“I’m On The Road Again” *
After four days in Memphis, and just a little local motoring around town, I’m back on the road ‘proper’ again. I had a great time in the city and I’m sure I’ll visit it again some day. Today, on the way up to St Louis, it’s my last day on Highway 61. The weather has cleared up again after a couple of rainy and overcast days in Memphis, and it’s nice and sunny again. I cross the Mississippi on the Hernando DeSoto Bridge on I-40 West looking for the turn-off to get back on Hwy 61. There’s a tendency to merge roads and their numbers round here without much advance warning and sometimes I’m on a road and it has two or even three route numbers for the same piece of road, which can be confusing. But the other point is that I really have to keep my eyes open for where ‘my road’ might peel off and become ‘itself’ again. This will manifest itself a number of times today.
I manage to pick up Hwy 61 again just over the river in West Memphis, and of course I’m now in Arkansas. But hang on, it’s also I-55 and Hwy 63! Soon 63 goes off somewhere and it’s just me, Hwy 61 and I-55 and then – finally – an exit to the real 61 appears. It turns out later that Hwy 61 tracks I-55 all the way up to St Louis.
So I’m off the Interstate and back into the countryside again and it’s very similar to Mississippi and Tennessee, straight roads, flat countryside, little heavy industry, just farms and small communities. I am however now on a single carriageway road again, which is what I thought most of 61 would be like, not the almost-Interstate like road such as where I had my nice chat with a State Trooper a few days ago. The railroad also tracks 61 for the most part in this section and I see a couple of huge trains, both over a mile long. Incredible, they just seem to go on forever. Also, this is the original route of Hwy 61, there’s no ‘old’ road anywhere from Memphis to St Louis.
Another Day, Another State
Just after Blytheville I cross the state line into Missouri – and a few miles later Hwy 61 disappears as I’m forced back onto I-55 N. This is weird and I wonder to myself if I’m on the right road again – sometimes on these dual numbered roads only one of the road numbers is regularly indicated, so I think “Have I missed an exit?” But I see a service/rest area coming up and decide to pull in to see if I can find out what’s going on. Luckily there’s a tourist information centre which is useful for two reasons: one, they’ve got loads of leaflets about what to do in St Louis – tours etc. – plus I pick up a free road map, and second the ladies manning the centre aren’t too sure why 61 keeps ‘disappearing’ but they’re sure there’s an exit for it a few miles further on. “Just keep going”, they advise – so I do.
Down By The River In New Madrid
And sure enough, an exit to Portageville sees Hwy 61 reappear. Back on the famous highway, it’s onwards towards New Madrid. I’d read in The Blues Highway that there’s a good viewing point to see the Mississippi at New Madrid so I decide to check it out, plus it’s coming up to lunchtime. It turns out the town centre and river – neither especially well signposted from 61 it has to be said, but I follow my nose to find them – are about a mile or so from 61 and I drive through some suburban areas before arriving in the town itself. But then at the end of the street I see the levee rising up – Greenville déjà vu – and… bloody hell, the river seems wider than it was at Greenville! It’s huge! The New Madrid Fall Festival had happened a couple of weeks before and there’s some scarecrow-type figures by the river viewing platform, the Mississippi River Observation Deck, and around town on lamp posts. Time for food and I find Helmes Deli Buffet 200 yards from the river. It’s a kind of restaurant place for locals where you can sit and eat inside but I opt for a huge but cheap (and most truly excellent) sandwich, that they made for me as I wanted it, just for $3. I then drive back up onto the levee and sit by the river for lunch in the sunshine, watching huge barges sail up and down the river. Brilliant. [Since I wrote this, Helmes has apparently closed down.]
Back on the road again after lunch and as I near Cape Girardeau I’m forced off Hwy 61 again and onto I-55 but thankfully not for long. Soon returning to 61 again thankfully I notice that the landscape is starting to change gradually. It’s subtle at first but soon I’m in rolling up-and-down green countryside surrounded by trees on both sides, and there’s lots of bends in the road as well – it’s a glorious driving experience with the sun breaking through the tree canopy, spearing shafts of light onto the road. I’m travelling through lots of little towns – the signs by the roadside at the town boundaries say “Population 89”, “Population 102”, and other similar numbers – and whilst there are some larger towns, overall the road and the views are wonderful and it’s a real contrast to the Delta: a great drive, very like the English countryside!
