House Sitting in Durham NC

We didn’t have high expectations from our train ride from Charlotte through to Durham, but were thoroughly impressed by our experience. We rode what is known as the Piedmont train – it runs 3 times a day from Charlotte to Raleigh return and it was great. It was super comfortable, the staff on board were very friendly and helpful (with directions, maps and advise), and a bonus was it had free tea coffee and water – a really nice way to ride. The train had to stop at stations along the way every 20 – 30 mins, and so after something like 5 stops we arrived at the Durham Station around 1.15pm. Waiting for our bags we searched the station to pick out Frank from the housesit who had offered to collect us from the station. With Frank identified, and greetings exchanged and bags in hand, Frank drove us to their lovely home in outer Durham which we would be look after for the following week. Durham is a fairly large city – not that we got back into the heart of downtown Durham, but has a population of 265,000 or more – more than big enough. Frank and Robyn whose home – and pets, we would be minding for the week, live on the outer suburbs of Durham, not far from Duke University in Chapel Hill. Durham forms part of the Research Triangle – an area well known for its medical research and facilities – 3 universities feed into the area which is anchored by the cities of Durham, Raleigh and the town of Chapel Hill – area has a population of over 2 million so it’s a bit thing in North Carolina, and wider US for that matter.

Frank and Robyn’s home is part of a lovely lake front development in the South Point area I think it was known as. Robyn and Frank welcomed us into their home and introduced us to their pets Mitch and Vasco whom we would be looking after whilst they headed to Colorado to visit family for the following week. Mitch is a Kelpie cross from Tasmania and is thought to be around 12-13 years old. He’s lived a pretty charmed live I think – he was rescued by Robyn’s mum after a big fire I think it was, and lived with her for maybe 5 years until she passed and then Mitch was flown all the way to the US to take up residence with Robyn and Frank. Vasco is an18 year old parrot – parakeet I think – very colourful, but not entirely friendly, so our contact would be through the cage only (apparently he’s good with Frank, or maybe it was Robyn only – one of the two of them). We spent the remainder of our Tuesday conversing with Robyn and Frank about each other, the area, travels and opportunities – a really nice couple who made us feel very welcome in their home – the pleasure being all ours to look after things for them. That evening we went out locally for some dinner and continued our good conversations – a nice day. Robyn and Frank didn’t need to head off until around 2pm on Wednesday, so the morning was spent walking Mitch around the really nice lake track – short route is around 1 mile, or you could take the extended loop which we favoured which was around 1 ½ miles – nice and easy. The lake has some nice bird life – ducks and geese and even a couple of large Blue Herons.

In the lake itself there are some turtles which we saw a couple of times – got to watch the Snapping Turtles we’ve been told – pretty nasty when they want to be. The lake had lovely trees around it so there were loads of squirrels playing around – there’s something about them that just makes you smile when you see them. Another bonus around the lake was the little book exchange booth that had been set up – I picked up a couple of good books and dropped a couple off I’d been carrying. Robyn needed to get her nails done down at the local mall about a mile or so up the road so we went with them and picked up some supplies for the week ahead. With Robyn and Frank heading away that afternoon we just settled back and enjoyed the company of Mitch and the surroundings. The weather during the following days was a mix – sunny but cool but with periods of rain – quite a bit of rain at times as the area in front of the house became quite sodden. Our daily routine involved walking Mitch in the morning, and later in the day – big loop in the morning, and shorter loop in the afternoon. He doesn’t like the rain so we had to time things right with getting out and about with him. We passed our time reading and planning some next steps of our travels. In between we hiked back up to the shopping area to have a look around and picked up a few more things. The weekend was a hive of activity around the lake with loads of people, and dogs out walking – really good to see considering we really hadn’t seen too much walking anywhere to date on our travels.

On Monday I had a Skype interview call once I could connect with the technology – not the same experience as a face to face, but things went okay, and a follow up call is planned. On the Tuesday despite the drizzle we headed out and walked up to the shopping area again. This time we took part of what is called the American Tobacco Trial. The trial runs for almost 23 miles and links across the Research Triangle area. The track follows the abandoned train tracks set up for the American Tobacco Company in the 1970’s. The track was nicely maintained and a nice alternative to the main road up to the mall. At the shops we both got haircuts and picked up some supplies so we could cook a nice meal for Robyn and Frank’s return that evening. We hiked back up the trail getting home before the rain came to too much and got busy straightening the place up. Robyn and Frank arrived back home around 5.30pm and we had a really nice evening catching up on each other’s week and picking up on some travel conversations for good measure – good food, nice, wine, and good company – great mix. On Wednesday morning we had one last walk around the lake with Mitch with Robyn and Frank along for company and just enjoyed the surroundings and what this past week had offered us – a very nice, pleasant experience – as the housesit testimonials would attest to.

Onward to Charlotte NC

Sunday morning had us up early hoping to have a bite to eat at the motel before heading down the street. Emm, Sunday was the kitchen’s late start, so it was a very quick bite, but a bite none the less, and with that we headed off into the main street to walk up to the bus terminal – a bit less than 1.5 miles. Sunday had dawned fine (around freezing point), but it was certainly colder as we walked up the street, but the effort involved warmed us up. We arrived at the bus terminal to find it a mass of people waiting to get on buses so some queuing was involved to get our tickets – somewhat fortunately, and as we’d come to expect with Greyhound, the bus was delayed by 45 mins so as it turned out we had plenty of time. On the bus we finally started to pull off and make our way out of Atlanta – which took some time as it is a very large city (the central population of Atlanta might only be ½ a million, but wider Atlanta has a population of almost 6 million – now the scale makes sense). The bus had to make a number of scheduled stops – first up was Gainesville on the outskirts of Atlanta. After a couple of stops we finally crossed out of Georgia and back into South Carolina – our route today following Interstate 85 on a north eastly course to Charlotte.

After enjoying our ride across South Carolina we pulled into Charlotte around 4.15pm – sun shining. Our accommodation was only about a mile from the bus terminal down in the area of the university, so very handy (plus they greeted us with fresh baked chocolate chippie cookies on our arrival – nice touch). By the time we got to our room, evening was closing in on us so we settled in for an easy night. Monday dawned sunny so we were up and away early to walk up to the Amtrak train station in Charlotte to get tickets for Tuesday over to the housesit in Durham. The walk to the train station was a descent hike of a couple of miles up and through a couple of areas of Charlotte (the Uptown area is the commercial centre of Charlotte with some stunning high rise buildings and a nice vide, with the train station to the north of the city in the Noda area – a much more industrial type area with a lot of homeless people trying to keep warm). With train tickets sorted we wandered back uptown – the main streets are Tryon Street which runs north to south, and Trade Street (which the motel was off) running east to west. The Uptown area of Charlotte was very nice – stunning buildings, loads of nice sculptures, loads of different vistas to take in – very nice for a big city (population of Charlotte is almost 900,000). We went into a gallery / building lobby that had a collection of stunning glass works – very nice. Amongst The sculptures are the Sculptures at Independence Square – a series of 4 sculptures named Transportation, Future, Commerce and Industry – standing for the 4 facets of the Queen City (that’s another story – Charlotte was named after Queen Charlotte, the German born wife of King George 111 back in 1768).

