In this blog post we wrap-up our epic Florida van road trip series from the Fall of 2022.
Like most travelers, we many times feel as if there’s never enough time to fully explore and enjoy certain destinations. We really would have liked to stay a while in Laurel, Mississippi. The town that the HGTV hit renovation show “Home Town” made famous has a lot to offer.
But getting some miles under the van was a priority for us after leaving Laurel that afternoon. We had a long trip ahead of us to finally reach our Southern Minnesota home base.
It was nighttime when we hit the Tennessee state line on Interstate 55 and rolled through Memphis, the home of Elvis. The ghost of the King of Rock n’ Roll and Graceland would have to wait until next time as we drove beneath the exit sign.
We had planned to make an overnight rest stop at the Tennessee Welcome Center along Wolf River Harbor, but the buildings (meaning restrooms) were locked up tight and we needed a pit stop before bed. There was one #vanlife-looking van out back in the parking lot, but we didn’t feel totally comfortable staying.
Following our guts, we got back on the Interstate, connected with I-40 and crossed the Hernando de Soto Bridge over the mighty Mississippi River into Arkansas. It’s interesting to note that West Memphis is in Arkansas. And that’s where we stopped to catch some sleep.
We’ll leave the light on for you
The Arkansas Welcome Center Rest Area’s main building was open and the bathrooms available for us to use. The building has a rough-hewn log cabin feel inside and out.
As with most freeway rest stops, there is road noise. But there wasn’t much traffic in and out of the parking area, so that was helpful for getting some sleep.
Next morning, we rolled out of the van, hit the restroom one final time as a dramatic, red-colored sky began to display itself between layers of dark rain clouds.
You know the old adage – Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky at morning, sailors take warning. This sunrise would be an omen of what was to come later that afternoon for us during our journey.
We connected with Arkansas Interstate 55 and then to Interstate 555 after getting a quick fast-food breakfast and making an unplanned stop for fresh donuts at a small roadside shop. Little did we know this leg of our journey was going to be a long and difficult travel day.
Sunrise over the cotton fields
The early morning sunshine broke through the cloud cover and put a warm glow on the cotton fields along this route. Huge bales of pink plastic wrapped cotton lined the shoulders of the roads in this southern farming region of Arkansas.
Continuing north onto U.S. Highway 63, we happened upon the small town of Mammoth Spring, Arkansas.
Here we discovered Mammoth Spring State Park, home of Arkansas’ largest spring, vintage hydroelectric dam and a historic railroad depot and caboose. So, we had to stop, and it’s free.
We did some shopping in the park gift shop, buying a sticker, a tee shirt and a couple ice creams to eat back in the van.
Visiting that “dam” state park
The dam at Mammoth Spring is impressive. The early November day we visited the park, the dam was discharging water at 7.782 million gallons per minute!
We walked across the dam and toured the small powerhouse adjacent to the dam.
The temperature was in the low 70s’ and the mist from all that falling water helped keep us cool.
It was hard to keep JK’s attention on the dam because the historic Frisco Lines Railroad depot and restored wooden caboose Number 1176 were a short walk away.
The state park also boasts several walking trails to enjoy.
Taking the Frisco Lines
The red brick depot is still located along the active railroad tracks that curve through Mammoth Spring. The restored depot narrowly escaped serious damage after a recent train derailment happened on the curve alongside the structure.
The depot and the old caboose have been beautifully restored to their former glory.
Visitors can walk through and view each piece of Arkansas railroad history.
The depot’s exterior features some unique architecture, such as ornate columns with carved fish at the tops. The interior has several reenactment scenes showing what went on back in the day in a train depot.
A park docent is on duty to show you around and answer questions. Donations are accepted.
Lean more at: www.arkansasstateparks.com
Back on the road
We continued to make our way north, hoping to get to the southern border of Iowa by early evening.
Well, that didn’t happen.
Driving through big cities is something that we try to avoid. On this leg of the trip, we were trying to avoid cutting across Kansas City during the evening commute.
If it means a little longer drive, so be it. We enjoy taking the roads less traveled in hopes of seeing a different slice of an area other than the view from the major interstates.
Nowhere to run to. Nowhere to hide.
This afternoon, we had another large thing to try and avoid – severe weather. Between us and our planned overnight stop at the I-35 Iowa Welcome Center in Lamoni, Iowa was a massive thunderstorm, tornado warnings and torrential rain.
Driving unknown roads at night during good weather can be challenging enough but trying to navigate and stay safe during blinding rain, thunderstorms and strong gusty winds is a test of one’s mettle.
It was going to be impossible to drive around the massive storm cell. At some point we were going to be right in the middle of the storm.
We zig zagged our way across the top of Arkansas and through Missouri to reach I-35, all the while keeping our eyes on weather alerts and storm radar apps on our phones.
Thankfully, the brunt of the storm was to the east of our travel route, so we just caught the edges of the badness. The remaining drive to the Iowa border was in heavy rain.
Rain had tapered off by the time we got parked at the I-35 Iowa Welcome Center rest stop. The other result of the storm was a drop in temperatures, Iowa was 40-degrees colder than the temperature when we left Florida two-days earlier.
Time for soup
We huddled inside the van and heated some clam chowder on our single burner stove and tried to decompress from what we had just experienced early that night.
Rain, rain go away
It was still raining the next morning as we left the rest stop heading north for Minnesota. You never realize how long Iowa really is until you drive the state from the bottom to the top.
As we continued northbound the rain stopped and the clouds parted. We enjoyed sunshine and bright blue skies as we pulled into the driveway of our dog sitter’s home to reunite with our two fur babies Willow and Tia.
We both want to thank you for following along with us on our epic road trip to and from Florida. What a crazy, exciting, and beautiful trip it was for us. Lots of first-time experiences!
Be sure to watch our companion travel video on this final leg of the journey on our JK and Kim in the Camper YouTube channel. Once there, be sure to watch all our other videos.
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We love you and can’t wait to share with you all the new adventures and #vanlife hacks we have planned during 2023!