31 March, 2011

Flatlands - Traveling Between

It's finally here.  We've had an absolutely incredible time visiting with Shawn, and now it's time to begin the next part of our trip.  Bittersweet, yet again.  I totally meant to get a picture of the three of us, but got distracted.  We don't have any pictures of the three of us - it's either Greg and Shawn, or Shawn and I.  Next time I'll have to remember...
We had breakfast together before going our separate ways; Shawn to work, Greg and I to get a couple pictures, fill up on gas, then hit the road back to Springfield.  We've had such a great time visiting that it's hard to leave... but we'll be seeing Shawn again in July, so that makes it a little easier.

Omaha has been very interesting.  Lots of fun - because of the time we've spent with Shawn - and fascinating.  One of the interesting dichotomies of any large city (to me, anyway), and this was true of Omaha as well, is the old and new buildings - sometimes almost side by side - that exist as the landscape of the area.
I suppose I don't really mean "old" and "new", since one of my favorite places was the Old Market - a collection of shops set up in an old section of town.  (Come to think of it, when we go to Albuquerque to visit family, I love to go to Old Town to wander in and out of the shops.)  Anyhow.  What I really mean is that some old buildings are well-kept and maintained, while others are let go.  The ones that aren't re-purposed and remain empty become vandalized husks, ghosts hinting at the glory and industry of days gone by while displaying the sadness of reality.
In direct contrast (and just down the street) to the old train station with busted windows and graffiti is the building - and area - in the picture above. There's even a park with a playground in the background, and the view extends into an old but well-kept section of downtown Omaha.  I wouldn't be anxious walking around this area, wondering what's through the next door or around the corner, wondering if we're either going to be accosted or asked to leave.  A sense of welcome versus disinterested weariness.  Fascinating.
The trip back to Springfield was pleasurable.  We stopped off in Kansas City, this time for some geocaching, lunch at Grinders (made famous on Diners, Drives, and Dive-Ins), and a stopover at the Boulevard Brewery gift shop.  When we're traveling, we like to get the earth caches.  They're alluring because they're educational and interesting.  The historic flood levels of the Missouri are amazing.  Thirty-four feet.  That's almost six of me, standing on top of each other.  The bottom five of me would drown.  That's two complete stories in a building, plus most of a third.  I'd hate to be around for that type of disaster.  We also stopped at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas rivers to learn more about natural history - which included a spectacular view of the city skyline.
As we continued our journey southward, I found Shawn's real town.  If he's going to be in the Flatlands, at least he's close to home (away from home).  It's a town called Peculiar.  When we're trying to make a choice - maybe for food or entertainment - Shawn will say, I'm not peculiar.  Oh, Shawn.  Yes.  Yes, you are peculiar.  But we love you anyway.
One more stop at the Osceola Cheese Factory to stock up on cheese, and we're almost there.   It was amazing to see that in just the few days we've been in Nebraska, the landscape in Missouri has greened up tremendously.  I know it'll be a month or more before this transformation happens back home, but Oh! I do love the growing season!!  We're getting closer and closer to our next destination.  I'm getting excited to see Chris and Janet.  Chris doesn't know we're coming.  Janet's been working and planning for a long, long time to throw him a surprise party for his 40th birthday.  (Yes, Chris.  I just announced your real age to all my various and sundry - count them, 13 - readers.  Are you ready to start asking for senior discounts? *grins*)  This is going to be fun!

30 March, 2011

Flatlands - Hangin' with Shawn, Day IV

Today  is bittersweet.  Our last full day in Omaha - but if I change my focus, we've got a whole day to spend with Shawn visiting and making memories.  Another day - yay!!  Today's sojourns took us to all-you-can-eat sushi for lunch.  Oh. My. Goodness.  It was phenomenal!!!  I've never been to a sushi restaurant where you can pick anything off the menu, have it made just for you (no conveyor belt), and do it over and over again until you just can't move.  We ordered three times, not including dessert.  Granted, each successive order got smaller and smaller, but we packed away a whole lot of fish!  We ate enough that I was starting to get just a little bit proficient with my chop sticks - a feat unto itself, that.
After so much food, it's good that our next destination was Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo.  We definitely needed to do some walking around - otherwise we might've succumbed to food comas.  It's been a long, long time since I've been to a zoo, and somehow the Anchorage zoo doesn't come remotely close in comparison.
I made it over the rope bridge - proof in the picture above.  Most likely because it was a short bridge and the ground wasn't that far below - meaning I would survive the fall, should a board snap beneath my foot or the rope fray beyond measure and give out, regardless of the vise-like death grip that I had.  I didn't even cry.  Yay!
As usual, most of these pictures are courtesy of Greg and his fancy-pants camera.  I do have a couple - and it's probably easier in this post to mention which are mine rather than which are his (since I got a few of his before he had a chance to mark them up).  Any pictures that have Greg in them (like the first one in the post) are obviously taken by me.  The other two that are mine are pictures of monkeys... go figure.  The monkeys in a tree (above) is mine, and I'll claim one other monkey picture below - you'll know it when you see it.  So nice to have the fancy-pants camera along on this journey (and Greg too, of course!) - there's no way I would've been able to get pictures of most of this stuff (and there are oh, so many more - I just picked a few to whet your appetite).
We spent about 3 hours at the zoo, and weren't able to see everything there.  Not only that, but there were several exhibits that were empty (either due to the cool Spring weather or remodel/construction work).  Definitely another reason to come back a little later in the season - not mid-summer, as I think we'd be miserable trying to adjust to the temperature differences, but maybe later spring or early fall.

