On Wednesday morning I hiked around the road to collect a rental car for the week ahead. The plan of course had been that any such road trip would be undertaken in Romin, but a trial run the previous weekend confirmed that all is not well and we simply couldn’t jeopardise things. So, a Nissan Sentra and budget hotels would be our life for the week ahead. I settled into the rental car and got back around to the camper to collect Carol and our gear for the road. I managed to connect to social media but my Facebook access was to be short lived – timing is everything when we had hedged so much on Facebook for selling Romin – back to the drawing on that front for the time being. We got on the road proper before lunchtime and headed west – straight out and up Interstate 20 towards the Mississippi border at Vicksburg – a run of around 40 mins. Pushing west we covered Louisiana in the reverse direction to which we had travelled it when coming back to Romin a couple of weeks ago. In daylight we got to appreciate Louisiana proper – getting a better look at the large cities of Monroe and Shreveport – large and busy they are. Along the interstate we spotted the mandatory road kill – mostly deer, but we were pretty sure we spotted a small bear that had unfortunately been hit. Just before the border I got treated to the rear sight of a B-52 Bomber flying overhead and then on final approach into Barksdale Airforce base. That wouldn’t be that exciting to many, but it was a real treat for me – we’ve seen a few B-52’s in museums, but to see one in the air – that was another think trailing it’s long streams of exhaust smoke.
It was a solid 3 hour run across the upper part of Louisiana to head on into Texas. Pushing on across Interstate 20 we managed to hit the outskirts of Dallas around 4.30pm. As we know or hear about Texas, everything is ‘plus sized’. Our first example of that was a strange sight – we stopped for gas and there were powerlines spread across the wide expanse of the interstate and those lines were black with thousands of birds – sitting side to side across all the lines – quite a sight. The I20 skirts to the south of Dallas but you still get to view the Dallas skyline to the north of you. As you’d expect hitting this area at this time, the traffic built up accordingly. I think the run below Dallas and the neighbouring Fort Worth took us around 1.25 hours – we had a couple of stop starts but for the most part we hummed along at speed with loads of big pick-up trucks whizzing by us. We continued pushing west – parking up for the night in Abilene Texas. The day had been fine and warm – good for driving and it was 8.30pm when we finally parked up, having covered over 600 miles today – it was good to get ourselves out of the car seat proper.
Thursday morning was all about putting miles behind us as we stretched our way across Texas. The I20 stretches east to west across Texas until it intercepts Interstate 10 which runs across the lower part of the state. Interstate 20 alone stretches for 636 miles and when you hit the I10 you still have something like 175 miles to run to get across this massive state that truly lives up to its plus sized stature. The countryside west of the Dallas area looks to be all about the oil. The countryside vast and open and was lined with oil derricks, and for the most part is very barren – flat, lined with power poles and oil derricks and not much more. The towns / cities that support the industry locally – Big Spring, Midland, and Odesa are all about pipe and drilling machines and machinery, and dirt. There was hardly a tree anywhere to be seen and very little character – we both felt this wouldn’t be a fun place / area to live – to add to things the air smelt of oil as well. Having intercepting the I10 you head west with Mexico to your left – bordered by the Rio Grande River. When we finally get to see the river, it really wasn’t that ‘grande’ – there was hardly any water in it. Compared to the other cities we had encountered today, El Paso was a breathe of fresh air – a very modern, clean and ‘developed’ city. It looks like all the ground around the city has been dug out at some point – for minerals or other valuable deposits, with the tailings just dumped here and there – now the city – buildings and homes, fill all the pockets left from this process. The overpasses were all ornated decorated and looked very smart – a real contrast from the mid-west that had been out vista earlier in the day.
