Airplanes, Arbor Day and on to Kansas

On a very rainy Thursday we visited the Strategic Air Command and Space Museum in Ashland, between Lincoln and Omaha.  This museum has one of the largest collections of Air Force planes and missiles located in two huge hangars.  We have been to two other aircraft/space museums in Seattle and Washington D.C.  On both visits I found it challenging to retain all the information about so many planes.  This time I decided to just enjoy walking among and below the large aircraft in the hangars.  Mark says in this case, “ignorance is bliss.”  As a bonus the museum was hosting a car show and it was fun to see the classic cars underneath the aircraft.

One of the museum’s more famous aircraft is the SR-71A, a reconnaissance plane first used in 1966 and one of the world’s fastest at 2,193 MPH.  It can fly from London to Los Angeles in 3 hours, 47 minutes.  That is my kind of plane as I don’t like flying and like to spend as little time aboard as possible!  As a reconnaissance plane, this aircraft carried photographic equipment that could survey 100,000 square miles of the earth’s surface in one hour from a height of 80,000 feet!  The first aircraft put on display here, the plane was moved in and then the atrium was built around it.

We checked out a number of historic planes – one used in the bombing of Tokyo, another in the famous Berlin Airlift and one was the type that parashooters jumped out of on Dday.  We saw an airplane that was the same type that dropped the atom bombs on Japan.  Below is a picture of Mark in front of this plane.

One of my favorite exhibits featured a man from Omaha who served in Band of Brothers, Easy Company during World War II.  This miniseries was one of the few war movies I could actually sit through and enjoy since I am not a fan.   Another interesting exhibit showed information about a bomber plant built in Omaha for the WWII war effort.  Posters encouraged women to come work at the plant and build planes.  Perhaps the most unusual display was a sculpture called “The Towers” which consists of 1, 452 neckties hung from a steel wire frame 28 feet tall.  The sculpture represents the lives lost in the collapse of the North Tower during the September 11 twin towers attack.

The next day we left Lincoln and drove south toward Kansas for a stop at Arbor Lodge State Historic Park in Nebraska City.  In 1872, J. Sterling Morton initiated Arbor Day, the tree planter’s holiday and over 1,000,000 trees were planted in Nebraska.  In the Great Plains there were few trees so he encouraged tree planting to beautify the landscape and help the environment.   In 1885, Arbor Day became a legal holiday in Nebraska with April 22 chosen to honor Mr. Morton’s birthday.  Morton became Secretary of Agriculture under President Grover Cleveland and served from 1893 – 1897.  Today, all 50 states and even some countries celebrate Arbor Day with the date depending on the best time to plant trees.

Arbor Lodge completed in 1902 was the home of the Morton family.  I enjoyed walked through this beautiful 52 room mansion furnished with a collection of the family’s belongings.  There was even a set of 1890 dinnerware in the dining room featuring a “Plant Trees” design.

As can be expected, the home is surrounded by a forest of trees.  There are signs near some of the trees denoting the dates when members of the Morton family planted them.  The grounds around the house were so beautiful and peaceful it was a great place to walk and enjoy nature.

Among the crops and orchards Morton planted were apple trees.   It was great to visit during the apple harvest time.   A tractor pulled wagon ride with a tour guide took us on back roads around the farm so we could see the orchards as well as the forest.

We stopped for some apple picking at the preservation forest which has obscure apple trees, some varieties several hundred years old that are no longer marketed.  In the picture below, the apple being picked is called “Winter Banana” and this type of tree originated in 1876 in Indiana.

Arbor Farm has a variety of activities for families including Tree Adventure with a 50 foot treehouse, trails through the forest and even “Trees in the Movies” highlighting trees in Hollywood films.  Visitors can even take home a free sapling encased in a protective tube.  Encouragement for the public to plant trees continues here.

There is a cafe and market that features apple pie, apple cider and apples.  Of course I had to leave with a bag of apples.  Apples are one of my favorite fruits and I eat one almost every day!

From Nebraska City we drove on to Topeka Kansas, our first time traveling in this state.  It was nice to add a new state to our list!    We found our RV park to be spotlessly clean and the sites spacious.  The park had one amenity new to us – a storm shelter in the restroom facility.   A reminder that in Kansas, shelter from tornadoes is a necessity!

