The Big Trip, Part 4

Friday, October 19, 201

Rock Island, IL – Amana, IW – Omaha, NE

Due to the rain and fog we saw little of the mighty Mississippi as we crossed a bridge into Iowa, but then the skies cleared quickly and the sun shown behind us, lighting up the countryside in a magical way. Under the right conditions, Eastern Iowa is very beautiful. Tan-colored fields of corn stubble with, here and there, bright white farm buildings are set starkly against the kind of sky one sees in Dutch landscapes. These skies have depth and complexity, layers of greys and whites with occasional glimpses of blue. After yesterday’s gloominess, today’s drive felt so good.

We had intended to drive straight across Iowa to Omaha, halting only briefly at rest stops, but Kay became intrigued by a sign for the Amana Colonies and searched them on her iPad as we drove. What she found made us want to veer off I-80 and take a look at this National Historic Landmark

Iowa’s Amana Colony

The Pietists who founded the Colonies were fleeing religious persecution when they emigrated from Germany in 1843. Settling first near Buffalo, New York, they moved to Iowa in the 1850s in search of more land.

Iowa’s Amana Colony

The settlers chose the name Amana from the Bible’s Song of Solomon. It means to “remain true.” They established six villages across a river valley tract of 26,000 acres. These villages, called the Amana Colonies, exist today.

Iowa’s Amana Colony

Residents of the Colonies lived a communal life. “Property and resources were shared. Men and women were assigned jobs by their village council of brethren. No one received a wage, No one needed one.”

Iowa’s Amana Colony

The striking thing about these communities was their self-sufficiency. They grew and raised all their food, and made nearly everything they needed for their lives. They passed on their knowledge, skills, and crafts from generation to generation. It was only in the 1930s that the communal fabric began to unravel. Members began to want to eat at home instead of in the communal dining rooms. They began to want more independence and a more modern way of life.

Back on the highway we drove and drove. The weather grew darker and colder, and a sprinkle of rain fell as we reached an outlining district of Omaha where tonight’s KOA camp is located.

Saturday, October 20, 2012


Joslyn Art Museum

We spent the day in the city of Omaha. Today’s weather couldn’t have been nicer for our walk. The Joslyn is another of America’s great regional art museums. We parked in an out-of-the-way corner of its parking lot and approached the pink marble edifice by way of its sculpture garden. Inside the entrance a friendly guard explained that there was no admission charge on Saturday mornings and that I could take all the photos I wanted except in one gallery where there was a temporary exhibition. Such open friendliness is a trait we associate with the country’s Midwest states; it seems to increase as we move west. 

Kay and I were delighted by the Joslyn’s collections. One of these is of paintings and sculptures that capture the myths and legends of the Old West. The work of Frederic Remington was well represented. We had always known Remington as a sculptor and were surprised to find several of his paintings as well. Other work is by William Robinson Leigh and other artists previously unknown to us. What they mostly have in common is their dynamism. They show cowboys, guns drawn and half out of saddle. Others depict hunting scenes and skirmishes between Indians and whites. Most museums we know of don’t show such work, at least not to this extent. Omaha was once a frontier town.

Joslyn Art Museum

Sarah Joslyn built the older, principal part of the museum in 1931 in memory of her husband who had made his fortune in the newspaper business. This section contains some surprising architectural details. There is a delightful Art Deco fountain court and an entrance lobby with soaring vertical lines and beautiful chandeliers.

We ate a soup-and-salad lunch in the museum’s café before talking a longish walk through downtown Omaha to the Old Market and another museum created in the former Union Railroad Station.

Kay and I are used to lively down towns with lots of pedestrian and motor traffic. That’s why our walk along the wide streets and sidewalks of downtown Omaha this Saturday felt so strange. Hardly a store or building was open. There were few cars and fewer pedestrians. We had the streets to ourselves until we entered the area close to the Missouri River known as the Old Market.

Omaha’s Old Town

This neighborhood of converted warehouses and old commercial buildings was full of life. The warm, sunny weather drew people out onto restaurant terraces. There was music in the air, some from open doorways, some from street musicians. Who knew that Omaha, a city known for its insurance companies and abattoirs, should have this side to its personality?

Omaha’s Durham Museum

Beyond the Old Market, our destination was the city’s second great museum, the Durham. Built in the early 1930s, this former Union Station is another Art Deco gem. It is shocking to realize that after its railroad function ended in 1971, there was a proposal raze it. Instead, a small group of volunteers fought to save it. Finally, community business leaders and philanthropists led by Margre and Charles Durham committed the resources to restore it and create one of most interesting historical museums in America.

Omaha’s Durham Museum

On the street level, the main hall, where tickets were once sold, luggage checked, and travelers waited to board their trains, has been restored to what it was. The signage is original. The great, tall windows on the long walls fill the hall with a cathedral-like light. There is even an authentic, working soda fountain that serves phosphates and milkshakes. It was possible to imagine what the atmosphere was like when seven of the nation’s railroads used this station.

