Ruffled Feathers and Spilled Milk

Farming with ducks and dairy goats, chickens and children.

Happy Birthday, America. In The Middle.

Posted on | July 11, 2016 | 2 Comments

We woke up in Dubuque, Iowa and hit the Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium for the day.

The museum was good for a brief explanation of Indian tribes that lived in the area, the first explorers and settlers that arrived, and the Mississippi River’s animal life and ecosystem.  There’s a steamboat to tour and an outdoor nature walk.  But for us, the best part was the animals.  The eagles and hawk were being fed when we arrived and they put on quite a show with lots of excited activity and raucous calls.  We’ve seen raptors plenty of times but never heard the range of vocalizations that we heard that day as their handler prepared their food.

The otters were swimming, diving, and kanoodling.

There was an octopus that likes to rise to top of the tank and splash visitors.

And one of the guides was insistent we stay to see the paddlefish feeding.   Which was odd because the paddlefish didn’t look like much….

until the food arrived and their mouths fell open.  Wide, freaky, open.

After the museum we had our first long drive in the car.  It was 5 hours to our next stop in Omaha, Nebraska which would put us almost in the middle of the country.  It was a long 5 hours and there was nothing to see until the first of the windmills appeared on the horizon.

We would become accustomed to these monstrosities as we headed west but the first few were shocking to see. Their size is tremendous.  After the trip I checked out a documentary called Windfall and learned that the windmills are 40 stories high with 130′ blades that weigh 7 tons and spin at 130 miles per hour.  They are so sleek and so jarring in the landscape that they seem like alien lifeforms and they increased in number and frequency as we headed west.

We made a stop in Boys Town , which no one in my family except me had ever heard of.

I checked out the movie with Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney before the trip but we never got a chance to watch it.  So the kids were mystified as to why I wanted to stop at an orphanage in the middle of nowhere.  But since we were driving through town we stopped, checked out the small visitors center, and did the audio tour in our car.   The grounds, buildings, and neighborhood homes were lovely.  The story of Father Flanagan was inspirational and even the work done by the institution with children and families today is impressive.  But it was also very, very quiet.  With lots of cops.  Police car after police car cruised through the empty streets (The town has its own police, fire, and post office).  We didn’t see a single child until we were leaving and then it was 2 boys who skateboarded by slowly on the sidewalk, staring at us.  We were mystified.  It was early evening on a summer day.  School must be out, dinner over, where were the kids?  The families?  Instructors?  Anyone??  The kids thought it was creepy and I agreed that it all seemed a little Stepford-ish.  But no one in my family had never heard of The Stepford Wives. Apparently in addition to more traveling, my family needs a little more popular culture.

The best part of Omaha, though, was Jack & Mary’s Restaurant.  We kept to our vow of not eating fast food and for the entire trip we either ate sandwiches out of the cooler in the car or heated up prepacked microwave meals in the hotel room when we were on the road.  That way, we had money to eat at local restaurants or try regional foods when we were in town.  So we settled in at Jack &  Mary’s to try the “best onion rings in Omaha.”  And they were great onion rings!  But we really enjoyed the operating hours sign on the door.  Living in a small town, we were very familiar with finding our local stores and restaurants closed during what seemed like normal business hours.  We’ve seen storefronts locked even when the sign says they are supposed to be open and we’ve seen plenty of stores with a note stuck to the door saying the owner will be right back.  Jack & Mary’s made no bones about the often random hours of local businesses in small towns.  Right on the front door it stated that they were open “Monday -Thursday 11am- close.”  Because they close when they’re closed. And that’s all you need to know.

We slept in Kearney, Nebraska and went to the Great Platte River Road Archway Monument first thing in the morning.

This area of Nebraska is known as the stopping point for Sandhill Cranes during their spring migration in March and April.  We were there, though, to visit the Archway museum which commemorates the convergence of the Oregon Trail, Mormon Trail, and California Trail near Fort Kearny.  The museum is great for families—when you enter you’re given a set of headphones to wear and pointed up the escalator to the beginning of the trail.

Once inside, the headphones pick up the dialogue for the room and change as visitors move along markers on the path.  It follows the push of settlers (for land, gold, or religion) out west and explains the journey in their own words—collected from journals and diaries.  Everyone could move along at their own pace, taking in as much as the exhibit as they wanted before moving on or doubling back and the headphones would adjust automatically (magic!).  The exhibits were life-size with great sound effects and background screen that could reflect sunrise or a starry night or the lightning flashes of storms.  It was a great introduction to the westward migration and throughout our trip we would cross a lot of the areas we learned about at the Archway.

Even better, it discussed the transition of the trail as the stagecoaches, then the Pony Express, then the telegraph, then the railroad changed the way America connected to the west coast.  It even covered how the trail became the Lincoln Highway, linking Americans to the newly created national parks….

and eventually becoming Interstate 80 which was what we traveled through most of the state.  The Archway actually runs over the highway and has a viewpoint where you can see Americans traveling the same path that was traveled for a hundred years before them, just a whole lot faster!

After we left the museum, we hit Broken Bow, Nebraska and got on the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway (via Rte 2).  There’s a free tiny visitor center which had some maps as well as a history of cattle ranching and wildlife in the area.  Out back was a windmill that drew up fresh drinking water which we were invited to use.  The landscape was dotted with these small windmills providing water for livestock so for inquiring minds (like Big) it was great to see up close and examine the working parts and their functions.   For others (like me) it was cool, fresh water that came up from the ground without having to use a hand pump.

The Sandhills are the largest grass covered sand dunes in the Western Hemisphere and cover the nation’s largest underground water supply.  When we got out at the visitor center all we could hear was the swishing of the grass in the wind and the profuse twitter of birdsong throughout the brush.  For the 68 miles of the byway that we traveled, this is what we saw:

And, for the first time, I understood, I mean, really understood the size of America.  Where fields and hills can roll along with nothing but grass and birds all the way to the horizon.  The middle is a big, big place.

The last stop in Nebraska was Fort Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge. We didn’t get to see any of the bison or elk herds but we did discover our first prairie dog town.

There was a great easy 30 minute hike down to Fort Falls and returning along the river banks, although we did pick up our first out-of-state ticks as free souvenirs.  Which reminded why I hated free souvenirs.

We gave the resident horses some nose scratches….

and headed for South Dakota.  We knew we were close because the landscape was changing.  The plains were giving way and something big and bad was just up ahead….. (to be continued)


2 Responses to “Happy Birthday, America. In The Middle.”

  1. Charade
    July 11th, 2016 @ 8:18 pm

    I’m loving your commentary on your family road trip. Can’t wait for the next installment. I don’t know how you find the energy to write about it after so many miles of travel, but I’m glad you have.

  2. farmmom
    July 12th, 2016 @ 7:13 am

    I loved your descriptions of Nebraska. I went to school there and fell in love with the plains states. Looking forward to more exciting stories of your trip.

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