Archive for March, 2016

Vantage Points

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 16
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

Somewhat awake now and with bellies full of roadside leftovers, we pack up the Jetta in the sunny morning in Lincoln, Nebraska, set on making it to Minneapolis by day’s end. We should get there, unless we do something silly. Perhaps we’re being ambitious.

There are three states, hundreds of miles, and plenty of America to learn between here and there. Today’s plan is to find a spaghetti fork, a coffee pot, a spider, railroad spike, and if we’re lucky, a tree in the middle of the road, and still reach Minneapolis tonight. I review the list with Brent, looking to trim the fat, but after everything I say he says, “We’re not cutting that.”

“Spaghetti fork?” I question.


“Block head?”

“We’re so close to it.”

“Volkswagen spider?”

“Jody,” he sighs, “We could cut everything, but not Volkswagen spider. That I want to see.”

“What’s a stamp ball?” I ask, eyeing the list.

“A big ball of stamps,” he says. Of course it is.

“Well, looks like everything’s in,” I say. Brent nods.

Vantage PointsWe’re tracking down a giant masonry head, which doesn’t seem like it’ll be too hard to find. The giant head sits atop the Ogallala (there’s that word again!) Aquifer. This is the Groundwater Colossus by artist James Tyler, and though it’s supposed to sing and so far this guy’s silent, we’re pretty sure this is it–unless there’s another giant head of blocks in Lincoln.

Vantage PointsI think about the Colossus of Rhodes, and how I never knew America had a Colossus of its own—other than the Marvel super hero. I post our #MericaTour progress on Facebook, and look up to find Brent trying to pick Colossus’ nose. Rhodes never had this problem. Luckily, our silent Colossus has some interesting surroundings or I’ll never pull Brent away. On Colossus’ right is a giant painted light bulb, and on his left is a wide, gurgling fountain. Vantage Points
We splash around in the fountain and take thoughtful pictures with the light bulb before climbing back into the car.Vantage Points

We’re not even out of Lincoln yet when a truck in front of us hauling sand manages to dust us with it. Our windows are down, and there’s sand all over the place inside the Jetta. I brush the puddle of sand from my lap and look at my sooty face and hair in vanity mirror.

My nicely showered self is a thing of the past, which, technically, was a thing of the past once I jumped in the fountain back in Lincoln. But now I’m all gritty, too. Brent navigates around the truck. “Well, there goes today’s photos,” I say. We have a good laugh about it.

We drive to Omaha and stop for gas at the giant coffee pot on our list, which, luckily, is a gas station, too. There are a lot of these Sapp Bros. travel stations in Nebraska, but this is the only one with the giant coffee pot on the property. We don’t get coffee, strangely enough. I buy a giant travel mug and fill it with hot tea, and we nearly buy a cool Chuck Norris driver’s license, but decide against it after much deliberation.
Vantage PointsVantage PointsInstead, we gas up and mill around the parking lot studying our vantage point to the giant coffee pot, rea
lizing we can get the best view if we walk across the quiet side street.

Quiet my—Assuming we can get across the side street, that is. It’s strangely deserted until we need to cross it on foot, then it’s suddenly and dangerously full of 18-wheelers traveling both directions. Vantage PointsWe wait and wait and finally get across, take some photos with Brent’s direction as the road is suddenly silenced, and then wait to return across the once-again super busy street. “This is so very Frogger,” I think.

Dodging death and alligators (okay, not alligators), we head back to the relative safety of the lily pad, I mean Jetta. As Brent drives us around the parking lot back toward the highway, I post the initial entry for these “Stories from the Road” on my blog, promising to write out our adventures in full (promise kept!).

As we approach Omaha, I’m repeating the Charlie Daniels “Uneasy Rider” lyrics, “If I went to L.A., via Omaha…” when my Google search tells us that Boys Town is nearby. I relay the cross streets to Brent, who frowns. “That sounds familiar,” he says. Sure it is. “Where is the stamp ball?” he asks.

I check the itinerary and find that he’s right. “Same campus,” I tell him. He grins. In a few minutes we’re driving in tree-lined circles on Flanagan Boulevard around the quiet Boys Town campus.

There’s no stamp ball or signage in sight, so we decide to go in to the Visitor’s Center. Inside, we chat up the lady in the gift shop, who gives us campus maps and shows us the incredibly cool mini-stamp balls (softball size) that the kids make for charity.
Vantage PointsVantage PointsAs I carefully choose one signed by Alexis with a Love stamp right on the top center, a couple enters from a side doorway and the man asks, “Aren’t you worried that someone will make a bigger one?