Omaha’s Durham Museum

The greatest of these railroads was the Union Pacific, the first to cross the western continent. Beneath the great hall, the station’s lower level contains a fascinating collection of displays and artifacts from a bygone era. There are several connected Pullman cars containing sleeping compartments and a bar car with lounge seating.

Nearby is an extensive model train layout containing a town with miniature buildings and automobiles from the 1950s. Some parked in front of a tiny outdoor drive-in theater screen.

On this level we walked through the rooms of a typical, modest family home, also as it would have looked in the 1950s when Connie Francis sang on the record player and a Philco television sat in the corner.

I enjoyed the recreated interior of an early grocery store selling Jiffy piecrust mix for nine cents and a half-pint of cream for six.

Also on the lower level, we were lucky enough to take in a special photo exhibit entitled The American Soldier. From the Civil War to the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan every American conflict is represented. Men and women soldiers are depicted posed, in action, exhausted, wounded, and even dead. These are highly emotional and moving shots that testify to the struggles and sacrifices American men and women have made during the last 150 years. They are also fresh looks; we don’t remember seeing any of these shots published before. A couple showed American troops inside the Forbidden City in China dating from the time of the Boxer Rebellion.

We’d been walking and on our feet for hours by the time we returned to the motor home. It is fair to say we were tired. Back at the campground we ate a light meal and read for a couple of hours before turning in early.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Omaha – Gothenburg, NE

Today’s drive across Nebraska was not so long as yesterday’s, but I found driving on the straight-as-an-arrow interstate with its unrelieved scenery of flat, cornfield stubble and few trees to be numbing.

Lincoln’s Capitol Building

Early in the day, we drove into the city of Lincoln, Nebraska’s capital, to look at its interesting capital building whose tall art-deco tower with its domed top has been called the “penis of the prairie.”

Our destination was a KOA campground near the village of Gothenburg. Fortunately, we arrived early enough to shop for food and do other tasks made easier by the warm weather.

Gothenburg, Nebraska

About trains: We’ve come to think of America as being without a comprehensive railroad system, and that thought is accurate as it applies to passenger trains. However, as we are learning on this trip, many freight trains still operate throughout the country. We’ve seen and heard them near several of the campgrounds where we’ve stayed, but nowhere have we seen and heard more than here in Gothenburg. It seems as though this burg is train central. Earlier today, we shopped on the far side of the tracks from our campground and then couldn’t get back because a stopped freight train was blocking the only road through town. To get back to the Beast we had to make a detour of several miles to get around the long freight and across the tracks.

We both feel that a train whistle in the night is an evocative sound, one that causes us to think romantically of travel and ‘moving on down the road.’

Monday, October 22, 2012

Gothenburg, NE – Denver, CO

It’s been another long day of driving. As we left I-80 and Nebraska and turned southwest into Colorado toward Denver, the topography changed immediately. Now, rolling hills replaced the Nebraska tablelands. And yet, the land still looked brown and dead. In fact, it was even more desolate. This was cattle country, although we saw few cattle at this time of the year.


Kay had never been to Denver, and I hadn’t visited the city since the mid-1970s, so we wondered what our impressions would be. I had expected there to be more rush-hour traffic as we arrived in the late afternoon.

We chose to come to Denver to add to our string of museum visits. What we have read of both the Denver Art and the Clyfford Still Museums tempted us to make this side trip.

Denver’s Capitol

We drove past the state capital, invisible under some kind of construction covering and along East Colfax Avenue into what looked like Denver’s tenderloin, with dive bars and adult book and video stores with signs announcing they never close. It was in this district that we found the Econo Lodge Motel where earlier in the day, there being no place to camp, we had reserved a room.

The best thing about this low-end lodging was that it had few guests, so that it would be quiet and we would be able to leave our oversize vehicle in the motel’s small parking lot.

Once settled in our room, we left it and walked along the mean streets back toward the city center. I wanted to introduce Kay to the Brown Palace Hotel where I had stayed on the expense account while on a location scouting trip years before.

The Brown Palace is an anomaly among the steel and glass office towers surrounding it. It dates from a previous age when it probably hosted cattlemen.

Today, its distinctive, elegant interior makes it the place where the city’s well-to-do men and women as well as guests gather to drink and dine at the end of the business day.  Kay and I felt a bit out of place in our ordinary traveling clothes and so we chose the more casual Ship’s Tavern bar and restaurant to relax in.

It’s a mystery to us why this room with its nautical-themed décor exists so far from the sea. Nevertheless, when our Bombay martinis arrived, and we had a chance to study the menu, we quickly decided, despite the high prices, to take our evening meal there among the swells.

Last night we ate Polish Sausage and eggs in our motor home. Tonight, we dined on red snapper prepared with a Grand Marnier infused sauce and accompanied by white rice and spinach sautéed with garlic. Such are the contrasts of our life on the road.

Our walk back to the motel helped us digest our dinners. We arrived too late for the first part of the final presidential debate, but we did get to watch most of it. Our president was suburb speaking about his administration’s foreign policy achievements.