The Corn Husker State, aptly named, eluded me for too long. Having visited all of its neighbors (Kansas, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Iowa, and Missouri), it takes a freakishly unusual traveler to circle a state, yet never pass through it. A number of other states fell into this “missed” category (North Dakota, Rhode Island, Oregon, West Virginia) so I developed a plan: Project Fifty. In theory, an effectively executed plan would ensure I visit all fifty states before my fiftieth birthday. Phase one of the plan began with Nebraska, but what do tourists do in the Great Plains state along the Missouri River?
A smidgeon of research highlights the must-sees of Omaha, starting with the zoo. Justin Bieber played a concert the night I arrived. By less than a week I missed the College World Series. Gambling riverboats line up along the banks of the Muddy Mo like the paddleboats of a century ago that sailed the agriculture southward. I skipped all of them (sorry, Beebs), and I didn’t even partake of a steak dinner. From the scenery I saw between the airport and the hotel, Omaha appeared to be a lovely city, but I missed the vast majority of it.
Downtown Omaha mixes century-old history with shiny new office buildings and converted lofts. Multiple blocks of quaint shops and assorted cafes bring a small-town ambiance to the center of the city, and the location of my hotel affords me the luxury of a stroll through the old city. As I wander, I imagine the wooden boardwalks in front of the boom-town era shops combining the cowfolk with the merchants doing business and building the West. A street musician barely older than Son #1 plays “Hallelujah” on his guitar and I stand quietly in front of a storefront ignoring the display and focusing on the ballad. Eighty years prior, my grandfather, a former resident of the town, may have stood on this same street corner listening to the sounds of his city.
Grandpa, whom I never met, had a minor profession as a baseball player in this island amid the seas of cornfields. Years before he met Grandma, he smacked the leather around the ball field and made what historically would have been a barely sustainable wage, and probably only a part-time gig, as he would have sought out other employment during the off season. More than once in my life I traveled for my love of the game (see Are You Ready for Some Baseball? from March 2012), but this venture more than kicks off Project Fifty with a trip to Rosenblatt Stadium for a minor league ballgame. This excursion pays tribute to Ople who loved the game first. Thanks, Grandpa, for creating a memory for me before I was even born.