They rolled the Stratoliner up Highway 61, where Blues music long since left the South on a midnight train. What did they find? Peeling plaster, graffiti, good barbecue and tired people looking for work. These are hard times on the Blues Highway. Hard times, man. That’s why they call them the Blues.
When I climbed onto the Yamaha Stratoliner just after breakfast in St. Louis, it was hair dryer hot under a glaring sun.
“I have a tip for ya,” announced Bob, the hotel bellman, as he eyed my cowboy boots with suspicion. We were already rolling out of the driveway but Bob kept pace with us, his thick mustache framing a giant grin. “Rubber soles are better than leather.”
I grinned back, not because I appreciated the advice but because by following us out of the hotel driveway, Bob was expressing the bubbling enthusiasm my partner, Corey, and I were already feeling about this trip.
Highway 61: The Blues Highway. The road that sent jazz, blues, bluegrass and country careening into each other to create a bit of magic called rock ‘n’ roll. Black and white came together on Highway 61, blues musicians died on Highway 61, and a young Robert Johnson told a tale of meeting the Devil on Highway 61 and selling his soul to be the best blues guitarist in the world. What could be better suited to a motorcycle trip than an iconic American road of music, rebellion and brushes with hellfire?
The trick to Highway 61 when you leave St. Louis is finding it. There are no signs and every ramp wants to spit you out on the mind-numbing interstate, a straight, flat line of truck-crowded lanes that shows you endless farm fields and not much else.
The Yamaha deserved better and we didn’t come all this way to breathe exhaust and count licence plates, so we ended up in a gas station getting directions from a man with a tracheotomy.
I asked the cashier, “Which way to Highway 61?” but it was a robotic voice next to me that answered.
Wearing a cap that looked like it had been dipped in petroleum and left to dry, a whiskered man smiled at me, displaying the two teeth left in his mouth. I was inclined to listen to him, reasoning that when a man who can only talk by pressing an electronic device against a hole in his throat speaks, it’s because he has something important to say.
Good thing I listened. Ten minutes and three turns later, we were on Highway 61. The Great River Road, as it has been named by the eight American states that share it, quietly winds its way up and down gentle hills, around tree-lined turns, and over muddy brown canals that cut through the lush landscape on their way to the Mississippi river.
The sun glittered through the leaves onto a Mark Twain landscape. I was certain, at any moment, I would glimpse Huck Finn rafting down one of those canals, sporting a tattered straw hat and chewing on a blade of grass.
What we did glimpse was a bridge, a shot of regal red metal that joined two gravel roads over a lazy stretch of water. The bridge’s engraving told us it had been built by H.W. Sebastian & Company in 1879 when these were the only two roads through this area. We headed down to the water. We didn’t bump into Huck Finn but instead found two young girls drinking beer, looking like they were going to do nothing else that day.
About 75 miles south of St. Louis, we hit Sainte Genevieve, a UNESCO Heritage town and home to The Old Brick House restaurant. Besides its claim as being the oldest brick house in the South, the Old Brick House had two things going for it: fried chicken and air conditioning.
“This ain’t hot,” an elderly man assured us from the next table and his wife smiled in agreement. As I bit into my fried chicken, I noted the irony of that statement. It was 102F outside. The asphalt looked like it was going to melt. Our black helmets and jackets were perched in the air-conditioned bar so they wouldn’t scald us after a quick tour of town.
The town of Sainte Genevieve, Missouri is a gem of heritage building preservation but it is Sunday school quiet and mildly dull. The only action comes from you imagining what dramas took place in these weathered buildings that pre-date the Civil War.
A fence of 200-year-old grey logs, whittled to sharp points, suggests muskets being fired. Maybe arrows flew over those points. Maybe young men in grey coats fell on those points and died.
A few miles south of Sainte Genevieve you realize just how quiet this part of America has become. We hardly passed another vehicle on 61. If we’d been looking, we wouldn’t have found a motel to save our lives. There are no travelers here, save the odd motorcycle. I believe the motorcyclist might be the last traveler to object to interstate travel, preferring narrow, winding roads and toothless characters at small town gas stations.
A town called Cape Girardeau sounded like a good place to stop for the night. We rolled in on the big cruiser believing what the faded road signs told us: that Cape Girardeau is a picturesque historic town nestled next to the Mississippi. In truth, Cape Girardeau is a sad example of urban decay. Downtown looks like the aftermath of war. A movie theatre, hinting at days of grandeur, is now decorated with smashed windows, peeling plaster and angry graffiti. If downtown Cape Girardeau fought a war for solvency, it lost. Its people have done what so many in America have done: fled to the suburbs where they are guaranteed an Applebee’s, Walmart, and an interstate.