El Paso sits right on the border with New Mexico – the city basically stretches to the border and then you are finally out of Texas – it had been a very long haul with us having travelled something like 800 miles alone in the state of Texas. For our efforts we did gain an hour – with this driving day an extra hour was welcomed. It was mid-afternoon as we crossed into New Mexico for the first time. The first thing that hit us in New Mexico was the smell – near the border there was large cattle feed lot after feed lot – with loads of cattle stacked in – and a strong ammonia smell in the air. These seemed to stretch on for maybe the first 10 miles of this section of the I10 in New Mexico. Then the landscape changed again and we were now in the land of the Pistachio Nuts – apparently New Mexico is a main producer – that and Green Chillies – New Mexico considers itself the world’s largest producer of Chillies and is known as the ‘Chilly State’. The first main city you hit on this section of the I10 is the city of Las Cruces. We were moving further west from there when on our right an Amtrak Passenger train caught up to us and passed us by – we got the better of it when it needed to stop at the next city / town of Deming. Right along this stretch of countryside we had seen train after train – all of which were super large / long freight trains bar the one Amtrak train. Of more interest to me in Deming was an object in the sky – yesterday it was a B-52 Bomber – today I got to see a blimp / airship flying for the first time. Floating along to our left was a decent sized airship – the interstate didn’t take us close enough for a good look – but a blimp it was. We pushed on and the western most town on this stretch of interstate is the town of Lordsburg.
From there is a comparatively short run to cross out of New Mexico and into Arizona. By now is was dark but we were treated to a really nice twilight that kept providing us with vistas of the countryside outside. Our run across the bottom of New Mexico was 165 miles – but we were happy knowing we would be back through New Mexico in more daylight to see more of what this state has to offer. We pushed on into Arizona and made a beeline for Wilcox – a city approx. 60 miles west of the border – so by the time we pulled in to call it a night, it was something like 7 / 7.30pm. We’d now covered something like 1300 miles since setting off from Clinton the previous day – a decent haul by our standards. Wilcox is a nice Arizona desert town / city – with its most famous landmark being the Wilcox Playa – a large dry lake that is both a wildlife reserve (apparently it has some amazing birdlife) but also is used by NASA for emergency space flight landings – and apparently Boeings Star-liner (Boeing / NASA’s joint rocket craft for putting man back on the moon) was to do a test landing on the lake in a few days’ time – would have liked to have seen that. The motel clerk was on for a good chat – he was an Englishman who had fallen in love with Arizona and had lived out here for something like 9 years. He explained to us all about the area – the Playa, places to eat, rock formations nearby to see, and saw us right for the night.
On Friday morning we got on the road early after having a good chat to some of the guests over breakfast in the motel. They were travelling from southern Texas to Las Vegas and were keen to hear about New Zealand – the guy was a keen fisherman and claimed he wanted to come down under to do some fishing. We got back on the Interstate (still the I10) and pushed towards Tucson – a distance of around 80 miles. As the motel clerk had promised, about 10 miles out of Wilcox the interstate climbs up towards the hills and there were some amazing rock formations straddling the road / hillside – very cool. Would have been good to have stopped to explore some more – was a bit like a bigger version of our own Castle Rock back home. We pushed on and pulled into Pima which is I suppose an ‘outer suburb’ of Tucson. We then found our way to the Pima Air and Space Museum – it was around 9.30am as we parked up. Very excited we headed on it. This facility – which is independent of the Airforce / Military, but does have a very close relationship with the local Airbase – Davis-Monthan, due to the Boneyard tours that the Museum run through there in conjunction / on behalf of the air force. It costs a few dollars to get into the Museum – I think it was $33 for the 2 of us to enter, but I found the experience to be very well worth it. I’m not sure how big the area is that the museum covers, but it is considered to be the first or second largest collection of aircraft in the world – vying for that title with the very impressive US Airforce Museum at Dayton Ohio.
The museum has something like 6 main hangar areas which have an amazing collection of aircraft to view, but more impressive is the outdoor display area. The facility has around 350 aircraft to view and a large / very large restoration facility next door which is a restricted area as military aircraft are restored there. I was very happy to see a number of ‘first’s’ again today – having thought I had probably just about seen most military aircraft on these travels. But I was very surprised by some of what I saw today – gave that real buzz you are looking for. I think Carol was really impressed as well and we were both also treated to something of an air-show as there was a steady stream of A-10 Warthog fighters doing touch and go landings / take offs at the neighbouring Davis-Monthan – another real and rear treats to see these craft in flight. The museum had an interesting collection of ‘art planes’ – we’ve seen some art cars in car museums, but never an art plane, but here, they had around something like half a dozen planes – mainly old DC-3’s that had been painted up by different artist – very cool to see – very visual. The museum has a special B-17 Bomber Memorial to remember I think it was the 390th Bomber unit. The time passed quickly and I clicked off some crazy number of photos (I think well over 500) – it was mid-afternoon before we surfaced again for a late lunch and to reflect on the facility. If you are a plane buff this is one of the places you come to, to appreciate it. Collection is certainly mostly military, but they also had some commercial and private aircraft and a large range of helicopters. Great spot.
