We started this trip with a Southwest Airlines flight to visit family in the San Francisco Bay area with the hopes of taking an adventure to Asia. On earlier Space-A trips to Asia, just getting to the West Coast was our biggest obstacle, so we had our eyes on a potential trip to the Orient.
Possible Space-A flights from nearby Travis AFB were irresistible, so we headed there with high hopes. Over the years, we have been rewarded numerous times with fascinating flights to exotic destinations – but not this time. While there were many flights to Asia, no seats were offered. Perhaps this was “meant to be” as we saw the news report terrible rain and flooding in Japan from a cyclone where our flights might have taken us.
Nonetheless, on the trip we did take, we were able to “Travel on less per day….the Military way™” by staying in Air Force lodging at five Air Force Inns.
After spending five comfortable nights at the Westwind Inn (Travis AFB) but with no flight possibilities to Asia, we devised a “Plan B” and thankfully, our Plan B often becomes Plan A++!
Carole (born in Australia) has seen much of the USA but never explored America’s Heartland (the Midwest). So, we took Southwest Airlines to Kansas City, picked up a rental car for a month, and off we went. Under clear skies and with crisp Fall weather, we left Kansas City (having been there before) and drove north, leaving Missouri, passing through Iowa, into Nebraska. Offutt Air Force Base (just south of the city of Omaha) provided us wonderful lodging for our visit to the Omaha area, the home of billionaire Warren Buffett, birthplace of President Ford and headquarters of several large American companies (Berkshire Hathaway, TD Ameritrade, ConAgra).
IOWA – COUNCIL BLUFFS
We started our exploration of the area at Council Bluffs, just over the Missouri River, which divides Nebraska and Iowa. In 1804, CB was one of Lewis and Clark’s stops as they made their famous exploration of the USA’s newly acquired Louisiana Purchase. Here, on a high bluff over the Missouri River, they first met and had a “council” with the local Indians, hence the name of the city. The beautiful and well-maintained Veterans’ Plaza in Council Bluffs includes numerous monuments to the fallen war heroes of the area.
NEBRASKA – OMAHA
Omaha is home to Boys Town, made famous in a 1938 Hollywood movie with Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney. We were most impressed with this vast complex (larger than many university campuses) with its churches, sports facilities, classroom and medical buildings, etc. Its founder, Father Flanagan, probably never dreamed this would become what it now is.
On a sunny Sunday morning we “looked just around the corner” and found Omaha’s Old Market, a multi-block cobblestone area full of eclectic bars, shops, galleries and eateries where we enjoyed a delicious lunch. Equally impressive was Omaha’s magnificent “Art Deco” style Joslyn Art Museum, a gem full of priceless paintings and sculptures. In fact, the entire city of Omaha was most impressive.
SIOUXLAND (THE DAKOTAS) – North & South
We continued our “expedition” northwards over the Great Plains. This gave us a feel for the vastness of the Midwest – endless flat prairies covered, for hundreds of miles, with corn and sunflower fields, cattle grazing, grain silos of every shape and size, and the occasional rolling hills. Populating the towns en route, were warm, welcoming, solid, good people who work hard to feed this country.
We had traveled to the west of this state before and explored Mt. Rushmore, but this time we were in the east, staying in Sioux Falls, a vibrant city which is South Dakota’s largest. On a summer day, we explored the magnificent Falls Park, watching raging water dashing over pink quartzite rocks in the Big Sioux River. No American tourists were here, so we enjoyed lunch with a delightful couple from Wales, UK.
In town, a dilapidated area on the river had been turned into an urban Greenway (for cyclists and walkers), lined with old warehouses that are now trendy lofts. At dusk, we meandered past 55 original sculptures in the city’s main street. Marvin had a burger at his favorite place (Fuddruckers), while Carole found a Top Chef winner’s gorgeous French patisserie and savored French macaroons. Who knew there was such sophistication and culture here?
This was our first time in this state which borders Canada. Fargo was our destination, a quirky city made famous in the 1996 movie of the same name and a 2014 TV mini-series. If you want “North of Normal (a refreshing break from the ordinary)” in a “Town for Misfits” as the local Convention and Visitors Bureau says, this is the place! We were not disappointed. Fargo has numerous galleries, top-notch restaurants, cultural events and looks like a Hollywood movie set. It is definitely a “city different” with many unconventional people and its mix of academics and students from the three universities located here.
A couple of local museums were of interest – the small, but well done, Fargo Air Museum, and the city’s equally small Plains Art Museum. However, the most amazing place was the country’s largest sporting goods/hunting gear shop which had an indoor Ferris Wheel and lots of enormous stuffed animals. The place was packed with shoppers!
