Adventures in Omaha, 2010

The following is a lengthy, yet witty travelogue that includes several experiences in which I nearly got killed. I had a great time in Omaha and wanted to write about it, but if you’re not into that sort of thing, I won’t fill up this front screen with my reporting. For those eager to find out how I nearly got killed, read on…

There is no joy in airport food.

That was my lunch on Thursday. An overpriced pan pizza and an overpriced soda. That’s airport food for you. A guaranteed minimal level of bland and unsatisfying, and always a risk of bacterial infection. I dodged the bacteria on this freshly-cooked bit of blandness, but was at the mercy of airport pricing schemes. They know the travelers are desperate and they stick it to them. Hard.

I mean no disrespect to the people of Milwaukee, whose airport I passed through on Thursday. They were friendly and courteous. The food, I know, is not reflective of the people or their culture. It comes from a place called Airport, and inside Airport, one is bound by different rules. Airport security is a singularly humorless experience and for some reason, the only place where one can purchase a magazine in Airport is at Hudson News.

When I arrived in Omaha, I disregarded all the Airport fare and made a beeline to the rental car counter. The lady informed me they were all out of full-size cars and would I like a mini-SUV? Without hesitation, my “yes” flew past my lips and I was the proud renter of a Toyota RAV4. Never mind that Toyota’s endured a slew of acceleration-related problems: it was a free upgrade, so it had to be good.

I got in the car at around 4PM. I had a choice: I could go straight to the hotel and check in, or I could start exploring immediately.

This is the next shot I took with my camera. It should indicate how I resolved my decision: firmly in favor of exploring.

Omaha has a reputation as a boring city. I told people, “I’m going to Omaha.” They would say, “Why?” or “That’s boring.” Since I was going to be in Omaha for a few days and I have an allergy to boredom, I wanted to see what it had to offer. Inside of ten minutes of getting into my car, I was at the Winter Quarters museum, part of the Mormon Trail’s history. I had ancestors that passed through this location on their way westward to Utah, so it had a special meaning to me.

If you like stories about overcoming hardship and facing hard situations with dignity, this museum is for you. If you’re Mormon or related to one, this museum is for you, only more so. No, I’m not going to get all preachy. I’m just going to say that the stories of human suffering and determination to live free are moving to anyone that chooses to let himself be moved by them.

Just west of the museum is the Pioneer Cemetery, where over 600 Saints were buried. It is a quiet place. The late afternoon spring winds passing through the trees made it even quieter.

But if it is quiet, it is a hopeful quiet. It is the quiet of the dead, awaiting a time when they will be reunited with all the people they love. I didn’t think so much in this cemetery as much as I felt things.

This statue made me feel the most. The subject becomes obvious when one recalls it is in a cemetery. As a parent who has lost a child, I felt the pain in the heart all over again. But I also felt the sure, strong hope I and others of my faith share. I sang two hymns as I faced the statue in an intensely personal moment.

I spent about two hours there, pretty much my first two hours in Omaha and I was already satisfying my love of history and had had a deep spiritual experience. Pretty good for a place accused of being “boring.”

So I headed south past Mormon Road and found my way to a Salvation Army thrift store. I went in because I like going to pawn shops and used record stores to get my road trip music. Every time I go into one, I find a few discs worthy of being elevated beyond the dustbin and into epic roadmusicdom. This store was no exception: I found a good South African trance CD and a CD of Tony Bennett’s greatest hits. When I went to pay for them, the manager told me, “Take ’em. We got a lot of CDs and they never go anywhere. Just take ’em.”

I popped the free Tony Bennett CD into the stereo and made my way to the hotel. I didn’t drive on the Interstate, though: I went down US75 and then out west on US6, also known as Dodge Street.

As I drove through Omaha, I was impressed with how much funky charm it had. There were national chains and big box stores, but they had not eliminated all the local heroes. There was an independent spirit running through the neighborhoods, not unlike the Greenville Avenue neighborhood in Dallas or the campus area in Austin. Tony Bennett sang about his funny valentine and I started to fall in love with the place. I kept thinking to myself that I could live here if it wasn’t for all the dang snow they get. I’m not a fan of snowfall, as some of you know… All the same, if someone put a gun to my head and said, “You better move to Omaha or I’ll kill you!” I’d gladly accept my salvation in moving to the home of the California Taco.

