURDAY MORNING’S TRAFFIC JAM in Kentucky went on for miles (top), even after we finally got out of it and turned around. For 2 1/2 hours, we were locked down in the rain with this view (bottom right). The closest we got to Frankfort, our destination, was the Buffalo Trace-distilled hand sanitizer that we kept in our van (bottom left).


BOONE, N.C. (Dec. 13, 2021) – When the truck with Ohio plates cut its engine, we knew getting to the funeral on time was out. Maybe we could drive that last 97 miles in the 90 minutes we had left, but only if the traffic started moving right then. We were five hours into what was looking like a wasted day.

But there we sat on Interstate 75 just north of London, Kentucky, for another hour, finally getting free at 10:47 a.m., just 13 minutes before our friend Melissa’s memorial service was to begin at the Church of the Ascension in Frankfort, capital of her beloved Bluegrass State. Yes, we had traveled 272 miles since leaving our house at 3:16 a.m., but the only sensible thing to do was turn around and head back home.

I know the exact times and mileage and location thanks to my smart phone. What we didn’t know that morning was what had happened the night before elsewhere in Kentucky, where farther west numerous deadly tornadoes had destroyed huge buildings and hundreds of homes. In the predawn, we had driven through the line of thunderstorms that had spawned the twisters. We didn’t know how bad they’d been.

We hadn’t turned on our van’s radio once, and, for a change, we hadn’t checked our phones for emails or updates on social media posts. Our minds were focused on making this trip—our first long trek of the pandemic—and on not only Melissa but also on other friends and family members whose lives affect us, whether for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, for better or worse. All relationships are like that.

TIMBERLEY AND MELISSA had been friends and sorority sisters for 42 years when this photo was taken during our visit in June 2019. One of Timberley’s memories of their college friendship involved a particularly laid-back drink, the White Russian (bottom left). In the fall of 2019, we returned to Frankfort for a cancer-awareness event at which Melissa spoke (bottom right).

Melissa and Timberley shared a special bond other than being sisters in the same Alpha Delta Pi sorority pledge class in the late 1970s at Appalachian State University. Over the past few years, both were cancer survivors—two of at least eight ADPi sisters in their circle of friends who had been diagnosed with some form of the illness. Maybe that is to be expected as we all grow older; however, facing reality still hurts.

When Timberley came home from the hospital after her cancer surgery in the summer of 2017, Melissa drove to Morganton from Frankfort to visit, along with another sister. After Melissa was diagnosed and began treatment less than two years later, we visited her twice in Frankfort—once just to see her, then later to hear her speak at a high school girls’ volleyball tournament to raise awareness of ovarian cancer.

At least that first time, I also had a couple of selfish reasons for making the drive from Morganton to Frankfort. I wanted to prove to myself—and to Timberley—that we could still make a long road trip, leaving early and getting back home late. For reasons that I won’t explain, we weren’t quite ready to stay anywhere overnight, so we were just day-trippers. Melissa said she understood that motivation.

Melissa herself was to blame for my other selfish reason for wanting to visit her in Frankfort. When she came to Boone once for a sorority gathering after her diagnosis, she brought me a present from her part of Kentucky—a fifth of Wild Turkey straight bourbon whiskey. “I wanted to bring you a bottle of Buffalo Trace,” she said. “It’s made in Frankfort. But the store was out.” That was enough to whet my interest, if not my thirst.

Now, I had never been a big whiskey (or whisky) drinker before—I’d always thought bourbon tasted too sweet, and Scotch, like peat moss—but reading about all of the Frankfort and Bardstown (Ky.) distilleries kindled my desire to buy and taste a bottle of award-winning Buffalo Trace bourbon whiskey. I also read that the Bardstown distillery Heaven Hill produced Evan Williams, a brand that I had bought in the past.

I guess it’s OK to confess that in our younger days—mine and Timberley’s and Melissa’s—and especially during our college years, we didn’t mind taking a drink now and then, usually to observe and celebrate some special gathering of friends. On our drive home Saturday, Timberley noted that Melissa had liked to drink White Russians. I, too, have a history with White Russians, but I’ll save that tale for another day.

Let’s just say that with the flow of years and maturity, all three of us thankfully weaned ourselves from bottles and cocktail glasses—or, at least, from the urge to drink more at any given time than discretion would advise. After Melissa gifted me with the Wild Turkey three years ago, I did start sampling different bourbons, and I learned that any Buffalo Trace product is quite hard to find in North Carolina ABC stores.

So, on that first trip to Frankfort, I made a quick stop at the Buffalo Trace distillery on the banks of the Kentucky River and bought two bottles—the limit—in the gift shop, where they had shelf after shelf of it, along with other rare brands. Of course, when I eventually got back home and sipped a small glass of the amber liquid, I couldn’t distinguish it from any other bourbon. We gave the other bottle to friends.