Charlotte is the home of NASCAR with the NASCAR Museum / Hall of Fame taking pride of place in downtown Charlotte. I was undecided about going into it (cost and time), but things were decided for us when it turned out the museum was closed for a week for renovations – obviously not meant to be. From the Convention Centre (NASCAR backs onto this complex) we headed up to Spectrum Centre – another great ‘downtown / uptown’ facility in the heart of the city (in addition to the Spectrum Stadium, the NFL and Baseball Stadiums are all in what we would call the Uptown area – very central to the city). Spectrum is where all the concerts are held and also the local NBA Basketball team the Hornets play when at home. As chance would have it the Hornets were playing today so we picked up tickets – being budget conscious we went for the cheapest seats. With tickets in hand we wandered back to the motel to freshen up before heading back uptown to be at the stadium as it opened its doors at 6pm for a 7pm game tip off. With school having gone back today after Xmas break, we were told the game wouldn’t be busy and it wasn’t but despite that our seats placed us in the stratosphere of the Spectrum Centre – about 4 rows from the very top – a bit crazy when there were so many empty seats below us. Thank goodness for the big screen TV’s. Despite our vantage point the atmosphere was good, and whilst we didn’t entirely understand the game, we did enjoy the experience – we had some young kids sitting along from us in their supporter gear chanting ‘defence, defence’ on a regular basis.

Unfortunately the local team (Charlotte Hornets) went down to the visiting Indiana Pacers 104 – 95. The whole game – which is played over 4 12 min quarters is a bit stop start with atleast 2 timeouts per quarter, so it was getting on for 9.30pm by the time we climbed down and found our way out of the complex. We wandered back up the road stopping for a bite to eat at a roadside food caravan – which was doing some good post game trade. Attending an NBA game now ticked off, we enjoyed the night time vistas that Uptown Charlotte offers and made our way back to the motel – receiving fresh chocolate chippie cookies for our troubles – bonus. On Tuesday morning we had an easy start not having to check out until 9.30am. We arranged a taxi to get us back up to the train station – the weather closed in on us and it started raining, and would do so for most of the day. Charlotte was a real nice experience for us – both Carol and I felt good about the city, the vibe and what it offers. I was really impressed by how the sporting complexes have all been strategically located so central to the heart of the city – a good touch I think. More time to explore some more would always be a bonus, but not to be this time – we had a train to catch to Durham.

Atlanta

Dropping the rental car off at the downtown branch meant we only had a walk of around a mile up to the main street area and along the road to our accommodation – the Inn At Peachtrees. We’d expected to just drop our bags and head out but the lady at reception looked after us and had a room available that we could go straight into so that was a bonus. As we were walking to the accommodation the weather started to pack in, so it was out with the raincoats as we headed on out from the motel to have a look around the downtown area. Around 3 blocks down from us is the Coke Cola International Offices and associated Coke Museum. We didn’t do the museum tour but had a look around the merchandise shop – as you’d expect, they had some nice bits and pieces. The Coke Museum is in part of a larger museum hub locally – across from Coke you have the Georgia Aquarium – the largest on the eastern coast, if not the US by volume of water they display. You also have the Centre for Civil and Human Rights Museum in the area – all of which can be accessed as part of the promo Atlanta Pass if you want to pay that much (each museum was on average $17 to enter). We settled on having a walk around the area and then heading on over to Centennial Olympic Park – yes, scene of some of the cities celebrations attached to the 1996 Olympics staged in the city (interestingly when we were in Savannah there was a monument there on the waterfront celebrating it as the scene of the Olympic sailing venue in 1996). We didn’t see the fountains ‘perform’ – if was wet enough without them. We called at the local Visitor Centre and armed ourselves with some local info before setting off again in the pouring rain.

Downtown Atlanta has a Street Car that runs a 2.5-mile loop and for $1 a ticket you can ride it for 2 hours, so we did a full loop and then a part loop around again to the Sweet Auburn Curb Market – a popular food-court area. With the holiday season, a number – maybe half, of the operators were closed, but we still found something nice and warm to partake before heading back out and onto the Street Car for the run back up to the main-street. From there it was a short walk back up to the motel where we dried off and settled in for the evening. On Friday the rain didn’t let up much at all, so we spent a good part of the day just hunkered down in our room, catching up on blog duties, and jotting down some ideas for our pending build back home. Mid-afternoon we decided we wrap up and head out and took a good walk further up town – we would consider Atlanta a big city – yep the stats suggest the population is only around ½ a million – we thought it might have been more. Maybe it’s jus that the city is quite spread out – broken up into different parts / quadrants – you have Downtown, Midtown, Uptown etc. Interestingly the local airport – Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is the world’s busiest airport, and has been so for the past 21 years. Supposedly something like 107 Million passengers flew through the airport in 2018 – crazy numbers. Anyway, we walked a ways towards the Midtown area – admiring the architecture along the way. One of the standout buildings is the Bank of America Building – it stands at over 1000 feet and is in the top 10 tallest buildings in the US. On a day like today, the upper third of the building was shrouded in low cloud which gave an interesting visual experience. That said, a number of other tall Atlanta buildings were also playing with the clouds / in the clouds today. Atlanta is / has been a popular film backdrop and with the buildings and architecture of this city you can see why. Supposedly Atlanta is the backdrop for Gotham City – we didn’t see the Bat Light though.

We found ourselves a little supermarket and picked up some supplies and made our way back downtown to our accommodation – all the better for getting out and getting some fresh air. The forecast for Saturday was for improving weather, so I braved it and donned my shorts again today. We got up earlier and headed down for some breakfast ahead of the masses (the previous mornings breakfast sitting had been crazy noisy with kids and families staying in the motel). It seemed that almost as soon as we left the motel to head out that the heavens opened up again – so we had to hunker down under some verandas waiting, and hoping that the weather would lift – as per the forecast. After sheltering for maybe 30 mins the weather started to lift and we set off proper again. Carol was keen to explore the Martin Luther King Jnr memorial, so we hiked up the main street until we found the Street Car tracks and then followed them down Edgewood Ave – along past the Sweet Auburn Markets. Along the way we passed some nice pieces of sculpture – some of the big buildings have nice pieces displayed in front of them, and then there are pieces and waterfalls in and around the part areas. Unfortunately it looks like the city of Atlanta has quite a high homeless rate. We’ve passed numerous people sleeping rough on the streets the past couple of days – looks like they try and sleep during the day, and then are active / up and about at night – most likely just to keep warm at this time of the year. One of the parks down near Sweet Auburn Markets looked to be a central location for atleast 50 people living on the streets – or so it seems.

This area of downtown is the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jnr – the Sweet Auburn area of Atlanta being his home and the home of a lot of African Americans in this city. To recognise his contributions and I guess we can say, sacrifice, there is a National Historical Park named after Martin Luther King Jnr here in the downtown area – run by the National Parks Service. We had a good look around the complex – which traces the life and struggles of not just Martin Luther King Jnr, but all coloured folk across the USA. It detailed the protests, and retaliations that occurred. I have to say I didn’t want to get into all the detail on display – for me it just seems incomprehensible that such division could exist / did and does exist across this country. For me this must go down as one of the US’s darker periods in history. The complex which covers several blocks acknowledges the contributions Martin Luther King Jnr, his wife and family made in US history. Across the road from the main Visitor Centre is the King Centre which has the tombs of Martin and his wife with an external flame burning close by. Down the street, some of the original homes of the era including the house that Martin Luther King Jnr was raised in, are all restored and maintained by the Park Service.

Somewhat stunned by this experience, we headed uptown towards the Midtown area. We’d heard about the Ponce City Market and had been told it was the place to go for shops and foot so we set off on foot to reach this area. The Ponce Markets building (opened in 1926) was at one point the largest building in Atlanta at over 200,000 m’s square. It was used up until 1987 by Sears, and then around 2011, the city started renovating and restoring the building complex to form the large upmarket retail and food area that exists today. We had a bit of a wander around – the retailers were mainly high end, and there seemed to be an endless supply of food vendors to choose from. From there we took a fix on the Bank of America building which today was basking in all its glory with the cloud at bay, so we got a nice view of the top of it, and used that to get our bearings on where we needed to head to, in order to get back to the motel – which after a good hike, we did. Obviously there is a lot more we could and probably should have seen in and around the city of Atlanta, but time and money curtail that for us this time round. We were just happy to finally be out of our rain coats and enjoying some sunshine, albeit on a cooler day here in Atlanta. Sunday has us on the move again early – heading back up the road to the Greyhound Bus Terminal, for us to head further east again – this time we are off to Charlotte, so I’ll update from there.