“Well,” the gift shop lady says cheerfully, “It’s over 600 pounds, with 4.6 million stamps. With stamp prices today, it’ll cost about…” she lists a figure that’s in the billions. And because it’s numbers I instantly forget it, but it’s impressive. The couple starts to browse and Brent asks where the original stamp ball is located and scrutinizes his map. The lady says, “Right through this doorway.” She points to where the couple had entered.

We look at each other, shocked that we don’t have to cross the campus to get to it. It’s right here! There’s no major security. You can walk right up to it, touch it, take goofy pictures and everything. Only in America.

Vantage PointsI pay for my Alexis stamp ball and we head through the doorway. “I’m sending two more to ya, Hank!” the gift shop lady calls into the wide hallway. At the end of the hall ahead of us is the World’s Largest Ball of Stamps, collected by the stamp club in Boys Town in the 1950s. To the right of the ball sits Hank, a retired local veteran (who neither works here nor is a volunteer we find out, but is just hanging out, which is his custom). At the moment, he’s sorting stamps. “Where are you from?” he asks us.



Vantage PointsVantage PointsHank tells us his service company and says, “There were some nice guys from Pennsylvania there with me.” We talk about Pittsburgh together, and he insists we can touch the stamp ball. So we do. Hank is good at egging us on. Together, we spread silliness all around, and eventually have to say farewell to Hank and to the gift shop lady as we head out to see the Dowd Memorial Catholic Chapel where Father Flanagan is laid to rest.

Vantage PointsFather Edward J. Flanagan started his home for boys around the time of WWI, and moved the home to where we’re standing, at what was formerly the Overlook Farm back in 1921. According to, “Since 1917, Boys Town’s mission has been to give at-risk children and families the love, support and education they need to succeed. Because we firmly believe that regardless of background and circumstances, every child and every family has the potential to thrive.”

The site goes on to say: “He had a dream that every child could be a productive citizen if given love, a home, an education, and a trade. He accepted boys of every race, color, and creed. Father Flanagan firmly believed, ‘There are no bad boys. There is only bad environment, bad training, bad example, bad thinking.’”

“I can’t believe we’re standing here,” I tell Brent, feeling the immensity and the importance of the work that was/is done here.Vantage Points

For his mindset, Father Flanagan was called a visionary. And though he was born on Irish soil, not American, Father Flanagan’s vision of opportunity over birth status is as American as it gets.

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 15, Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)


Night Life

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 15
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

It takes a Trampled by Turtles album, a Dessa album, and a couple chapters of the zombie war (or a little over two hours) traveling along I-80 before we reach the turnoff for Hastings, Nebraska.

We head south and welcoming us to town is the Hastings Applebee’s, brightly lighted against the night sky. Back in Kansas City, days ago, we’d done a search for nightlife and Applebee’s, headquartered there, was the first thing Google found.

“Look, nightlife!” I say to Brent.

That same Google search is what landed us at Boulevard Brewing Company the next morning so, well done, Googs. Brent glances at Applebee’s and suppresses a smile. “Nightlife,” he acknowledges, and drives on.

Two things are weighing on us right now: the need for adventure and the need for sustenance. We’re on the road to see and do new things, which usually means letting go of the familiarity and comfort of chain restaurants. As self-declared road champions, Brent and I prefer the discovery of local fare and off-the-wall places and we only patron known chains as a last resort, when we’re on our last legs or when we plan poorly and nothing else is open.

At the moment, though, adventure is winning out over food. Brent and I are on a mission to find Kool-Aid, and Wikipedia tells us we’re in its birthplace.

We keep driving south, following Sally the Map App’s directions, and suddenly it feels as though the town has slipped away and we’re just heading into darkness. “Where’d the town go?” I ask.

Brent shrugs. “We’re at the lake,” he offers.

I do a quick Google search. “There are 25,000 residents here,” I tell him. “Where did they put them all?”

We round a bend and suddenly an orderly city plan springs up beyond our windshield, with a good 25 blocks’ worth of grid-laid streets.

Between us, we start referring to Hastings as two separate towns. There’s the “north side,” behind us with our old buddy Nightlife and the Visitor’s Center, and this “south side” of orderly city blocks, both connected by the dark, barren curve of the road around Lake Hastings. Brent and I look at each other and then to the stretch of traffic lights, concrete city blocks, and golden street bulbs lighting our path. We smile and start counting down the streets toward the museum address.

