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Old Market, Downtown Omaha

For as unusual, and at times aggravating, as 2020 was due to the pandemic, one seemingly normal venture I’m glad I was able to experience with my wife over the summer was a road trip to Omaha – my first time venturing out to the state of Nebraska. Back in mid-March, a summer getaway of any sorts seemed uncertain. As the initial shock of the pandemic began to settle near the start of summer, a mini getaway seemed feasible.

Having heard very little about Omaha previously, I can’t say it was on my list of “must see” places. With no ambition to fly, the idea of a Midwest road trip was all the more certain. After some brain storming by my wife, Omaha became the logical option. The drive should be easy, they supposedly have a nice zoo, and the city and surrounding area would be new ground to explore. It seemed such a trip, with an itinerary consisting of outdoor activates, would make for a pandemic safe getaway.

The drive from Chicago’s southwest suburbs to Omaha took the better part of eight hours – an easy drive west along I-80. While anticipating a boring ride through Iowa’s cornfields, I enjoyed the drive. The adrenaline of just being on the road and going somewhere after being home so much in the spring helped me appreciate the start of this venture. With clear skies and the sun shining, I found the blue skies and the vast greenery landscape to be rather tranquil.

Not far into Iowa was the World’s Largest Truck Stop. Under normal conditions, that would have been a place I would have liked to have stopped at, even if just for the sake of the novelty aspect. With COVID and avoiding unnecessary indoor places, we decided against stopping.

I was looking forward to driving through both Iowa City and Des Moines, neither of which I had ever been to. We quickly drove around downtown Iowa City (looked like a nice enough college town) and stopped in downtown Des Moines to checkout Java Joe’s Coffee House, a place that first came on my radar in 2008 when MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” broadcast from there during the Iowa caucus (and have continued to broadcast from every four years since).

With Java Joe’s empty, I didn’t have much reservation about sitting near the back while eating lunch, marking the first time (and to this day, the only time) I ate indoors in any restaurant environment since mid-March. While there, I came to the realization that this visit would not live up to the expectations that I had previously imagined. Despite appreciating its ambience, the emptiness with the lingering feelings of a changed COVID world unfortunately made this visit forgettable. Perhaps it would be worth a second visit the next time “Morning Joe” broadcasts there, presumably during the 2024 Iowa caucus.

As previously mentioned on this blog, I am somewhat of a germaphobe. Even though I wasn’t overly worried about contracting COVID from a hotel room, I couldn’t help but go the extra mile by sanitizing all door handles, faucets, light switches, cabinet handles, and just about anything else that might be necessary. Being mid-week, I was relieved that the hotel appeared to be mostly empty. By Friday, the number of people in the hotel dramatically increased, which forced me to reconsider using elevators. I was uncomfortable with the thought of going into such a small confined space with anyone other than my wife, or after having just been occupied. Adding to such concerns was the fact that many guests inside the hotel were not wearing masks. On more than a few occasions, I burned a few extra calories by avoiding the elevator and instead opting for the six story flight of stairs.

The hotel was within the vicinity of Old Market, an area of downtown Omaha that featured a decent number of restaurants, coffee shops, and a variety of stores, some of which were unique (including a couple of vintage stores housing a variety of old items from the 1990s, including toys from childhood). While walking around, the vibe for some reason reminded me of downtown Scottsdale, Ariz. Though Old Market isn’t that large, it was fun enough to walk around each night, seemingly finding something different on each walk. It was also fun to scout potential restaurants (with outdoor seating) for dinner each night.

While walking around on her own, my wife found Heartland of America Park and recommended we go back together. Just on the outskirts of downtown, I understood why she took a liking to it. Nestled within a wooded campus, the park has a small lake and light-up fountain, and backs up to the Missouri River. It was a nice and quiet area with a walking path and benches. We went back there each night, and it was nice to just talk, stare at the fountain, or to simply read whichever book (or in my case, a Kindle) we brought along.

Heartland of America Park also connects to what will eventually be a river walk. While under construction at the time, I looked up the project online and the future renditions look spectacular. I expect that the completed project will complement the city well, while also planting the seed for a return visit someday after the river walk is finished. I have since followed progress of the project on Facebook and enjoy seeing occasional project updates.

While I am not much of a zoo person, I enjoyed the visit to Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium. While I would have a hard time comparing one zoo from another, I thought their aquarium was nice. Something else I noticed was the exquisite landscaping and trees, which made the grounds a nice place to walk around while enjoying on a nice day outside. Adding to my appreciation of the scenery was the Skyfari chairlift ride that takes you high above the zoo where you can see the entire grounds, in addition to the distant hills from across the Missouri River.

During the trip, one day was set aside for South Dakota, with the idea being to stop somewhere just so we can say we had been there. Originally considered was driving up to Sioux Falls, but on the morning of, neither of us felt ambitious about making the six hour round trip, so we settled for an hour and a half drive just over the border at the Adams Homestead and State Nature Preserve, a large nature park area outside North Sioux City. While a seemingly ordinary forest preserve with a few nice walking paths, it wasn’t lost on me how neat it was to be enjoying a summer hike in the state of South Dakota.

I realize that the activities described above likely seem rather ordinary. With how startling the shock of the pandemic was earlier in the year, the fact we were able to enjoy such ordinary adventures in some extraordinary new places was exactly what was needed at that time. With that said, the trip to Omaha and the the Great Plains was a success!

I would love to revisit Omaha and to experience the city while not in a pandemic. It would be nice to get a better feel for the city’s indoor restaurant and bar scene without the fear of contracting COVID and to also check out the completed river walk. I also have heard that Old Market is decorated nicely for Christmas, which would compel me to visit during the holiday season.

With Omaha an easy drive, I think it would make for a nice road trip at just about anytime of the year when due for a long weekend.

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