Way back when we started this little adventure, I placed a United States sticker map on our front door. These maps are ubiquitous among RVers and, while visiting every state wasn’t one of our original travel goals, I figured it would be a fun way to keep track of where we’d been.
When I first put the map up, I briefly considered the rules that should govern the placement of a sticker – how many nights we’d need to spend in a given state, how many individual towns we’d need to explore, whether a visit to the state’s capitol building should be a prerequisite, etc.
Then, we spent one night at a depressing roadside campground in New Jersey, I said “good enough!”, and placed the Jersey sticker on the map.
And so began the tradition of being flexible and honest when approaching the heavy question of when to place a sticker on the sticker map.
Anyway, as we’ve traveled around, we’ve tended to follow the typical snowbird patterns – winters in the south, summers in the north, and, in between, an occasional east/west trip across the top or bottom of the country. That left several states in the middle unexplored.
In the meantime, thanks to the pandemic, we hadn’t seen our friends and family on the east coast in almost two years.
Could our fearless heroes combo-pack these two projects together? Could they get from the west coast to the east coast while hitting some of these heretofore unvisited states? Would our planner-in-chief design a completely irrational route that ignored the mathematical certainty that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line just so she could put stickers on her front door???
OF COURSE, she would!!
What did all this nonsense look like in practice? Well, if we were doing what made sense, we would have left Southern Utah and driven due east across Colorado and Kansas before heading into Missouri, but we already had the stickers for Colorado and Kansas and we didn’t have the stickers for Nebraska or Iowa. Complicating matters, we didn’t really want to drive over the Rockies unnecessarily (it can be done; we’ve done it; it’s just not really fun and “getting stickers” didn’t seem like great justification for taking our lives in our hands while barreling down a mountain in 28,000 pounds of only kind of controlled chaos), all of which meant we had to drive north before we could head east. So, from Southern Utah we drove east to Colorado before heading north to Wyoming where we hung a right to head across Nebraska. And then, instead of continuing straight across Iowa toward our ultimate east coast destinations, we detoured south to Missouri before crossing Illinois.
None of which made any sense, but look how good my sticker map looked after the trip!!
(And yes, North Dakota is a problem. And yes, I did try to figure out a way to get up there on this trip, but no, even I couldn’t justify that much extra mileage.)
What do Bob Seger and Payton Manning have in common?
Or, that’s what I think of when I think of Omaha, anyway.
But Omaha is much more than a line in an exceptional rock anthem or a former quarterback’s go-to call. Omaha is really, honestly, cool!
Sadly, we only had two nights in the area, but we spent an entire day downtown and really enjoyed our visit.
First, how we got there and where we stayed: My last post left off in Sidney, Nebraska, home to Cabela’s corporate headquarters. After a night there, we continued East on I-80, stopped at a forgettable roadside Passport America campground, and then made our way to the cute little town of Ashland, Nebraska. This town is located just southwest of Omaha and the campground was a gem. It’s brand new, has nice concrete pads, a friendly camp host (who loaded us up with local maps and information), and easy access to the city.
The singular downside for those looking for longer stays is that it is water/electric only, but they have a dump station onsite, and it’s easy enough to maneuver around the campground that it wouldn’t be an issue for most visitors.
The Durham Museum
While I have long admired Chicago for its phenomenal architecture, what I didn’t fully appreciate until this trip was how many unique, historic, and beautiful buildings exist in these smaller Midwestern cities. One such standout in Omaha is its former train station, now a museum.
Before the development of the interstate highway system, Americans primarily traveled by rail, and back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, American architects built magnificent train stations. Some, like Grand Central Station in New York, have operated continuously since then. Others were allowed to decay before being rescued and revived by preservation minded governments and taxpayers (including Kansas City’s which I’ll talk about next post). Others, like the one in Omaha, were, fortunately, quickly transferred for preservation after they were shuttered.
At its height, 10,000 passengers passed through Omaha’s Union Station each day. Opened in 1931, the station not only hosted 64 different daily trains, but it offered weary passengers everything they needed to travel comfortably and conveniently – from a barbershop, to a baggage check, to a dining room, to a soda fountain, to a USO organized letter writing facility for soldiers heading off to war.