This was a restaurant featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.” They make a fried taco, known as the California Taco. It’s not a California taco because it has sprouts and tofu: it’s a California taco because the eatery is on California street.

It’s a formidable fried bread sandwich more than an actual taco. Inside, it’s a double fistful of meat and a very hearty meal, all in all. It’s not something that challenges the borders of haute cuisine, but that bad boy costs less than the joyless pizza I introduced this narrative with and it’s so very, very much better than anything in Airport.

Airport food is adequate at best. Like a McDonald’s hamburger, it delivers some nutrition and can fend off hunger pangs. Something better than Airport food is good. Something I’d want to eat again if in that part of the world is very good. Something I’d want to plan a trip around is excellent. Corky’s BBQ in Memphis is excellent. California Taco is very good, and I’m glad I went there. I’m also glad the bar across the street didn’t tow my car while I ate in California Taco. I sat so I’d be able to see a tow truck approaching that parking lot…

When I returned to the hotel, I visited with the Pennsylvania Academic Decathlon team. I was in Omaha to represent DemiDec at the USAD Nationals competition. Within seconds, my visit turned to cram session. I confess, I love to coach. Maine’s team materialized, as did New Jersey’s, and a good time was had by all, albeit in a studious vein. Well, semi-studious. That’s how Academic Decathlon goes. Participants revel in making up odd observations or bad jokes about the study material. It’s a sort of letdown, really, when the competition season ends, like we can’t crack wise about that topic any more. If I ran a student academic competition, I’d indefinitely postpone the final competition every year so that participants would never have to stop studying and composing unusual humor about their studies.

I went to bed around 2AM and woke up around 7. I didn’t need an alarm clock because I’m old and old people wake up whenever they need to. The rest of the DemiDec contingent had acceded to meet with me for breakfast at the 11-Worth Cafe. As the moments passed and my hunger grew, I had received no reply to my many queries. They could have been dead, for all I knew. So I had a brief memorial service in my hotel room and abandoned them to their fates.

I plunged forth into the liquid sunshine and motored downtown until I saw this inviting sight:

I had arrived, in 1959. For the briefest of moments, I felt as though my SUV had grown tail fins. I stepped out of my car and began taking pictures. It was raining rather hard, but I had to snap away because of the great feel of the place.

And I got wetter, waiting for the traffic to let up so I could cross over and see this:

And then I got inside and saw this:

The place is a heaven for fun shots on overcast days. And as I took a few more shots of the interior, my waitress, Jenna, came up – but didn’t enter my shots. She was a bit of a shutterbug, herself, and we got to talking about stuff and things.

I was already loving the place, and I hadn’t even ordered the food. The service was so great, I friended the waitress of Facebook. How about that, eh?

Airport’s got nothing on this food, I tell you! It was very good and the hash browns were very very very very very good and are about to be excellent as I think about them. Supertramp once recorded a song, “Breakfast in America,” where they asked if they could have kippers for breakfast in Texas. No, Supertramp: better you should have that first meal of the day in Omaha, and lose the kippers for the hash browns at 11-Worth.

I ate a meal so good, I wouldn’t have to eat again until lunch. I checked my watch and had about 2 hours to spend before the SuperQuiz started. So I decided to brave the elements and head on into Iowa.

Council Bluffs, Iowa is just across the Missouri from Omaha. It’s also home to another Mormon-related historical site: the Kanesville Tabernacle.

Among other things, it was the site where Brigham Young was sustained as the second Prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. There was some other history here, but that was the main event.

Yes, I was standing in the rain again, taking photos… but I really love the way the weather went along with the flow of the dress and hair in the statue.

The USAD curriculum for 2010-2011 includes Geology as part of its curriculum. In my search of sites worthy of visiting, I had come across a US Geological Survey office in Council Bluffs. After I had my Mormon fix for the day, I headed on over to the Federal Building to locate the USGS office.

The building dated from the 1950’s, but gave me no tailfin sensation. The halls included a fallout shelter, and although the place was intended as a bastion to protect American freedom from Russian nukes, I couldn’t help but describe the corridors as “Stalinist” in their architectural character.