One of the main reasons, if not the main reason that people come to Pima Air and Space Museum for is to go on a tour of the ‘Boneyard’. What’s the Boneyard??? It’s something else, let me tell you. Due to Arizona’s legendary ‘dry’ status, military aircraft are parked up here in the desert at Davis-Monthan, in ‘dry storage’. They have their engines and inlets all covered / taped over (sealed up), as well as windows / cockpit etc. as the planes are expected to be in ‘service ready’ status if needed i.e. could be recalled to action as required. Older craft that have been stored for some time eventually end up being cannibalised for parts for other aircraft, or end up being scrapped – a sorry end of them. The Air Power Reservoir i.e. Boneyard, is a very active arm of the Davis-Monthan Airforce base, and so to enter the Boneyard as part of a Pima Museum tour, you have to had obtained military clearance to do so. You have to apply on line and the process takes 16 working days to complete so the earliest dates that we would have been able to view the Boneyard was going to be around the 18th – 20th December and so outside of our timeframes. Instead I got some local advice from one of the museum bosons, and we headed for the perimeter road around the museum – as close as we would be able to get, but we were still rewarded with a good view of some of the variety of aircraft stored on this huge facility. At any given time there can be upwards of 4000 aircraft stored here – ranging from fighters and helicopters to a load of KC135 Tankers and C-5 Galaxy’s – once the largest operating aircraft in the world. As it turns out the Museum tours into the Boneyard are in a guided coach that only has 45 mins in the base to view what it can, so I didn’t feel too short changed today – but a trip inside the Boneyard could well be a must do on any subsequent visit to Arizona.
It was 4.30pm when we were pulling through Tucson, with the traffic building at the end of the day / end of the working week. It was a balmy 75 degrees so very pleasant. We headed north still on Interstate 10 – heading next for Phoenix. About 30 miles north of Tucson we got a glimpse of the Pinal Airpark near Marana – this is where the commercial aircraft get stored / are put to rest. The facility is around 1500 acres in area and has a large runway for commercial planes to fly in on and ‘then be parked’. The area is full of disused 747 Jumbo Jets and other commercial planes no longer required, or subsequently surpassed – this is another place for me to explore someday. Nearby with the sun going down, as we headed towards Phoenix, today’s surprise in the air was a hot air balloon – presumably on one of those sunset flights. By the time we hit Phoenix, darkness was upon us as was hordes of traffic – it was crazy busy, and it took us a while to navigate across the city. Interestingly the main International Airport seems to be right near the heart of the city – the interstate running right alongside it and the sky was lined with planes lit up heading away. The Interstate separates here – the I10 pushes west to Yuma and into California, whilst we pushed north now on Interstate 17. North of Phoenix the elevation started to climb – well we couldn’t see anything but the signs on the road as we camp to the crest of passes indicated we were climbing.
Whilst we climbed, the temperature started to drop. We made a plan to head to Flagstaff Arizona for the night – a good junction point that would set us up well for heading into Monument Valley the following day. The trek from Tucson to Flagstaff took us around 4 hours – and as we entered Flagstaff – elevation of just under 7000 feet, we found the temperature had dropped to 34 degrees, and there was a load of white stuff on the ground – yep, a good 3 inches of snow sheltered the city of Flagstaff – emm, not quite what we had expected dressed in shorts and tee shirt. A couple of phone calls later and we got ourselves some accommodation for the night, found our room, and got the air conditioning on to warm us up.