My favorite exhibits were all the various monkeys.  Big ones, small ones, baby ones, orange ones, grey ones, multi-colored ones, lazy ones, pensive ones, tree-swinging ones, smart-ass ones...  Who doesn't like monkeys?!?  Lemur Island was one of the displays that was empty.  I was going to get a picture for James to show him what his home-away-from-home looks like, what with all his cousins swinging on the trees and all, but alas {smacks myself on the forehead with the back of my hand} it just wasn't meant to be.
That's the best shot I could get of the fellow above (yes, this picture is mine, not Greg's).  No matter where I moved, he arranged himself to put his hairy ass in the middle of my picture.  Alrighty then.  If that's the best I can do, who am I to argue with fate??  At least Greg was able to get some more thought-provoking poses from the various primates.
Shawn had to go to class, so after the zoo we dropped him off and headed to Jones Bros. Cupcakes to while away some time (and indulge in some cupcake decadence, of course!).  We just had to try the red velvet, sweet and salty, Guinness, tiramisu, and lemon cupcakes, as well as the coffee cake (not all at once, mind you! - we had a couple hours to kill before dinner).  After perusing the menu online, I see that they have a maple bacon cupcake they make on Fridays.  Damn!  Missed it by two days.  Maybe I can get Shawn to give it a try and send me a review...
For dinner, we went to The Pizza Gourmet Co.    They have good pizza, yummy garlic rolls, and tasty jalapeno cheese balls.  Shawn became the mayor there a few days after we left.  Being mayor has something to do with checking in online so many times, then once you've hit some pre-determined threshold you become mayor.  I wonder if you can be mayor of more than one location?  It'd be cool if he gets to wear a crown and eat at an elevated table in the middle of the room with flashy strobe lights and wait-staff dedicated just to him that refer to him as Your Mayor-ness, but I think they settle on some kind of discounts instead (or maybe even just bragging rights).  I'd be mayor of Olive Garden, if we had one.  Speaking of... that's one restaurant we didn't make it to on this journey.  Probably the first time ever we've traveled Outside, had an Olive Garden in the vicinity and didn't go there to eat.  Oh well.  We made it to lots of other tasty venues!

Another fabulous day with Shawn.  I don't want to think about tomorrow.

