RIDING THE OLD ROAD

This weekend, we headed to the northwest corner of the Bayou State for a few days at Lake Bistineau State Park in Webster Parish. Lynn Dorsey, an avid motorcyclist and the Executive Director of the Webster Parish Convention and Visitor’s Bureau has been after us for nearly five years to come to something called the Burn Run. The Burn Run is an annual event put on by the Brother’s Keepers a motorcycle club made up of firemen. The “run” is a combination rally and poker run, benefiting Camp I’m Still Me (http://campimstillme.com/)
Now I don’t know about you, but I try to avoid interstate highways when I can. I do this mostly because they are usually noisy, not very interesting and filled with distracted drivers in a hurry to get somewhere. But when it comes to I-49 between Lafayette and Shreveport, I usually make an exception. That is because I-49 is not very crowded, affords some great scenery (especially north of Alexandria) and doesn’t feature a lot of billboards spoiling your view.
But on this trip I elected to take a road less travelled and that is US Highway 71. I hadn’t been on US 71 in quite some time and I wanted to see how it had changed since I49 was completed. Back before the interstate was constructed US 71 was one of the primary north/south arteries in the Bayou State and it featured a lot of great places along the way. Would some of my favorite spots still be there? What about the condition of the old highway? Only one way to find out and that was to take a ride on the old road.

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I picked up US 71 at its southern end on US 190, just west of Krotz Springs. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the roadway here has been recently resurfaced and it is as straight as an arrow. The area is extremely rural too and it just begs you to twist the throttle a little harder. I was cruising along admiring the beauty of the countryside when Bob Courtney pulled alongside me and flashed five fingers at me twice; reminding me the speed limit is just 55. Good thing too. Just a few minutes later I came upon a local deputy who was making someone’s day. Could have been me.

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A few miles up the old highway at its intersection with Louisiana Highway 10, I noticed that Stelly’s Truck Stop is still operational, although it is not the brilliant roadside beacon that it once was. At one time, Stelly’s was a popular stop for weary travelers, its big sign promising steaks, drinks and chicken. I’m told that in the Days of St. Landry Sheriff “Cat” Doucet other things like gambling may have been offered there too, but I wasn’t born yet, so I can’t provide any verification for that. Today Stelly’s is mostly a grocery/convenience store, but they have great plate lunches and take-out food. Good to see it has survived.
It was still too early for lunch so I pushed on up the highway. Besides, I was craving home-made pie and if memory served me correctly I should be able to find some a few more miles up the old road in Lecompte.
As I rounded a slight bend in the old highway where north bound traffic splits off to the right I was pleasantly surprised to find one of my favorite US 71 stops still thriving. Lea’s Lunchroom has been a roadside icon in Louisiana since long before I was even old enough to walk, much less ride a motorcycle. Since 1928 they have been serving hungry travelers ham sandwiches, plate lunches and of course world famous homemade pies at the restaurant which bears the name of its creator Mr. Lea Johnson, or simply Mr. Lea as most people called him. Until his death Mr. Lea regularly roamed the tables, chatting with customers, sharing stories and extolling the virtues of “Ms. Georgie’s pies.” Ms. Georgie of course was Lea Johnson’s wife.
http://www.leaslunchroom.com/
Lea Johnson passed away in the mid 1990’s shortly after I-49 was completed. But neither his death nor the construction of the Interstate seems to have had an impact on the roadside attraction he created. I found the plate lunch to be as good as always and of course the pie was worth the trip alone. I couldn’t decide between Coconut and Blackberry, so I had a slice of each. By the way, they sell whole pies as well. Too bad I left the bungee’s at home, or a few of them would have been strapped the Street Glide’s passenger seat for the rest of the weekend.
One final bit of Lea’s legend – A few years back, when highway officials were looking at ways to end congestion on US 71 in Lecompte, they considered widening the road through town and creating four lanes. According to the legend, that would have meant moving Lea’s Lunchroom which sits right next to the roadway.
Lea’s apparently was so popular that an alternate plan had to be devised. Instead a new two lane roadway was constructed to the east of Lea’s for north bound traffic and the existing two lanes of the old road on the western side were designated for south bound traffic only. Today Lea’s sits squarely between the east and west bound portion of US 71 in Lecompte. Now I am not sure if that’s true but it makes a great road story and that is what this blog is all about. What is verifiable is that Lea’s is till thriving and it is as good as it has always been.

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Unfortunately, some of the other US 71 hangouts and roadside attractions that existed before the interstate are gone. The town of Cheneyville, which once featured at least one good café and several really cool antique shops seems almost abandoned. That’s too bad.
But the City of Bunkie seems to be doing very well and the Veteran’s Memorial right next to the old Union Pacific train Station there is definitely worth a visit.
Riding the old road was a great trip down memory lane for me and it was well worth the extra hour or so it took to get to Lake Bistineau State Park from Baton Rouge. Except for one ten mile segment, the road is in great shape all the way to Shreveport and it isn’t very crowded for the most part. Plus, the trip through farmlands and forests is a mix of dramatic straightaways, gentle curves and rolling hills while providing some wonderful scenery too.
A word of caution however – watch your speed. Maximum speed in rural areas is limited to 55 miles per hour and it drops quite regularly as you enter small towns and villages, sometimes to as low as 25. Quite a few of these municipalities depend heavily on revenue from speeding fines so limits are strictly enforced. Just ask me to tell you the story about our trip through Clarence, Louisiana a few years ago.
Want to go faster? Take I-49.

 

See you on the road,

 

T.W. Robinson

~ by larider on April 16, 2014.

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