Saturday morning dawned cold as you would expect, but it was fine and we enjoyed a hot breakfast before checking out. We headed downtown – the main road is part of the original Route 66 Highway, and the town is very proud of that and has the Route 66 theme everywhere – diners, motels, stores etc. We headed up town to find the Tourist Info Centre and loaded ourselves up with maps and info on the state, as well as New Mexico. We headed on out of Flagstaff following Route 66 for a time before moving north on Highway 89. A lot of the land in the area of northern Arizona is Navajo Reservation Lands, and the Highway had small settlements here and there. The ‘standard of living’ for want of a better experience appears quite poor, very simple, as the houses are a mix match, small and crude, with bits and pieces of gear (vehicles, rubbish) stacked up. To head up to Monument Valley you have a couple of options – we opted to run up Highway 160 that takes you through to Kayenta and then up to the ‘Four Corners Border’. This stretch of road is referred to as one of the ‘loneliest highways in the US’ – officially is ranks No. 4 I believe. The Highway was anything but quiet today as there was a steady stream of traffic both heading north like us, and more so heading south out of the highway. As we wound our way up the highway the weather went from sunny to foggy – we obviously had a climb in elevation and were now in thick fog.
The city / town of Kayenta appears to literally ‘be in the middle of nowhere’ and is home to 5-6000 residents. Kayenta has a strong Navajo base of residents – we’re not sure what industry there is nearby for work, but there was a nice large solar farm development north of the city (first of its kind from the Navajo – so really positive to see) and we were told there is a large coal power mine ‘across the state’ that a lot of people travel to for work. To drive up into / through Monument Valley you turn off at Kayenta and head up Highway 163 – the run to the border (Utah) and heart of Monument Valley is only 17 miles. We were concerned that with the fog we weren’t going to be able to see anything of the valley, but fortunately around 5 miles up the road from Kayenta we broke out of the fog and cloud and were reward with the Monument vista. And a very rewarding vista it was. These rock structures stretch upwards – ranging in height and form, and we were told that the light plays on them spectacularly at sunrise and sunset. I could imagine the cowboys and Indians streaming through here in the old western movies. There was a really nice story about a couple – the Goulding’s, that came out to the area in the early 1920’s and established a trading post. They were well received by the Navajo Indians, and saw that the Indians needed some help and so brought Missionaries into the area (there’s a missionary station still in existence today). With the Great Depression gripping the area, the Goulding’s took what little funds they had and headed out to Hollywood to see one of the famous movie directors and encouraged him that Monument Valley would be the perfect back drop for the Cowboy movies that were all the rage and sure enough he fell in love in the area and came to Monument Valley to make many great movies – thereby effectively putting the area on the map.
At the Monument Valley Utah border there is a large Navajo Visitor Centre that contains loads of history and detail on the Valley area. The Visitor Centre is also the gateway to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park – where you can drive in and around some of the formations. We didn’t do the park drive – the views from the main road were plenty spectacular. Pushing on north on Highway 163, the next landmark you take in is known as ‘The Mexican Hat’ – a unique rock structure. At the rustic town of Bluff we branched east on H162 and made out way through Montezuma Creek and Aneth – then after a bit over an hour you are back out of Utah and heading into Colorado. At the southern corner of Colorado it’s a 15-mile run on Highway 41 before you loop back south on Highway 160 to the Four Corners Navajo National Park. This is the spot where the four states – Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico converge – the only US states that line up like this. As we arrived at the National Park, a unique marathon was drawing to a close – there were still a few walkers completing this feat – part of which involved cycling the monument at the National Park and finishing at the point where the states all converge. Having ‘covered the states’ we headed south down to the small junction town of Teec Nos Pos and then it’s another 5-mile run east to cross back out of Arizona and back into New Mexico. With the day running out on us the main vista as you cross into New Mexico is the huge rock structure known as Shiprock. The rocks form up like a large sailing ship of old. The rock holds your attention for miles and there is even a town at its foot – aptly named Shiprock. We pushed east on Highway 64 with darkness closing in on us, and called it a day in the city of Farmington. We found something warm to eat and parked up.