The best BBQ place in the area is located right outside the park’s gates.  We timed our arrival perfectly as it was Friday night, the only night of the week that Lonnie’s BBQ is open for dinner.  Lonnie’s has limited hours only being open two hours a day for lunch and one night a week for dinner.  The location of the restaurant is rather different too because it is more on the outskirts of town and not near other businesses.  That was fine with us because we have never had such a great restaurant so close to where we were RVing.  We were told that people start lining up awhile before the restaurant opens because he only makes a certain amount and the food goes fast.  Mark had the “Q-cup,” one of the specialties that includes a choice of three BBQ meats, beans, cheesy potatoe casserole and cole slaw all piled on top of each other in a big bowl.  I ordered ribs and Lonnie himself brought the foil package of smoked ribs out for me to see and asked if they looked all right.  They looked great and tasted even better!

Lonnie came out to chat with us and told us that the band Kansas was playing that night and he had tickets he would give us.  He went around checking to see if everyone was enjoying the food.   As we were finishing eating he came and asked us if we liked spumoni.  He said that “it was really good ice cream but really hard to get around here but that he got three gallons from a friend.”  He and his serving staff were soon passing out bowls of ice cream to anyone that was left in the restaurant.  By that time much of the food had run out so the crowd had thinned considerably.  He even offered seconds on ice cream.   Lonnie’s friendliness continued as he walked out with us to the gate of the RV park talking on even though he had a restaurant to close for the night.

That night I was happy that our RV park had no trees near the sites.  We sat outside and watched clouds float across the full moon.  Then later as a storm rolled in we were treated to a terrific thunder and lightning show.

Thanks for spending time with us.  Next time I will talk about sightseeing in Topeka.

Omaha Ramblings

The city of Omaha, largest in Nebraska is only an hour east of Lincoln so it was easy to get to for a few day trips.  I was looking forward to visiting the Henry Doorly Zoo,  considered one of the best zoos in the nation.  We went on a  Monday and luckily there were few other visitors.   This zoo has some interesting features including a huge dome housing the world’s largest indoor desert with plant and animal life from around the world.  Above is a picture from inside the dome.   The largest aquarium in a zoo is also located here and features a shark tunnel where large fish swim above and around you.  I especially loved seeing the penguin exhibit with 80 active penguins swimming and hanging out.

The zoo has a Madagascar exhibit with several kinds of lemurs and Baobab trees.  I couldn’t help but think about my son Matt and daughter-in-law Emma while looking at the beautifully colored lemurs like the Red Ruffed one pictured below.  They lived on the island of Madagascar for six months while volunteering on the Mercy Ship and really enjoyed seeing lemurs in the wild.

Anorther delightful area of the zoo was the huge outdoor aviary with birds like roseate spoonbills and ibises flying from tree to tree.  A boardwalk takes you on a path around the enclosure.

After our all day zoo adventure we drove to the town of Bellevue near Omaha where Mark visited a game store.  (Finding a great game store is always a bonus for Mark on our travels).  We had dinner at a great restaurant called Quick Bites Soul Food.  Turned out to be fun and delicious as the owner was a real character and he served some great food.  While taking our order he asked us if we wanted an appetizer.  I mentioned the fried pickles but he said he was out of those but could fix us up some fried green tomatoes.  We agreed and several minutes later he came from out back with green tomatoes in his hand.   He said that he had a garden and was growing greens and cabbage as well.  When he asked Mark if he wanted his pork chops smothered and Mark looked puzzled, he teased him and said, “Don’t you know that means covered with gravy?”  We ordered fried chicken and pork chops with sides of fried okra, macaroni and cheese and sweet potatoes.  We also tried coconut cake and peach cobbler for dessert.

We drove down the road from the restaurant to find the Missouri River.  An old truss bridge still collects a toll and carries drivers over to Iowa.  We walked a paved path along the river near a city park and I discovered a sign noting the Lewis and Clark expedition had landed in this area in 1804.  It was the expedition’s first stop in Nebraska and they took a five day break from their difficult trek up the river.

