Saturday morning in Minneapolis dawned cool but fine – a good day to get back on the road again. After fuelling up with breakfast at our accommodation we caught a lift back out to the airport with the complimentary shuttle service – very handy. We found our way back through the airport and had to catch the light rail through to the rental car / car parking terminal – very handy. With rental car keys in hand we found our way to the car and out onto the Minneapolis freeway – to head south. It was getting on for 11am before we got on the road, but we were on the road again – albeit in not in Romin. Our main route south out of state was Highway’s 169 and 15 – this took us through the south side of Minneapolis and in a south westerly direction to the bottom of the state. Remembering that there has been snow across the state and most lakes looked to be all iced up, we were surprised to see the amount of harvest not yet in – corn field after corn field. Before long our vista was all about the harvest as we passed paddocks with combiners busily cutting the corn / maize, and or getting ready to move to the next paddock – taking the window of opportunity that the weather was presenting – cool, but sunny and fine (but with snow on the ground in the shadows). I can’t recall how long it took, but I think the 15 took us the best part of 2 hours to traverse down to Fairmount. If you blinked you would have missed the fact that we had soon driven out of state – the landscape from state to state just fuses together.
Iowa’s landscape wasn’t too dissimilar to that which we had experienced trekking south out of Minnesota. Highway 15 was a quieter, secondary type road – the occasional small town appeared, but for the most part the landscape continued to be paddocks of corn – either harvested, being harvested, or to be harvested. Intermixed with the corn was a mix of Ethanol production sites, and Hog (Pig) farms. Yep, the air had that smell about it – maybe it was the still conditions, but the smell of pigs and pig farms, or maybe ethanol, or both, hung in the air most of the time we were in Iowa – not quite how you expect to recall / reflect on a state. We found a fun addition to all of this – one of the areas was obviously a large Pop Corn producing area – and promoted itself accordingly. We pushed south on the 15 – we made our way to the small town of West Bend. Carol had found this spot on the internet, and wanted to visit the local grotto.
The Shrine of the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend Iowa is a little gem, or should I say, massive collection of gems, to behold. The Father of the church – Father Dobberstein, had taken very ill shortly before his priestly ordination. The Father sought the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary in his prayers, to heal him from the serious illness he was inflicted with. In his prayers he made a promise that he would subsequently build a shrine in honour of the Blessed Mother should his prayers be answered. Answered they were, and around the 1900’s, Father Dobberstein was assigned to the church in West Bend. For the next 10 years he started to collect rocks and precious stones from all over the world, and in 1912, he started construction of the Grotto next to the church. For the next 42 years (when he passed away), Father Dobberstein laboured away with only minimal help (a local parishioner and the future Father of the church Father Greving), supported Father Dobberstein with the construction of the grotto, in between church commitments, to erect the Grotto that stands today. Originally intending to only construct one grotto, the work overtime became more and more of a mission. People who stopped to watch, praised his unique vision and the beauty of his finished craft, especially the artistic use of precious minerals and petrification’s.
Leaving donations, this motivated Father Dobberstein to continue his work and to create in stone ‘the whole story of the fall of man and of his redemption’. Over time, 9 grottos were constructed, made from a collection of precious stones, crystals and marble, gems, minerals and petrification’s. The amazing thing is that the structures were all pretty much built by hand – the first mechanical equipment / hoist wasn’t introduced until the late 1940’s. To see it is to believe it – and then to understand how it was built is another thing. Might sound a bit corny, but this place truly is a gem. Father Dobberstein passed away in 1954, with the local parishioner and Father Greving furthering the work of Father Dobberstein after his death. The grotto is the largest man-made grotto in the world, and is sometimes referred to as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’. Its collection of gems and precious stones is the largest anywhere in one location. Unfortunately some damage has been done here and there – people have taken pieces of stone / gems, but for the most part the grotto is still intact, and open for all to visit. A large bronze statue of Father Dobberstein stands over the grotto – nice touch. West Bend itself isn’t really a landmark you would hunt out, but people in their thousands do every year to visit the peacefulness and wonder that is the Grotto of the Redemption.