Sunday morning dawned cold and damp – the forecast was true to form – we were in for rain most of the day. We grabbed a bite to eat and headed south on Highway 371 – a long run through Navajo farmlands and developments (oil and power). Again, there were small settlements plonked here and there along the road – very understated, but maybe the rain was adding to things today. At the town of Thoreau we connect again with an Interstate – Interstate 40 which runs west to east. We follow the 40 for a time and then branch south on Highway 6 to bypass the hussle and bussle of Albuquerque. Nearing the city of Los Lunas the landscape is dominated by Walmart – not the supermarket but a huge new distribution centre – more of a compound really. The 6 links us back onto Interstate 25 for the run south. We stopped for a bite to eat at a roadside rest stop and were rewarded with seeing a Road Runner – smaller than I’d expected, and no beeping or chasing Coyote to be seen. At San Antonio we cut east on the 380 and 70 – destination Roswell – yep, we were heading for UFO country. The area of land adjacent to Interstate 25 and the 380 is the White Sands – missile testing area for the US Military, and also the location of the first atomic bomb explosion in 1945 – the Trinity Bomb. Heading towards the open country around Roswell the weather cleared and we found ourselves out-distancing the rain – finally.
It was around 4pm as we pulled into Roswell – not sure why but I did have this preconceived idea that Roswell was just a small collection of a few houses and a café out in the middle of nowhere – far from it. Roswell is actually a fair-sized city. As you’d expect there is a load of referencing to alien life in and around the city – the Alien symbol / statures are well founded in the city. By the time we arrived we were too late to get into any of the local museums. We found ourselves a place for the night, and headed out for a wander up the road. There was what looked to be a nice Mexican restaurant right near where we were staying, but oddly, a lot of businesses included restaurants close at 5pm on Sundays – leaving mainly just the fast food outlets plying their goods.
The storm front that we had encountered the previous day was on our horizon as we set out from Roswell on Monday morning. We headed south – destination the Carlsbad Caverns. Heading south on the 285 you have a run of around 120 miles to the cavern area. On the way you go through the city / town of Artesia which by the name I had expected to be an artsy type area – on the contrary, Artesia is an oil town with the refinery dominating the city. In addition to oil, cattle farming was also big in the area, with those big feed lots being the favoured form. If it wasn’t oil you could smell in the air, it was ammonia from the cows – now great. The city of Carlsbad on the other hand was a real surprise – it was a very nice city – nice layout, nice buildings, big lovely homes – and no cattle farms or refineries on the doorstep – they were on the outskirts. You’d think the Carlsbad Caverns would be in Carlsbad or nearby – they are actually at a little junction place called White City around 20 miles south of Carlsbad on Highway 180. White City is essentially the junction town to support the tourism traffic that heads into the Cavern which are a further 7 miles inland from the town. This is a National Park and so we had out NP Pass and didn’t have to pay any admission. As we arrived the weather closed in and the rain started to come down again. The caverns are up in the Guadalupe Mountains which are part of the Chihuahuan Desert. Looking down on the desert below, you see a series of oil lines with their burning chimney stacks scattered across the countryside, reminding us that we are near Texas and obviously near oil.
The Carlsbad Caverns were amazing – I wasn’t expecting much but was really pleasantly surprised. The caverns are part of a gigantic subterranean chamber system, with endless tunnels and chambers, which were first discovered around the 1900’s but it’s believed that local Indians entered the chambers a 1000 years earlier. The caverns are thought to be as much as 6 million years old – amazing. When the caves were first ‘re-discovered’ it was with guano mining in mind – they would enter the caves and extract load of guano to use as fertiliser. That’s because the cave system is home to hundreds of thousands of Brazilian Free-tailed bats. The caverns are home to the bats over the summer months – in October / November the bats migrate south to Mexico – returning to the caverns around March of the new year. Each night when the bats are in the cave system, there is a mass exodus on dusk as the bats exit the caves to go off and feed. The park is set up with a viewing area near the cavern opening, where visitors can sit and view this spectacle – amazing. The mining went on until the early 1950’s when the miners were going into areas of the cavern they weren’t permitted to and causing ill repairable damage. The National Park Service then said enough was enough, and put a stop to the mining – the bats flourishing thereafter. The formations in the caverns are stalactites, stalagmites and these odd-looking helicities where defy gravity and grow down from the cavern roof. The rocks if that’s the right term, are a mixture of calcite, aragonite crystals.
