Leaving Memphis via US-61, the GRR enters De Soto and Tunica Counties; the place-names memorialize Hernando de Soto, the first European to see the Mississippi, and the combative Tunica tribe who forced the Spanish conquistador’s mosquito- and snake-bitten expedition to flee across the river hereabouts in 1542. Outfitted with cannon, priests, slaves, pigs, war dogs, and 1,000 soldiers, de Soto spent years marching through southern swamps in quest of gold—but he was 450 years too early. Tunica County, long one of the most destitute places in America, only became a gold mine after the state legalized gambling in 1992. Several billion dollars of investment later, Tunica is the third-largest gambling center in the country, and every big name in casinos lines the levee here. Bugsy Siegel would be proud, but as ever outsiders have benefited much more than the still-poor local residents.
To aid the influx of people anxious to part with their money, US-61 has been turned into a high-volume, four-lane highway. And motels, fast-food places, and gas stations have popped up like mushrooms after a spring rain.
South of the casino area along US-61, the GRR brings you to the classic grits-and-gravy, steak-and-potatoes Blue & White Cafe (662/363-1371), at 1355 N. US-61. Offering a true taste of the Delta with its buffets and local specialties, including deep-fried pickles, the Blue and White has hardly changed since the day it opened in 1937. South from Tunica, US-61 makes a 35-mile beeline through the cotton fields to Clarksdale.