Night LifeThe streets are easy to navigate and we easily find the Kool-Aid Museum, where, to our surprise, there’s enough street light to take pictures. Our first photos almost pass as daylight takes, even though it’s after 9, Central Time. We can’t go inside the museum, but there’s plenty to read on the building’s placards and posters, and we fill in the rest with the help of Wikipedia.
Night LifeThe story goes that inventor Edward Perkins of Hastings, Nebraska created a liquid concentrate called Fruit Smack in his mother’s kitchen. Then in 1927, to reduce shipping costs, Perkins discovered a way to remove the liquid from Fruit Smack, leaving only the powder, which was renamed Kool-Aid. And though Perkins moved Kool-Aid’s production to Chicago in 1931, Hastings still celebrates its invention with its annual Kool-Aid Days every August.

Night LifeAs any successful artist, entrepreneur, business owner, cowboy, adventurer, musician, brewer, traveler, writer, etc., will undoubtedly say, in creating anything, there is failure. It comes down to what you do with that failure. I close my eyes and imagine Perkins in his mother’s kitchen, and all of his stages of experimentation along the way. For Edward Perkins and Kool-Aid, this is where it started, the desire, the belief, the drive, the problem solving, and the refusal to give up, right here in the middle of America, in Hastings, Nebraska.

Night LifeAs Brent continues with his pictures, I search the posters and finally find what I’m looking for. “Berry Blue!” I burst out in a wave of memory and I start talking fast, as if I’d just drunk the deliciously sugary stuff. “That was my favorite! First it was orange, and I thought it was the best, but then Berry Blue had this blueberry/lemon combination and I couldn’t get enough of it…”

Brent lowers his camera and looks at me in contemplation. “I liked orange,” he says evenly, and goes back to his pictures. Brent took childhood seriously.

For all the obvious reasons, nighttime sightseeing is peculiar. Here on the south side, we’re eerily alone. With the wind picking up just a bit, it’s as if we’ve slipped through time.

Night Life

View across the street

Returning to the car, Brent wants to find some Kool-Aid Man footprints in cement, Hollywood Walk of Fame style. They’re needle-in-the-haystack to me, which, now that I’m tired and my mind is silly, is an intriguing phrase. Variations of the “needle in the haystack/bundle/meadow” reference date back to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and before that, to a 1532 speech given by Sir Thomas More. To me, the phrase never described an impossibility. I remember hearing it as a child and thinking, “But you know the needle is there. So just keep looking.” Simple as that. Just like liking orange.

“The footprints aren’t out here at random,” Brent reveals. “They’re at the Visitor’s Center, back up on the north side.” We have a starting place. And between here and there, there’s not one food-like place open that we can find. It might be Nightlife after all.

Sure, the Visitor’s Center closed hours ago, but we lurk around the building in the dark, trying to see inside. I return to the flagpole while Brent searches among the bushes. “If one of these passing cars would just call the police on us,” I say, “We could ask the officers where the footprints are…”

“Found ‘em!” Brent suddenly shouts. Haystack needle.

Night LifeNext to the bushes that line the parking lot is a slab of cement, with no real lighting on it and certainly no giant Kool-Aid Man statue pointing at it. (I suppose most people show up in the daytime, so they don’t need such markers.) Triumphant, and without needing to wait in line, we put our feet inside the giant footprints and Brent does his best Kool-Aid Man imitations.Night Life

I’m delirious with hunger by the time we get to Nightlife, which is mercifully close by and the only place still open, so I order way too much food and even some more to go.

“You still have cinnamon rolls in the car,” Brent protests.

[Yes, I’m a road forager. I think it’s the hallmark of a good traveler.] And Brent may roll his eyes as my to-go cheese sticks arrive, but tomorrow morning we’ll sleep through our continental breakfast in Lincoln, feast on these Applebee’s cheese sticks and leftover cinnamon rolls from the tire caterpillar gas station, and we’ll laugh about how clever we are.

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 14, Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

#Merica Tour, Stories from the Road, Segment 14
(For links to previous segments, scroll to the bottom)

The Forward-Thinking Wild WestThe sun is lowering in the sky as we arrive at the Fort Cody Trading Post. With a cannon and a buffalo in the parking lot and dummy soldiers on the battlements, it takes us a little while to even get into the store. Once inside, there’s a lot more to see. This place is heralded as Nebraska’s largest souvenir and Western gift store, and they’re not kidding.

The Forward-Thinking Wild WestInside the store, immediately to my left, I find a bin of candy cigarettes. “Look!” I gasp. “I didn’t think they made these anymore!” I launch myself at the bin. Brent has turned right and found himself an old time peep show machine.

I deliberate between the red and the white packets and decide on a red one. Cigarettes in hand, The Forward-Thinking Wild WestI drag Brent away from the peep show, and we find aisles and aisles of Western hats, sheriff badges, wooden horses, magnets, candy… We wander through the store, playing with everything. I mean everything. Other tourists start following in our wake, sharing their own road stories with us. The Forward-Thinking Wild WestAs Brent rides around on a stick horse, one couple asks us if we found the covered wagon out the back door.