Life without Romin

Saturday 28 December was to be our last day in Clinton Mississippi – well Mississippi full-stop. We didn’t have to have Romin dropped off till later in the day as our scheduled bus from Jackson wasn’t until almost 11pm so we wanted to drop Romin off as late as we could, but still within daylight so we could go over things with Glenda and Kenny. The morning was spent repacking bags – first time we have had to pull everything out for some 5 months. A few bits and pieces were culled, but for the most part, everything we accumulated for camper life stayed in Romin – we would just be taking our bags packed again – just like travel of old. We said farewell to Miss Germany and headed off from the camp around 3.30pm. The camper was going to Glenda and Kenny who live in Canton – a city around 40 miles north of Jackson (there’s a large Nissan plant close by which is the lifeblood of this city and a good chunk of Jackson). The day was starting to pack up as we headed off, and as if Romin was making one last stand, she wasn’t running too well today – but we pushed on regardless – we had to. We took part of the Natchez Trace Parkway – had intended to ride it all the way to the main Interstate but within about 10 miles of the Trace there was a road closure so we had to detour north on Highways 49 and 22 – the 22 taking us straight into Canton, and to our drop off point. Along the way we drove through the town of Flora and then Madison County – areas with large, very large homes, lots of gated communities, nice farmland with cattle and horses. Canton is known as the City of Light and has a large Xmas light display each Xmas – we didn’t manage to take that in, but have seen some nice light displays on our journeys, and many many houses decorated for Xmas with garden scenes – the big inflatable Xmas decorations are very popular.

Romin’s new owners are Glenda and Kenny who live just on the outskirts of Canton in a historic homestead dating back to 1829 I think it was. I think the house had seen better days and could benefit from some serious upkeep, but maybe that was beyond what Glenda was able to do? They already had a large Class A camper parked up by the house – Romin was to go alongside this and become ‘Kenny’s residence’. Glenda is a ‘cat lady’ and collector – there were maybe 15 cats in and around the house, and atleast 4 cars out in the grass growing weeds. We’re not sure why American’s seem to let things go so much, or just park something up as opposed to ‘moving it on’. The cars – which included a Mustang, Jag and Mazda MX 5 would be popular with many – yet, here they are not doing anyone any good – not sure why we have seen so much of that. Kenny wanted to take Romin for a run up the road so we do so – she didn’t run that well, but some of that was the way Kenny was driving her – you needed to know how to handle / treat Romin right. I was anxious about things, but we got back to the house, parked Romin up on the lawn, went over what was what with the camper, and collected our bags and cash for the sale – deal done. Glenda was kind enough to run us back into Jackson to the bus terminal and so we got dropped off around 6.15pm and wished them well with Romin.

As had been advice to us previously, Glenda was anxious about us ‘hanging around’ at the bus station, but we didn’t see that we had many options. Yes, it’s an area where some people live rough – seeking shelter on a cold evening in the bus terminal for as long as they can before security move them on. It seems that a number of people didn’t have much positiveness to say about downtown Jackson – that it wasn’t the place for people like us to be. People seem sceptical of one another. We had a guy in the RV Park that started talking with us when he saw us out and around the camp – him and his wife had a service called Demon Busters – we didn’t get down to the nitty gritty of what that involved, but they felt they were providing a service and this was their calling from God. Stan warned us about the people from Canton – ‘take care dropping off the camper – there are a lot of bad people in Canton’. I’m sure their might have been, but what was Stan basing that judgement on – experience??? I guess the same can be said about a lot of places – there are always going to be pockets which aren’t as nice as others, but our experience of downtown – of the bus terminal was fine. It would be fair to say of Jackson and Mississippi as a whole, that it is more of a coloured state than the likes of Northern and Western USA. I made a note that I would consider Mississippi to be more of a working class state – yes there are pockets where people are obviously doing well if that is measured by the type of car you drive, and how big your house is, but there are a lot of people in the south living a lower standard – but for the most part, people seem happy (the rich live rich, the poor just live is probably one way to sum it up). That said, a lot of people drive nice cars – maybe the price of cars in the US is so competitive that they can – there again, I think part of it could be the financing options available to purchase such items. We saw new house and land packages advertising zero dollars down – how does that work? With the car prices seeming so low, maybe that is a factor in why people just ‘park up’ the old car on the section, and set off in the newer car?

Other observations of the South – it seems that life is all about making things as easy as possible – people hop in their cars to drive 100 metres like we experienced in the RV Park, there are drive through’s for everything so that people don’t have to get out of their cars – supermarkets, bottle stores, ATM’s, chemists, and of course, fast food providers – there are just so many and too many options. A good example – where we stayed in Clinton was at a junction of Interstate 20 – within a 500-metre radius of the Interstate at this point you had something like 10 accommodation / motel options, and just as many fast food outlets. I think I made the comment that life here is an ‘instant society’ – made to be as easy as possible, but from our point of view, that looks to be detrimental. A lot of people don’t look to cook for themselves – there are so many food options, you could try them all and probably still not cover them in the space of a month. A real surprise for us – lots of people use disposable plates and cutlery for their meals – so they don’t have to wash up I guess. I’m not sure how much of that is based on trailer park living and not having the space, but I don’t think that should be a factor. Have people just got too lazy? We know it was very frustrating for us that there were basically no footpaths for us to walk on – this then discourages people from walking – which means no exercise, which then leads to people being overweight and health issues. We know that back home there has been a big push to go away from plastic bags – emm, no real signs of that here in the US – supermarkets are very generous / over generous with packaging, and the disposable plates we talked about – a lot of that is polystyrene – not too sure how that’s going to break down? My final note on excess – the caravans or rather Fifth Wheelers that adorn the RV Parks and Interstates of the US – seems that bigger is best, so most are in the 36 foot plus size bracket, which when you look at them, is huge by NZ standards, and yet these caravans are primarily only decked out for 2 people living with only the one large / very large bed, and maybe a couch of chair that will convert into a temporary bed if needed – seems like a real excess and wasted opportunity to me – rant over.

Back to the bus station – we got our tickets, and parked up with some others waiting for the bus and got educated on the American Football game that was playing (Saturday is College Football, and this weekend was the semi-finals of the competition – the Rose bowl competition I think it was???). Team from South Carolina and Ohio were contesting this game. The guys watching with us were heading to Atlanta on the 7pm bus, but were told it had broken down. Around 10.30pm we got word that the 10.50pm bus we were waiting on had also broken down (all the Atlanta buses originate from Dallas Texas). I always had this impression that Greyhound prided itself on its reliability and efficiency, but I’m not sure if its because bus travel is decreasing year on year, but the Greyhound service seemed to be lacking – seriously. The buses are old, well worn, and as a result, reliability looks to be becoming an issue. The news for us was that our scheduled bus wasn’t now expected into Jackson until maybe 4am in the morning, so with some effort, I got our tickets changed to the 7pm bus that still hadn’t arrived into Jackson – surely it would arrive before our now late bus? Around 12.30am the 7pm bus finally arrived, and after a lengthy refuelling stop, we finally boarded the bus (very tired), and left Jackson around 1.45am – well and truly late.