I had bought one other bottle of whiskey on that same trip, stopping at a liquor store off Interstate 75 at Exit 41 near London—41 Liquor was the shop’s name, of course—to see how much Buffalo Trace they had on their shelves. None, it turned out. What I found, though, was a bottle of inexpensive, six-year-old Heaven Hill Old Style Bourbon, sold only in Kentucky and called its best-kept secret (also “Green Label”).

IN NORTH CAROLINA, these two Kentucky straight bourbon whiskeys have always been difficult, if not impossible to find — Buffalo Trace, distilled in Frankfort, and Heaven Hill Green Label, distilled in Bardstown.

My obsession with bourbon collecting disappeared a year or so ago, as sip by sip, bottle by bottle, so did my poor-man’s collection of Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. Once the pandemic started, we didn’t travel great distances—just between our houses in Boone and Morganton, and occasionally to Charlotte for medical visits—and, besides, I didn’t want to waste money on high-priced liquor in uncertain times.

This past Friday night, as we packed for Saturday’s trip, I had even decided not to stop at Buffalo Trace while we were in Frankfort for Melissa’s funeral. We were going there to pay our respects to her family and other loved ones, also to seek with our presence some form of closure after the visits and calls and texts of the past months and years that had been so much more than mere trying times. It was a quest.

It wouldn’t have felt right to drive up for Melissa’s obsequies at the Church of the Ascension downtown and then dash off to the distillery gift shop for a bottle of booze on our way back home. Before leaving the house, I had briefly considered stopping at the liquor store in London for another bottle of Green Label on our way up the road, but I decided we wouldn’t get off I-75 at Exit 41 without a better reason.

As we cruised past Exit 41 around 8:15 on Saturday morning, Timberley pointed to the buildings along Rogers Parkway and reminded me about the afternoon in late June 2019 when we stopped in London for cheap gas at the Shell station next to Dogpatch Trading Center, cheap burgers and a restroom break at McDonald’s, and that cheap bottle of rare bourbon at 41 Liquor. “That’s where we stopped,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said, thinking back, “it was raining that afternoon—remember?—and all the traffic around that Dogpatch place was really crazy. I guess we could’ve stopped—this morning, I mean—but we’re good on gas for now, and we’re making good time. And we don’t have to stop to—well, to you know what—until 9 o’clock.” For reasons that, again, I won’t explain, nature now calls us, religiously, at 9, 12, 3 and 6 around the clock every day of the year.

But a mere five minutes later—at 8:20 a.m., according to my Google Maps timeline—nature, or fate, of an entirely different sort called and brought all that had been good about our trip to a sudden halt. We were locked down like powerless slot cars in a single, walled-off lane of construction on I-75, five miles north of London, for 2 ½ hours—no going forward, no going back, no going anywhere for any reason.

Around 10:30 when it was clear that we would miss the funeral, we decided not to press on to Frankfort once the traffic jam cleared. We didn’t know where family and friends would be after the church service, and we didn’t want to inconvenience anyone else because of our own misfortune. “Besides,” Timberley said, “that’s family time. We don’t want to intrude on their time together.” She slowly shook her head.

I agreed, but I decided right then and there that if it was going to be a wasted day—a truly wasted day—then we would be stopping at 41 Liquor after all, though after we got our van turned around and on our way back home. I’d throw on my dress jacket and stride into the store, look for a bottle of Buffalo Trace first and then that rare bottle of Heaven Hill to take back to Morganton, like on our first trip to Kentucky.

And that’s exactly what I did—except for finding a bottle to take home. I asked the proprietor for help, and he showed me the completely bare Buffalo Trace display across from his checkout counter. “We get a shipment every three weeks,” he explained, “but it goes fast. Some guy came in last night and bought every bottle we had left.” When I asked about a bottle of Green Label, he said it had been discontinued.

Disheartened, I explained how far we had traveled, only to be stopped in traffic for hours, and why I was looking for those two bourbons—either one would do, to toast an old friend whose funeral in Frankfort we were missing at that very hour. After a moment, the proprietor of 41 Liquor looked me in the eye and said, “If you’re headed south, friend, I know of two places that just might have what you want.”

Without hesitation, he gave me directions to a small shop called Ernie’s Spirits, a few miles down I-75 in Corbin, the home of Kentucky Fried Chicken, then to “a big ol’ place that has a little of everything” called the Bourbon Barn, off the last exit before the state line. I thanked him for giving me a bit of hope on this new quest. We filled up with gas and took care of our other needs before heading back down the road.

In my life, I’ve learned, sadly, that true stories rarely have happy endings, not if their denouements are truly realistic. The facts of our lives are stranger—and more unforgiving—than fiction, but they’re also much more dear when we see where we’ve been, where we sit, and where we’re headed. No, neither Ernie’s nor the Bourbon Barn had either spirit I sought. But our failures did not make for a wasted day or a wasted night.

Later that evening, back at home, after an afternoon of stories on the road about two sorority sisters, how they met, how they became friends, and how the friendship between them and with other girls in their circle grew, we lifted our glasses of spirits—two White Russians—in memory of our dear Melissa.

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