It’s getting late now though and there’s still a way to go. I am however back on a two-lane road and so I figure this is a sign I’m approaching more populous areas – the outskirts of St Louis? – and hence the need for a wider road, but I still think I’ve got quite some distance to cover. I’d calculated beforehand that today was going to be the longest drive but I’d like to get to St Louis soon, and preferably not in the dark. The landscape has also flattened out again. I see from the map I picked up that Hwy 61 and I-55 are literally parallel now and I debate the merits of getting on I-55 to go faster. Despite Hwy 61 widening into a two-lane either-side highway I’m still going through towns and crossroads which means I inevitably get stopped at traffic lights sometimes, slowing me down. It’s nice to see the real USA and not just a bland Interstate but sometimes time becomes more important. I bite the bullet and get on I-55: “Bye, bye Highway 61” I say to myself. I can tell I’m getting close but the outskirts of St Louis seem to go on forever and forever – and the traffic’s getting heavier, and slower – but I know I need to stay on I-55 right into downtown where my hotel is. It wasn’t a bad decision to come off 61 actually as only three miles up I-55 there’s an intersection where I spot that 61 is forced onto I-55 again – I’m back on 61! – but then almost immediately 61 takes a left to go around the city before starting north again on its way to Chicago – so, fleeting reunion over, it really IS goodbye to Highway 61 now.
Hello St Louis!
Into the city as darkness falls around 6.30 pm but I can’t find the hotel in the downtown area. It’s been a long drive today – about 320 miles in three states, Tennessee, Arkansas and Missouri – but a really good one and it’s frustrating now not being able to find the hotel. I’m on the right street but have to resort to Google Maps, which proceeds to take me away from the built-up downtown area in a direction that I perceive to be going ‘out of town’. That supposition is not far wrong and about half a mile up the street I eventually get to the hotel. The Pear Tree Inn Union Station hotel turns out to not be in ‘downtown’ as advertised – at least not in my opinion, confirmed when the hotel receptionist later tells me it takes “about 30 minutes” to walk from the hotel into actual downtown – but I’m sure they’d say it’s on the “edge” of downtown. Bollocks. It’s a bit of a bummer actually as I was hoping to just wander down the street tonight to somewhere near the hotel and find some music. But the receptionist says there’s nothing around here within walking distance (a fact confirmed in the morning when I do walk to downtown) and as I’m tired from such a long drive, I don’t want the hassle of getting the car out again in search of anything. There’s a sports bar attached to the hotel so at least I can eat, drink, watch TV and peruse my St Louis leaflets to plan my visit… which I do, and after that I head back to my room to read my novel and then get some sleep.
Goodbye, Highway 61 – For Now
So I said goodbye to Highway 61 today. It’s been a great road and a great trip so far. It’s only been a week and whilst I’ve seen and done so much, I’m sure there’s so much more I could have seen, but unless I came to the US with an unlimited budget and no time limit – which I didn’t – I had to put some constraints on when and where I started and stopped. The biggest issue was the flight home: getting a fully flexible ticket to allow me to take my time, go wherever I wanted, and then just turn up at an airport when I was done was horrendously expensive: so I had to make a compromise and buy a fixed return date because it was so much cheaper. Which then meant I had X days between arriving and leaving, so how best to fill them for maximum advantage? Hence planning out my days beforehand. Another aspect was getting cheap hotel rooms by booking in advance, because pre-booking meant I knew I had a room each night, plus I wouldn’t have to waste time searching for a room, probably at rack rates, on arrival somewhere.
I want to be on Highway 61 again sometime in the future but hopefully there’s much more music-orientated stuff – and more! – to see and find in the week ahead.
PS. There is. And why am I leaving Highway 61? I’m on my way to see something in Detroit…
* On The Road Again by Canned Heat