As is always the case with bus trips like this, the bus has to stop every 2-3 hours – driver reviver, passenger revivers etc. I had managed to doze off but snapped awake as we came into the Mississippi city of Meridian (the bus was following Interstate 20 directly across – the I20 having started in western Texas and runs to the East Coast). From Meridian (which looked like a nice city – cleaning, more progressive maybe that Jackson) the I20 heads north and out of Mississippi. We stopped in Birmingham Alabama around 5.45am to ‘revive’. Again, Birmingham looked like a nice city – some nice touches to it, but still some people living rough in and around the bus terminal area. The thinking was we would loop back through Birmingham once we picked up the rental car as they were a couple of motor-sport places I was keen to explore locally. Back on the bus for the last push, I nodded off for a time and awoke as we were nearing Atlanta. Along the way we gained an hour – instead of us arriving at 7.30am as planned, it was now 10am, but atleast we had made it. We hiked up the road for a mile or more into the heart of the city to find the Budget depot to collect a car. The plan was to collect a small ‘compact’ sized car, but they didn’t have any so they gave us a new Mustang Convertible – yes, most guys would dream of that, but a couple of things – did we want to be driving such a vehicle on the roads, plus it wasn’t convertible weather. All that said, we crammed our bags in, and headed off out of the city. For some reason – maybe Holiday traffic, the roads south of Atlanta were crazy busy and it was very stop start for a maybe 40 miles. We were heading south to get to the aircraft museum near Robins AFB.

Around 60 miles south of Atlanta the traffic backed up on us again and so we stopped as needed, but unfortunately the guy following us didn’t and he rammed up the back of us – not what we needed. The impact knocked us forward into the next car – that driver got out and had a look and waved it off – but I couldn’t wave off the impact to the back of the car. The driver of the other car got our very apologetic – he’d been distracted by his 2 young daughters in the back and failed to see the traffic stopped in front. Fortunately no one was injured – just nerves frayed. I managed to contact the rental car company after some effort, and they asked that I call the Police as a Police report of the road accident would be needed. The other driver accepted full liability, but the whole process of waiting for the Police and then getting the report taken probably took almost an hour and a half. Budget asked us to return the car to Atlanta Airport so we could be reissued another vehicle. With the nerves still on edge, we headed back towards the airport – with traffic now heavy heading back into Atlanta. Then the rain came in – very heavy. We finally got ourselves back and dropped the car off. No replacement Mustang for us – a little Ford Festiva awaited – probably what we should have had in the first place. So once again we headed out onto Interstate 75 and retraced our steps south and away from Atlanta – traffic still heavy. Today’s disruptions put pay to getting to the museum, and as it was it was around 6pm by the time we reached the nearby town of Warner Robins. We found a place to stay, got ourselves some food, and tried to switch off from the events of the day.

Monday dawned brighter weather wise so we headed down to the local Visitor Centre for some advice ahead of visiting the Museum of Aviation at the Robins AFB – Georgia. The Airbase is one of only 3 in the US which serves as a Logistics hub – I think it had around 3500 military personnel and over 20000 civilians based here. The Airbase services a lot military hardware and transports good around the country and the world from this base. The museum itself is set on 50 acres in the corner of the airbase. The museum was very good – no real surprises in so far as what was displayed – it was just displayed nicely and had a lot of information to go with it. The museum consists of 4 main hangars with static displays, and then there is a nice air park outside with a couple of dozen large aircraft displayed. With the sun shining it was nice to get out and around this area – yep, plenty of photos taken again today. Added bonus, the museum is free to enter, and works on donations. We spent around 5.5 hours looking around in total before pushing off from the museum. With the disruptions and delays of the previous day we made the call toe bypass the Alabama options and head east instead to Savannah and to explore that area. We opted for secondary roads as our route east following Highway 280 for a good chuck of time before finally linking up with Interstate 16 for the final run into Savannah. It was by this time around 6.30pm and Savannah was busy – well the old part of town here the shops and restaurants are and the tourist info site we were trying to get to.

Parking in downtown Savannah is a bit of a naff – the town is locked up with metered / paid parking, so unable to locate the Tourist Centre, we scrambled to pull over somewhere an explore our accommodation options. Savannah sits as you might expect on the banks of the Savannah River which flows out directly into the Atlantic. The river is still a very busy water way with large commercial carriers plying the waterway north and inland with their goods. On the opposite side of the Savannah River you have South Carolina – the river divides South Carolina and Georgia. Looking at our options we decided it would be nice to stay out by the beach – Savannah’s beach area is called Tybee Beach – a really nice beachside town situated at the outlet / inlet of the Savannah River and Atlantic Coast. Tybee Beach is around 20 miles further east of Savannah, so we trekked out there, found our accommodation, and subsequently headed out for a nice bite to eat at the Stingray Diner – very nice food. Tuesday – New Year’s Eve dawned nice and sunny, so we headed back into Savannah, found a Visitor Centre and got ourselves parked for a few hours. From there we set off on foot to explore the city – well the Historic Area / Old Savannah. It was really nice. The main touristy area is a mile by a mile so easy to cover on foot. We headed into town and found ourselves a bank and finally managed to cash a couple of the cheques we had been carrying around with us for some weeks – 2 cashed, 1 to go. With extra dollars in our pocket we headed down to the Waterfront area – very nice and stepped in history. The river was a main cotton trading area and the buildings around the waterfront area were cotton warehouses. The area has been nicely preserved and is now full of eateries, and novelty stores – lolly shops, art galleries, cigar shops, nut shops etc.

There’s a large old paddle steamer – the Georgia Queen, which in its day would have plied the river up and down with people and cargo. Now it runs a tourist service up and down the river, but to my disappointment, it didn’t look like the paddle is used anymore – all just decorative. We took the small local ferry boat across the river to Hutchinson Island and then up the river to a couple of stops, before getting back to where we started. Just up the river you have the main bridge that links Georgia with South Carolina – a very steady stream of traffic running back and forth. As we were coming back into Savannah I noted a very large container ship heading out – in port at the moment were a couple of large ore carriers – ships still being very active in the area. Along the waterfront there are a series of nice sculptures dedicated to various local history, events and icons. One of the more prominent is called the Waving Girl – recognising a young woman who use to stand by the river daily waving the ships goodbye from the area. Along the waterfront there were a number of lolly shops the local treat is called praline, and the shops tended to have nice samples for you to try – very nice. We then found a nut shop and again, there were main nice samples to try – both savoury and sweet nut combinations. Who needed to have lunch. From the waterfront area we headed back into town and up to the Colonial Park Cemetery – I think it dated from the 1700’s. From there we made our way to Forsyth Park which has a nice fountain as its centre piece. Along the way you pass some marvellous old homes – real period pieces from the 1800’s – most are very nicely maintained. Spanish Moss hangs from many of the large trees which shelter the streets and homes.

We made our way back to the Tourist Offices and back to the car. Across the road from the Tourist Centre there is a recreation of a American Independence battle site – the British look to have established Savannah as their own in the 1700’s and then in the late 1700’s there were battles in the city between the British and the French and US who had teamed up to try and repel the British, but to no avail – the British were to hold strong in Savannah for a few more years yet. Finding our way out of town we headed back towards Tybee Island. About 5 miles before the island there is Fort Pulaski – an historic Civil War fortification and National Monument. You can normally drive over onto the island (Cockspur Island) but with it being holiday’s they had closed the road off early today, so we have to satisfy ourselves with a bit of a walk towards the island. Heading back into Tybee, we stopped at the famous Tybee Beach Lighthouse – the first structure erected in Georgia around 1730 and also the tallest for many years at around 90 feet. The lighthouse has been burned down a couple of times (Civil War causality) but stands as it is today dating from the mid 1800’s. In front of the lighthouse is the Brumby Barricades – this part of coastline was important during the Civil War for bombarding opposing ships and forces trying to come up the Savannah. We got back to our accommodation (which for New Year’s Eve was double the normal rate – a factor we hadn’t counted on) but we were looking forward to the fireworks on the beach at midnight, so hunkered down until just before midnight when we went and joined the masses out on the beach. At the stroke of midnight we were rewarded with a solid 10-minute firework display. The night was mild and clear – with boats and ships lighting the waterfront area as the sky was lit up – very nice and a great way to see in the new year.