A fun discovery at this park was an Interpretive art wall commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition.  School children in the 10 states visited by the explorers made drawings depicting events from the expedition.  The drawings were then made into tiles and placed on both sides of the wall along with a timeline description of the expedition’s journey.

Our second day trip to Omaha began with a stop at Boys Town, founded by Father Flanagan in 1917.  The story of how this remarkable man founded the town is quite amazing.  He believed that boys had the right to be valued, to have the basic necessities of life and have protection.  His saying:  “There are no bad boys, there is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking,” summed up his reason for starting the home.  He began in a large  house in the city of Omaha with five boys assigned to his care by the court.

He was eventually able to move outside of the city in 1921 and purchase a farm which continues as the location for Boys Town today.  The town is self sufficient and assists children and teens that have special needs and behaviors by providing care in specialized homes as well as counseling and community support.  We drove around the town and the homes, schools, community centers and churches are beautiful brick buildings in a park like setting.  We were able to visit the museum with informational displays on the history of Boys Town, the church where Father Flanagan is buried and the historic home where Father Flanagan first lived.  Below is a picture of the Flanagan home:

After Boys Town we headed to the Durham Museum located in the Union train station in downtown Omaha.  The building was completed as a station in 1931 and the last train departed from the station in 1971 when the station closed its doors.  The restored building is magnificent inside, especially the Great Hall or main waiting room featuring a 60 foot high ceiling.

Throughout the station are 12 life size figures representing passengers from the 1930’s time period.  When you get close to them a recording plays as if the figure is speaking.

The building houses the museum downstairs and is full of historical displays regarding the city.  I never realized what a busy place Omaha was – livestock industry (Omaha steaks), banking, an International Exposition in 1898, breweries, railroads, pioneers getting outfitted to head out west, steamboats and many other things.  There are furnished train cars, train engines, a trolley car, recreated businesses and homes.   There was so much to see that it took me awhile to finish the exhibits.  You might recall from a previous post that Mark is often waiting on benches for me.  Here is how I found him on this day:

A great ending to the museum is a treat at the soda fountain which was in existence when the train opened in 1931.  The soda fountain looks pretty much the same and has the original counters, stools, cabinets as it did back then.  In the picture below I am waiting for a root beer float.

We walked from the Durham to the Old Market neighborhood, Omaha’s most historic with cobblestone streets, shops and restaurants.  My favorite part of the market was this old alley called “The Old Market Passageway.”  If I had a shop or restaurant, I would love for it to be in here.

Thanks for spending the time checking out this post.  Next time I plan to talk about how I choose RV sites while traveling.


Lincoln Nebraska – Capitol, Cornhusker, Mammoths and Thunderstorms

Leaving Valentine we drove east across Nebraska to the city of Lincoln.  The scenery changed dramatically from Sandhills and open ranch land to miles and miles of corn fields.  I have never seen so many corn fields in a state before.  I can understand why the University of Nebraska located in Lincoln is called the “Cornhuskers.”  The University is big in Lincoln – Cornhusker football is huge.  We were lucky that there was no home game the weekend we wanted to stay in the RV park as they are always booked way in advance.  The stadium seats 81,000 and has been sold out every game since 1962, over 350 games.  We were told during Cornhusker games the stadium is the third largest city in Nebraska!  We saw many people in Lincoln wearing their Cornhusker pride in shirts, jackets, sweatshirts; the town is a bright red!   I have to confess though, that I have never been a football fan and do not follow any of the teams.  Below is a picture of the stadium.

We stayed eight nights in Lincoln and it was a good stay in a pretty nice town.  Our RV park was very different than what we left in Valentine which was outside of town, surrounded by farm fields and quiet.  In Lincoln we were surrounded by interstates!  The park is actually quite pretty, shaded with many trees and in a nice setting, but the freeways are right next door and cars are zooming.  When I walked around the first day we arrived, I saw a couple sitting in chairs outside their motor home and they were at the edge of the park and very close to the freeway above them.  They looked relaxed and happy, not bothered by the noise.  This is a top rated RV park because it has many amenities.  I guess you can get use to the freeway noise after awhile.  Luckily we were in the middle of the park and therefore further away from the traffic.

