The Man at 5-1-1

As this is written, State Highway 820 near Ruston is closed temporarily because of construction. I know that because the man at 5-1-1 told me so.

I first discovered 5-1-1 totally by accident. Driving along the somewhat-monotonous stretch of Interstate 10 between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, I remembered someone I needed to call but whose number I didn’t have. With one eye still on the road and one hand on the steering wheel, I punched out 4-1-1 on the cell phone for directory assistance. Or at least that’s what I intended to dial. There must have been a swerve in the road or something, but fate led me to misdial. Expecting to hear the robotic female soprano voice of Cingular, I instead got the robotic male bass voice of “5-1-1 travel information brought to you by the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.” I was stunned and intrigued. I’m the kind of guy who likes to look at The Weather Channel just because it shows lots of maps, even when the maps are of places where I am not. That same mindset makes me fascinated with travel information –– even if it is at the other end of the state.  As my car sped past the Sorrento exit, I deferred the call I had intended to make; I was fascinated with 5-1-1.

Feeling playful, I went to the voice-activated menu, where I learned that the choices were “regional summaries,” “route reports,” “weather”  and the ever-popular “comments on 5-1-1” and  “help with 5-1-1.”

I guess I was hoping for more, like the best places to buy boudin along the route, but this was not a frivolous operation. I chose “weather,”  which confirmed my suspicion that there was going to be rain in Central Avenue that afternoon. As for route information, I discovered that there was construction work near Lafayette, which at least served to make me grateful that I was tuning north at Krotz Springs.

If the 5-1-1 menu could be expanded, I would suggest a political history of the roads and bridges, such as the old crossing at Krotz Springs. Before I-10, the bridge’s base was the site of Diesie’s Little Capitol restaurant. The spot was a hangout for politicians traveling along the crossroads. Many bridges were built in the late 1920s and ‘30s under the administrations of Govs. Huey Long and O.K. Allen. On Louisiana Highway 1, there’s a modern bridge that crosses the Atchafalaya at Simmesport. Off to the side, an old Long-Allen bridge still stands. A relative once told me about the day the bridge was dedicated. People from  throughout the region drove their Model-T Fords to hear the speeches –– and to drive across the river so as to experience the rush of modern times.

Now modern times bring us the robot at 5-1-1. When you’re driving on Louisiana highways, give him a call. From his accent, you will know right away that he’s not a Cajun, nor is he from North Louisiana or anywhere else in the state where real people talk. To his credit, though, he’s tireless, always there and never raises his voice. If asked, he might tell you, as he just told me, that the skies over Carencro will become increasingly cloudy tonight and that the winds will be out of the southeast at 10 miles per hour. Sounds like a good night for finding a place that sells boudin.