Today, the Great Hall, which is decorated with beautiful Art Deco details, contains numerous sculptures that bring the building’s history to life:
while the museum, located on the lower level, tells the story of Omaha and the larger Midwest:
The museum also has some temporary exhibit space which, during our visit, housed an exhibit about James Cameron’s deep water ocean explorations. Additionally, there were artifacts from his movie, Titanic, including the costumes Jack and Rose wore in their unforgettable final scene.
Well, I guess Jack was pretty forgettable since Rose let his frozen ass sink to the bottom of the Atlantic faster than you can say “There was plenty of room on that plank for both of them.”
Speaking of cold, before heading out we paid a visit to the train station’s original soda fountain to sample its wares.
Later that day, we headed over to the historic commercial area where we grabbed some delicious ramen
(not that that isn’t delicious… it is… but the real stuff is pretty good too.))
before wandering over to the Missouri River which runs north south, dividing Nebraska and Iowa. Fortunately, there’s a nice pedestrian bridge to get you from one state to the other
and a photo worthy stop along the way.
After our two night visit to Omaha, we continued east into Iowa, specifically, to Des Moines.
We spent 4 nights at the very picturesque Walnut Woods State Park.
In addition to the green and spacious campground, there’s a large lake with all kinds of facilities available for public use. So, not only did Thor get to come with us to visit a local brewery:
but we took him on the park’s trails and let him go swimming in the lake.
Des Moines was officially “Puppy Approved!”
Iowa State Capitol
We probably should have prioritized seeing state capitols as we’ve traveled around because the ones we’ve visited have been extremely impressive. And among those, Iowa’s state capitol was an absolute standout.
We happened to stop by when the legislature was out of session, so we basically had the building to ourselves. I believe during sessions, capitol staff offer guided tours, but because no one was around, the information desk handed us a map and sent us on our way. We wandered the empty halls, gawked at the stunning architectural and artistic details, and peered in on both legislative houses. It’s a beautiful building, not to be missed if you find yourself in the area.
We spent one afternoon wandering downtown Des Moines and came away pleasantly surprised by what the city had to offer. The downtown area is well kept, clean, green, and walkable with some pretty architecture and a fair amount of street art. (The featured image at the top of this post is the Des Moines skyline taken from the state capitol building.)
Speaking of which, while in the area, we checked out the Pappajohn Sculpture Park at the Des Moines Art Center, a 4.4 acre sculpture garden. It contained several pieces by artists we recognized from other museums, like this one by Deborah Butterfield which was very similar to her sculpture at the Palm Springs Museum of Modern Art which we visited in 2018:
or this version of Robert Indiana’s popular and familiar LOVE sculpture:
or this life sized version of my 1st grade art project:
Other sculptures were fun to check out from different perspectives:
while some cried out for creative interpretation:
Before calling it a day, we hit one more cultural landmark – Fong’s Pizza. In my last post, I mentioned that, while in Utah, we visited a combination Indian/Pizza restaurant made famous by Food Network personality Guy Fieri. Well, in Iowa, we visited a combination Chinese/Pizza restaurant made famous by Food Network icon Alton Brown.
Fong’s offers all kinds of interesting pizza flavors, like Kung Pao Chicken Pizza and Mongolian Beef Pizza, but its real claim to fame is its Crab Rangoon pizza:
In fact, Alton put this particular pizza on his “the best thing I ever ate” list, which is pretty high praise when you think about it. Personally, while I thought the flavors worked, it all seemed a bit much. Too sweet. Too rich. Too heavy. So, for me, in a head to head contest between “pizzas that combine unexpected flavor profiles,” I would say the Honey Curry pizza in Utah was better. Either way, though, it was fun to try another of these creative pairings.
And with that, we packed up once more, pointed Barney south, and made our way to our next state:
Coming up: Kansas City, St. Charles, and St. Louis!
Where we stayed:
Ashland RV Campground, Ashland, Nebraska
Walnut Woods State Park, Des Moines, Iowa