To add to the New Year experience, we climbed out of bed at 7am on New Year’s Day to get down to the waterfront to see the sunrise at 7.25am – another really special experience and a nice way to start the new year off. There was already a load of people on the beach with the same thing in mind – a special experience seeing the first sun rising off the Atlantic. Tybee Beach was a hive of activity as they have their annual polar plunge at midday on New Year’s Day and so town was busy with people here to do that. We packed up at the motel and headed out to the pier area where they were getting busy for the plunge – the sun was shining, but there was a cooler breeze today – it would be freeze, but not freezing I think – that said I only dipped my hands in the water this time. The area around Tybee is very nice – very beachy – with many of the homes / apartments being let out for accommodation. The beach is also home to the Loggerhead Sea Turtle – they come up on the back in March I think it was to lay there eggs which then hatch around May / June – unfortunately only around 1 in 3000 baby turtles survive the 30 years at sea before they would then come back to the beach to lay eggs. In addition to the turtles, there is also some good birdlife around in the area – saw some of my favourite pelicans, and there were egrets and eagles and the like. All too soon it was time to push on off from this nice area – we felt refreshed for our time near the sea – very nice.

We headed back into and across Savannah and carried on north on secondary roads like Highway 21 and 24. We headed north towards Augusta but cut below and around the city heading west again. The roads were nice and quiet, and the scenery was great – the landscape varies from cotton fields, to pine plantations, to Xmas tree plantations to nut plantations – and then some farm land thrown in for good measure – nice variety. There were nice little towns here and then along the way but nicely spaced out. At Wrens we headed north on Highway 80 up to the old town of Thomson which is to the west of Augusta but still a popular spot to stay when the golf masters is on in Augusta in March. We found a nice (and very affordable) room for the night and settled in. On Thursday morning we had to make the final run back to Augusta. Thomson is right on the junction with Interstate 20 so we simply needed to get onto it and point the car west for around 130 miles to Atlanta. The closer we got to Atlanta the heavier the traffic got but we still had a really good run – Carol wasn’t too stressed by the traffic, and we had the rental car fuelled up and dropped off in plenty of time. With that, this part of our road trip is over – we now have a few days in Atlanta to experience, before heading further east. The weather forecast isn’t the best, but hopefully things will improve for us to get out and about locally.

Life back in the Camper

Arriving back to Romin in the darks of Wednesday evening we settled in again to camper life. Despite our geographical location, the temperatures are still getting really cool overnight here – down to zero or below – a bit of a surprise for us. On Thursday morning we had to part with the rental car, so we took advantage of it and headed to the shops first thing to top up on supplies, and then I dropped it back to the rental car place and wandered back to the camp. Our goal at the moment has been to move Romin on – we need her sold to conclude our plans over here. We had looked at option of heading back to NZ a month earlier, but with Romin not sold, and the cost of making changes a bit crazy, we have effectively had to rule that out and stick with our 11 February 2020 departure from New York. We had a guy come and look at the camper today – fairly standard line – he was interested, but his girlfriend wants a fifth wheeler so some compromise would be required – a good start for us non the less. Friday was a quiet day around camp. With plans to head home, so begins the process of updating the CV and connecting with recruitment firms and applying for roles back in NZ. Bucking the local trend we again ventured out and about the streets / roads of Clinton for a walk – no footpaths to be found today.

Our weekend was a fairly quiet affair – we had a guy come to look at the camper on the Saturday – not for himself as he already had a good camper, but he had some friends that might be interested, so we hoped that could come to something. With the weather nice and fine (during the day) we headed out again for a walk around the wider neighbourhood – exploring new areas. The hours are all quite similar, with very little fencing separating sections, and sections being very generous in size. Sunday started off grey but the weather improved as the day went on. We had a guy call about having a look at the camper and it finally showed up around 5.15pm with it now dark to have a look around. It was his friend who had viewed the day previous and suggested it to him so that was good. He liked what he saw and said he wanted it – giving us a cheque to hold the sale for him – thank goodness for that. The issue for us was the fact that despite our very best efforts, and costs incurred, out title and registration paperwork had still not arrived back from the Californian DMV. Felton the buyer understood and it was agreed that we would update just as soon as it arrived to arrange to hand over – a good outcome all round. That evening, Miss Germany from the RV Park office invited us to go with her to her church Xmas function – harmless enough. Miss Germany is a member of the First Pentecostal Church in Byram which is one of the outlining suburbs of Jackson. The service wasn’t a service as such – it was primarily the church band and choir entertaining us all for an hour and a half, and the church pastor chipping in with a couple of powerful speeches – or preaches. It wasn’t a tradition collection of Xmas carols that we were expecting, but we were made to feel welcome and enjoyed the experience – gave us plenty to talk about when we got back home.

The following week was a fairly quiet affair in and around the camper. On Monday with the weather fine and warm, Carol and I set off on foot for the Walmart Supermarket to get some supplies. On the way back to the camp (the walk to the market and back takes around 2.5 hours) Miss Germany rang concerned for us. A tornado warning had been issued and she urged us to get back to the camp. The weather didn’t seem too bad to us – yes the wind had come up, and the skies were darkening, but still not too bad. By the time we got back to the camp and checked back in with Miss Germany she updated that the tornado had changed direction and the warning had been dropped. That said, the rain soon came down and it was settle all evening. Tuesday was a very cold and grey day around the camp – I think it only got up to 5-6 degrees. This was to be the trend for the next few days – the days got sunnier, but overnight temperatures dropped down to zero or below. To combat the cold, we resorted to cranking up the barbeque inside to take the chill off in the camper. On Wednesday we took off on foot again and headed over to the Old Town area – I needed to pick up a book to read so we explored the good second hand shop – and managed to select a book for our troubles. We also picked up a small heater to run in the camper as needed. That evening Miss Germany again asked us to join her at the church to hear her play – at the church’s mid-week service, Miss Germany plays the piano / organ for the band / choir. It was another interesting experience for us.

Thursday was another sunny but cool day but the forecast indicated that the temps were to start creeping up again slowly. To our surprise, we finally got our much-needed DMV mail – very much to the contrary of what the DMV had told us over the phone a couple of days earlier. To finally have the Title and Registration stickers for the camper / Romin after all this time was such a relief for us – and meant that Felton could come and collect the camper as suited. We fired off messages to our man to say the camper was ready to go and readied ourselves for that process. Unfortunately for us, on Friday morning our supposed buyer messaged to say thanks but no thanks – his situation had supposedly changed and he was no longer able to purchase the camper – very frustrating for us. So the remainder of the day and Saturday was a case of ‘back to the drawing board’ when it came to selling the camper. Exploring all past options / expressions of interest in Romin, we re-connected with a local woman Glenda from the Canton area north of Jackson who came with her partner and with a reduced price put forward said they would take it from us – holding cheque presented to seal the deal. With some relief, we agreed with Glenda that we stay in the camper over the Xmas period and that we would drop it to her the following Saturday.

Sunday was a picture of heavy rain – which persisted for the next couple of days. We were pleasantly surprised on Sunday evening when up near the office for wi-fi that we saw a large fifth wheeler coming into the RV Park on the wrong side of the driveway. When the guy stopped to come over to the office, I jokingly said to him that he looked like he drove like someone from ‘down under’. And sure enough he was – he was from Tauranga and had driven that day with his family from Tampa Florida – staying in the camp tonight and then heading on for Fort Worth Texas for Xmas with family. He said he was an RV dealer back home – looked like he got over to the states annually to road trip in a big rig that they stored here. Was a bit of an uncanny conversation – nice one though. Our new week started off quietly – the camp office was only open on Monday before closing up for a couple of days over Xmas, so we spent some time catching up on emails as needed. Tuesday, with the weather clearing finally, it was about re-connecting with family back home as they were already celebrating Xmas Day. Was nice to talk to everyone – Carol and I are looking forward to being back in NZ for Xmas next year already. As if Romin is trying to hold onto us, the power outlets in the camper have now failed, and the camper doesn’t seem to be holding charge. Not too sure what is what but we assume, and hope, it is simply a fuse issue. Having to wait until businesses are open again on Thursday we are doing all that we can to conserve power in the camper for a couple of days. Good thing the weather is warmer for us.