The office was there, but the door was locked. Nuts.

I went back outside and faced a stiffer rainfall. Mindful of the sacrifices of my pioneer ancestors, I strode out into the wet with a song on my lips. When I got into my car, I did what my pioneer ancestors would have done, had they had the means available: I cranked up the heat to full blast and started to dry out.

With my RAV-4 now acting as the world’s largest blowdrier on wheels, I noticed the two CDs from the day before were running out of tunes. Thinking quickly, I pulled into the nearest Salvation Army. I struck gold and picked up four nice little plastic circles. The moody metal of Fates Warning guided me back to Omaha and the Super Quiz.

It was a great Super Quiz. For those unfamiliar with the event, it’s like Jeopardy with a shot clock. I cheered for the Texas team, as did the Pearland High School coach, who had come to Omaha to judge speeches. We were thrilled to see Seven Lakes High School take number one in the relay, in a come-from-behind finish. Fantastic stuff – and I have to confess it’s my favorite part of an Academic Decathlon competition, because of the audience participation possible.

Following the Super Quiz, I had to get some lunch for the hungered members of the DemiDec posse. We put some summer-tinged lounge music on the CD player, as the sun had come out to play, and made our way to Vietnamese Asian Restaurant on 72nd Street.

My bowl of pork was substantial and delicious:

And the guys all enjoyed their food. Vietnamese food is full of textures and flavors and when done right, is some of the most playful cuisine around. Airport can’t begin to touch Vietnamese food in terms of enjoyability. Without question, this stuff was very good.

Sadly, though, my camera batteries had died, so we had to travel on to Wal-Mart to get them and some other sundries. While there, we scoped out prices on cheesecakes and other snacks. Why?

The why behind this all is the annual DemiDec Porkless Cheesecake Party. The parties started the first time I went to Nationals, back in 2006, and have continued ever since, even though I missed a Nationals in 2008. The idea behind the event came to me as a coach when I realized I had rather a lot of money for food left over at the end of taking my team to State… so we bought several cheesecakes and plowed through them.

Ian Gillan once observed that there’s “a very fine line between an orgy of destruction and a wonderful time.” The DemiDec Porkless Cheesecake Parties get very close to that line, which is why they’re so fun.

Some of you may be wondering why there is emphasis on porklessness. We at DemiDec embrace diversity: we want people of all faiths to be able to enjoy our parties, regardless of religious dietary restrictions.

After lunch, I got to watch the rest of the DemiDec group work on an AP US History cram book. It must have been funny for an outsider to watch: four guys in suits and ties, pounding away on laptops with some hairy guy in a Hawaiian shirt doing absolutely nothing. My explanation for that is simple: I was there as a driver and a celebrity -and, yes, I am something of a celebrity in Academic Decathlon circles. I also wasn’t getting paid to work on the cram book.

Suppertime drew nigh, and I drove the lads over to King Kong Burgers.

King Kong’s food isn’t excellent, and my cheesesteak wasn’t even very good. The fries were better than the sandwich, which was nice, but even though I don’t plan to go there again, I’m glad I did. The place was covered in stuffed gorillas, which made for the most unique atmosphere I’ve ever enjoyed in a dining establishment. In the Land of Big Food that is Omaha, King Kong did not disappoint in the portion size department. It’s cool to be able to say, “I ate at King Kong,” and that’s the most of what I take from my experience there. If I went again, I’d try a burger.

We finished off the Big Food and then went out to Sam’s and Wal-Mart to load up on some Big Food we’d ply later that evening. We bought seven whole cheesecakes, two chocolate bundt cakes, two huge bags of chocolate bars, eight or nine cases of sodas (or “pop” as the people of Nebraska call it), four packages of cheap sandwich cookies, a brownie tray, and a package of pepperoni.

Yes, the cheesecake party was supposed to be porkless, but I figured I’d provide some pork for the people that wanted a little more zing with their dessert debauchery. Here’s a shot of the spread:

Several hundred hungry decathletes came by to hork sugar and caffeine. Surprisingly, the pepperoni moved as fast as the cheesecake. While the cheesecake itself remained kosher, participants gleefully wrapped the cured meat around their slices and found that the combination produced a circus in their mouths.