A trip across the Red River to Fargo’s “twin city” of Moorhead (Minnesota) took us to Viking Ship Park, which housed magnificent replicas of a Norwegian stave church and a Viking ship which actually sailed from the USA to Norway in 1982. We spent hours here.
Concluding our visit to the area, we attended a wonderful performance by the Heritage Blues Orchestra, a Grammy-nominated group which focused on alternative New Orleans style music. Lots of cultural offerings out on the Plains!
MINNESOTA: MINNEAPOLIS- SAINT PAUL (THE TWIN CITIES)
Our next stop (Minneapolis) gave us great, economical military lodging at the Minneapolis ANG Base Air Force Inn (adjacent to MSP Airport) and close to public transport. Again, we “Traveled on less per day….the Military way!™”
Since we just visited the world’s largest sporting goods store in Fargo, it was appropriate for us to make our first stop in Minneapolis at the Mall of America, “Mother of all Malls” (the world’s largest). Huge, massive, awesome, and exciting: half a dozen scream-worthy roller coasters and zip line thrills in an indoor theme park, 520 shops and 60 restaurants (and ever expanding) while attracting 40 million visitors annually! We spent an entire day in this amazing mall.
But there was much more to this metropolis of some three million: world-class theater, art museums galore, ethnic restaurants, multi-cultural community, elegant parks and gardens, and impressive architecture of cutting-edge modern and classical. Leaving our car behind, we bought all-day passes on the Twin Cities’ new and efficient light rail system from Ft. Snelling station just outside the ANG Base, allowing us a “hop on-hop off” experience at stops of interest.
So many things to see! From the Minnesota Vikings’ billion dollar stadium (under construction) to the recently restored Union Depot Station in Saint Paul; from a colorful and exotic Hmongtown Farmers’ Market to the sprawling campus of the University of Minnesota. Here, among buildings straddling the Mississippi River (which divides the Twin Cities), we visited the striking Frank Gehry designed Weisman Art Museum. And, all over town, were thousands of sports mad supporters, proudly wearing the colors of the University of Minnesota “Gopher” apparel on this sunny football game day.
We could have spent all day at the Minneapolis Institute of Art but only stopped long enough to admire the unusual outdoor sculptures. Similarly, at the American Swedish Institute, we saw the exterior of this impressive 1908 “castle” and the tiny Swedish country cottage on the grounds.
While the modern monolithic Walker Art Center was appealing, we chose to stroll through its vast sculpture garden and indoor conservatory, with its Frank Gehry vertical fish sculpture, complete with overlapping glass fish “scale” panels (the trademark on many of his buildings) in a verdant setting. Carole’s favorite, though, was the Mill City Museum, built over and around the ruins of what was once the world’s largest flour mill. In fact, Minneapolis was home to so many flour mills it was called “Mill City”.
From the top deck of the former Gold Medal Flour Mill, we marveled at the spectacular panoramic view over the city, Stone Bridge and St. Anthony Falls on the Mississippi River. And, next door, was the stark, black, ultra-modern Guthrie Theater, one of the nation’s finest, where To Kill a Mockingbird was currently playing.
The huge city of Minneapolis has done a fine job capturing all the lakes, parks, gardens and waterfalls in an extensive, well-preserved network of green spaces to be enjoyed by all. We loved Minnehaha Falls (close to the ANG Base) which inspired Henry Longfellow’s 1855 epic poem, The Song of Hiawatha. We meandered through many beautiful leafy neighborhoods.
Minneapolis remains high on our “must return to” list – but not in February when the city is covered in snow and ice and temperatures plummet below zero! We were fortunate that our visit came in beautiful Summer/Fall weather.
Rochester is best known for its world-famous Mayo Clinic, Minnesota’s second largest employer, with some 36,000 employees, treating about 500,000 patients from all over the world annually. We toured Mayo Clinic’s enormous, impressive facilities where multiple buildings are connected by a vast network of subways and skyways, designed to protect pedestrians from harsh Rochester winters. Indeed, Mayo has treated kings, presidents and movie stars. It dominates Rochester, so much so that locals assumed we were here for medical not tourism reasons!
Further exploring Rochester, we strolled along the attractive walkways on the banks of the River Zumbro. Indeed, Rochester is quite an attractive city – in summer, that is. Our Minnesota visit proved to be a most enjoyable, insightful and fascinating one.
Leaving Minnesota, we headed south through eastern Iowa, passing more endless cornfields and silos; our last stop in that state being Davenport, one of the Quad Cities which straddles the Mississippi River. The others were Bettendorf, Moline and Rock Island. On a summer afternoon, we strolled the river walk there, taking in the offbeat Fall Gay Festival and admiring this attractive city where the Mississippi flows east to west.