When you enter the main Park Visitor Centre you have the option of walking down into the caverns – a trek of around 2 km’s which takes an hour or more, or you can do what we did and you take and elevator down to the main chamber floor. The lift descends something like 230 metres down below the Visitor Centre. You come out into a main chamber area that is very dimly lit, and the idea is to talk quietly as your voice will carry. From there you head off on a self-guided tour of caverns – the main area around what they call the Big Room is a trek of 2 km’s. It felt like it was further as you wind your way around these amazing formations aptly named the likes of Top of the Cross, Totem Pole, Hall of Giants, the Great Dome, Painted Grotto, and the Crystal Spring Dome to name but a few. The area really was amazing – we spent around 2 ½ hours poking around in the cavern, being amazed at the structures we were seeing. Turns out there is still a load of the cavern system not yet explored – each year specialists ‘poke a little deeper’ into uncharted cavern territory. I think they said that to date that have charted something like 120 miles of chambers in this underground play area – amazing. The cave system is a comfortable 56 degrees and varies very little from that. Back up top in the Visitor Centre you see some amazing photos and footage of the early explorers in the caverns using old rickety ladders, descending into who knew what – all part of the thrill for them. Despite the weather we headed outside down to the main cave entrance where the enthusiastic one’s trek down into the cave (given more time today we would have done so ourselves – I think walking down is the option, and getting the lift back up afterwards). The opening was huge and we could well image just what a spectacle it would be on a nice warm evening on dusk to see the guy go black as the bats come alive for the evening and exit the cave mouth – another time maybe.
The park was a really amazing facility and should be a must do for anyone in the south eastern section of New Mexico. Getting back to the car we wound our way back to White City and headed south – for the comparatively short run of maybe 15-20 miles to the Texas / New Mexico border. At the border we swung left on Highway 652 to cut across to the town of Orla. Along this stretch of road which was 45 miles we encountered a load of traffic as there was huge water and oil drilling facilities in the area. We were wondering how the two went hand and hand and then clicked – most of the oil mining in Texas now is in the form of fracking – they are taking the old bores and blowing a water / chemical mixture into them in the hope of releasing untapped oil supplies. It’s a huge operation, and the countryside as you might expect is full of oil derricks, oil platforms and water bores. There are oil burning chimney’s everywhere – the rain outside not dampening the heat being released. From Orla we got back onto Highway 285 which we had driven earlier in the day out of Roswell. The stretch of road to Pecos was spoiled by the rotten weather, 20 miles of road works, and heavy truck traffic – it was frustrating going. Pecos is another of those Texas oil-based towns – its all about the oil activity around the area with all the businesses supporting this. On the south side of Pecos the 285 runs through to Fort Stockton and the interstate, but it was just as hard going as we battled road works and decreasing visibility for a good 15 miles before a load of the trucks ahead of us pulled into some area in the middle of beyond.
We aren’t normally interstate fans, but today / this evening given the conditions, getting onto a good four lane interstate was exactly what we needed. And to improve things further, the traffic heading in our direction – east, thinned out and the weather improved – we went from aquaplaning conditions, to finally being able to turn the windscreen wipers off for a time. Interstate 10 which runs clear across the bottom part of Texas stretches something like 870 miles along so it’s a bit piece of road. We had all of Texas to cover again, but joining at Fort Stockton meant we were already something like 240 miles into this trek so a good start. We figured we needed to get some miles behind us, so whilst already dark outside (not helped by the fact that we jumped forward an hour as we crossed back over into Texas) we put in a good stint and drive till 9pm calling it a day in the city / town of Junction. One thing I can’t get my head around when it comes to Texas is the cost of their fuel. You’d think being such a big fuel producer that fuel would be cheap – well for the most part it isn’t – New Mexico was cheaper and it really wasn’t until we go over towards Houston the following day that we found fuel getting down below $2.10 but that was to be short lived. Across the state the fuel price varies greatly, and in some areas was some of the most expensive we had purchased – getting up around $3 a gallon – I know, still very good by NZ standards.