29 March, 2011

Flatlands - Hangin' with Shawn, Day III

It seems that we aren't meant to be early risers on this trip.  Which it totally fine by me - since I'm generally a night owl anyway.  As has been our habit thus far, we started the day with brunch.  Today, Shawn took us to Dixie Quicks, which is a quaint hole-in-the-wall restaurant serving southern cooking with a flair.  The joint was featured in Diners, Dives, and Drive Ins on the Food Network, and is absolutely worth visiting.  We arrived just in time - without reservations, we were at the mercy of seating availability.  We had no trouble getting a table, but not more than 15 minutes later the place was packed and we would have been turned away.  The menu is done on a chalk board; employees shop for ingredients daily; the food is extraordinary!
Restroom Signs at Dixie Quicks
From there, we headed to the first (non-food) destination of the day: the Durham Museum, which is housed in the Union Pacific Railroad Center.  It's a lovely building with intricate artwork and majestic ceilings, with lots of associated history and close to downtown.  Since it is no longer a railway center, it's nice to see that the building is being used in an alternate capacity.  We learned from the soda jerk that the original soda fountain is still in use - as are the neon signs advertising for candy and whatnot.  Amazing that something so old (80+ years) has been able to withstand time so well.  Of course, we had to have shakes and some soda to verify that everything is perfectly functional.  Two thumbs up!  =)
Looking downtown from the Museum; Inside the Railway Station
It was fascinating to walk through the building and see the history - not only for the railway, but the other exhibits that are now on display.  It was especially fascinating to hear Shawn's perspective (he works for present-day Union Pacific) on the state of railroads, passenger travel, and recent history.  The connection of the railways significantly changed historic travel and allowed many more people the opportunity to move about the country than would have been able to without, and Omaha became the hub for a lot of that activity.  Hadn't really thought of that before.  (Note: Shawn didn't watch the movie Unstoppable - an action-adventure train movie based on real events - but heard from other railroad people that it's highly unlikely that much of it is real-to-life.  I guess it's loosely based on real events - but it's still an entertaining movie.)  Anyhow.  Peculiarly - yes, Shawn, you are peculiar! =) - fascinating to have the perspective of someone so closely entwined in the industry to give feedback and supplemental information.
The rest of the museum was filled with interesting historical tidbits, including a poem from 1869, decrying Omaha and those that live there.  I only typed in my favorite bits, so what is below is incomplete.  If you're interested in the whole thing, let me know and I'll post the poem in its entirety.  I think the poem is funny (in a haha sense), but also evokes images of the mayhem that must have been standard fare when Omaha was at its heights as a hub of railway travel.
Hast ever been in Omaha,
Where rolls the dark Missouri down,
And four strong horses scarce can draw
An empty wagon through the town?
...Where whisky shops the livelong night
Are vending out their poison juice;
Where men are often very tight,
And women deemed a trifle loose?
Where taverns have an anxious guest
For every corner, shelf and crack;
With half the people going west,
And all the others going back?
...If not, take heed to what I say:
You'll find it just as I have found it;
And if it lies upon your way,
For God's sake, reader, go around it!
John G. Saxe, Harper's Magazine, September1869

The rest of the afternoon was spent doing some shopping before we met Christine for appetizers and visiting.  We were going to get sushi for dinner, but were having such a lovely time visiting that the restaurant would have closed before we could get there.  So we had some delectable Mexican food - so much so that we're all suffering from the after-effects of fighting off the food comas.  It was that good.  Time is going by so quickly... yet another wonderful, lovely day of visiting is complete.

28 March, 2011

Flatlands - Hangin' with Shawn, Day II

We fully intended to be up and about early today.  I mean, early enough that we'd have breakfast over and be knocking on the doors of the Strategic Air and Space Museum by 10am, when they opened.  Yeah.  That's what we planned last night.  Good thing our planning allows for some flexibility for things like... sleeping later than intended...  It's possible we left the house by 10am, but more likely that I was just rolling out of bed around then.
Blackbird - SR71
The museum is absolutely phenomenal!  If you're ever in the Omaha area, you should definitely put this on your list of things to do.  (Most of the plane pictures are thanks to Greg and his fancy-pants camera - my little point-and-shoot just couldn't do the subjects justice.  The picture of the picture is mine...)  You can literally spend hours - and we did - just wandering around looking at the displays.  It's difficult for me to adequately illustrate or describe the colossal size of the airplanes.  It'll have to be enough to say that they're GINORMOUS.

I found it ironic that on most of the airplanes there are emergency instructions for opening and/or ejecting the cockpit painted on the exterior of the plane.  Understandable, I suppose, except that I'd hope there're instructions for those inside the plane to get out.  I mean, if the plane crashes in enemy territory, I doubt those finding the wreckage can even read the instructions, and if they can I doubt they're going to help the crew escape - unless it's to be captured for some kind of questioning...  It would seem the instructions are only good if the plane crashes in friendly (English-speaking) territories - so what do they do in other circumstances?
Peacemaker (B36) - wingspan from side to side in the back
Sabre (F86) - camo suspended above the wing of the Peacemaker
T-Bird (T33) - grey above the body of the Peacemaker
 Photograph of a painting, including the Peacemaker (B36)
One of the most amazing planes I saw there was the Peacemaker (B36) - so called because it could hold tremendous amounts of bombs and fly extremely long distances (peace by intimidation?).  It's an absolutely massive piece of machinery.  Tubular in shape, it doesn't seem like it should be able to fly based on the placement of the wings.  Wing span is approximately 230 feet, the body is 162 feet long, and it was the only aircraft capable of flying to another continent and returning without having to refuel.  I tried to take pictures to show the vastness of it, but my camera is not good enough to truly portray the epic proportions of any of the planes - particularly the Peacemaker.
After we finished touring the Air and Space Museum, we stopped by the Tower of Terror.  At least, that's what I call it.  Locals or people who don't have my phobias might just call it an observation tower in the Platte River state park.  Apparently, if you climb all the way to the top, you can see for miles and miles in any direction - at least partly because they don't have mountains here in the Flatlands.  I wouldn't know for sure though, since I only made it up two flights of stairs - and I'm damn proud of that!!  I was waiting there for Greg and Shawn to get done observing when I felt the tower move as the wind picked up.

