Travels 2016: Nebraska trips highlight state’s ‘Good Life’

Nebraska

A handmade milk shake was the perfect prescription on a hot day at the Springfield Drug store’s soda fountain.

With as much traveling as we’ve done in the past five years, we always enjoy checking out our Nebraska backyard. Boy, did we have some experiences in 2016. From art to a bit of controversy, touring Nebraska was anything but boring.

We’ve enjoyed checking out public art in almost every city we’ve been to, so I thought it would be nice to check out the public mural scene in Omaha. So, on a nice January weekend, I grabbed the camera and off I went…in search of interesting murals. It didn’t take long. South Omaha has several impressive murals scattered throughout the area. From murals highlighting Hispanic history to pop culture, Omaha has some great street art.

What started as a quiet weekend resulted in one of the most-read stories we’ve done. And the most controversial. On the last weekend of January, Omaha’s Catholic Cathedral is the site of an annual flower show. Each flower show has a theme. This year’s theme was Hollywood. Floral exhibits used mannequins and other decorations to help tell the movie’s theme. Movies highlighted included “Mary Poppins,” “The King and I,” “The Sound of Music” and “Grease.”

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Wedding scene from “The Sound of Music.”

A janitor who found the exhibits offensive and in violation of the Catholic faith vandalized some of the exhibits. He lost his job and was arrested. Charges were later dropped at the behest of church leaders. Our story didn’t include this information because we were not aware of it at the time nor did it matter, as the displays were fixed and the show went on.

So, we were invited by relatives to attend with them. We all had a great time and enjoyed the beauty of the flowers and displays. Lisa and I decided to write a post about the floral show. That’s when the controversy started to include us. After we published the story, it was picked by a religious blogger and his readers, who commented on the event. We had about 9,000 views of the story and hundreds of comments on our website. Several comments were derogatory of the church and we wouldn’t share those. The controversy eventually died.

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Floral exhibit at Omaha’s Cathedral.

Back to the goal of our blog – travel-related fun. Our daughter Steph and I love a local burger joint named Stella’s. We annually have a meal there. We joke that it takes a year to clear out our arteries after eating there. But, the food is soooooooo good there. We coaxed Lisa into having dinner with us. And she liked it. Stella’s is considered home of the best burger in the Omaha Metro area. It’s known for its Stellanator –a six-patty burger with all kinds of toppings. If you eat within a set time, it’s free and you get your pic on the wall of fame. Mostly, people get their picture on the wall of shame. We’re looking forward to our 2017 trip to the Bellevue eatery.

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The burgers at Stella’s are amazing.

Omaha’s Kaneko art gallery is known for offering some interesting exhibits. This year, it featured water. The exhibit focused on sustaining and improving water quality around the world, including the United States. Artist exhibits featured pieces based on water. It was an interesting visit to Kaneko.

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An art piece at Kaneko’s Water exhibit.

We took a couple of trips to the Durham Museum for special exhibits. The museum offered a look at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. The showman had planned to retire to his ranch in North Platte, but ended up taking his traveling western show around the United States then to England. The exhibit highlighted the show’s story.

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The average American consumed 90 bottles of 80 proof alcohol in 1830.

In the fall, we took in an exhibit exploring the days of Prohibition and its impact locally and nationally. While bars and saloons legally disappeared for several years, speakeasies and bootlegging took over. The mafia got its foothold in the country during this period. Eventually, Prohibition was repealed.

In continuing our exploration of Omaha, we visited one of our favorite places – the Old Market Passageway. The Passageway is an old alley way that was dug up several decades ago. The brick walls and open window frames offer an attractive presentation. The area is home to some great restaurants and unique stores. The Passageway is a popular photography spot.

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The Passageway is our favorite spot in the Old Market.

Lauritzen Gardens is one of Omaha’s top attractions. We make two or three visits a year, so we finally ended up buying a membership. The gardens host some of the best traveling exhibits in the United States. The gardens have hosted exhibits such as animal sculptures and Lego animals. This year, a major attraction was a 30-piece collection of ceramic flowers. The ceramic flowers mixed well with the real stuff.

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A special flower exhibit consisted of some beautiful displays at Lauritzen Gardens.

We examined ethnic history of our area with visits to the Czech and Slovak Museum and the Great Plains Black History Museum. The museums are located the Crossroads Mall in Omaha.

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Puppets and marionettes have long been popular in the Czech Republic.

I feel like we are becoming like the Sandhill cranes with our annual trip to central Nebraska to watch the birds’ annual migration. It never gets old viewing the cranes. They’re special creatures and have been making this trek every year for thousands of years.

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We made our annual migration to central Nebraska to watch the Sandhill cranes during their annual stop in Nebraska. More than 500,000 cranes come through the region during the northern migration.

While we’re in Central Flyway, we try to take in some of the area’s attractions. This year, we visited the Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney. The art museum has some impressive collections. I personally liked the sculpture garden, which included a statue of Cliff Hillegass – the founder of “Cliff Notes.”

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The Museum of Nebraska Art in Kearney recognizes great art by Nebraskans.