Feeling fortunate for our experience here in West Bend we pushed south on Highway 15 and some other secondary roads to the junction city of Denniston. With daylight gone it was time to get off the road so we found ourselves a place to stay, and some dinner and settled in. On Sunday we rose early to get on the road and away. We had some breakfast at the hotel and had a talk to a fellow visitor (he was heading home to Minnesota) about football and the surrounding area – he put us straight on Hogs vs Pigs. The early morning air still had that familiar Iowa smell to it – maybe it’s just the time of year that it lingers more? We followed Highway 30 down till it hit Interstate 29. We were close to the Nebraska border here but followed the interstate south before leaving this open and predominantly flat state.
We swung west into Nebraska on Interstate 80 – the road cutting to the north of Omaha – Nebraska’s largest city. The GPS had a lock on Ashland Nebraska where we would find the SAC Airforce Museum. SAC – Strategic Air Command was established in 1946 on the back of the outcomes of WW2 and building tensions with the Soviet Union / USSR / Russia. The SAC Airforce had been based at Offlutt Airbase in Nebraska. SAC was disbanded in in the early 1990’s as the Cold War tensions eased. The museum that now resides in Ashland Nebraska recognises this era in US Military history, and the aircraft and men that served around the clock to protect the US from anticipated threats. SAC was established to provide the US nuclear force in this tense time. The museum, unlike the other airforce museums we have been visiting, is now independently run as it is no longer and active military ‘branch’ so with that, you have to pay admission. Whilst Carol parked up locally to catch up on some messages, I headed in to take in all that was on offer. After having been spoiled with all that the US Airforce museum in Dayton had on offer I didn’t expect to be surprised too much with what was on display, but there were still a few planes that were seen for the first time so another good experience.
A solid 3 hours were passed taking in what was on display – it was time to get back to Carol as we still had some miles to cover before days end. We followed the interstate west down to Lincoln – Nebraska’s capital city, and then headed south on Highway 77 – time only permitting us to experience this small south eastern corner of the state. Carol had found a place on the western side of the state called Carhenge – instead of rock pillars they have a structure of car embedded in the ground to look like Stonehenge. To get there we estimated was going to take us something like 8 hours driving – time we felt we didn’t have – pity, as would have been nice to tick both Stonehenge and Carhenge sites. The countryside of southern Nebraska wasn’t too dissimilar to the previous days – more corn fields, but most of which had been harvested. Maybe it was because was were getting down lower in the states again, but the climate in Nebraska was very pleasant – sun was shining, and no sign of the snow or frozen waterways we had in Minnesota and northern Iowa. We went through the larger city of Beatrice and soon found ourselves leaving another state.
Interstate 77 took us our of Nebraska and into northern Kansas – sun shining, and no tornado’s to be seen. We got ourselves back onto Highway 15 and headed south down to Junction City to connect with Interstate 70. The day was by now running away from us, but we soon found the smaller town / city of Abilene and settled in for the night. Abilene’s claim to fame and one it very much clings to is that it’s the hometown of former President Dwight Eisenhauer. Abilene was full of some wonderful old stately homes – large columned structures. We had a wander up the street the evening we arrived and then on Monday morning we headed up to the Dwight Eisenhauer Visitor Centre – the Eisenhauer family home is located here and there is a museum to honour the former president – this is a popular thing – states / towns recognising presidents that had come from there – most have museums established etc. From Abilene we headed back east parallel to the interstate back to the small town of Chapman. This is where the Kansas Motorsport Museum is established – didn’t know what to expect, and what we were presented with was a smaller private collection, set up by a local racer who had a good collection of his own speedway equipment, and many trophies, pictures, cars and memento’s donated by local motorsport competitors. I had a good look around and got a few more pictures on the camera roll before we headed south again.
From Chapman we worked our way across to Highway 77 which run us south down to the city of El Dorado – cool name which we might have expected to have found in Texas of the mid-west. At El Dorado you hit the Interstate 35 Turnpike – the nice road comes at a small price – easy smooth motoring cost us $4.75 I think. The Turnpike runs from Topeka through to south of Wichita. Given more time I would have been very keen to have stopped and had a look at a couple of places around Wichita. Its claimed that Wichita is the aviation hub of the world with over 50% of the world’s aircraft being produced here – Boeing have a plant, as do Airbus, Cessna and Piper and a load of other aircraft producers and suppliers. Wichita seemed / looked to be all about aviation – I think Carol said there were something like 10 airfields / airports in the vicinity of Wichita – very high percentage, but understandable given the local industry. From Wichita it was pretty much a straight run south to the bottom of the state – we stopped at a Visitor Centre to get some info on Kansas and Oklahoma before we ticked off another state.
