From time to time, frequently on a spur-of-the-moment, Mrs. Crucis and I will take off on a trip. Our plans are usually vague…”Let’s go somewhere,” and we’ll pick a direction and go. A couple of years ago, during Thanksgiving, we went south to visit the Pea Ridge Civil War battlefield and Ft Smith, AR and it’s Territorial Court.
This time, we went north. Our daughter and her family went to the Omaha Zoo a few years ago and suggested it as an attraction to visit. However, my observations about this trip are not about the Zoo, although it was expensive—$14 admission (Senior) and the cost of refreshments ($3.25 for a small, 8oz. cup of Iced Tea.)
Our route took us through northwestern Missouri, southwestern and central Iowa, and eastern Nebraska…Omaha and its immediate surroundings. We drove to Omaha on I-29. That Interstate had been flooded out a couple of years ago when the Missouri River overflowed its banks.
Along the way in Missouri, near the Iowa border at an exit pointing to Corning, MO, Mrs. Crucis spotted an old brick church and wanted a photo. The church was in the remnants of a small town. No, a cluster of homes…former homes along a railroad. There was an old abandoned brick depot, a dozen or more houses, and a Lutheran Church. We parked to take photos of the church. The main building, according to the date over the front door, had been built in 1893. The photo below was found on the internet showing the church during the flood.
Most of the homes, with a couple of exceptions, were abandoned. Every building, including the church, had water-marks 3-4′ up the sides of the buildings—a souvenir from the Missouri River flood a couple of years ago. The main portion of the church was closed, the windows boarded but it was still being used. An extension, around the left cornerof the church in the photo above had been repaired and cleaned up.
The remaining houses in that small town were empty and heavily damaged from the flood. When we entered the town, we noticed a dozen or more small travel trailers, RVs and a small motorhome parked in a circle. In the middle of that circle was a collection of people sitting in lawn chairs surrounding a number of BBQ grills. A couple of kids were playing while the adults talked. We passed them again as we left town and it occurred to me those people were the residents—survivors of the flood. The flood may have ruined their homes, their small town, but it hadn’t ruined them. They were staying regardless. It was their home town.
We passed into Iowa and immediately ran into construction zones. The summer highway maintenance season was in full swing. The condition of I-29 through that stretch badly needed maintenance. I don’t know if it was due to wear ‘n tear or from flood damage, but the condition of the unrepaired portions of that Interstate needed work.
We arrived in Omaha in the middle of the afternoon, checked into a hotel near the Zoo, and still had time to visit the Durham Museum in the old Omaha Union Station. I don’t know how they did it…the Museum and the old Union Station was air conditioned and with 100% humidity! Before we left, I was drenched in sweat. My shirt was wet, my jeans were damp from sweat, I could almost imagine my feet squishing in my shoes!
The museum was in the lower level along with a small railroad exhibit—a steam engine, caboose, several vintage railroad cars—club car, Pullman, compartments and a meeting room with a large vintage conference table. It was a nice museum and appeared to be well funded. The names of contributors were plastered on every exhibit.
After the museum, Mrs. Crucis wanted to find a pharmacy, a Walmart, or a Target, to buy some items we’d forgotten to bring—like sun block for our Zoo visit. Here is where the observations begin.
Omaha and the surroundings we visited appear to be time-locked from the 1970s. We drove through a significant portion of Omaha and the downtown area. The last time I had visited Omaha was in the early 1980s when I was a field computer engineer. I had a number of clients in Omaha and made repair trips from KC to Omaha several times a month. Little had changed from my last visit to today. Oh, the Interstates had a few updated interchanges, a loop, I-480 ran up through the center of Omaha to the downtown area. But we saw few new buildings. The Interstates were bordered by sound and sight barriers and trees. It was difficult to observe anything beyond the right-of-way of the highway.
I supposed it would be more accurate to report what we DID NOT see rather than what we saw! We did not see any new homes. The ones we saw were four to five decades old. We did not see any grocery stores. I know there had to be some. People can’t survive without them. We didn’t see any and we spent as much time driving off the Interstate highways as we did on them. No Price Chopper, no Hy-Vee, no IGA or other brand-name grocery stores. We saw no Walmarts, no Target stores. I can’t imagine a city that size of Ohama without them but we didn’t see any. We saw no pharmacies, no Walgreens, no CVS.We’ve traveled through many states and never before have we been in a city that didn’t have a Walgreens/CVS on every third corner.
We finally had to take I-80 back to the Council Bluffs, Iowa to find a place to buy some sun block. Omaha appeared to be a city frozen in time. The highways were crumbling, the surface actually breaking up in some locations, even on the Interstate highways. The off-interstate roads were narrow and frequently blocked by empty city vehicles that were parked randomly in the middle of streets. Some of the streets were paved using bricks…very old bricks, not the trendy ones we see from time to time. These brick streets were fifty years old or more.
