Travelogue: Highway 61 Visited

The journey home should reflect the reward of a great getaway. Even sweeter is a journey that is different than the ones before it.

Coming home from the Midwest Automotive Media Association Fall Rally at the Autobahn Country Club in Joliet, Illinois, I wanted to do something different. I wanted to take another route than I usually do. I did not care about time, as I cared more about the experience.

With that said, I began my drive home in the 2020 Hyundai Palisade Limited (with all-wheel-drive) from the MAMA Fall Rally with a reservation at a hotel in the Quad Cities. If this sounds like a theme, then you might be right. This year, it was all about Iowa. OK, the eastern side of Iowa.

The plan upon check out of my hotel in Rock Island, Illinois, was to take the famous US Highway 61 home. All the way home. Sort of…

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This famous highway was the subject of musical folklore – from Robert Johnson to Bob Dylan and others who have covered their songs. The 1,400-mile highway starts in New Orleans and would end up north of Forest Lake, Minnesota. However, the original highway stretches northward to Duluth and the North Shore of Lake Superior all the way to the Canadian border. That last northern section is now designated Minnesota Highway 61.

I am familiar with the Minnesota sections of this highway. Yet, I have never taken the highway south of La Crosse, Wisconsin. I was curious about how this section through Iowa and Southwestern Wisconsin would stack up with the Minnesota sections I had traversed in my 15 years of living in my current home state.

The Palisade was a good vehicle to try this on. Think of this mid-sized, three-row SUV/crossover as a luxurious family transport where the adventure continues onward. The powerful V6 and all-wheel-drive should prove to be the right combination with the lingering wetness left behind by the rain from the day before. The weather was changing, however, as the sun began to peek through the clouds. The temperatures began to feel like fall, however.

Some meandering through the Quad Cities from my hotel in Rock Island got me to the point where US Highway 61 would pick up from Interstate 80 on the northern boundary of Davenport. It seemed innocent enough, but not too dramatic of a start.

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For the most part, the Iowa section north of Davenport was mostly straight and flat. It was mostly a four-lane divided highway with a 65 MPH speed limit running through a series of towns, such as DeWitt and Maquoketa on this first 72-mile stretch into Dubuque.

You know you are closer to Dubuque, Iowa when the bluffs come into view. You now have elevations and curves to navigate – gentle and rolling. No major climbs to accomplish.

The reward is a stop in historic Dubuque. I always loved its historic downtown and the Millwork districts, with its classic brick charm and century-plus old architecture. Their overlook to the Mississippi River points to the riverboats docked at the Port of Dubuque. The city serves as a hub for activities in three states, just minutes away from Galena, Illinois, and the southwestern Wisconsin bluffs.

It was in Dubuque that I had another idea about getting home. The year before, I was tracing US Highway 20 across northern Illinois – through Galena – when I was hoping to take US Highway 52 along the Mississippi River towards Decorah and Rochester, Minnesota. Back then, floods washed out sections of US Highway 52 between Dubuque and Decorah. I asked the welcome center staff in Dubuque about US Highway 52, which they told me that the road was still closed in those affected areas.

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I was not disappointed. Though, someday, I would like to drive that section bridging Decorah and Dubuque. Considering I had an original plan to fulfill, I went on my merry way back onto US Highway 61.

Crossing into Wisconsin is done with an impressive bridge over the Mississippi River, conjoined with US Highway 151. Just a few miles after crossing into Wisconsin, the two highways split and US Highway 61 turns northward into a mix of bluff and farmland in a series of gently rolling prairie landscapes.

The colors changed. The hues of gold, brown, and green turned lusher and vibrant. Fall began to start showing its true colors, as the small green valleys and bluffs burst into view.

One small town appears after another. They had names once heard in conversations I had when I lived in Madison some 19 years ago. Towns, such as Lancaster, Fennimore, and Boscobel came and went. All with a certain charm that makes this part of Wisconsin worth the drive.

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As soon as I headed further north from Boscobel, the Wisconsin River suddenly appears. It looked calm as it approached the Mississippi. This is also where US Highway 61 meets Wisconsin Highway 60, as it follows the river towards the east. For over 430 miles, this mighty river cuts through the heart of Wisconsin from the state line from Michigan's Upper Peninsula towards the Mississippi marking several key communities in its wake.  To see this lovely river as it cuts through the bluffs was a treat that made this drive worth it.

From the Wisconsin River, I pushed northward through Soldiers Grove, Viroqua, and Westby. Each town entranced in its own charm just a few miles away from the Mississippi. Towns that were once prosperous thanks to the paved lifeline created between New Orleans and Duluth a century ago.

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After another 118 miles through southwestern Wisconsin, I arrived in a familiar place – La Crosse. The city gave me a subtle welcome through the south part of town. A new approach to this favorite destination of mine. Normally, I head towards downtown from the northern end of town and out into the eastern part of town. Granted, there is nothing really special about the southern end of La Crosse. Perhaps I am missing something.

As I said before, the section of US Highway 61 through Minnesota had been traversed plenty of times. As I left La Crosse, I knew that time was of the essence and that I needed to get home – after a late lunch in Rochester. My route took me to another familiar highway – US Highway 52. This would be a quick run to The Cities and home.

Granted, this would make a better story if I turned off onto US Highway 61 to Winona, Lake City, Red Wing, and Hastings. If you have never been on that stretch of US Highway 61, take the time to enjoy the 135 miles of roadway along the Mississippi River. You will be glad you did.

Hence, this was the road that linked Robert Johnson with Bob Dylan. A road that once saw people heading north for better lives from the delta and the other way round for those seeking the blues.

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But, I found neither along the way from Davenport to La Crosse via Dubuque. What I found was a highway waiting to be driven. I was introduced to new vistas and new approaches to familiar locales. It also yielded future ideas of road trips worth taking.

The ultimate result was the moment I pulled into my usual parking spot at home. My larger suitcase waiting to be offloaded from the back of the Palisade. It was an accumulation of several days of memories, experiences, and visuals.

You can do two things in life. You can simply go to your appointed location to fulfill your membership in whatever organization you belong to. Or, you can make it an adventure with new experiences and new angles out of familiar locales.

We do have a choice: experience something different or be a creature of habit. That is what travel is supposed to teach us.

DISCLAIMER: Vehicle provided by Hyundai Motor America.

All photos by Randy Stern

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