Following Interstate 35 we soon came upon the ‘Welcome to Oklahoma’ signage – but no tolls / turnpike for this stretch of road. With that our landscape changed a little – gone were the crops we had been seeing – replaced by oil derricks – I thought Texas was the oil state, but turns our Oklahoma has a nice little reserve underground, and with that the pump price at fuel stations fell as well – we saw fuel for as low at $2.03 – not quite the ‘under $2’s’ we were hoping, but the closest we had gotten to date on our travels. Interstate 35 run south right through the state of Oklahoma – approx. 240 miles top to bottom. We travelled around 100 miles on the Interstate down to the city of Guthrie where we turned west for around 15 miles to an area known as Cashion. We headed here to call on a friend we had met a few years ago when we made our first trip to Bonneville – Britt and his daughter Brittany live here and we planned to call on them to catch up. Britt has a nice place set back in a little rural subdivision – he has something like 15 acres and is a true petrol head through and through. So much so that Britt has established his own small speedway track in his own back yard – he has built up 4-5 speedway cars and him and his mates (sometimes just Britt) blatt around the track. We asked how he got on with his neighbours – sounds like they are all very understanding, supportive, and even join in from time to time. Britt’s yard and workshop are almost a museum on its own. He call’s his operation the Cashion Race team or something like that. There are projects (cars, race-cars, dragsters, trucks, carts, and even a big powerboat) everywhere – would have easily spent more time catching up on all the projects – another time maybe.
We spent a few hours with Britt catching up on things – his daughter Brittany called in to catch up as well. Brittany had just got back from the NHRA Finals in Pomona California, where she was helping out – I could have spent an age talking with her just on this aspect of things alone. Would have liked to have stayed longer if opportunity presented itself but It was after 7pm when we left Britt’s place. It seemed to take an age for us to push our way back south and into Oklahoma City to some accommodation for the night, but we did and we got settled in for the evening. On Tuesday we got up and away fairly early – we had made the call to extend our car rental by a day and make the run east all the way to Pensacola Florida to do the Naval Airforce Museum – we had some miles to cover today. We worked our way around and through Oklahoma City and were soon pointing south again on Interstate 35 for the remaining run south and out of the state. The landscape changed here and there – there was some contour, but still very vast, with plenty of oil derricks working away.
In an interesting move, the GPS routed us south in order to then go east across towards Florida – we had expected from Oklahoma City to head east through Arkansas and through to Memphis but the GPS had other ideas. Staying on Interstate 35 was taking us south above Fort Worth and Dallas. We stopped at the Visitor Centre just inside the border to stretch our legs before pushing on. Passing through Gainesville we spotted an amazing Classic Car Yard – there were thousands of cars sitting on this piece of land – a look around would have been great – blocked / backed up traffic allowed us a little look from the car as the Interstate passed alongside. North of Denton things really came to a crawl – there’d been a bad accident up ahead (so we heard on the radio later) and traffic was backed up for miles – in the 2 hours we preserved in the traffic jam, I think we covered / crawled 3 miles at best. Not knowing the roads in the area, we finally took a punt and cut off the main road looking for a secondary road that would take us east. We managed to get ourselves over to Greenville – the GPS was having to reset as we ignored her instructions. There was a load of development happening to the north of Dallas – along the road to Greenville there seemed to development after development with the cities almost linking. From Greenville we cut south on Highway 60 to join up with Interstate 20 – the GPS was happy once more with the direction we were moving.
The traffic jam had done its damage – it was mid afternoon by the time we finally got over onto Interstate 20. We had something like 150 miles to cover to clear the state – which we did shortly after 5pm. Under normal circumstances we might have been opting to call it a day but we were far from done today and needed to push on.