We spent the next day at the Zoo. We had driven by on our arrival and found the large parking lots full. This time we arrived at opening time and was able to find a parking spot a couple of hundred yards from the entrance. It was a very nice Zoo, well kept, clean, well maintained exhibits, especially the Cat House, the Aquarium and the Butterfly House. This was the first zoo I’ve visited that had an entire exhibit of free-flying butterflies. Entrance to the butterfly area was through an air lock arrangement. When you left the free flight area, you exited via another similar arrangement and you were examined to see if you unknowingly carried any butterflies with you.
Mrs. Crucis and I wanted to find a nice restaurant for dinner after the zoo. We did not take a laptop with us, relying on our android phones and tablets instead. Our hotel contained a steel frame that blocked GPS signals. We quickly discovered that Google’s search functions fail without GPS access. We tried to do searches for restaurants. Google locked up. I turned GPS off hoping Google would use IP location instead. Nope.
The hotel had a small small listing of eateries. Most were small, very small Mom ‘n Pop cafes. We picked one that turned out to be waaay out in the boonies. It was called, “The Roadhouse.” It was a nice, family-owned place—not a steak-house, nor a franchise operation. It too, appeared to be locked into the 1970s. We ate in the Cornhusker Room. The food was good, acceptable but it was no Applebees, nor Longhorn Steakhouse.
We left Omaha on Monday and returned home via I-80 to Des Moines and from there, I-35 back to KC. Iowa was dramatically different from Nebraska and from Missouri, for that matter. We didn’t notice until we were outside Council Bluffs heading east on I-80. Iowa must have banned roadside billboards. There was nothing to indicate what services were coming until the small sign next to the exits flashed by.
We wanted to stretch out legs, hurting after walking over ten miles the day before through the zoo. We missed several spots, gas stations, truck stops because there were no signs indicating their presence—until you were at the exit. By the time you’d read the small collection of logos on the sign, you were past the exit! The clear view of the country side was great. But when you want to find a clean restroom? Not so great.
I-80 had its sections under repair. In Missouri, the surface of the interstates, most highways in fact, are uniform. In Iowa, they are not. The highway surface in some areas produced road noise so loud we couldn’t hear the radio. Suddenly, we would reach a different section of pavement and the road noise disappeared as if by a snap of our fingers. A mile or so further, the quiet section of pavement disappeared and the high road noise returned.
Google must hate Iowa, Des Moines in particular. Do you know you can’t find the Iowa state capitol building using Google? We had heard that the Iowa Capitol had a golden dome. We planned to stop and visit the Capitol if it was open. I entered “Iowa State Capitol Building” into Google Maps. Nothing found. It did find “Iowa Capitol Tours.” I changed the search text slightly and it found the Iowa Commission for Social Services.
By this time we had reached the downtown area of Des Moines. We thought we’d see some signs pointing to the Capitol building but we didn’t see any. We parked in front of an older building that may have contained city or county offices. I used the time to expand the Google Map of Des Moines to see if the Capitol was shown. Nothing found. After driving around downtown, we decided to leave and head home. As I was on the ramp back onto the Interstate north of the downtown area, I spied the gold dome of the Capitol in my rear view mirror. Sigh. It was well after noon and we decided to continue home.
Another feature of Iowa appears to be their support for Mom ‘n Pop restaurants and businesses. We rarely, if ever, saw any fast-food places along the Interstates of Iowa. We did find some nice, family operations. We stopped for a late lunch off I-35 in southern Iowa. The local eatery was in a beat-up looking bulding. Inside was a bar and a restaurant is a side room. The prices on the menu were very reasonable. I ordered a chicken-fried steak, Mrs. Crucis ordered fried cod. Both items were well cooked and presented. My mashed potatoes were hand peeled and mashed, with home-made chicken-fried steak, not some factory produced product.
I like small family operations. I call them local greasy spoons—not a condescending label but a mark of quality, home cooking. When I was traveling, long ago as a field engineer, I had a long list of small, family-owned and operated eateries. I didn’t and still don’t patronize fast food joints. The best places are still those small places well off the interstate off-ramps.
In summary, from a casual observation, Missouri is decades ahead of Nebraska and Iowa. Iowa is trying to catch up. Nebraska has not realized there is competition between states for people and industry. Missouri roads are excellent compared to those in Nebraska and Iowa. Missouri has new homes, many built in the last decade. We saw none in Nebraska. The only new construction we saw in Iowa was apartment buildings around Des Moines.
In Missouri you can see new(ish) homes all along our highways. Not so in Nebraska nor Iowa. Most of the roadside farm homes appear to have been built sixty to seventy years ago. I do grant that many of those older farm homes in Iowa are well cared for and maintained. But I don’t remember seeing a single new farm home, as in built in the last three decades, in all of Iowa.
Nebraska had a sense of…ennui. We saw few people in the down town area, but it was on a holiday weekend. There were few cars on the streets in Omaha. The common language I heard during our time there was Spanish. I suppose the word I’m looking for,but am reluctant to use to describe Omaha, is…despair.
Iowa is faring better. There is a sense of industry in the state that is lacking in Nebraska. Still, Iowa is a decade or more behind Missouri. As much as there is that we need to fix in our state and in our state government, we only need to look closely to Nebraska and Iowa to realize how worse we could be.