ILLINOIS – LAND OF LINCOLN, SPRINGFIELD
Just as Rochester was “all things Mayo”, Springfield was “all things Lincoln.” Crossing the Mississippi again, we drove to Springfield, the state capital. Our focus was President Abraham Lincoln – everything about “Honest Abe.” Here, Lincoln (who was actually born in Kentucky) spent most of his adult life.
The highlight of our stay was the magnificent Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum. Opened in 2005, it featured fascinating state-of-the-art, high-tech displays which vividly brought every aspect of Lincoln to life. Even the blood-stained gloves he wore the night he was shot at Ford’s Theater took our breath away. While we have seen many Presidential Libraries, this was the most moving and best, well justifying our Springfield visit.
In the tiny village of New Salem, which is where Lincoln lived and worked as a young man. We went to Lincoln’s Springfield family home, his law office, the Illinois Old Capitol and the final resting place of Lincoln and his family which was a huge, obelisk-topped tomb. This completed our wonderful Lincoln experience.
From the Land of Lincoln to the Land Between The Lakes! For years, Marvin had heard marvelous things about the seldom traveled corner of southwest Kentucky. We were so glad that we could enjoy this pristine, beautiful part of America. In early October, we had it all to ourselves with green, yellow, orange and brown autumn leaves reflecting on the many peaceful man-made lakes.
In The Land Between The Lakes (a National Recreation Area), there is water everywhere with dams and locks on major waterways (the Mississippi, Ohio, Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers) whose banks form the natural borders of the converging states of Tennessee, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri. We drove over little bridges, walked the river banks, marveled at spectacular sunsets and drank coffee at quiet marinas. Adding to our enjoyment were the warm, welcoming Kentucky folk. And, like any tourist area, it had its “kitsch” at Patti’s 1880’s Settlement with its endless gaudy souvenirs, tempting “mile high meringue pies”, and lovingly manicured colorful gardens. How delightful!
Paducah – what a gem, with its located at the confluence of the Ohio and Tennessee Rivers! While this was once the largest commercial center on America’s river systems, now it is a charming United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Creative City of 25,000 inhabitants. Its riverfront continues to overlook the busy waterway of the Ohio River, with dozens of barges on the move 24/7. Having been flooded many times over history, Paducah has erected extensive protective flood walls which are covered (on the city side) with colorful and informative murals (called “Wall to Wall”), telling the history of the city.
The Lower Town Arts District has been restored and filled with cobblestone streets, creative galleries and boutiques, and world-class restaurants which we spent hours exploring. Our discoveries were made even more pleasurable by friendly locals.
For a small city, Paducah has fascinating museums, not the least of which was an unusual Moonshine Museum where our guide filled us in on the history of this in the area. Even Al Capone was here, and at his adjacent family-owned distillery, we sampled various kinds of “the drop.” In the River Discovery Center (an antebellum 1843 building), we followed Paducah’s important maritime legacy and lore.
Kentucky is renowned for its quilting and craft industries, particularly in Appalachia, but Paducah has The National Quilt Museum. Carole often thought of quilts as somewhat dull and only good for bed covers. Not here – what we saw were exquisite, dazzling, colorful works of art by skilled, creative and patient quilters from around the world. This was the “Jewel in the Crown” of our Paducah stay.
MISSOURI – FRENCH TOWNS
Just as Florida was once part of Spain and Alaska was once Russian, this part of America was once part of France. In fact, French explorers, trappers and settlers were here in the 17th Century. Carole wanted to find what remained of those “footprints”.
Leaving Kentucky, we crossed the Mississippi River twice, into Illinois at Cairo and into Missouri at Cape Girardeau. And, just as we had seen fascinating and informative flood wall murals in Paducah, it seemed every town on the rivers also had this attractive and essential feature.
The footprints of explorers Lewis and Clark are also all over this region’s many river towns (similar to “George Washington slept here”). Cape Girardeau (locally called “Cape”), founded in 1733, proudly boasts of being hometown to nationally-known conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. One can even do a “Rush Limbaugh Driving Tour” around town, like one can see the “Homes of the Stars” in Hollywood!
Cape is a scenic and beautiful area. Having driven to the top of the bluff where Lewis and Clark visited, as well as it being the site of the original 1733 French settlement, we were thrilled when, less than 100 yards from where we stood, a huge, 24 barge “flotilla”, tied together, was nudged up the Mississippi River by a powerful tug.
Another town of French origin which we visited was tiny Sainte Genevieve whose prominent feature was an enormous and quite magnificent Catholic church and whose history goes back to the 1600’s. French names adorned shops (e.g., La Belle Femme Boutique) and street signs there.