Wednesday marked Xmas Day for us here in Clinton Mississippi. The sun was shining, so Carol and I headed out for a good walk to start the day off. There’s a nice area to the west of the RV Park – big subdivision with lake and trimming – lots of big houses – but no footpaths. We enjoyed a good hike and were even surprised that we ran into a few people also out walking – wonders never cease. Being Xmas we shouted ourselves lunch at the local restaurant – nothing fancy, Xmas buffet, turkey and trimmings. With full bellies we headed back to the camp – taking a walk around the camp on dusk to feel more comfortable. We know we are very fortunate to have ‘a Xmas abroad’, but as noted, we are equally looking forward to Xmas 2020 back home with family. On Thursday morning we headed off early to get the RV electrical issue sorted – hoping as the camper is sold, that the fix would not be expensive. There’s a Camping World RV dealer about 10 miles from Clinton, and Romin clicked up into gear pretty well for us. The electrical issue wasn’t anything as simple as a fuse – no that would be too much to ask for. The issue was the converter – needed to ‘transfer’ the flow of electricity coming into the camper from mains, or battery. Looks like the converter failed a few days ago and we had all but drained any life that was left in the storage battery – despite being connected to the mains (because the converter wasn’t working, the camper couldn’t work out where the power was coming from to convert it – I think that’s the layman’s version of what was wrong). Three hours later, and the better part of $600 lighter, we have the camper working again – but it hurts when we know we have sold the camper for a pittance and this latest expense, just erodes any money we are getting out the sale further – yep, a fair bit of frustration in my tone I’m sorry. We keep telling ourselves that all things happen for a reason – just have to work out what that reason was.

With life in the camper restored to pretty much normal again, we now need to turn our attention to packing up. We have made arrangements to drop the camper to Canton later on Saturday afternoon, before being dropped back into Jackson to get our late overnight bus to Atlanta. It’s not like we have purchased anything as such whilst away, and I did manage to send that parcel of pamphlets and bits and pieces back to NZ earlier, so all things being equal, packing should be a piece of cake. We spent part of Friday walking up to the local DMV office to confirm / clarify the paperwork needed to confirm the sale of Romin. Carol has since thought Romin might be better called Chompin – after all the money that has been spent on her – maintenance and repairs, running costs and fuel. The sun is shining today so we are making the most of that as the weather is supposed to pack up again and be wet over the weekend, but Saturday will be spent packing the last of our bits and pieces up and then we will be away. It’s been an unusual experience being parked up here in Clinton as we have off and on these past two months. As I think I have already said, if Romin AKA Chompin had been running to plan / as needed / as expected, we would have just kept on the road – exploring the nooks and crannies of this vast country, as opposed to being somewhat stranded as we have ended up. But that said, another chapter starts tomorrow when we part with the camper, and will be making our own way for the last part of our US trips – here’s to good times ahead.

Road Trip – Heading West

Day One

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.

Day Two

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.

Day Three

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.

Day Four

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.

Day Five

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.

Day Six

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.

Day Seven

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.

Day Eight

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.

Mississippi

Parking back up on the RV Park in Clinton Mississippi, our challenge is how will we pass the days ahead? The weather back in Clinton was good – we have sun and the rains have eased. The issue for us is still the ability for us to ‘safely’ get ‘out and about’. Friday and Saturday were quiet days around the camp – exploring options for selling Romin on, and exploring some of the neighbourhood – there are some nice large houses but alas, no footpaths. On Sunday to our surprise we managed to find more footpaths – quite the achievement here in Mississippi. To our surprise there was a solid footpath all the way up to the Walmart – a really good walk for us out in the sun – nice. Along the way there is a small plantation area and we spotted a Turkey Buzzard perched up on a tree checking us out. We loaded ourselves up with some supplies from the supermarket for the week ahead and headed back to the camper – all the better for a good walk – step count bounced back up today. Monday was spent around camp enjoying some sun again – we seem to have made friends with one of the local residents that has a house in the RV Park – he’s been checking in on us from time to time.

I’d managed to accumulate a load of brochures and bits and pieces from our travels – museum keep sakes and the like, so on Tuesday we made the trek up to the Old Town to the Post Office with a load of bits and pieces to post home. Assuming it wouldn’t cost us much to do so, we were a little surprised, and short of dollars to do so today, so home we lugged all our bits and pieces again. On Wednesday we went better prepared – $120 later and we have a parcel heading home. Thursday was Thanks Giving here in the US – so we shouted ourselves a nice Thanks Giving lunch at one of the local restaurants. We forewent breakfast so by midday we had a happy appetite and settled in and enjoyed a nice meal – with Pumpkin Pie to finish with – very nice. Most businesses took the advantage of closing on Friday and making a good ‘long weekend’ of it so it was quiet in the neighbourhood. We took a good walk exploring the local area further, getting odd looks from motorist getting around. That’s part of the issue locally – nobody walks – everyone drives regardless of how far they are going. Case in point, there’s a family staying 3 caravans down from us – albeit at best 60 metres away, and they hop in the car to drive back and forth to the bathroom – I just keep scratching my head at that action.

Our focus at the moment is on selling Romin as we need to move the camper on ahead of us confirming the last stages of our US travels and coming home. Saturday was consumed ringing around dealers – with not much to show for it. After some good sun tan days, the weather was forecast to turn bad – stormy, and by mid evening the thunder started clapping and the rain came in, but fortunately it didn’t last too long. On Sunday we made the trek up to Walmart again – a good walk with plenty of sunlight, and chips and chocolate chip cookies for our efforts (plus some other basics of course). The weather is fine again, sunny days, but the evenings really are getting cold – down to freezing level is forecast. We managed to load an advert for Romin on Facebook and had perspective buyers all lined up to come and view and ultimately purchase from us on Tuesday, only for our Facebook account to collapse on us. As a result, no one could contact us and we couldn’t contact anyone so unlike our plans, nobody came to view Romin – very frustrating day for us. With Facebook still down, and Romin not up to the task, we have made plans for a road trip over to New Mexico and Arizona. On Wednesday morning I hiked down to the rental car outlet, collected our car and headed back to get Carol and our gear and then we were off – will update on our road trip shortly. We’ll tackle selling Romin on our return to Clinton in a week.

Road Trip back to Romin

Minnesota

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

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.

Nebraska

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.

Kansas

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.

Oklahoma

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.

Texas

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.

Louisiana

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.

Mississippi

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.

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.

Florida

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.

Heading back to the US

Our wait at the bus terminal was more drawn out than expected, but finally our French driver with very limited English indicated we could board the bus to head back to London. Our first stop out of Paris was to pick up passengers at the International Airport – got to glimpse the Air France Concorde standing proudly on display. The runway appears to travel right over the main road so one moment you are heading along the road and next you have a large Airbus passing over you taxing in or out. The drive through to Calais took around hours – once we cleared customs we had to que to get on a ferry – that was an interesting process to be part of. There were literally hundreds of trucks lined up waiting their turn to board the next available ferry – looks to be 2-3 main ferry lines that span the Channel. We got underway on the 4.20pm sailing – crossing the channel we gained an hour back. Leaving Calais was pretty cool – there were ferries coming in and out – you could see a load of shipping activity out in the channel. The ferry crossing itself was around 90 mins from the time we were driven onto the boat till the time we disembarked in Dover. Darkness was creeping across the English coastline as we neared – but we were still able to see the White Cliffs of Dover up close – very cool.