We love attending powwows. This year, we attended two of them. The first was at the University of Nebraska-Omaha’s arena. The powwow was the first at the school’s new arena. Tribes from around the region were represented. The second powwow was personal to me. It was the Santee Wacipi (Dakota for powwow). It had been decades since I last attended a powwow on our home reservation.

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A small child checks out dancers during the annual Wacipi in Santee.

We enjoyed taking a look at a few of Nebraska’s wineries and vineyards with the folks at Nebraska Wine Tours. The mother-daughter duo took us on one of its tours in the Lincoln area. The company offers a variety of wine tours around the state. A typical wine tour will take you to three locations over a five-hour period.

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We enjoyed our tour of Lincoln-area wineries with Nebraska Wine Tours.

Even though it may be on the Iowa side of the river, O Comic Con is considered an Omaha event. We enjoyed checking out our second O Comic Con. Celebrities, authors and artists highlighted the event. But perhaps, the real draw are the characters you encounter. With “Suicide Squad” enjoying a successful theater run, we saw a few women dressed as Harley Quinn at Comic Con. We look forward to seeing what 2017 brings to O Comic Con as it celebrates its third year.

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Darth Vader made an appearance at the second annual O Comic Con.

Lisa wanted to mark off riding in a helicopter from her bucket list. I offered to go with her as Heartland Helicopters was offering rides during the College World Series. Riding in a helicopter is one of the last things I’ve ever wanted to do. But, we both enjoyed ourselves. I saw a view of the CWS that I would never otherwise see – from above the stadium. Lisa actually took the company up on an offer for another ride.

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View of TD Ameritrade Park from the skies

The Strategic Air Command returned to Nebraska in 2016. Or, at least the air museum highlighting its history changed its name back to reflect SAC in its name. We attended a ceremony where the name was officially unveiled and several SAC veterans honored. As a SAC veteran, it’s nice to see the name back at the Ashland museum.

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SAC is back! The air museum recognized the area’s history by renaming itself the Strategic Air Command and Aerospace Museum.

Continuing to help celebrate the ethnic diversity of Nebraska, we attended the Czech Days festivities in Wilber. The small town near Lincoln is considered the Czech capital of Nebraska. A parade featuring several Czech queens from around the country is a major event for the celebration.

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Czech pride was on display during the annual Czech Days festival in Wilber.

With daughter Mallory home in August, we thought it would be fun for a family road trip to Fremont and take an air boat ride along the Platte River. Bryson’s does an outstanding job with its air boat tours. We took an hour tour, and saw a lot of great views along the river, from a heron to some beautiful bluffs.

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Our family took an air boat ride along the Platte River near Fremont.

Lisa and I participated in the Nebraska Passport program, which consists of 80 attractions or businesses. The passport book is stamped when you visit an attraction. We visited about 30 locations this year. We had a great time and visited some interesting locations, including the Springfield Drug soda fountain, Museum of Nebraska Major League Baseball and the Happy Jack Chalk Mine.

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Happy Jack Chalk Mine near Scotia was checked off the bucket list over the summer.

A trip to Nebraska City included a look at the southeast Nebraska city’s history. Lewis and Clark stopped here. The interpretive center takes a look at the Corps of Discovery’s visit. Reenactors were at the center the day we visited. They tend to add to the history.

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The blacksmith’s forge was likely used at Fort Mandan during the winter stay in North Dakota.

The city is home to the last known wooden windmill factory. Kregel Windmill a museum now. Visitors get a close look at the tools and processes used to make windmills.

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An Eli windmill was manufactured at the Kregel Windmill factory in Nebraska City.

Gretna is home to one of the nation’s top pumpkin patches. Vala’s Pumpkin Patch is listed among a few national lists. It had been a few years since our last visit, so we headed out one Sunday morning. Vala’s had added some new attractions, including the newest – Egg Scramble, a foam ball shooting gallery, where the targets are everyone in the barn.

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The piano is powered by kid power at Vala’s.

We fell in love with Stroud’s pan-fried chicken during a visit to Overland Park, Kansas, earlier this year. Then, Stroud’s had to go and open a restaurant in Omaha. The west Omaha location at Village Pointe is the first outside the Kansas City metro area. The food is just as tasty as its southern brethren. It’s automatically one of our favorite restaurants in town.

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Omaha is the first city outside of Missouri and Kansas to have a Stroud’s location.

Our last 2016 excursion was an escape room. The Locked Room invited us and some friends to participate in one of its locked rooms. We took on the Titanic room. We claim we won in time, since we took about a minute over the 1-hour time limit, and would have held our breath while we swam to the top of the water. Regardless, it was a fun way to close out our 2016 adventures.

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Our team that took on the Titanic room at The Locked room: Jamie, Lisa, Tim, Vicki, Bryan and Kris.

We took advantage of our Husker backyard in checking out a lot of attractions and events around the state. We plan to get back out to western Nebraska next year. We love being Nebraskans and sharing our state with you.

For more information on Nebraska attractions, please visit www.visitnebraska.com.