U.S. 51: Southern leg delves into La. bayou

The most unsettling attraction, as we tour the southern end of U.S. 51 in the Louisiana bayou, is simply an exit sign. It says “Ruddock,” about six miles from the end of the line.

This was a small but promising fishing town, with hopes of also growing its tourism and lumber industry, until a hurricane wiped it out in 1915. Where trains used to stop, now elevated tracks just swoop through, so Ruddock is nothing more than a highway exit to a boat launch today.

“I don’t think there’s a one of us who comes to this place and doesn’t think of what it went through,” says Betty Stewart, who heads the Tangipahoa Parish tourism bureau. Ruddock lost everything – all its buildings, most of its residents, its future as a community.

We are about 35 miles northwest of New Orleans, sometimes hugging the western shore of Lake Pontchartrain. There are three ways to stay on course: the “low road” of U.S. 51, the more modern U.S. 55 that looms above it, and the Amtrak tracks that link the port city with Chicago.

“It’s been devastating for all of us,” Betty says, as she drives. “We still see evacuees in our office every day.”

Post-Katrina hurricane talk has become a part of the local history, too. You hear of people who pay mortgages on houses that no longer exist, the lack of work in college-level occupations, the lack of people to perform minimum wage tasks. Much more physical destruction is elsewhere, but cities here have felt a domino effect.

Betty apologizes for the roadside litter, says some restaurants operate abbreviated hours because of a lack of staff, laments the shifting of priorities because of a cruel act of nature.

“It’s probably a good time for all this to be alive,” she says, with regard to a six-state project to promote tourism along the 1,286-mile highway that is flanked by Hurley, Wis., and Laplace, La.

Louisiana’s 70 miles of U.S. 51 need more attention, Betty contends, and deserve to be part of a larger tourism picture. There are small towns with a large sense of Italian (Independence), oyster (Amite) and celebrity (Kentwood – roots for Britney Spears) influence.

The Ponchatoula Strawberry Festival (April 7-9) is the state’s second biggest, after Mardi Gras in New Orleans, bringing in 300,000 visitors. Without berries, the city of 5,000 is known for antiquing; more than 40 shops are in eight blocks.

Ponchatoula also made national news in 2005, after a sex cult involving children, animals and church dignitaries was uncovered at Hosanna Church.

“We were stunned,” Betty says.

Hammond, where she works, is the area’s cultural hub, with cosmopolitan dining and entertainment options. Southeastern Louisiana University – until Katrina – made Hammond one of the country’s fastest-growing university towns. The newly released Walt Disney movie, “Glory Road,” about basketball and racism, was the most recent film project in Hammond.

“We’ve been set back eight or nine months,” Betty says, regarding her chunk of the U.S. 51 “It’s All About the Journey” project. She predicts an early 2007 kick-off for a national promotion.

The highway ends, unceremoniously, about five miles from the Mississippi River, near B.J.’s Pawn Shop and a RaceTrac gas station. Just 15 miles beyond are beautiful River Road plantation homes, somehow left unscathed by Katrina and open for tours.

Cajun Pride swamp tours, by pontoon or canoe, are about trapper’s cabins and swamp creatures as well as bayou landscapes. Middendorf’s, in the tiny fishing village of Manchac, have been serving thin and crispy, fried catfish for about 75 years. “People from New Orleans will drive over for it,” Betty says.

Motorists can hike the Joyce Wildlife Management Area, just off the highway. They will see modest fishing villages, whose catches include shrimp and crab. Bass tournaments are held year-round.

“The people who are born here are born with webbed feet,” Betty jokes. “That’s what I love about this area more than anything – the nature of it.”

She considers the swamps “some of the most beautiful pieces of landscape on Earth.” There is room to grow, in tourism, because neither boat rentals nor fishing guides are yet available.

This is the land of seafood boils and po’ boy sandwiches, where restaurants are casual and happy hour begins early. The roadkill includes armadillo. Roadside fishers likely are looking for crawfish. Shiny trucks are more evident than sports cars.

“But what was a priority six months ago isn’t even on the list any more,” Betty says, regarding a plan to develop a bike trail around the enormous Lake Pontchartrain.

It will happen, but not quickly. So Betty’s focus remains on her stretch of U.S. 51, and projects that could mutually benefit all states that contain the highway.

A six-state “U.S. 51 passport” would give travelers incentives to collect stamps at attractions along the way. Or there could be vintage car shows from Wisconsin to Louisiana, with dates staggered, to make it a good excuse for a long road trip.

“What you find along 51 is who we are,” Betty says. “It’s the heartbeat of our state.”

For more about the area: www.tangitourism.com, 800-617-4505.