What is your definition of an epic road trip?
You're probably thinking "I can go from Los Angeles to New York in one fell shot." You can do this over several days, stopping overnight in a few places. Perhaps, driving from coast-to-coast is better than being hurtled across the sky in a pressurized metal tube with a mask on. There is no guarantee in this COVID-19 world that airline service would be completely different than before the world shut down.
Or, you could be on one of the rallies that are launching this month. The Venom Rally is heading out towards Pikes Peak on July 17. The latest edition of the Crown Rally is launching in Denver through the Rockies to Salt Lake City on July 9.
My definition of an epic road trip is just to make sort of a plan, get in a car, drive, and go to places I have never been before. It opens up to a lot of possibilities and destinations.
In my case, I haven't been to a good chunk of this country. For the past couple of years, I have been hankering to go back to Kansas City. I've been to Kansas City twice – once changing planes at the airport, and the other was on a quick road trip going to places that were on everyone else's agenda.
I really wanted to see a lot that second time in Kansas City. Places, like the Negro Leagues Museum, the Union Station, Country Club Plaza, and the National Airline History Museum. These are destinations that really interest me. Plus, I would love to check out the Truman Sports Complex, where Kauffman Stadium and Arrowhead Stadium are located.
You might say that this trip has been in the works for years.
While I was considering my first solo driving trip to Kansas City, I've also considered a couple of destinations I have never been before that was within reach of Kansas City and the Twin Cities. Therefore, this road trip folded those two destinations in.
Last year, I was supposed to have gone to Omaha to celebrate Pride over there. Due to my illness at the time, that did not happen. On top of this, a friend who provided an interview for an article in another outlet gave me an open invitation to come to a city that I never thought I would ever visit in my entire life – Wichita, Kansas.
Now, we have an "epic" road trip in the works. This trip will encompass Kansas City, Omaha, and Wichita. We're talking over 1,300 miles of driving across five states. Was I ready for this?
Originally, this was scheduled for mid-July. However, a change of plans opened up the opportunity to do this "epic" road trip over the Fourth of July weekend. Regardless of the timing, I recognized that we’re still in the COVID-19 pandemic. With cases rising across the country, I knew I was risking a lot in accomplishing this "epic" road trip.
Planning a trip like this it's sort of like playing a game of chess. You may never know what move you're going to make. If you make the wrong move, you're at risk for the virus.
Armed with masks and lightweight clothes to deal with very warm temperatures and high heat indices across the Midwest, I picked up a 2020 Toyota Camry SE from an Avis Car Rental location in the Twin Cities and set my course for the middle of the country.
This particular car was equipped with what I needed to accomplish this road trip. Key to this drive is ensuring that the Camry had adaptive cruise control for proper pacing over the miles. And, if you have read this website regularly, the audio system provided smartphone connectivity to my iPhone. Plus, SiriusXM offered free access to their network through the 4th of July.
The car was packed with a big suitcase full of a week’s clothing, my backpack with my new laptop, and my traveling companion – Boomer! Looks like we're ready to go…
LEG 1: TWIN CITIES TO AMES, IOWA
The first leg began after noon from home. Heading south on Interstate 35 was simple. The ride was mostly smooth, and the Camry made the drive easy. Even with a couple of stops, I made my overnight destination – Ames, Iowa – on time.
Although I had the energy to take me all the way to Omaha on that initial leg, I wanted a place to help me pace myself and stage the rest of the trip. An overnight stay in Ames puts me about two-and-a-half hours away from downtown Omaha. A nice set-up for a late morning arrival into Nebraska.
My time in Ames was spent taking photos and driving around downtown and the Iowa State University campus. My hotel, the Fairfield Inn & Suites near Interstate 35 and U.S. Highway 30, was quiet and cool. A good night’s sleep helped temper my excitement for the next several days head.
LEG 2: AMES, IOWA TO OMAHA
They call the western interchange of Interstates 35 and 80 in West Des Moines the "Mixmaster." More specifically, the West Mixmaster.
To me, the West Mixmaster was the portal to new driving experiences.
I checked out of the Fairfield Inn in Ames just before 7:00 AM. Breakfast was consumed down in Ankeny, before meeting the other “Mixmaster” exchange to loop around north and west of Des Moines. My goal was in sight several miles away. Once I made it the ramp onto Interstate 80 towards Council Bluffs – it would be the point of no return.
A surprise awaited me as I traversed the westbound lanes of Interstate 80. I did not realize how beautiful western Iowa was. It was full of rolling hills and lush greenery. The trees were lovely. To drive through this all the way into Omaha was indeed a treat.
Then, Omaha appeared in my sights from Council Bluffs. The First National Bank of Omaha’s tower stood tall to take center stage across the Missouri River. However, my navigation had me scale up Interstate 29 to the connector into downtown Omaha, where I will be staying overnight. I did not mind it at all. It was all about the adventure – my mantra through this trip.
My mind slipped upon arrival into Omaha at 10:00 AM. I forgot that this year the Federal holiday for the 4th of July was observed on the Friday this year. It meant that I had to really work Google to make sure certain businesses and organizations had their hours updated. Not to mention having their information reflect closures due to the pandemic’s effect on them.
For example, the Omaha Visitors Center was closed and set for re-opening on July 9. It would have been nice to know this in advance online. To get what I needed – tourism books and maps – I had to drive up to Eppley Field, Omaha’s airport, to get them.
Luckily, I was able to check into my room at the Hilton Garden Inn in downtown Omaha early. This was to get my bags out of the car before running around to get more personal hygiene items. That included getting more disposable masks.
After checking in, I walked to a lunch spot out on 16th and Farnam. It was hot and humid out there. Blazing humidity, at that. I survived the walk. Yet, I found no seating at the restaurant I was recommended to go to. A sandwich shop on the next block took care of my luncheon needs.
Omaha began to grow on me, but I needed to explore beyond downtown. I fetched the Camry and headed west on Dodge Street – the main thoroughfare of Omaha. This street connected the city's major medical centers, key shopping centers, and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
With my errands done, it was back to the hotel room to relax and catch up items of importance. It was great to see that I was not the only one taking a road trip during the national holiday. It is truly a dance between local and state rules on social distancing and mask wearing and the encouragement to take road trips to ease one’s sanity from being cooped up at home since March.
My evening was spent eating one of Omaha’s famous steaks at a restaurant attached to the hotel. Spencer’s was divine, classic, and elegant. I swear that I'm going to gain a lot of weight by the time I get home…
Since the bars were still a crap shoot during this pandemic, I did not partake in Omaha’s LGBT scene. I wished I did. The eye candy was lovely – something I should have discovered a year ago as planned. Alas, I was exhausted and turned on the television in my room for "RuPaul’s Drag Race All-Stars." Funny thing, I have never seen an entire episode, along with an episode of "Untucked," live. Shows you how much I rely on YouTube for my entertainment. But, hey, I got my LGBT quotient taken care of in Omaha.
This is going to be a multi-part Travelogue. Part 2 will take me to Kansas City. I know you’ll be curious as to how I fare with two nights in a destination I always had an eye on.
Now, I can safely say that Omaha is now off the bucket list of travel destinations. Will I return? Who knows?
DISCLAIMER: Vehicle was rented by Victory & Reseda, along with all travel expenses paid by this publication
All photos by Randy Stern