The bus cleared the ferry around 5pm and we then had a trek of around 60 mins to hit the outskirts of London and then a slower 60 mins getting into the heart of London and back to the bus terminal. We made our way down to Victoria Station to get the underground and connected with the line out to Upton Park – around 15 stops later. We had a walk of around 10 mins up the road to a nice Guest House for the evening. Friday morning saw us up and our early to get out to the airport for check in. We had the whole crammed in tube ride experience again, but made our way out to the London City Airport – albeit too early for check in as it turns out – they only want you there 2 hours before check in. London City Airport is a busy little commuter airport – loads of smaller planes coming and going. The hop over to Dublin was straight forward – no cuppa and cookie which was disappointing (we were flying the Aer Lingus commuter line to then connect with main Aer Lingus service to Minneapolis). We arrived in Dublin to sunshine which was welcomed – we were anticipating some cold once we hit the US again. We had a 3-hour layover in Dublin – but also had a couple of security screens to clear – European Customs, and then US Entry Customs – Dublin is one of the few airports that does this – certainly made it easier at the other end in the US.

We left Dublin at 2.15pm and settled in for an 8-hour flight to Minneapolis – arriving in the US at 4.15pm – takes some adjustment to get your head around that. It was a good flight but certainly felt like 8 hours – sometimes flights seem to pass quicker. We arrived in Minneapolis to a balmy 4 degrees – not as bad as it could have been – there was snow on the ground but it wasn’t too bad. Minneapolis Airport is pretty big and the wait to the baggage area was good after sitting idle like we had but with bags collected we just had to wait for our hotel shuttle to arrive. Our European excursion had drawn to a close – but we’d had a really good couple of weeks – more than enough to wet the appetite to know we will / would like to come back to Europe – well London and the UK, some time in the not too distant future. But for now, we have a road trip planned to get back south to Romin – and the camper lifestyle again.

France – Paris

On the Saturday morning we had to check out by 6.30am and get ourselves through to the Victoria Coach Station for our 8am bus to Paris. Saturday morning traffic wasn’t heavy so we made good time getting across London and before too long we were on the highway heading towards the English coast. We had assumed we were going to be crossing the channel on a ferry but as we needed the coast we discovered we would be crossing to France via the Chunnel or Eurotunnel – a bonus as we thought we would only have been able to do so if we had taken the high speed train. As we neared Dover and the Chunnel entrance, we had to clear a couple of customs checks – UK to let us out and French to let us in. This process ended up being a bit more drawn out as our bus-line (Eurolines) had been sloppy with the paperwork and so the UK customs made us drag all bags off and go through a full screen – with a stern message to the driver that his bus-line needed to tidy it’s act up. Once we cleared the customs process the bus was driven onto one of the Chunnel transport wagons – cars and buses all butt up to one another in the wagon. We were told to stay in the bus – if you needed the toilets you were allowed out to use the one at the front of our wagon, otherwise we just stayed seated. As it turns out the 25-mile trip (the longest underwater tunnel in the world) took us about 50 mins from start to finish – getting onto and off the wagon – so a fast process. No, you don’t get to see anything on the trip – there were windows on the wagon but once you enter the Chunnel tunnel its dark and that’s that. I picked up some facts and figures on the Eurotunnel, so if anyone wants all the detail, just message me as I’ll be happy to share the facts – but will finish by noting that the Eurotunnel is considered one of the 7 wonders of the modern world.

Before we knew it, we were disembarking in Calais and heading straight up the road towards Paris – a trip of around 260 km’s – and we were back to driving on the wrong side of the road – like the US. Crossing into France we jumped forward another hour so it was now early afternoon. The run to Paris took the better part of 3 hours as the bus had to drop passengers off at Charles de Gaulle Airport around 25 k’s out of Paris. Our trip through to Paris was quite a change from the English countryside – the A1 (pretty sure that was the main road) was all countryside – farmland with smaller villages off to the sides here and there – nice to see. We arrived at the bus terminal in Paris around 4pm and braved a couple of Paris Undergrounds to get ourselves in to the very busy Gare du Nord Station – huge and crazy busy late on a Saturday afternoon. Getting ourselves out of the station was one thing – reaching outside you are then hit by the French past time of smoking – there were smokers everywhere, and loads of guys hustling cigarettes as you walk along. We managed to find our hotel – Hotel Paris Nord just down from the station, and got ourselves checked in. We braved the conditions and headed out for a bit of a walk up the road – thinking a bite to eat was in order. That was my next surprise – how expensive Paris seems. Don’t get me wrong, London was expensive as well, but here in France we were back to using Euro and food and drink seemed very expensive to me. We had some Chinese that you paid for by the 100 gm’s – didn’t look like much on the tray but was 20 Euro which when we equate it back to NZ would have been $35 or so. To make matters worse, we headed back to the hotel thinking we would have a cuppa and call it a day but no, the hotel didn’t have or offer any facilities for us to do so, so we had to trot back over to the station and get a take away – with Starbucks charging 4.50 Euro for a cup – first place we went into was charging 5.50 Euro a cup – what’s going on. Finally found a place doing tea for 3.20 Euro and that place became our go too for the week ahead – bit frustrating though.

On Sunday, the Paris weather packed in and greeted us to cold and rain. We rugged us and hiked into the centre of town in order to see some bits along the way and to find the Tourist Office so we could book a couple of excursions. We found a café along the way and got some breakfast for 16 Euros – crusty toast and a cuppa but it was warm so not complaining. We got to the Tourist Office and agreed upon a Paris Excursion package that offered us train / bus travel for 2 days, Museum Pass for 48 hours, River Cruise, Skip the Line entry to Versailles and one of the local Hop On Off buses. In hind sight I’m not sure we managed to get true ‘bang for buck’ from our investment, as we weren’t in a position to utilise the Museum Pass to it’s potential, but this package still gave us options. With our plan in hand, we walked up passed the Louvre and got ourselves a train to the north side of Paris so we could head to the National Air and Space Museum. Being unaware of how the train system ran and the zones that apply, we took the cheap option thinking we would be okay – wrong move. We got off the train up in Le Bourget and headed for the gates only to find our tickets wouldn’t let us out.

Emm, obvious thing to do would be to get into the train office and buy another ticket but you needed a ticket to get into the station so we were somewhat stranded. We tried asking a couple of people with our pigeon English but to no avail. We were getting a bit frustrated with the situation and thinking we would just head back to Paris and call it quits when one of the ticket gates just sprang open and stayed open so we made a beeline out of there. Rest assured, we purchased new tickets to get back into Paris when we came back to the station – can’t rely on gates being faulty to get in and out but that said we did see people jumping gates and tail gating to get onto the trains without paying. Right, once we were out of the station we put our heads down and hiked up the road to the museum – bit further than I’d imagined and needless to say, we got our step count up for the day. We finally made it to the museum and headed in – museum is free to look around so should have been all straight forward – no. For some reason we found ourselves in a que of maybe 100 people going nowhere quickly – yes the museum is free, but it has a number of excursions that you have to pay for (like going onboard the Concorde) and there was only one ticket person working so it took us a very frustrating 50 mins or more to finally get the map and be allowed to enter. Carol will vouch for how frustrating I found that situation – we were missing valuable viewing time.

We finally got in to have a look around and yes, it was worth the wait – I managed to view some aircraft I hadn’t seen before with a couple of special bonus planes thrown in for good measure so I was happy. The museum is broken down by theatres similar to a number of other museums – older through to more modern, with this museum focusing almost solely on French built aircraft and rockets. There are theatres and hangars to take in and also a good static display area outside around the hangars storing the collection. The weather wasn’t flash but it wasn’t going to deter us from taking in what was here to be seen. As you would expect, a load of pictures were taken to remember this sight. With the museum due to close we made the hike back up the road to catch the train back to Paris – feet were tired after all the walking we have achieved today. A bite to eat was needed before we got back to fighting the cigarette sellers outside the train station – a good day in Paris done.