We knew that our Tuesday was going to be a big day on the road – we were committed to positioning ourselves somewhere in Louisiana by days end, and we had a load of Texas still to cover. The weather caught up with us again and we started the day in heavy rain, and that was kind of the flavour of the day – the windscreen wipers hardly got any down time today. From Junction we headed west on Interstate 10 and then took the Highway 46 by pass to skirt around San Antonio. The town of Boerne where you turn onto the 46 is a really nice area – lovely homes, nice big rural properties – a really nice area. The closer to San Antonio you get the heavier the traffic – even on the 46 as there are a series of main roads that feed in and out of San Antonia that cross the 46. We reconnected with Interstate 10 at the city / town of Sequin, and from there it’s a run of around 165 miles to Houston – no bypassing Houston today. About 30 miles out you head the outer suburb / city of Katy and from there its 4 – 5 lanes each side of the Interstate for a good 50 miles or more before you still to breath again as you have passed through and out of the metropolis which is Houston – it’s big. In the heart of Houston the traffic at it’s heaviest we still have a pretty good flow going albeit slower, but it wasn’t too bad. Thinking we had cleared all of that and were set for the final section of the I10 to cross out of Texas and what should we hit on the Interstate but a massive big oversized moving load – 2 big trucks carrying oversized containers or hours had the interstate blocked off and so everyone dropped back to maybe 40 miles an hour for something like 15 miles until the load was escorted off the Interstate – thankfully.
There was an interesting area on the east of Houston where Trinity Bay comes up towards the Interstate. This waterway that flows up from the Gulf of Mexico had loads of barge and tug traffic on it moving loads up and down the waterway – good to see. What with the heavy traffic, weather conditions and wide loads, our progress today had been hampered and it was 4pm or later when we finally crossed back out of Texas and into Louisiana. We stopped at the Visitor Info Centre just inside the Louisiana border to get some bearings for the state, and conceded that we were tired and it was silly to try and get as far as Baton Rouge today, as darkness was already drawing in on us, so we found ourselves a nice place for the night in the western suburbs of Lafayette. I think we covered something like 525 miles today. We decided to treat ourselves to a dinner out in a restaurant and get some directions from the motel host and walked around the road for a very pleasant meal. By the time we had finished the rain snug up on us again and we got damp getting back to the motel, but the place was warm and it didn’t take long to recover.
Finally it looked like the weather front that we had been seemingly stuck in for a couple of days, passed us by and we actually had sunshine this morning as we headed off – back to the shorts for me. Interstate 10 cuts clear across the lower part of Louisiana – at its widest point. It was an easier start to our day – today we would work our way across the I10 towards Baton Rouge and then go in search of some old Plantation houses before crossing back up into Mississippi and back to Romin in the camp ground for the night. To the east of Lafayette is the amazing Atchafalaya Basin which means the Interstate has to use the Atchafalaya Swamp Bridge to clear the swamp basin below. The Swamp Bridge to me is an amazing feat of engineering as it stretches 18 miles across this boggy wet basin. You’d think an 18-mile bridge was pretty big – well it is, but it’s only the third largest in the US – Numbers one and two are both near New Orleans and out stretch the Swamp Bridge (Louisiana loves its big bridges). That aside, I find the Swamp Bridge drive one of the best parcels of road you will experience (we were fortunate to cross this roadway back in 2017 as well).
Right in the heart of the basin is a really amazing Visitor Centre facility – it’s on the basin below the bridge and if we were in Romin, it would have been a great place to have parked overnight. The Atchafalaya Basin is 15 miles wide and 60 miles long. The Atchafalaya Basin is the largest river swamp in the US, covering over 1 million acres. The basin is home to many species of birdlife, and plenty of reptiles – yep, we were in alligator country. Supposedly there are black beers in the basin still, and it is also home to the largest nesting population of Bald Eagles in the south-central US. Crawfish harvesting is huge with nearly 2 million pounds harvested annually. The basin flows up / from the Gulf of Mexico. The Swamp Bridge itself was completed in 1972 at a cost of $103.7 million per mile – big money and to think it’s not a toll road – thankfully. The supports, pilings and road slabs were transported to the site via barges up the basin from New Orleans. The highways are 168 feet apart, 2 generous lanes each side, and stand 28 ft above the basin floor – a really great piece of road. Whilst at the Visitor Centre we took the opportunity to head up into the basin a bit to go for a walk – at Indian Bayou. Carol selected the Alligator Trail for us to walk – which winds its way along a boggy stretch of water. Yes, Carol was hunting for alligator – well hoping we might see one. When asked what our plan was if we did see one – well fair to say that aspect hadn’t been thought out. We trekked for around an hour in the bush – very nice area, but alas or maybe thankfully we didn’t disturb or see any alligators. The closest to wildlife we got was some bird life – eagles and large cranes / egrets, and we did disturb a deer as we wandered.