Lincoln is the capitol of Nebraska and I have to say I love visiting state capitol buildings.  I have seen about 15 of them during my travels, although some only from the outside.  This building features a 400 foot tower that is the second highest behind Louisiana.

I was surprised that on a Saturday morning I could just walk into the building without any security or staff at the door and wander around.  The building is magnificent inside and you can learn a lot about a state from the capitol and a capitol tour.  There is always a great deal of artwork and historical information depicting important events, people and places.

Lincoln has about 10 museums and of the three we visited,  the Nebraska State Museum was the best.  The museum features an incredible collection of prehistoric fossils including skeletons of camels, horses, llamas, wolverines, dogs, rhinoceros and giant land tortoises.   Remains of more than 10,000 extinct elephants have been found in Nebraska, but most of the state has not been carefully explored for fossils.  We read that if you live in this state, the odds are one in ten that you have an elephant fossil beneath your house!  Below is a picture of some of the elephant skeletons:

The museum also has mammoth skeletons found in Nebraska including the largest mounted mammoth in any American museum.  Mammoth were considered the largest mammals known to have walked the Great Plains.   Chickens on a Nebraska farm in 1922 actually “discovered” this mammoth’s bones by continually pecking at something in the ground.

The museum was featuring an interesting exhibit honoring the 90th birthday of “Miss Mie,” a Japanese friendship ambassador doll that has been part of the collection since 1928.  The doll came to the United States from Japan in 1927 when 58 friendship dolls were sent to the 48 states.  The dolls were gifts to American children in exchange for the American blue eyed dolls given to the children of Japan.  The dolls were to teach tolerance and understanding to children and improve strained relationships between the two countries.  The day we were at the museum a party was being held for Miss Mie with speeches, cupcakes, traditional Japanese music,  origami crafts and Japanese calligraphy with brush painting.

After our museum visit we wandered around the University campus to see the buildings and the many outdoor sculptures.  My favorite is this sculpture called “Torn Notebook” which I find quite clever and applicable to being on a school campus.  I am sure that many students at one time or another would like to tear up their paperwork in frustration!

I first began to realize the power of Midwest storms while staying here.  In California and especially the Central Valley weather was predictable, mild and generally sunny most of the time. Thunderstorms and rain occur regularly here and the thunder and lightning can put on quite a show.  Once in the middle of the night I was awake in bed listening to a particularly ferocious thunderstorm.  The thunder was so loud and roaring and the rain pounding so hard on the trailer that I felt like a small kid who wants to crawl under the bed and hide!  Although our trailer is fairly well insulated, you can really hear a rainstorm pounding on the roof.

Mark and I like to take walks and there was a city park with paths very close to where we were staying.  It was here that we noticed the disc golf course and saw several people making the rounds.  We decided it would be a great way to get some exercise so we headed to Scheel’s Sporting Goods store, bought some discs and gave it a try.  Although challenging for us (especially me who has little throwing ability), we thought it was fun and decided we would try different disc courses in the towns and cities where we land during our travels.

The butterflies are migrating!  During an afternoon at the lovely sunken garden in Lincoln I was surprised and pleased to see so many butterflies covering the flowering plants and bushes.  It was a butterfly extravaganza!  Lots of butterflies continued to be a treat as we traveled around the Midwest.

As always, thank you for reading.  In my next post I will talk about a few day trips we made to the city of Omaha.

Valentine – A Town That Won My Heart

In the middle of nowhere in Northern Nebraska and nine miles from the South Dakota border lies the town of Valentine.   We stayed here for three nights and I could have happily stayed longer.  I need to confess though, that during my first trip to Nebraska many years ago during a family cross country road trip, I was not very impressed with what I saw.  We were only in the western part of the state a few days visiting several historical sights and therefore too little time to make much of a judgment.  At that time, I had no plans to come back to Nebraska for future visits, but this time I found myself wanting to explore the state further.  As I write this post we have come and gone from Nebraska after spending close to two weeks there.  During our last day in Nebraska and approaching the Kansas border, I felt some sadness at leaving a state I had come to appreciate and enjoyed visiting.