It was after 5pm and we were running out of daylight as we pulled into the Visitor Centre on the western edge of Interstate 20, just inside the Louisiana border. The Visitor Centre was closed so no maps to be had, but we refreshed and then pushed on. Interstate 20 crosses in a west to east line in the upper part of the state – a fairly straight run of almost 200 miles. We were in darkness so our views of Louisiana were very limited as you might expect but there were a couple of landmarks that we picked up on. As you cross into Louisiana on the 20 on the western side you are soon engulfed by the city of Shreveport – a big sprawling city that seemed to stretch on and on. With that the traffic was heavy and it wasn’t until we were well beyond Shreveport that the traffic eased and we had some road to ourselves. Then about two thirds the way across you go through the city of Monroe – another sizeable city with the traffic to match. We pushed on as we needed to and soon found ourselves crossing back over into Mississippi – seemed to have taken a long time to get back into the state.
Just across the border on Interstate 20 you have the city of Vicksburg – we needed fuel and food – the food option being something for us to have on the road so we could push on some more – we had decided to get as far as Hattiesburg around 90 mins south east of Jackson. We followed Interstate 20 for around 60 miles into Jackson – passing through Clinton on the way we had wondered if we shouldn’t have just snuck back into the RV park and parked up in Romin for the night, but agreed that this would then make for a bigger day tomorrow – we’d come this far today – let’s push on some more. South of Jackson we struggled through some road works for around 10 miles or more before we got settled into Interstate 49 for the run down to Hattiesburg. It was getting late and as you might expect, traffic on the road was lighter so that was a bonus. It was after 10pm when we found our way into Hattiesburg and found some accommodation for the evening, or what was left of it. We hit the bed and collapsed – it had been a long day – I think we covered around 650 miles today – and should have been parked up earlier had it not been for the traffic in Texas. We woke the better for some sleep early on Wednesday morning and got on the road early. Traffic out of Hattiesburg was heavier than expected but it wasn’t long before we were on Interstate 98 – a good road for the run through to Mobile Alabama.
It was interesting – the Interstate out of Hattiesburg was a good 2 lanes each side all the way up to the Alabama border where it abruptly dropped back to a single laneway – surprising for what I assume is a main road. We came into Mobile from the north of the city – we’d been through the lower part of Mobile on our previous road trip from Houston in 2017, and looked like the skyline hadn’t changed too much. There are a couple of distinct high-rise buildings that dominant the Mobile skyline – they have open structures at the top that look a little like the top of the Eiffel Tower. In an interesting move, the 98 takes you through a tunnel that dives down and under one of the waterways that comes up into the heart of Mobile. Popping out the other side you then have the main Mobile Causeway to cross. On your left as you head across it there is the USS Alabama Battleship and Military Museum – would be keen to come back and have a proper look that one day. The Causeway is an impressive water crossing – I think it’s around 7.5 miles in length so a good span of water is crossed when you use this piece of road – which you kinda have to – it’s now Interstate 10 that we’re on, I think. The run through the bottom part of Alabama is a nice road – yep, we are back to double lanes with plenty of traffic (been double lanes since we hit the Causeway). It’s a run of around 50 miles – with the sun shining and a really nice vibe in this lower state – almost felt tropical and any thoughts that winter hits this area seemed a long way off.
Interstate 10 runs you right out of Alabama and into the Sunshine State that is Florida. If southern Alabama had a nice vibe to it, Florida is all about the vibe – even it we were only touching this north western tip of the state this time round. From the border we have a run of around 40 miles till we are signposted to head off towards the Gulf to Pensacola. Turning off the Interstate the traffic clogs up – the road into / through Pensacola is an old single laneway – not really enough for all the traffic that appeared to be around. The journey from Interstate to the Pensacola Naval Airforce base is only a run of around 15 miles, but it felt like it took us the better part of 30 mins. That said, we did get to appreciate this lovely part of the world – the sun was shining, clear skies, and we had the sea on one side with white sand and pelicans – what more could you ask for. To get to the Pensacola Naval Aviation Museum you have to enter the Pensacola Military base – it’s okay, they let us in. A should right up the road and you pass the Pensacola Lighthouse – I think it’s claim to fame is that it is / was the highest lighthouse in Florida – maybe on the eastern side of the US? From there you are welcomed by the sight of an F-14 Tomcat on a pedestal – this must be the place. The run from Hattiesburg had taken us around 3 hours and it was now 10.30am in the morning, but the carpark was already filling up. Fortunately for us, the museum is so big, crowd or no crowd you really don’t feel hampered by being around other people – a really nice experience. Add to that the fact that for the most part you can walk around all the aircraft in the museum – how good is that.
