Down The Big River

Read the original article in the Duluth News Tribune, published 8/29/14.

Here’s a simple road trip: Head south from Duluth on I-35 until you reach Wyoming, Minn.  Hop onto U.S. 61 in that town and drive south.  Don’t stop until you hit New Orleans.  It’s so easy, you can leave your smart-device in the glove box and trace the Mississippi river the whole way down.  Without Siri, you might even discover more about the very old route you are travelling. 

I made this trip over the course of three unseasonably cool days in July, and can’t recommend it highly enough.  My circumstances were unique: I was charged with driving a borrowed station wagon and two borrowed dogs from Minnesota’s arrowhead region to their future home in New Orleans, La.  It was one of many odd jobs I took during that summer and definitely the best.  With a 2013 Rand McNally road atlas as my only guide, I had no trouble keeping my wheels pointed down the Great River Road.  Of course there were a few diversions that begged me to veer east or west along the way – so let me take you state by state:

3. Highway 61.jpg

IOWA: My first day on the road transformed our familiar landscape of rugged granite and pine into painted limestone bluffs and rolling farmland.  This “driftless” region of eastern Iowa was not scraped by the last glacier front and remains a scenically underrated swath of American heartland in my mind. The intimacy of a two lane highway will take you careening past dozens of cozy-looking bars and silos nestled into green hills.  I stopped at many roadside vistas to walk the dogs and relax on the banks of the still young river.  Playlist: Highway 61 Revisited – Bob Dylan, Over and Under – Greg Brown

 MISSOURI: I lost Highway 61 a couple times on the second day.  As I drove south, the swelling Mississippi began to set her own boundaries – winding around tree trunks and flowing freely over fields.  Eventually, my chosen highway was entirely submerged and I was forced to seek higher ground. (A humbling experience, but it reminded me just how geologically ancient this downhill route to the Gulf of Mexico really is.)  While blue river water lapped at the municipal buildings of Davenport, Iowa, Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Mo. stayed dry behind 20 feet of cement and earth levee.  Not all of these river towns were equally prepared for the whims of nature.  Playlist: Life On The Mississippi (digital book) – Mark Twain.

 MISSISSIPPI: I steered clear of congestion in St. Louis and Memphis, though the music of those two cities blared from my speakers in tribute.  Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley sounded great in their native latitude, but I was determined to get to the source.  Quietly, on the morning of our third day on the road, the dogs and I rolled across the intersection of Highway 61 and 49 in Clarksdale, Miss. – the legendary crossroads where delta bluesman Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil.  I will never forget the humid and heavy feel of that region.  The flat plane of Mississippi was windless and overcast that day, which I found quite suitable for ghost hunting.  Eventually I steered the hatchback off of Highway 61 and out to Little Zion Missionary Baptist Church, where I stood a while beside Robert Johnson’s grave – one of three.  No one else was there in the tiny church yard, and it was satisfyingly difficult to find.  Playlist: The Complete Recordings – Robert Johnson

 LOUISIANA:  My roadtrip ended in the same way that the Mississippi river ends.  The flow of traffic slowed as we slipped through dark mangrove forests, cars bunched and eddied with stored momentum, and finally in a rush we plunged straight into the open water of the Louisiana coast.  It was thrilling.  To experience this crazy explosion from the continent, you must leave Highway 61 in Baton Rouge and approach New Orleans via the 23 mile causeway across Lake Pontchartrain.  The Causeway is the second longest bridge in the world, and it flies low over thousands of cement pylons rising from the windy gray water.  Try to imagine a four-lane highway erupting straight out from the Duluth harbor and disappearing into the horizon of Lake Superior.  Sure, the map shows that there is a city out there, but when all you can see is water forever…it’s hard to believe some kind of Atlantis is really waiting on the other side.  Playlist: Car Wheels On A Gravel Road – Lucinda Willaims

Some kind of Atlantis was waiting for me as it turns out, and New Orleans did not disappoint.  I spent the last night of my trip bouncing between music bars, drink in hand (open container laws are appropriately lenient in “the Big Easy”) and then traced the Mississippi levee through French Quarter, thinking about all that those walls were holding back.  If I wasn’t flying home from Louis Armstrong International Airport the next day, I might have followed the Big River in reverse, stopping to wander the gardens of Graceland or linger beneath the St. Louis arch…but I know I will be back.

Posted on August 27, 2014 .