“There’s more?” I ask.

“Yes!” the couple tells us, “You two might want to see it.” They point toward the back of the store.

Brent holsters his horse and we hurry through Jewelry and Toy Guns (a major feat for us) to the magical and nondescript back door. Opening it, we find another world. In the grassy yard, there’s a whole host of Wild West buildings, the covered wagon, a giant Brave, and of course, a Fort Cody jail.The Forward-Thinking Wild West “Nobody mentioned this,” Brent says, and I know he’s referring to his carefully arranged seven-page list of roadside stops.

We look at each other and smile, then set off running in the yard as if we’ve just been allowed out for recess. We pause only to one-up
each other in photos, and of course, we matriculate to the jail.

The Forward-Thinking Wild WestThe Forward-Thinking Wild WestThe Fort Cody jail doesn’t have a guitar and a crumpled hat like the Argo jail in Colorado, and it doesn’t have a mannequin jailer and Wanted posters like the Abilene jail in Kansas—come to think of it, how many Wild West lockups have we seen on this trip? (A few days from now, my 4-year-old nephew will look through my photos and ask, “Why is Aunt Jody always in jail?” I’ll tell him, to my sister’s delight, Because I don’t eat my vegetables.”) The Forward-Thinking Wild WestHere in Nebraska we have our own props: the not-quite-yet-paid-for candy cigarettes and sheriff badges. We just can’t pass up a good jail.

The Forward-Thinking Wild WestFinally back in the store again, we check out the museum area. We find a two-headed calf, which Brent thinks is awesome and I, well, don’t. “It’s heartbreaking,” I say, but Brent refuses to agree. Thankfully, it’s not for sale, and I can’t believe how many times I need to remind him of that. He keeps looking from me to the calf and back again, waiting for that information to change. In times like this, his face can be as telling as a peep show: The movie reel of his mind pops up and look! It’s us, riding down the open road with Two-Head strapped into the passenger seat while I’m relegated to the backseat with a big fat frown, arms crossed…

The Forward-Thinking Wild West
I finally get him away from the calf by luring him toward the glass case filled with moving figurines and a circus-like sign for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West show. Signage and Google tell us that in the late 1800’s, after riding for the Pony Express and serving as a civilian scout to the U.S. Army (for which he won a medal of honor), Buffalo Bill began performing in cowboy shows. Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was founded in 1883, and the large company went on tours the United States and then in Great Britain and Europe. The shows depicted cowboy skills, stagecoach robbery reenactments, and sideshows, but after scrutinizing the miniatures and digging through Wikipedia, I realize that’s not all it did.

The Forward-Thinking Wild WestIn the mid-1800’s, America’s West had not been safe for man nor beast and everyone was pitted against one another—some for Manifest Destiny, some for survival, some on sheer instinct. And then a mere 40 years after America’s cry for Western Expansion, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show was all-inclusive, and for that, ahead of its time. According to Wikipedia, “The show began with a parade on horseback, with participants from horse-culture groups that included U.S. and other military, cowboys, American Indians, and performers from all over the world in their best attire. Turks, Gauchos, Arabs, Mongols, and Georgians displayed their distinctive horses and colorful costumes.” The show included women such as sharpshooter Annie Oakley, trick shooter and trick rider Lillian Smith, and Calamity Jane appeared as a storyteller. There was even an appearance by Sitting Bull with 20 of his braves.The Forward-Thinking Wild West

Brent and I marvel at the nearly 20,000 different miniatures, “hand-carved by Ernie and Virginia Palmquist over a 12-year period,” according to signage and the interweb. This stop is totally worth it.

We make our way to the checkout and finally pay for Brent’s two-headed calf magnet, our slightly used sheriff badges, and our open packet of candy cigarettes now with a few missing.The Forward-Thinking Wild West Before leaving North Platte, we stop next door for gas–mostly because Brent spied a green dinosaur outside the station–and we’re back on the road again. This time, we’re tracking down Kool-Aid.

On our way to Hastings, Nebraska, we pass a local truck with a Ghostbusters sticker. The Forward-Thinking Wild West“Look at that,” I point it out to Brent. I take a picture and think about all the people who talked to us in the Trading Post. “I like these people,” I tell him and breathe in deeply. “Nebraska,” I say. Who knew?

Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a blogger, poet, and traveler.

(For previous Stories from the Road, click here: Segment 13, Segment 12Segment 11Segment 10, Segment 9, Segment 8Segment 7, Segment 6, Segment 5, Segment 4, Segment 3, Segment 2, Segment 1)

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