When we were asked to be quiet, we were quiet. When it transpired that we’d been putting our trash into a can without a receptacle, we helped clean up the mess. We moved the party to the pool and then we moved it back to the lobby. A good time was had by all and nobody was injured, unless one considers sleep deprivation to be an injury. Then we all took a big hurt. I got back to bed around 3AM.

… and I woke up around 7:30 AM. Again, being old means waking up whether I like it or not. I packed everything up and checked out in advance of the awards banquet. I then asked by DemiDec crew if they had tickets to attend the awards.

They did not.

In the four awards banquets I’ve been to, I’ve had tickets to two of them. This was the ticketless banquet number two for me. I got in some time after the flag ceremony, but just before the brunch kicked off. The DemiDec table was in the back of the hall, where we had access to floor outlets, so we could stay plugged in as we did a live webcast of the awards ceremony.

The awards webcast is at DemiDecTalk.com, if you’re interested in reading it, but most non-AcDec types won’t be into that sort of thing. It was one of the most successful webcasts, with no power or internet outages during the entire proceeding.

After the awards, we had three hours to kill before we had to be at the airport. It was a sunny day and we still had a car, so I suggested we head over to Iowa to see the Lewis and Clark Monument. They agreed, and we were off.

Council Bluffs has some difficult-to-follow signs for locating the monument, but thanks to one of the guys having a google map app on his phone, we made our way to a dead-end after he lost service.

That’s when I whipped out my map of Council Bluffs. In spite of roads like this one:

we got there in one piece.

It’s a nice little monument, with a scenic overlook of the Missouri River. It’s on the site where a conference between Lewis and Clark and some leading Indian chiefs took place – which is where the city of Council Bluffs gets the “Council” in its name. It gets the “Bluffs” from the sheer hillsides you can see in the photo, above.

Because I didn’t want to drive on the roads traversing the hillsides you can see in the photo, above, I looked at the map for another way out. Unfortunately, the map cut off right at the monument. Fortunately, our man with the google map got his reception back and found that a road did indeed leave the park and connected with a major road just to the north. We saddled up and took his advice.

I should have turned around when the pavement disappeared. I didn’t in large part because my navigator said we’d be to the main road in just another mile. We had a fun wait watching graffiti on a 200-car train going by and then, sure enough, we got to the main road after that mile.

The catch was that the main road was actually on the other side of a fence and a ditch. The road we were on ran parallel to the main road for another five miles, making it look like it was actually joining up with that road.

But we had not joined up with it and could not turn around, no matter how much we may have desired it. The road became very slick and we started to slide a few feet to the left or right. I cut my speed, but that didn’t end the sliding, although it did reduce the amount of the slides. I’d dodged our first brush with death.

The second brush with death came when a loaded dump truck barreled down the slippery road towards us. Thankfully, neither of us slipped into the path of the other and we came out of that experience alive and uninjured. While some of my passengers had napped on the way to the monument, we were all awake on the trip back.

Finally, we got to a civilized, paved road:

There really *are* a lot of Mormon-themed things in this area, aren’t there?

Well, we rolled back into Council Bluffs and checked our watches. We still had an hour to go before we needed to be at the airport. While my Californian passengers wondered if that was enough time to get back, I knew it was more than enough. We got a lunch at Runza before heading back to the airport.

Runza served good, fresh food that beats out national fast food chains for flavor. I was glad to eat there before heading back to Airport, because I wasn’t going to eat at Airport at all that day.

By the way, we were able to get gas and drive back to the Omaha airport from that eatery in just ten minutes. Omaha traffic is an oxymoron, and I’m very thankful for that.

My flight back home was nice enough, except for having to go through Denver airport… as in all the way through… And some genius decided it would be great to have lots of windows in that place, which made sitting on its west side in the late afternoon a blinding experience. Once on the plane back to Dallas, all the passengers rejoiced when we discovered we weren’t on a full flight. Everyone put his carry-on in front of the empty seat next to him and enjoyed plenty of legroom.

It was a great finish to a fun weekend, but the real winner was Omaha. I missed seeing the zoo and the birthplace of Malcolm X, so if I had the chance to go back, I would not say “why?” or “boring.” I’d pack my bag and call in a reservation at the 11-Worth for another breakfast.

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