Highway 61 is one of the most celebrated highways in US music, riveling Route 66. While Nat Cole sang of Route 66 and Nelson Riddle did the TV theme, Highway 61 was celebrated by Robert Johnson, Roosevelt Sykes and Bob Dylan. Sixty Six was the route west from Chicago to LA. It was the route the Dust Bowl refugees took to California. Highway 61 was the Blues Highway, from the Mississippi Delta, north up the great river (Highway 61 Blues). The Crossroads of Highway 61 and 49 in Mississippi is where Robert Johnson made his deal with the devil and became a great guitar player (Crossroad Blues).
In Minnesota Highway 61 is one of the most scenic roads in the Midwest. In the southern part of the state, it runs up the Mississippi from Le Crescent to St. Paul along the shores of Lake Pepin past towns like Winona and pretty Red Wing. In the North it runs along the North Shore of Lake Superior from Duluth to the Canadian Border at Pigeon River. The Feds decommissioned that part of the highway in 1991 and now it is Minnesota 61. Bob Dylan wrote Highway 61 Revisited. Partisans of the North Shore Highway say it’s about that section of the highway but Dylan knew enough about the history of the blues that I think the song covers it all, from the Delta to the border. Revisiting Robert Johnson and Roosevelt Sykes.
This summer we rented a condo in Lutsen, a ski area in the Saw Tooth Range along Lake Superior’s North Shore. It was the first time I have driven Highway 61 in decades. It used to be one of my favorite drives. The Saw Tooth range is old, has been glaciated, but still rises to just over 2,300 feet above sea level and 1,800 feet above Lake Superior. It’s the highest land in Minnesota. One of the ski runs, called Adrenaline, has a 47 degree drop.
Rivers and creeks spill into the lake. They tumble over limestone leaving smoothed potholes. The Temperance River is famous because it is one of the few rivers along the Northshore with no bar. There are ghost towns, like Taconite Harbor. The harbor is still intact, a safe harbor maintained for boats to shelter in during the storm. If you walk through the brush you will see the grid of streets and slabs where houses once sat. But the big ore carriers are absent from the harbor that waits for company in a storm. For Midwesterners the North Shore can give you a taste of what it may be like to be in a mountain range along a seacoast. Some of the hotels have names like “Sea Villas.” But it is a big lake with no fjords but its ships still carry grain from Duluth to the world and its worn down mountains are pretty. It is a nice place to have a family reunion.
And the family posing at the top of the ski hill at Lutsen,