The Great River Road

Leaving Memphis via US-61, the GRR enters DeSoto and Tunica Counties; the place-names memorialize Hernando de Soto, the first European to see the Mississippi, and the combative Tunica people, who forced the Spanish conquistador’s mosquito- and snake-bitten expedition to flee across the river hereabouts in 1542. Outfitted with cannons, 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 the country, 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 United States, and every big name in the casino business 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.

Two nongaming benefits of all this investment are the RiverPark, where a three-mile hiking trail winds through Mississippi wetlands, giving grand views over the river, and the renovated train depot, which holds the small but scintillating Gateway to the Blues Museum ($10) on US-61, where dozens of guitars, historic artifacts, and a small recording studio bring the blues to life in all its tormented and anguished glory.

South of the casino area along US-61, the GRR brings you to another traditional Mississippi experience: the classic grits-and-gravy, steak-and-potatoes Blue & White Restaurant (1355 N. US-61, 662/363-1371). Offering a true taste of the Delta with its buffets and local specialties, including flash-fried pickles, the Blue & White has hardly changed since the day it opened at its current location in 1937. South from Tunica, US-61 makes a 35-mile beeline through the cotton fields to Clarksdale.