As with smaller “French towns” in Missouri, Saint Louis traces its French roots to 1764 when it was named after French King Louis IX (Saint Louis). In the original parts of the city, on the “Creole Colonial Corridor”, street signs designate their original French names (e.g., Rue du Marche/Market Street). Scott AFB provided comfortable and economical Air Force Inn lodging for our stay there, enabling us to “Travel less per day…the military way™.”
We started our exploration at the 630 ft. high Arch (also known as The Gateway Arch/Gateway to the West/Jefferson National Expansion Memorial). This 50 year old elegant, but simple, triumph of architecture and engineering, is a stainless steel structure which we found to be a wonder.
Inside the Arch, a tram with tiny cars took us to the top where we looked through small windows at the mighty Mississippi River to the east and the sprawling metropolis of Saint Louis to the west. An excellent National Parks Service film dramatically told the story of the design and construction of this amazing monument.
There is plenty to see and do in this city full of history, lore and legacy. We drove through huge Forest Park, taking in a 1904 World’s Fair Pavilion, which is all that remains from that enormous exposition marking the centenary of the Louisiana Purchase from France. We also enjoyed touring the Saint Louis Art Museum and the Missouri History Museum. Nearby, we marveled at the campus of prestigious Washington University and its massive Medical School Hospital complex, enjoying a delicious deli lunch in the neighborhood.
In the multi-cultural South Grand neighborhood which, unfortunately, saw spillover destruction from “opportunists” after the Ferguson riots, we had a wonderful Moroccan lunch, where Carole conversed with the owner in French.
CHURCHILL, CAPITAL CITY ET AL
Leaving Saint Louis behind, we headed west and came across the unexpected – the small town of Fulton. Here, in 1946, at tiny Westminster College, Winston Churchill gave his famous “Iron Curtain” speech where he warned of the spreading dangers of the Soviet Union. It seems his foresight was accurate and, unfortunately, history is now repeating itself. Westminster College is the site of the National Churchill Museum which well chronicles the life of this extraordinary world leader.
Continuing, we visited Jefferson City, Missouri’s state capital, and toured the impressive and ornate Capitol complex. There, under the dome, was an excellent display at the Missouri State Museum. Rand McNally, the map company, has awarded “Jefferson City” the title of “America’s Most Beautiful Small Town.” And, of course, Lewis and Clark were here, on the banks of the Missouri River, too!
For our final night in Missouri and on this trip, we“Traveled on less per day…the military way™” by staying at the Air Force Inn on Whiteman AFB (in rural Missouri, outside Kansas City). This positioned us for our Southwest Airlines flight home to Jacksonville. Whiteman AFB is the home of America’s most technologically advanced bomber aircraft – the B-2 Stealth.
THE TRIP HOME
Up at 5:30 AM, two hours’ drive to Kansas City Airport, long layovers, two flights – by 11 PM, we were home! As we laid our weary heads to rest on our own pillows, we glowed in the memory of one of our best Great Adventures. Like many, when this started, we never dreamed that we would be touring the Midwest, but we are very happy we did so!
Our five weeks away from home included a family visit to California and an unsuccessful Space-A attempt, a month’s rental car travel and almost 3,500 miles of driving.
This was certainly a Voyage of Discovery. Much of it taken by happenstance in the footsteps of explorers Lewis and Clark. Our trip took us from hot September days to crisp, cool October days; from the cornfields of Iowa, Nebraska, the Dakotas and Minnesota to Kentucky’s lakes. Our trip went from an initial disappointment of no military flights to Asia after a warm family California visit, to the marvels of the amazing U.S. Midwest. Indeed, this was Carole’s first time in four of America’s Heartland states.
We found the Midwest to be full of man-made wonders and Mother Nature’s beauty, gorgeous poetry- inspiring waterfalls, pristine forests, rural farms and silos on endless prairie cornfields, rolling hills, and mighty rivers. But, best of all, we met solid, good, friendly and well educated people who made us feel welcome in their small towns and “mega” cities.
For Marvin, the highlight was the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum…an absolute jewel! For Carole, it was the overall joy of “looking just around the corner” and finding rewarding satisfaction.
While we started with our eyes on a Space-A trip to Asia, we ended up with the reward of the magnificent Midwest. Flexibility is always the key to an enjoyable Great Adventure and the wonderful benefit of Space-A lodging at five Air Force Inns, which contributed to this pleasure. If any R&R Travel News® readers would like to see our slide show of this trip, please feel free to email us.
Col Marv Feldman, USAF (Ret)
and Carole Feldman
Reprint from March–April 2016 • Volume 46, No. 2