Getting back onto the Interstate, we covered off the remainder of the Swamp Bridge – have I said how much I like this stretch of road. From there you work your way towards the large city of Baton Rouge – the state capital of Louisiana. Before you hit the city proper you have to cross the mighty Mississippi – another big high bridge that provides you with views up and along the Mississippi. It was funny to think about how many times and in how many states our paths have crossed the Mississippi – from its origins in the north to this area where it will soon flow out into the Gulf. One of the main things that fills the Baton Rouge skyline is the large oil refinery which appears to almost be right in the heart of downtown. The refinery – ExxonMobil’s is the 5th largest in the US and reaches down towards the Mississippi on its west side and well into Baton Rouge itself on its north and east sides. We worked our way north on the 110 and 61 Highways up to the very nice area of St Francisville. This area which is nestled near the banks of the Mississippi River has some plantation history with there having been loads of cotton grower in the area back in the day, and therefore, large grandly homes as well. The proximity to the river provided the means for them to get the cotton and there goods down to New Orleans for trading. Interestingly, there isn’t much cotton production in the lower parts of Louisiana anymore. We found the Visitor Centre in St Francisville and had a really good talk to the lady there – she told us a lot about the local history – the town looks like it has done a great job to try and preserve its heritage and the wonderful homes and buildings of the era. She gave us some directions for some plantation houses / grounds you can visit, and so we headed off.
We went back down to where the Mississippi flows pasted this area and were rewarded with seeing loads of activity on the water – there was a series of large barges pushing loads up and down the river – it’s pretty exciting to know that the waterway is still so actively used for moving goods. Pretty sure that loads are transported up to Memphis and maybe even further north us the river. We found a few places in the area – stately plantation era homes – with their large grounds, tree lined driveways, large pillared columns. From St Francisville we got back on the 61 and worked north until we crossed out of Louisiana and back into Mississippi. We stopped at the Visitor Centre and got some information for the Natchez Trace Parkway. This road / path / trail that dates from the 1700’s runs for 444 miles from Natchez in south western Mississippi, all the way through north through the state, and then into Alabama and then Tennessee – ending in Nashville. The Parkway has a load of history dating from the Civil War area – before and after. To get back to Clinton we took the 61 from Natchez up to Port Gibson and then travelled on the Parkway for some 70 miles to Clinton. Along the parkway there is loads of camping spots, the odd house and plenty of history. Some of the US’s most iconic historic figures – Andrew Jackson, Meriwether Lewis, Jefferson Davis and Ulysses S Grant have all travelled the Trace. The Trace was a major trading route back in the day – people would come down the Mississippi from Nashville with there goods, and then many would walk or ride horses back up the Trace to get home. The Trace runs out at the foot of the Appalachian foothills and another significant US trail.
Our run up the Trace was really pleasant – unfortunately we were a good hour late to be able to see the drive is the good light of day, but even in the dusk you knew the surroundings were good. It was getting on for 6pm by the time we got back to Clinton and the RV Park – there to welcome us back was Romin. The weather was cool – temperatures have surprised us with it getting down to freezing point overnight – being in Romin can be like being in an icebox sometimes. That said, we were pleased to be back, but really pleased by all that we had seen and covered in the past week. In the end we covered just under 3700 miles – a solid push, I think. This trip meant we covered off a couple more states, plus open our eyes better to the sheer scale of Texas (we’ve covered a few areas of Texas now – the north, upper and lower parts of the state) but there is still so much more of it to see. I got to see another truly amazing museum, and then for good measure we did some historic sites for Carol – those caverns really were a gem to see / experience. For now though it’s back to Romin and working out a plan / the plan for the next leg of our travels here in the US.