Wherever he has lived, Lexington native Jesse Donaldson said he’s always met expats from Kentucky, people who have moved away but still long to return to their home state.
“It seems to be a particular sentiment for Kentuckians,” he said, recalling Happy Chandler’s statement that “'I never met a Kentuckian who wasn’t either thinking about going home or actually going home.”
Oregon, where Donaldson lives now, is known for its natural beauty, but Donaldson said the landscape still doesn’t feel like home.
“I miss the sort of forests that are in Kentucky,” he said.
Donaldson set out to examine that longing for the Bluegrass in “On Homesickness,” a book addressed to his wife as a plea to move with him from the home they are making for themselves in Portland back to Kentucky.
“I miss Kentucky, but I still don’t know what that means,” he said.
“On Homesickness,” published in September by West Virginia University Press, is described in publicity materials as “a hybrid — part memoir, part meditation on nostalgia, part catalog of Kentucky history and myth.”
The book has a passage for each county in the state, arranged in the order the counties were ratified, as best Donaldson could determine from his research.
Kentucky lore and history are sprinkled throughout the book, but Donaldson puts emphasis on the story, so some passages, particularly those near the end, don’t have a direct connection to the counties with which they are paired.
“Some people will be massively disappointed by their county,” he said.
Ultimately, Donaldson, 38, said the book became “a coming to terms with the fact that life changes.”
He and his wife became parents, a change that causes Donaldson to reevaluate what home really is.
“I have this idealized version of Kentucky that I’ve created,” he said. “I was romanticizing Kentucky in a lot of ways.”
But, he said, “I’m just as homesick for Kentucky as I’ve ever been in some ways.”
By the time his book tour is finished, he might be over that.
Donaldson plans to travel 4,200 miles in 28 days, visiting all 120 of Kentucky’s counties to read from the book.
While some of the stops, such as bookstores, libraries and coffee shops, are conventional, many have a lot more poetic flair.
Donaldson plans to read at waterfalls, mountains, caves and cemeteries.
He kicked off the tour in Powell County on Sunday with a reading atop Natural Bridge.
“My mom took me there a lot as a kid,” he said.
From there, he was to proceed on to the Old Campton Burial Ground in Wolfe County, the Fitchburg Furnace in Lee County and outside the Mack Theater in Estill County.
His reading in Fayette County is scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at Brier Books at 319 S. Ashland Ave. While the book shop hasn’t officially opened yet, it will be open for the reading.
He’ll wind up the tour at the Kentucky Book Fair on Nov. 18.
At some stops, Donaldson expects to be the only person present.
“In a lot of cases I’ll just look like a vagrant or a madman,” he said.
“It’s hard enough to get people to go out to a bookstore,” for a reading, he said, much less to out-of-the-way spots like Roy’s Daylily Patch in Casey County and the “end of County Road 1857 by the banks of the Green River” in McLean County.
In some counties, the location of his reading is still to be determined.
While his parents’ home in Lexington will serve as a home base, he’ll spend some nights in hotels, others camping.
“In some places, I don’t know where I’m staying yet,” he said. “That’s where it’ll get sort of interesting.”
Donaldson said the trip became possible when he learned he was being let go from his job as a copywriter.
At an average of five counties a day, Donaldson knows it will be an exhausting undertaking, but he said he hopes to have fun and meet some interesting people along the way.
He said, “It’s making good on this fascination with Kentucky and what it means to be a Kentuckian.”