We were anxious to get to Omaha, birthplace of Gerald Ford and Malcolm X, city of Warren Buffett and his many corporations and, most importantly, home to a best friend. Traveling like this makes you appreciate all the people that are out here in this world, with their different ways of living, working and thinking. But it also makes you long for the people you know and who know you. So to have one of these people to visit while rolling through the center of the country is pretty special.
Woody and Mooch talk often, but never have time like this: time to talk for real, to laugh at their own old travel stories, to drink some beer, make bolognese sauce, and play some backyard bocce ball. They also got to see their kids all together, the older Mooch kids patiently entertaining our younger ones.
We all went to the must-see Omaha zoo, which might just be the best zoo in the world. Peacocks roam free everywhere, meerkats and coatis peek out at you in the Desert Dome, sharks and sea turtles swim above you in the aquarium, and tapirs, sloths and macaws sit still, like they are posing for pictures, in the Amazon exhibit. There were also the ever-impressive big cats, apes, and bears, who were active (or at least out) even in the heat of the day.
We stayed for three days, so we had time to sit on the back patio with their neighbors, friends and a chorus of cicadas (Omaha has hit its 17-year cicada return date, so thousands have emerged from hibernation to loudly mate, mostly in the trees but with the occasional desperate divebomber to swat away).
While the friends were catching up, and the kids were playing in awe with the toys and technology of teenagers, I took a short bike ride to Boys Town. I’d heard only briefly about this residential school model, founded here in Omaha almost a century ago by a Catholic priest to help troubled boys. Spencer Tracy played Father Flanagan in the 1938 film, alongside Mickey Rooney and others. I’ve never seen it but left with a complimentary copy of the film’s sequel, Men of Boys Town, so we plan to watch this and the original at some point (maybe when we watch the Christopher Reeves/Mackinac Island movie!).
Catholicism is ever-present in Boys Town, which looks and feels like a college campus, but I learned on my visit that it’s neither run by nor supported by the church. It operates, and quite successfully, from private individual donations. Still, the director is a priest, Sunday services are required (although for any religion) and there is a Garden of the Bible with the Ten Commandments front and center. I also learned that this campus (there are satellites around the country) serves both girls and boys. A student I met and talked with, as she slurped on a soda at a picnic table outside of her house where she lives with her “family teachers” (married couples that live on campus and host the students), told me it was harder for the girls. She couldn’t say why but was sure, as most 13-year olds are, that they got fewer “privs” so weren’t able to go off campus as much. Where would you be if you weren’t here, I asked her. Jail, she said, for stealing cars. I miss my family in Texas, she said, but I want to be here for now.
Another student I met told me he was celebrating his 5th year anniversary at Boys Town. I hated it at first, he said. There are no cell phones allowed, no dating, a lot of rules. But he described a strong community that he said is strict but also accepting of all the differences that kids bring with them. He’s headed home soon, having earned the “privs” and the money for a plane ticket by working in the visitor center. The visitor center is half gift shop, selling shirts and charms with the famous Boys Town slogan “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother”, and half museum, displaying the world’s largest ball of stamps. After the film’s release, people sent letters and donations from around the world so Father Flanagan thought to save the stamps in this way; the ball is nearly 600 lbs, started from just a golf ball. It’s huge, for a ball of stamps.
Needless to say, Boys Town fascinated me and Omaha, overall, was a wonderful place to relax with old friends.
Leaving Omaha, we decided to revise our travel plan, driving for the day across Nebraska instead of straight north into South Dakota. This new route took us on a two-lane road, 275 W, from corn fields to cattle farms, through a dozen tiny towns with Dollar Stores, John Deere equipment centers and American Legion posts. We drove past granaries and fields of hay bales, and through the Sandhills (sand dunes covered by prairie grasses), although the famous sandhill cranes had long since flown on from their spring conference. In the late afternoon sun with a blue sky and puffy white clouds, the grassy farms and hills are breathtaking.
We slept that night in Valentine, NE, population 2,600. For $5, we parked at a campsite in the town’s park (it’s called the city park but this is as far from a city as you can imagine). Our site was big and peaceful, next to a bubbling brook. We took a bike ride to see the town, which has hearts painted on its wide sandy sidewalks and on all the street signs. The town was peaceful but the night was crazy, as a powerful storm moved in and stayed with us until morning. I crawled up into Elian’s loft bed around 2am, knowing he’d be awake and afraid (G can sleep through anything), and we lay there for a long while listening to the sounds of the rain and thunder. Everything is louder and closer in the Woodebago, which seems to sway in strong winds, and these are times when I miss our solid brick home. But we comforted each other with funny scenarios, imagining an army of squirrels banging drums and pelting our tin can home with rounds of acorns.
Morning came soon enough, and now we are moving on to South Dakota, through the Badlands, the Black Hills, Mt Rushmore and to Custer State…