Danville, KY: October, 2018
(Part one, in which we stay in the worst hotel ever and then run through three distilleries, is here)
(Part three, AKA the finale, in which we run in the dark some more and then eat a lot, is here)
Danville High School students do not have school on the Friday of Bourbon Chase, and the remainder of the local institutions appeared accordingly tame. The town was on siesta during our mid-afternoon drive through the center, Main Street was in a state of stillness,and there was shockingly little traffic even for a city of its size. Still, it had life like the other bluegrass county seats we passed through, the region a redoubt defying the nearly nationwide rule of small town blight. There were no other big white vans in the high school lot, so we initially thought we had the wrong place and drove around, passing by a few runners setting up tents in the city park. That was one option and we had plenty of tents, though rain was forecast overnight and we had all opted to pay to sleep at the high school gym. As our van contained the faster runners, we got more downtime, and our second leg should finish around semi-normal sleeping time while van two, poor van two, would run through the wee hours. Even now we had most of the afternoon and evening to idle away at pleasant Makers Mark, or reading atop a sleeping bag while the rest of our team ran along highway shoulders and hurdled over strewn car parts. Poor van two.
We made it back to the high school and there was one van covered in kill counts and alcohol related cartoons so we knew we were in the right place, just well ahead of most racers. We paid twenty per van to get into the gym and claimed a corner near the front to spread out sleeping bags and set up camp. I opened mine up on the hardwood floor, up against the bleachers which were folded up like accordions against the wall.
Alonso, Anna, and I explored the school while the others rested, happening across a trove of granola bars and Gatorade in a tiny cafeteria with a sign that said Free for Runners. We dove in with the voracity of through hikers, ripping open wrappers and having a proper feast on dining hall trays, sitting at a long table on plastic stools that looked like blue mushrooms. Meanwhile, our friends in van two tried not to get hit by rusty pickup trucks and we stowed away a few Clif Bars for them out of a deep guilt.
“Thank you so much for all of this!” I said to the man at the gym door who took our money earlier.
“Take a whole box if you want,” he said, grey goatee and southern accent making the exchange seem all the more heartfelt. “The town donated way more than we needed.”
We did the math: twenty dollars per van is about three dollars per person and we had easily eaten that each and then some in snacks, and there were still boxes piled up in the cafeteria.
“Thank God for these people” Anna said, hands full of trail mix. “Poor van two.”
Alonso went to shower and I thought about doing the same but the locker room looked like a dungeon and the shower made the one at the previous night’s hotel look like a mid-range spa so I turned around. The rest of us sat and read or tried to sleep. Time passed slowly but eventually the text came in from the other van that we should get to downtown Danville and meet them as their last runner was heading out. However, Alonso, our first runner, was nowhere to be found and it had been over an hour since he went to shower in the dungeon.
“Will someone go check on Alonso?” Pam said, playing the role of van mom rather than V.B. when the moment called for it.
I was chosen and descended down the stairs passed chipped paint and tattered concrete into a mélange of smells of which mildew was the most pleasant. The only person in the locker room was a large man in the buff, though certainly not himself buff, lathering himself generously and without consternation. Regretting drawing the short straw to find Alonso, I fled topside and detailed my findings. While I was downstairs, Anna had checked the cafeteria and Eddie the van but no luck. We had all texted him several times but stopped when his vibrating phone, flopped on the floor next to a sleeping Connor, informed us of that strategy’s futility.
“We. Need. To. Leave.” Anna said, outing herself as the most type ‘A’ of the group, though I was a close second and felt her pain. We all got our stuff and packed up the van, deciding to give him another ten minutes. I went back in to do one last sweep of the school and saw Alonso, blissfully unaware of the growing panic, chatting with the guy by the door.
“Sorry, mijo, just let me finish my hair” he said and walked toward the bathroom. I didn’t have the heart to stop him – I’m no van dad. I told the rest of the group what was going on and they shook their heads.
“I never knew Alonso was such a prince”, Eddie said, laughing. “He’s running in like ten minutes.”
A few moments later, Alonso appeared again, still absent urgency, and slowly put his shower bag in the trunk. When he finally got in, Anna practically slammed shut the sliding door and Pam sped off the few miles towards the main street.
Danville had transformed in our hours of absence. A block party closed down the streets and revelers were drinking beer and bourbon, cheering on runners transitioning to spectators as the sun began to set on the bluegrass. In the middle of the road were cornhole sets and an emcee stand as crowds spanned the entire downtown area. There was a game where people were racing each other down the block while rolling bourbon barrels to one end, jumping over them, and rolling them back to where they began. Little Danville, town of the granola bar generosity, was the largest and rowdiest party we would see en route to Lexington, and I was excited my second run would finish here as well, as our van’s next section was a large loop that circled back to where it began.
Alonso left the exchange with his vest and headlamp and we took off into the twilight for our second stint as the “on” van. This time we were seamless, Pam becoming masterful at maneuvering and the runners rotating seats depending on who was next to go. Most of us still devanned at each stop, the novelty of the runner exchanges not yet lost.
