The End of I-49 7

Elvis, Crawfish and Steel Magnolias

If you’re like me, years from now you’ll still be calling Highway 71 just that, but the fact is Kansas City has a new interstate. Highway 71 south out of KC is now officially Interstate 49. Although a few miles in southern Arkansas have not yet upgraded to interstate status, this new I-49 takes you just about all of the way to the Gulf Coast with numerous treasures to explore all along the way.

First stop – if you haven’t been there yet – is Bentonville, Arkansas, and the unprecedented Crystal Bridges Art Museum. Designed by Moshe Safdie, the same architect who designed Kansas City’s Kauffman Center for Performing Arts, the building is as masterful as the works of art exhibited inside. Or, if you’ve done Crystal Bridges, and you’re traveling with children, visit the brand new Amazeum Children’s Museum, opening in July.

Next stop – Fort Smith, Arkansas, and the Barbershop Museum where both Bonnie Parker of Bonnie and Clyde fame and Elvis Presley got their hair cut. This is where Elvis was inducted into the Army and they shaved off those beautiful sideburns and much of his luscious locks. Please – no swooning. Next up, spend the night at Queen Wilhelmena State Park near Mena, one of the jewels in Arkansas’ fabulous state park system. The lodge reopened in April after being closed for two years for a major renovation, so you’ll be one of the first guests to experience what has been called “The Castle in the Sky.” As you drive through this part of Arkansas, you’re traveling on the Talimena Scenic Byway, so drive slowly and soak up the peace of the Ouchita National Forest of western Arkansas. Take time to pull over on some of those scenic overlooks and breathe deeply.

Next stop – Crossing into Louisiana, you come upon Shreveport with a burgeoning little arts district anchored by the Agora Borealis, which represents more than 100 local artists. But if your Elvis haircut stop in Fort Smith left you all shook up, two destinations in Shreveport will continue the thrill. First is Southern Maid Donuts. Not only did Elvis frequent this shop, but he also recorded the only commercial he ever made, singing about the goodness of these donuts. Elvis came to Shreveport 19 times in his career, singing at the Louisiana Hayride, a radio show broadcast live from the Municipal Auditorium. That’s where all of the stars of the era got their beginning – Johnny Cash and June Carter, Kitty Wells, Hank Williams. This is the building where, when they were trying to disperse a screaming crowd of teenage girls, the announcer said “Elvis has left the building.” The auditorium has perfect acoustics and still hosts big name artists, including Eric Clapton and Peter Frampton. Public tours are available.

Next stop – Scoot on down I-49 to the adorable community of Natchitoches. Pronounced “Nack-a-tish,” the community of 18,000 and some of its residents were the inspiration for the play and the eventual filming location for Steel Magnolias. What most movie fans don’t realize is that Steel Magnolias is a true story about the family of playwright Robert Harling, a native of Natchitoches. In a little pocket park at the intersection of Pine and Cypress streets, you’ll find a memorial to Susan Harling Robinson, played by Julia Roberts as Shelby, whose life and death were the inspiration for the movie. A self-guided walking tour includes 17 of Steel Magnolia’s filming sites. You’ll see the church where Shelby got married, the medical center where she eventually died, and the cemetery where Olympia Dukakis suggested Sally Field get over her grief by punching Shirley McClaine.

The cemetery is considered the oldest cemetery in the Louisiana Purchase. Indeed, at more than 300 years old, Natchitoches is the oldest city in Louisiana. The downtown historic district is 33 square blocks and filled with remarkable architecture, homes and boutique businesses. The city has more than 35 B&Bs, earning it the title of B&B Capital of Louisiana. The state’s oldest general store and the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame are also located here. The first weekend in June is a Steel Magnolias weekend, which features tours of the Steel Magnolia house, mimosas, garden tours and beauty parlor services, along with a screening of the movie. Pack your big brimmed hat, a can of hair spray and make it a getaway with the steel magnolias in your life.

Final stop – Lafayette is where you’ll really get your Cajun on. Home of the world famous Tabasco plant, Lafayette is the beginning of the Boudin Trail, an interesting little sausage that is a regional favorite. Sample boudin at Randol’s Cajun Jams along with a big platter of crawfish and then hit the dance floor. There’s always a band and a party at Randol’s and all of Lafayette.