I'm not sure if it was real movement or my imagination, but it was enough that I booked it down the tower to stand on solid ground and read about the bot fly, which is native to Nebraska.  There are two types of bot fly - in order to tell them apart you have to look on the belly of the fly (one has some red hair, the other doesn't).  The bot fly looks and sounds like a bee - but it isn't - and the female sprays her eggs into the nostrils of a deer.  (And just so you know, there's no way in sam hell that I'm going to be picking up a fly that looks and sounds like a bee to examine its belly so I know which species of bot fly it is!  I'm going to either smash that sucker flat - with some implement that is NOT my hand - or spray it with deadly bee toxin, keeping the adage in mind: better safe than sorry...)  Ahem.  The eggs gestate inside until ready to hatch, which is when the deer coughs them up.  They hatch then fly around looking for mates to start the whole cycle over again.  Nowhere on the stupid plaque did it say anything that the bot fly is good for - like pollination, keeping real bee populations down, eating mosquitoes, etc.  Now you too know much more than you ever need to know about the bot fly, which is native to Nebraska.  I highly recommend climbing the tower rather than becoming a bot fly plaque reading specialist, if you can manage your phobias enough to do so.
Dark clouds moved in with the wind, and we ended up with snow.  While that was a bit disappointing weather-wise, it didn't stop us from heading out to a local lake to get more pictures and having an absolutely divine steak dinner.  There's definitely something to be said for having steak that's fresh off the range!  Then home again to make some mustard-bourbon barbecue sauce, visit, and play games.  (Note: One of my favorite memories of Shawn is making barbecue sauce from scratch.  While we were here, I asked if he knew a recipe for a mustard-based sauce, since I'm not overly fond of the sweet, honey-ketchup-based sauces.  The results of that test are chilling in the fridge, and I'm excited to test it out!!)  On that note, yet another marvelous day has come to a close.

27 March, 2011

Flatlands - Hangin' with Shawn, Day I

There's nothing nicer than a leisurely Sunday morning, spent visiting around the kitchen table.  Too bad all days don't start this way, or even just the weekend days.  Which makes it all the more sweet on those rare occasions when we take the time to indulge.
I count breakfast as the first meal of the day (independent of time-of-day), regardless of whether it includes eggs and bacon or hamburgers and fries.  As such, we had breakfast around the time when normal Omahans are having lunch (and Alaskans are having brunch). Such a late start on a Sunday (when paying venues close early) limited our options for the afternoon, but we're a resourceful bunch and there's lots to see.
We opted to spend the day viewing local art and attractions, starting with the Pedestrian Bridge.  This is the longest pedestrian bridge between two states (Nebraska and Iowa).  I noticed that the flooring was concrete (in other words, NOT metal grating where I can see what lies below), so was hopeful that I'd be able to make the trek.  I made sure to walk in the center of the bridge and focus on the ground.  I only started hyperventilating as I passed the first of the cables, but it wasn't more than 15-20 feet farther and I was crying like a baby.  Once again, my rational mind lost all its sensibilities and let the primitive fight or flight responses take over.  Unfortunately for me, it's the flight response that wins (well, really it's the response where I have an absolute need to curl up in a fetal ball with my hands wrapped around my head, rocking to some inner music and making odd vocal noises to drown out the realization that my death is imminent and it's going to be long and painful and there's absolutely nothing I can do about it).  So I went back to the car after taking a couple pictures.  In the photo above if you look really closely (or expand the image), the two people-dots just past the first pillar are Shawn and Greg.
Aside from the bridge, I can totally see spending a pleasant spring or summer afternoon in the places we visited: walking along the river; enjoying the park; relaxing on the downtown strip known as The Mall (which is really a green belt along the river in the middle of downtown Omaha).  Omaha is very different from Anchorage - more people, more cars, more urban - but there's still a lot of beauty to be found.
Throughout our sojourn, we found lots of odd art sculptures.  It's almost like the 1% for Art project in Anchorage - a beautification effort to make sure our city is functional and pretty.  Unless it's a tribute to something specific (and sometimes even then), lots of the art here is abstract - a bunch of metal thrown together in varying ways to create random shapes.  What it's supposed to be is determined by the viewer, I suppose.  I'm not very imaginative with those kinds of things.  I much prefer art that is a bit more defined, or even functional.  Like the seats below - apparently they're a way to disguise some ground vents, but in the process provide something a little nicer to view than a grate.  Defined (that's definitely a face, odd though it may be) and functional (I'd sit on those hands if I were tired).