Realizing pretty quickly that the three bed & breakfasts listed on the GPS were out of business we headed back toward the Interstate in a chokehold of heavy traffic that made us long for those beautiful quiet turns on 61. We got a room, parked the bike under the awning and fell into bed as an evening storm split the skies.
Riding deeper south the next day, we realized the advantage of riding a smaller highway on a machine that needs gas every two hours. You are forced to see things that are invisible from the bigger highway. A worn and beaten Missouri town sits a mere five miles from an Arkansas town of manicured lawns and country clubs. The contrast tells a story of America and how its famous dream has failed so many.
You are also forced to stop. And when you stop, you talk to the woman behind the gas station counter who says, “Nice bike,” and then wants to know where you’re from, why you came this way and where you’re headed. Highway 61’s blues history means nothing to this woman. Her history is lost jobs, a struggling economy and the dwindling number of travelers that come through her doors.
As we crossed into Arkansas, clouds crowded the sunshine and the day turned grey. If we hadn’t glanced left, we would have missed a sign that said, “Hog Pen Barbecue” outside what looked like an abandoned metal shed. But we slowed down and U-turned the Yamaha back into a gravel parking lot alongside a National Parks pickup truck that had also just pulled in.
The park ranger admired the Yamaha, asked the usual traveler questions and told us that inside this metal shed was the best damn barbecue in the whole damn state.
Jeff Lynch owns Hog’s Pen, surprisingly big on the inside and furnished with two giant urns of iced tea, sweetened and unsweetened. Down here they take their tea seriously. Unsweetened is the way to go in my opinion. The perfect accompaniment to the best damn barbecue we’d had yet. We ate while the ranger, a regular, regaled us all with pointers on how to make perfect pulled pork.
“Y’all be careful down there in Memphis,” he drawled when we told him where we were headed.
It was a common refrain, that we heard from many once they learned where we were headed. Memphis is ranked as one of the Top 10 deadliest cities in America, and even makes the Top 10 Most Dangerous Cities for Women.
“Why are y’all going to Memphis?” he asked between bites.
“For the music,” I answered.
He pondered that for a moment and then replied, “If y’all like music, go to Nashville.”
The connection between this highway, and black musicians meeting white musicians, and the birth of rock ‘n’ roll was not a Memphis story he knew.
Undeterred, we pushed the Yamaha south. Highway 61 signals an imminent end as it finds the I-55 and parallels it for the last 20 or so miles into Memphis. The closer it gets, the worse it became.
Potholes devastated the asphalt. Highway 61 turned into a makeshift ramp system with interstate traffic exiting onto 61, while cars on 61 entered the interstate. With no lights or flyovers to help us, we dodged a melee of comings and goings that tested Corey’s reflexes and my determination to stick to 61 until it hit Memphis.
Finally Highway 61 turned a sharp curve of defeat and dropped us into the interstate’s throng of transport trucks and flurry of Graceland billboards.
We were not on an Elvis pilgrimage but three billboards in and I said to Corey, “Set the GPS for Graceland!” He nodded and steered the Stratoliner to the Memphis attraction that draws 600,000 visitors each year.
What do you expect at Graceland? Devoted, sighing tourists who you suspect make the trip yearly. Kids in full Elvis costume bent into a guitar-slinging, lip-curling pose by their camera-happy parents. Chintzy, gaudy rooms in a house owned by a man with more money than taste.
What do you not expect at Graceland? To have your breath taken away by the sheer number of gold records lining a room as long as a motel hallway. Moving evidence of a quiet white man with a deep passion for the South and its black music. Laundry hanging and a dog barking in the unkempt yard beyond Elvis’ manicured lawn and white picket fence.
If Graceland is Memphis’ top attraction, Beale Street is a close second and because our hotel was a few blocks away, we decided to leave the bike parked and walk over.
When we turned the corner we were met with a cornucopia of custom motorcycle design that would make a bike lover drool. I know because Corey drooled. It was Wednesday. Bike Night. On Bike Night the neon and noise of Beale Street, an area cordoned off and secured by bouncers at either end, frames a runway for anyone wanting to show off their scoot. Corey sauntered ahead, admiring the flashy tweaks made to V-Twin cruisers and snapping pictures of custom sleds and vintage British bikes.
While clubs like BB King’s and Blues City Café cranked out Mustang Sally and barbecue, we wove our way around custom Gold Wings that had me drooling for the living room couch that is the Gold Wing’s passenger seat.
As the sky turned dark pink and the neon took over, engines snarled as members from a few dozen local bike clubs fought for their space at the curb and their chance to proudly display their passion for all things motorcycle.
We were at the end of our journey on Highway 61 but just starting our stay in Memphis and, like most places along this highway, the back streets and dark clubs of Memphis told us a story of America that nobody hears anymore. The music of Highway 61 may be fading but the quiet, forgotten spaces of this iconic road sing a song that is hard not to love.
– Colleen Henderson / Corey Kruchkowski photos