Arriving in Valentine, a cute town of approximately 3,000 people I was delighted to notice that visitors are welcomed with large painted red hearts all along the sidewalks on the Main Street as well as hearts on the lamp posts.  This is cattle and ranching country (the cowboy poetry festival was happening the weekend after we left), many of the people we saw during our stay were attired in Western wear.  After awhile, Mark started feeling self conscious wearing his signature Hawaiian shirts and noted we never saw another male with long hair.  We popped into the Western Wearhouse store on Main Street to look for something else for him to wear.   I was amazed at how large this store was in a town of this size.  The smell of leather was intoxicating and worth a visit for the smell alone.  I guess I have not been in a western store in a very long time because I had no idea that there were so many varieties of cowboy boots.  Apparently, the store carries over 1,000 pairs of boots in stock. Different boots lined wall after wall, along with numerous leather belts, hats, western clothing and tack.

In the summer Valentine becomes a tourist center.  The Niobrara, a National Scenic River is very popular with canoeists and noted as one of the best places to canoe in the United States.  Rafters, kayakers and fisherman also enjoy the river.  We visited Smith Falls State Park, located along the Niobrara and found the river to be just beautiful.  It is lined with an abundance of trees and foliage I would not expect in the State of Nebraska.   The main feature in the park besides the river is the highest waterfall in Nebraska.  It is a lovely walk across a bridge and along a boardwalk through the trees to the base of the falls.  I loved standing next to the 70 foot falls feeling the spray of water.  The falls flow well all year long since they are spring fed.  I read that there are actually 200 waterfalls that fall into the Niobrara River in this area, although most are quite small and seasonal.

After our waterfall jaunt, we drove to the nearby Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge which has a herd of bison and elk living in the wild. The week we were there was bison roundup which occurs every year at the end of September.  To preserve the herd, only 250 bison are allowed to stay on the refuge.  During the roundup they are separated and a surplus sold based on DNA in order to preserve the herd’s genetic variety.

The roundup was a fascinating event open to the public and a novel experience for Mark and I.  We watched as a number of Fish and Game personnel and biologists herded adult bison through a series of separating pens.  New calves were tagged and blood samples taken for identification and evaluation.  It was interesting watching the staff try to hold the calves (often in vain) during the process.

We then took a drive through the countryside outside of Valentine and visited another waterfall, Snake River Falls.  The falls are 54 feet wide and are considered the largest of Nebraska’s falls by water volume.  Visitors are not allowed to get close as they are located in a deep canyon and on private property owned by a hunting club, so we enjoyed these falls from two different overlooks.

Valentine is located in the Sandhills, a picturesque region of mixed-grass prairie on stabilized dunes that covers one quarter of Nebraska.  It is regarded as the largest sand dune formation in the Western Hemisphere.   Below is a picture from our back country drive to the Valentine Wildlife Refuge.

This large wildlife refuge has a number of ponds and lakes within the Sandhills that attract many waterfowl.  Since I love birding we had to come check this place out.  The refuge was beautiful to see but it was too early in the fall for migrating ducks, geese and shorebirds.

On our last day in Valentine I had to check out the Cowboy Trail, another wonderful feature in the Valentine area.  A recreational trail converted from an old railway corridor for biking/walking/horseback riding is currently 195 miles in length across Northern Nebraska.  There are plans to increase to 321 miles.  As one who likes to bike and walk, I would love to live near this trail.  One of the most spectacular parts of the trail is the old train trestle that crosses the Niobrara River just outside Valentine.  It is a quarter of a mile long and 150 feet above the river.  Yikes, a little high for me!

Here I am walking on the Cowboy Trail Trestle bridge.

I will close with an evening view from our campsite in Valentine.  We really liked the RV park here.   It is located outside of town and surrounded by farmlands.   The owners created it from their ranching property which is just down a long driveway from the park.  There is lots of green grass surrounding the campsites as well as a small pond.  But my favorite thing about the campground is this windmill.  I just love windmills and I discovered Nebraska has many, another reason to appreciate this lovely state!