Monday’s mission was to take in what the Hop On Off bus service offers around Paris. Part of the excursion ticket included a day pass on the Foxity bus so we needed to get a couple of trains down to the station near the Eiffel Tower where the tour bus starts from. Reading French isn’t the easy thing – working out some of the train station signage wasn’t as easy as we’d expected and as a result, we managed to get ourselves misplaced so some extra walking between stations was needed to get us on the right track – to find a special tower. We came out of the station to be rewarded by the sight of the Eiffel Tower and what a sight it was. The day was cold and grey – maybe in support of the day itself – 11th November being Armistice Day – the capital was having celebrations / memorials / parades throughout the morning to remember. Part of the bus route was disrupted for the morning as a result. The Eiffel Tower was all that I had hoped it would be – looking like one enormous Meccano set. As you’d expect there were loads of people around taking in all that the Tower offers – we didn’t opt to go up the Tower, settling instead to have a good look around the base of the structure – very impressive. Getting on the bus we did a good circuit of the city taking in a number of sights from the semi comfort of the bus on a cold morning. Sights included the Place De La Concorde, the Opera House, pass / through the Louvre, along the River Seine up to Notre Dame – which unfortunately is covered up as a result of the devastating fire, up and along Champ Elysees which was a real bonus, around the Arc de Triomphe and then back around some of the historic Military buildings before lopping back around to the Eiffel Tower.

As we’d expected there is just so much history here in and around this large city – another surprise was the fact that the ‘tourist loop’ takes you away from the more modern business centre / heart of the city. We took the bus around for part of another loop getting off up along the Champ Elysees – it was quite different from what I had expected with loads of very high-end stores – very flash. We went into the Renault showroom – they have a new Formula One race car on display and a load of new cars that visitors were climbing in and out of and through. We walked up to the Arc de Triomphe which was decorated with a very large French flag – the mornings Armistice parades had been up the main Champ Elysees boulevard. You go down underneath the ‘roundabout’ that circles the Arc – you can pay to climb to the top of the Arc itself and many people were doing just that. The day had improved so we walked from the Arc back up the road to have a look around the Grand and Petit Palais’s – the Grand Palais has a very impressive glass dome roof – another striking architectural feature in this city, dating back to the 1700’s. We got ourselves back to a pick up point and took another lap of the city to see some of the evening lights coming on – our timing wasn’t quite right as the lights were only just coming on, but by the time we got around to the Eiffel Tower again we got to see it in all’s it’s sparkling glory – very impressive. More train struggles later and we managed to finally get ourselves back to the hotel – it had been another big walking day despite seat time in the bus and on trains, but we got a great overview of the ‘older’ part of the city.

Tuesday was an early start to get a couple of trains to the south west of the city for us to go to the Palace of Versailles or the Chateau De Versailles. We managed to get out to the village / township of Versailles just before 9am and joined the early que to go into the Palace – I want to call it a Palace as opposed to Chateau as it really is such an impressive building / series of buildings and then the grounds are another thing again. I think the history is that Louis 14th had the Chateau enlarged to the colossus that it is today. The main theme is the ‘home’ that Louis 14th built for his wife Marie-Antoinette in the latter part of the 1600’s, and was then subsequently ‘expanded’ by Louis 16th, Napoleon the 1st, and then back to the Royal family with Louis-Philippe in the early 1800’s. The Palace takes you through the history of this palace – how it was developed and expanded and expanded some more. It then went through the turmoil of the French Revolution which saw Louis and his wife taken from the Palace, imprisoned and then ultimately beheaded. It takes you through the Napoleonic period, and then how the Palace came back to be a Royal residence and then Presidential residence. There is so much art and I guess artefacts from the era. The walls and ceilings were either painted with art and murals, or art covered the walls. The Hall of Mirrors is this long corridor consisting of 17 pairs of mirrors – striking. The Palace is set up to reflect / remember the different phases the place has been through. One area of the Palace is dedicated to Napoleon and there is a Gallery of Battles which records in paintings, all the key French battles dating back as far as you can. I think we spent 3 hours alone looking around inside and certainly not taking all the detail in.

From there we headed outside to take in some of the gardens. The Palace Gardens stretch for as far as the eye can see – there are lakes and fountains, a large Grand Canal that runs out and across through the middle, and then a whole series of themed gardens and groves – a little too much to take in on foot as we were, so they have a load of golf carts that you can hire for getting around, and a mini train runs to some key points around the gardens. We could see the weather turning and as we were heading along the Grand Canal the weather hit – heavy hail storm and then heavy rain. We weren’t prepared for it and had to find some cover to hunker down as it rolled over us. After a time the weather eased up, so wet and cold we headed back out to get to a couple of the smaller palaces on the wider sight – the Grand Trianon, and Petit Trianon Palaces – one become Napoleon’s summer palace, the other was the Palace for the Mistresses’ if I recall the story correctly. Out beyond these palaces there is an English Hamlet which we walked to, and then we started the big walk back up to the main Palace just as the weather started to look threatening again. After what had been a very big day, we left the Palace and headed back to get our couple of trains back to the hotel – no wrong turns tonight – all went well finding our way back.

Wednesday morning was another early start to get us down to the Louvre to try and beat the cue. I think we were lined up by 8.30am with a good crowd already formed ahead of the 9am opening. With security checks behind us we got into the Louvre properly. Carol had some key pieces of art that she wanted to see, so I was a bit like a lost puppy following her along. The obvious one was to find and have a good look at the Mona Lisa – being as early as we were, we were able to get in without cueing to study what is probably the most famous painting in the world. You don’t get too long to stop and stare due to the crowds, but we did get a good look at this piece of work. The museum which is in a Royal Palace dating back to the 1200’s I think it was, is huge, there is art everywhere – paintings, sculptures – all historic pieces of work – the modern art isn’t anywhere to be seen, residing in other museums around the city. I think we were told that there is something like 35,000 pieces of art in the Louvre, and if you spent 30 seconds looking at each that it would take you 3 months – day and night to get around the museum completely. I ended up leaving Carol to study things up in more detail and found myself a spot to type up some blog. The better part of 3 hours later we finally connected again – she was bubbling with all that she had seen today.

We worked our way our of the Louvre and made our way over to do a cruise up the Seine. We made our way down to the head of the island where the cruise boats run from and got onboard. The cruise takes in 30 key points up and along the Seine to the Eiffel Tower and then turns back and heads south beyond Notre Dame. The lower part of the cruise encompasses 2 islands that sit in the Seine – there’s a load of structures and history in this area alone. The cruise passes under a series of bridges – you get another great perspective from the seat of the boat. A very full hour later we tied back up and exited the boat. We got a train up the line to see the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Montmartre. The Basilica is up the hill looking down over the city – a good number of steps later we made it up and into the Basilica. The Basilica dates back to around 1870, but has it’s roots as far back as the 3rd century. The Basilica was striking and has the added bonus of looking out over the city of Paris. We took the funicular back down the hill – a short, sharp ride downhill. We walked back down some of the streets and found ourselves a good bite to eat before finding our way back to the hotel one last time.

Thursday morning saw another early start – we needed to get ourselves back to the bus terminal to head out of Paris. We tackled rush hour on the tube – we were pinched in like sardines with the early morning rush – big bags not being the best addition for us. We got ourselves to the terminal only to be kept waiting for a bus to arrive. Our time in Paris had been full on – loads of steps ranked up this week. Impressions of Paris were varied – there is so much to see around this grand city – a city of 2 halves with the older tourist area and then the business heart of the city. There’s history on show everywhere you look from Palaces to Palaces. On the downside for me were some of the people – not the friendliest of sorts – you’d ask for help or directions only to be ignored or snubbed. And then you had the cigarette sellers to deal with. But all that aside, as you’d expect, Paris really is one of those cities that you have to see once in your life time. I’d planned to bring Carol here for her birthday next year – looks like we moved the schedule forward some – happy early birthday Carol!