At one stop, a church parking lot, a van pulled up with a four foot high scale model of a copper bourbon still strapped to its roof. Still Running was the team’s name. Upon parking, a blue flame shot out of the still and upward several more feet alongside the distinct sound of hot wind. On the other side of us was a clown eating chips. The Bourbon Chase had reached its nighttime portion.
When Anna finished her section she informed us that some runners she passed asked if she had seen the ghost. She didn’t get a chance to mention this to Chelsea, who was waiting in the exchange station pointing her headlamp forward down a ten foot wide road fringed with cornfields.
“That’s spooky” Connor said, not helping. Clouds had moved in while we waited at the gym and the night was gloomy and starless, completely dark except for headlamps on runners and headlights on vans.
“I probably shouldn’t have been listening to paranormal podcasts while we were at the gym” Chelsea said, getting ready to run through the corn. “But it’s October, so I kind of have to.”
“Do you want some music?” Alonso asked, handing her his portable speakers. Headphones were forbidden for safety reasons but the rules said nothing about music out of ear. Chelsea queued up a trap playlist and Migos began to break the isolated silence.
“This will scare them” she said as if it were fact.
Quavo must have kept the creepies away, because Chelsea emerged from the shadows and handed me the bracelet at our checkpoint less than an hour later. I twisted on my headlamp and ran down a similar trail, but with the cornfields replaced by canopy. The off-green oaks that brightened the Kentucky countryside by day were now monochrome and spindly, reaching their prickly fingers down toward the road and obscuring what lay beyond each twist of tarmac. I followed the bouncing oval of light through the woods, passing very little, completely alone. A breeze picked up and the unseen leaves flapped against each other, the wind still a few weeks premature to cause them to tumble down. Sets of eyes caught the glow of my lamp behind a chain link fence and turned out to be cows. A squiggled branch in the middle of the road turned out to be a dead snake.
The woods gradually gave way to houses, spread thin at first but then steady, as I neared the edge of Danville. Suddenly, I was alongside a hilly six lane road with fast food chains and dollar stores, the kind of sprawling, unprepossessing entrance gate that even cities of small size have acquired over the last quarter-century. It wasn’t enough for the interstates to kill off the towns they skirted, the state routes had to finish the job, circumventing quaint main streets and dragging decaying parking lots to their off ramps like a spreading virus. At least from what I saw earlier, it appeared Danville may survive the infection, but many elsewhere in the state were not so fortunate.
I crossed the artery at a red light and turned right towards the actual town, tree trunks thicker, roads thinner. The sky began to spit, a cool mist at first, the kind of tiny-dropped rain you feel but don’t see. I missed nature’s sign a mile earlier when the trees began tapping but now it was unmistakable that a storm was nearby, but for the moment the night was pleasant. I ran into downtown Danville, still partying but calmer than before, passing flower shops and bakeries as the rain matured.
After passing the bracelet to Eddie, the sky opened to a deluge as if someone was waiting for me to finish before poking holes into an overfilled water balloon. Alonso, Chelsea, and I ducked into a busy coffee shop on the main street called The Hub and I wrung out my frosty fuselage with a dry cappuccino. If I could stay at the table and sip intermittently while watching other sopping chasers rush in for coffee and a ceiling I would, but the others were becoming a combination of stir-crazy and saggy-eyed and it was time to rush out and finish our second leg of the race.
The van’s wipers whirred with overuse, attempting to clear Pam’s vision enough to see but the rain fell so fast that it had doused the windshield an instant after they had swiped across, making the ride to meet up with Eddie like watching an old clicking film, several frames in succession instead of a continuous moving picture. We assumed he would be having a downright miserable time but when we met up with Van two, Eddie came through into the checkpoint smiling and waxing about how much fun he had just had so our collective pity was conveyed onto the other van’s lead runner who’s attitude was Eddie’s antithesis. Unlike past multi-van transfers, nobody lingered, eager for a gym floor and a few moments of sleep.
Not to be outdone by downtown’s nocturnal conversion, the Danville High gym became a completely different place while we were away. It was a barely lit minefield of supine runners, some sleeping, some preventing others from sleeping, clamorers and shushers alike. We made our way over to our corner, nearly stepping on hands and tripping on ankles all the way, not wasting time as it was going on midnight and a three AM alarm was forthcoming.
I expected an unrestful night and the people of the gym did not disappoint. Each time I drifted, someone would open the gym doors mid-conversation and startle half of the room. Then someone would shout “shh!” which was actually more obnoxious than the initial disturbance and after two minutes or so I would start to fall back asleep and then the process would repeat. Eventually, the rain tapping on the gym ceiling turned again into a torrent and drowned out the cacophonous din of humanity. My only thought before finally succumbing to sleep: Poor van two.
I awoke to what sounded like a battle raging near half court. As I came to, the source of the sound became clearer and was zeroed in on a middle-aged man a few sleeping bags over snoring more thunderously than anyone I had ever had the displeasure to camp near. I’ve been scarred by childhood weekends in a ten bunk cabin with several friends and the nightly roar of their dads and that was a library compared to this. He sounded like a banshee from one of Chelsea’s podcasts. Alonso walked over and nudged him with his foot, which caused him to pause for a few seconds, turn ninety degrees, make a screech like a velociraptor and start the performance anew. I looked at my phone – two thirty. Sleeping was over.