Blues Highway Adventure

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 7, 1999

DEBORAH CORRAO / L’Observateur / September 7, 1999

“Now, the broken gambler, he was very poor.Trying to create a next world war.He found a promoter that nearly fell off the floor.He said I’ve never engaged in this kind of thing before But, yes, I think it can very easily be done.We’ll just put some bleachers out in the sun And have it out on Highway 61.” – Bob DylanA motorcycle accident on U.S. Highway 61 in Minnesota inspired thesecynical lyrics from singer/songwriter Bob Dylan. The legendarythoroughfare, known as “The Blues Highway,” has also been the subject of a movie and much folklore.

Here we just know it as Airline Highway.

And in the words of another song it used to be the craze to “get your kicks on Route 66,” so one local man decided to have his fun on 61.

Ronald “Jay” Theriot, 31, of LaPlace, teaches world history and geography at East St. John High School during nine months of the year.But during the summer months, the self-proclaimed “roadologist” likes to take to the open road.

This summer Theriot, armed with the latest road atlases, tackled the 1,400-mile journey from New Orleans to Thunder Bay, Ontario.

Theriot’s love affair with America’s roadways peaked about three years ago when he realized he had only seen seven of the 50 states. He made ithis goal then to see all of them. Now, he says, he has visited the 48contiguous states, only lacking Alaska and Hawaii.

But Theriot is not one to stick to the interstate. His passion is for theolder highways, once the main arteries for travel within the United States.

Last year he drove U.S. Highway 51 from its starting point in LaPlace toits end at the tip of the northern Michigan peninsula.

U.S. 61 is one of the oldest national highways, given its number in 1926when the U.S. highway system started, linking existing roads to become acontinuous path from New Orleans to Canada.

“It’s the main street through many towns,” Theriot says. “If you get lost,someone would be able to tell you how to get back to the highway.”In truth, U.S. 61 used to be one of the main drags for those interested ingetting from Louisiana to points north.

“A lot of Highway 61 is known as a scenic highway,” says Theriot. “Underthe old highway system, the area above Baton Rouge was named the Great River Road Scenic Highway.”Now granted, there’s not much that’s scenic about oil refineries.

“But after they began renumbering highways, the name stuck,” says Theriot.

Theriot shared his eight-day adventure with his 6-year-old daughter Elizabeth and his grandmother, Sammy Smith, 72.

Outside of Baton Rouge, Theriot says, up to the state line between Louisiana and Mississippi, U.S. 61 is peppered with old motels, built duringthe 50s and 60s, that catered to road-weary travelers.

Short side trips down roads bypassed to make way for U.S. 61, Theriotsays, are bits of Americana that would be missed if you stayed on the main strip, like churches interesting because of their history or architecture.

“All the way along the route you can see old sections of 61 they bypassed,” says Theriot. “You can still drive on many of them.”Just shy of the Mississippi line stands the South of the Border Restaurant and Lounge, once considered to be the place to eat on 61, still a welcome center and tourist information center.

Following 61 northward, visitors are enthralled with antebellum homes in Natchez, battlefields of Vicksburg and Port Hudson, and the famed giant golden hand pointing to heaven from atop a Presbyterian church in Port Gibson, also the home to one of the oldest Jewish synagogues in America.

The next stop is Clarksdale, the legendary “home of the blues,” where, at the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49 musician Robert Johnson was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil in exchange for an ability to sing the blues.

A little to the north, between Clarksdale and Memphis, rise the Tunica Hills, where Clark Creek cuts a path through boulders and cliffs, dropping down in waterfalls at the Clark Creek Nature Area right off the highway.

In Tunica, a gambling mecca and home to casinos and riverboats, traffic along U.S. 61 is congested day and night. In Memphis, 61 meets up withInterstate 55 until the two split off again in Missouri. At the border ofArkansas and Missouri stands a concrete arch spanning the highway, once a landmark, now seldom seen.

In Missouri the highway takes a path alongside the Mighty Mississippi, passing through hilly land and old towns. A mile off 61 down a littlecounty road lies Kaskaskia, Ill., the oldest town in Illinois situated on atiny tract of land west of the Mississippi cut off from the rest of the state when the river changed its course.

Here you can find the Church of the Immaculate Conception, built in 1675.

In St. Louis, one can visit the famous arch and botanical gardens or theAnheuser brewery. Not far away is Hannibal, the home of Mark Twain, righton U.S. 61. You can see the house where the famous author was born orvisit the Mark Twain Cave, which remains at 45 degrees all year long.

From Missouri, U.S. 61 takes you to Iowa, still running along theMississippi until you get to Davenport where it cuts inland and crosses into Wisconsin at Dubuque. Along the way to Lacrosse, home of the NewOrleans Saints training camp, you’ll encounter dozens of picturesque towns. Once in Lacrosse you can see a landmark billed as the World’sLargest Six-Pack, a beer storage tank.

Outside of Lacrosse, U.S. 61 takes you into Minnesota and it follows theriver all the way to St. Paul, state capital of Minnesota. Outside the city,U.S. 61 becomes a two-lane county road, running along the majestic LakeSuperior toward Duluth.

The views are breathtaking along the rest of the way to Canada. Just westof the highway you can see the Kakabeka Waterfalls, often called the “Niagara of the West.””You can hear them roaring before you get there,” Theriot says.

There are other sights to see in northern Minnesota: a lighthouse built in 1910 and the Grand Portage, the famous British trading post near the Canadian border. There the road becomes The King’s Highway 61.About 30 miles into Canada, the legendary roadway ends unceremoniously at a stop light in Thunder Bay, Ontario.

As for Theriot, he’s not planning another road trip in the immediate future, but the lure of the road is sure to capture him again.

He took U.S. Highway 71 on the way back, starting at International Falls,where an ignominious trickle of pure, clear water begins its long trip down to the Gulf of Mexico, becoming known as “The Big Muddy” to folks in south Louisiana.

In this Land of 10,000 lakes, says Theriot, there is a lot of marshland.

“There’s a ton of mosquitos,” says Theriot. “It’s unbelievable.”Maybe it’s the mosquitos that make Theriot homesick. He admits that, eventhough he loves to travel, there’s no place like home.

“I might be biased, but Louisiana is the best,” he says. “It’s got everythingyou want – beautiful land, good people, and more personal freedom.”

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