Pensacola’s claim to fame is that it’s the home to the Blue Angel Aerobatics team – the Navy’s Aviation aerobatic team. From 1 April to mid-November each year, the Blue Angels use Pensacola as their base – and run all their training and exercises out of this field. Unfortunately for us the Angel’s last public training session had been the week prior – and they were currently in the process of moving to their winter training site in Nevada – why you need to move from Florida to Nevada for winter is beyond me, as this place doesn’t look like it knows the meaning of winter. Fortunately for us, the Pensacola field is a very busy little spot with Naval Aviators training from there – there were piston trainers, jet trainer, and multi jet trainers coming and going to wet our appetite. Then to add to things, the Blue Angels took off – how lucky were we. We might not have got to see any display, but we did see the planes up pretty close and forming into formation – a real bonus. The Naval Aviation Museum was a standout – yep, up there with the Dayton Museum. Every conceivable Naval aviation plane was on display – a couple I had only hoped to see, were displayed for my pleasure – a great day. To add to the bonus, the museum is free to visit, so Carol really enjoyed having a look around with me for the day. Did we do the museum justice, I can’t say we did – I can’t recall just how many aircraft are on display but there’s a load, and loads of info to go with all of that. A very, very well run and presented facility – we have been so impressed with these Military aviation museums – they are amazing.
It was getting on for 4.30pm and the light of day was rapidly running away from us when we finally pulled away from the museum – buzzing from all that it had presented today (the museum has a very large main hanger display, secondary hangar and then a rear static display area out back by the airfield that you can only view as part of a complimentary shuttle bus excursion. The run out of Pensacola up to the Interstate was again slow going, and there was a hinge of disappointment to be leaving this area (I said to Carol that I think I could happily come back and spend some serious time in the Pensacola area – it had made that sort of impression with me – warm, water, aircraft, boats – all those good things). With time we wound our way out of Pensacola and back onto the Interstate to retrace our path back to Hattiesburg.
The Run Home
I think by the time we got ourselves back out to the Interstate to head west to Mississippi it was around 5.30pm and the day was done – darkness was well and truly upon us. We had a good run once on the Interstate – we needed to detour off prior to Mobile for some fuel and found probably the busiest road around it seemed, but we fuelled up and got on the road again – pointing in the right direction. The run back over the Mobile Causeway at night is a nice experience – you have the lights of the city ahead of you, and the Battleship Alabama is nicely lit up as a landmark. Back under the tunnel and we worked our way back through Mobile and pointing north towards Hattiesburg. Getting back to that 2 lane Interstate which marked the Mississippi border seemed to take an age, but we got there and after around 3.5 hours found ourselves pulling into Hattiesburg again for the night.
On Thursday morning we had to face the reality of having to hand the rental car back so it was a run of around 2 hours from Hattiesburg back up to the airport at Jackson – a good run. I say a good run but we do have to note a little incident with a truck in front of us. All the traffic was moving along at 70 miles and hour or so, and we were hanging back from a big truck in front of us and just as well. A rear tire from the rig explored with amazing consequence – the noise was alarming, and there was tire debris flying left right and centre – and over us for good measure. Hopefully not an experience we will see again any time soon. Arriving at the airport and dropping the car off, one would think there may have been some shuttle service / bus service available to get us into Jackson, emmm no. They seem to like to make things difficult for visitors to this area – no footpaths, no bus services. With some trying we managed to get one of the taxis to run us back over to the RV Park in Clinton – probably a good job for them. We had a good talk with the taxi driver – she was telling us how she lived in a hotel locally with her elderly mum an son – made us appreciate all that we have back home, as a lot of people live very differently to how we do back in NZ – the RV Trailer Park for example. We reacquainted ourselves with the team at the RV Park and then with Romin – she kicked into life first turn of the key. Parking back up where we had been previously, we unpacked, got out the deck chairs and settled back in – this was going to be home for the next week as we work out what we are going to do and how we are going to sell Romin on so as to conclude our travels here in the US.