I love the history and aura of old buildings - even if sometimes I feel like they're not sturdy enough and may collapse on top of me.  We were wandering around downtown and went through the Old Market.  It's a bunch of shops (almost like a mall) that can be accessed from the sidewalk or from the inside of the structure.  The building is at least three stories high, and the ceiling lets light through so the walkways are lined with plants that lean into the center and stretch towards the faux-sky.  It's all old brick and wood planks, and you can tell where there've been repairs.  One shop on the second floor even has its own atrium out back (which is the roof of some of the lower shops).  Quaint and full of charm, as long as it doesn't come crashing down around my head.  We're making plans to go back when most of the shops will be open so we can do more than window-shop.  Yay!!  =)

We retired to Upstream Brewing Company for some tasty beverages (they have a mighty fine Raspberry beer) and some pool, then concluded our jaunt at home with a late dinner of cheese (from Osceola), summer sausage, and crackers accompanied by more visiting.  I'm almost distressed that time is going by so quickly (why must time fly when we're having fun?? I'd much prefer it to drag along when I'm enjoying myself and speed by when I'm bored or upset...).  Even so, we've had another lovely day to build memories and savor our time visiting with Shawn.  Can't beat that!

26 March, 2011

Flatlands - Getting There

We're on our way.  Almost 10 days of travel and visiting with friends.  I'm hoping it'll be slightly warmer than home - since Spring always comes earlier for everyone else.  In that vein, I've packed sandals, shorts, and short-sleeved shirts.  But I've also packed extra jackets for layers, socks, jeans, and I'll be wearing tennis shoes.
Heading to Seattle - Sunset Over Clouds
We're going to be traveling for quite a while.  First the airplanes - three airports and approximately 15 hours (not including time changes) there - then the road trip (another 10 hours).
Landing in Chicago
I absolutely *love* road trips.  It's one of the things I miss, living in Alaska.  There are only so many roads you can follow before you've been everywhere that a day or less road trip would cover.  And we've been there.  So "going for a drive" is just picking one of the locations we've already explored and going there again.  Now, there's nothing wrong with that - we have some absolutely stunning vistas in those areas that we've already explored - it's just that sometimes I miss being able to go someplace "new".
O'Hare Airport is Enormous
Springfield Airport is Quaint
Anyhow.  I'm looking forward to this trip for several reasons, one of which is the road-trippin' we'll be doing.  The other reasons involve the people we're going to see - it's been... well, years... in both cases; and I've never been to these areas of the country, so we'll be seeing lots of new ground.
Kansas City Skyline
I was hoping that this trip would be warmer than home, but it looks like I'm to be disappointed in that regard.  No matter.  I won't be getting any kind of tan, but the primary purposes - travel and visiting - are still in tact; extra warmth and growing green were just added bonuses that are not to be.
Osceola, Mo - Osceola Cheese Factory
We are going to spend the first part of our trip in Omaha, NE, visiting with Shawn.  This requires driving north from Springfield, MO approximately 350 miles (which is like driving from Anchorage to Fairbanks back home).  We did some sightseeing along the way - stopped at the Osceola Cheese Factory for some samples (ended up with three types of cheese, caramel corn puffs, rye crisps, and some tasty ginger snaps - those samples will get you every time!  Wouldn't have walked out with anything but the cheese, except that we sampled the other fare too...) and Jack Stack Barbecue in Kansas City for a late lunch (late for Central Time anyway - we're right on schedule for Alaska Time).
Where are we?  Ewe's in the Country!
When anyone has asked "where're you going on vacation?" My response has been "we're heading to the Flatlands (or Middle America)."  I realize that it's a stereotype, but it's almost eerie to see the rolling hills with no mountains or water - it seems to go on forever!  Right now the fields are all dormant, waiting to be plowed and sown, the trees are starting to bud but there's no real color yet, and I seriously doubt I'll get to see the fields of sunflowers.  We might have to find our way back here sometime, but later in the year so we get to see more of the lush, growing season (or the colors of the fall - except that corn fields are generally golden in the fall, so I suppose we'll just aim for Spring or Summer so we get more variety).
Greg and Shawn
We're finally here.  A bit more than 24 hours of travel and seven different states (Alaska, Washington, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, and Nebraska - whew!), and now it's time to relax and visit.