When you think of Nebraska you probably think of corn and you should. Nebraska has A LOT of corn, and it was delicious. I went to a "corn feed" and I ate at least five cobs of corn. But what it also has is Omaha, and that is just a fantastic city.
I was so thrilled to work with Jessica from Visit Omaha to plan this site visit. She clearly loves her town and it shows in her work. I had mediocre expectations for this visit, but no matter how high they would have been they certainly would have been blown away.
Let's begin with the Henry Doorly Zoo. The original zoo opened 125 years and today it TripAdvisor ranks it as the number one zoo in the world. The zoo is divided into several major exhibits. The "cat complex" is the largest in Northern America, and the "Kingdoms of the Night" is the largest nocturnal and indoor swamp exhibit in the world. The Lied Jungle is one of the largest indoor jungles in the world and the Desert Dome is one of the largest indoor deserts. The zoo is also home to the world's largest geodesic dome.
My personal favorite was watching the penguins swim and jump out of the water.
If you can't tell from all of these blogs, I love trains. After seeing so many though I was a bit tired of them on this trip. When Jessica recommended the Durham Museum at Union Station I was quite hesitant. She talked me into at least going by and saying hi and this quick trip turned into "Okay, Jason we have more stops to do. You can't play all day." Yes, I'm a big kid that loves exploring and this was such a fun museum. First, station itself was magnificent. The massive art deco design took my breath away. Around the station there are statues of people that represent people that would have gone through the station on their way to another city or perhaps off to war. It is like stepping into a scene from The Great Gatsby.
Then you go downstairs and there is exhibit after exhibit to show various aspects of Omaha and Americana. There was a temporary T-Rex exhibit, but permanent ones were spectacular as well. There was even a replica of the Buffett family grocery store (Warren Buffett's parents and grandparents).
This is why working with convention visitors bureaus is so important to my job. They always show me things I would have never considered.
The next location I toured was Hot Shops Art Center. I originally expected this to be an art museum, and while there were many pieces for sale and on display it was so much more. It was an old mattress warehouse that has been transformed into a few dozen art studios. These artist work in a myriad of mediums. I hate I did not take more photos. They had painter, glass blowers, wood workers, weavers, sculptors, metal work, and more. One artist used puzzle pieces in each of her paintings. It made me want to support more artist. The piece below was my favorite by a young artist. I wanted to buy it, but I didn't make contact. there was something for everyone.
Like all of the cities I visited there was so much more to see if only time allowed. Unlike other cities though I already have plans to return. Omaha is hosting the American Bus Associations annual conference in 2020 and I am looking forward to attending. I have seen what the folks at Visit Omaha can do and I am certain it will be a great convention.
As always let me leave you with some recommendations for hotels.
The Cambria Downtown Omaha is a wonderful modern hotel. I love this higher end Choice Hotel that is still budget friendly.
You know we also love the Marriott brand and I appreciated the great accommodations at the Omaha Marriott and the Sheraton Omaha Hotel.
Whether it is a group with this Blue Ridge Tours or on your own I hope you get the opportunity to explore Omaha, and don't forget to try the corn.
After "the incident" and my brief personal vacation in Las Vegas, the site visits continued into the gorgeous state of Utah. Now, this is the rough part. Even though it had been a week, my foot was still severely burned, and I could not walk properly. So I had to do most of my site seeing driving through. Zion National Park was beautiful, and even though I could not walk around, I was so happy to view it.
There is not much around here, but thankfully there are still great hotels. The Holiday Inn Express in Springdale, Utah and brand new Fairfield Inn in Virgin, Utah were terrific. The Holiday Inn Express has this luxury log cabin feel, and I loved watching the sunset from the pool of the Fairfield Inn.
I made the way through Utah, and it was amazing to see the red desserts turn into lush green mountains. I had planned a stop before I got there, but with my foot finally giving me a little relief that day, I decided to drive on through to Durango. Again, what a great town.
I'm so thankful to the folks at Visit Durango, and I feel bad I could not see all they had planned. I drove up and checked out the magnificent Purgatory Resort. There whether it is Summer or Winter, they have unlimited options for groups and families. Just driving around, I saw the beauty and so many options. They have biking, bungee jumping, a scenic chairlift, ropes courses, ziplines, and more.
Just down the road, I stopped at a real sweet spot, Honeyville. It was a honey factory where you could watch the bees do their work.
The main reason I'm considering making Durango as a stop on the Sea to Shining Sea tour is the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. I love trains, and as the tour organizer, I get to put in little perks for myself, but I also think the students will love this. I did the Cascade Canyon Express so it is a two hour round trip ride and it is a great way to explore. As you can see from the photos, it is one of the most picturesque experiences of the entire trip, and that is saying a lot. I even had a section to myself.
As you drive down the mountain from the railroad station, you see this weird honeycomb structure. It turned out to be a hot spring, but not just any hot spring. It was the Pinkerton Hot Springs. It was discovered by James Pinkerton in the 1800s, and he built a resort around it and made it a travel destination. He included a pool with water from the springs. People came from everywhere to experience the rumored curing nature of the springs. The resort ultimately burned down, but this is still a tourist destination worth stopping at in Durango, but be careful not to slip.
Since my goal for traveling is to report on sites for our tour groups, we strive to keep these trips cheap. For this trip, I decided to drive my 2005 Dodge Caravan with 200,000 miles on it to save money. Now, doing this, I knew there was a decent chance I could have mechanical trouble, and considering the cost of a rental vehicle for such a long trip this risk made financial sense.
I planned well, had my vehicle inspected just before leaving, and even kept water and ice in a giant color in case I did end up on the side of the road broke down. I had taken as many precautions as I could.
As usual, it was what I did not know that was waiting to cause a disaster.
Approximately two hours north of Phoenix, AZ, on a hot July day, my heating core burst as I was driving. I never noticed the car overheating, but presumably, that is what caused it. Usually, this would not be a significant issue as according to my mechanic as the line should be over the passenger side, and since I was alone, it would not have mattered. On a 2005 Dodge Caravan though they decided to design it, so the heating core line travels right over driver's side.
Suddenly, without warning, I was being sprayed by scalding liquid as I was driving. Thankfully, no other immediate cars were around. I try to pull over and quickly press the brakes, but for some reason, they were not working. I opened the driver door, thinking to hang out my left foot from the onslaught of hot liquid.
I start purposely driving the vehicle into the guard rail and finally it stops. At this point, I am concerned my shoe is going to be melted to my foot, so I hurry to discard them. I hobble to the back of the van and pull the large cooler to the ground and pour water on my foot. Eventually, I shove my foot into the cooler's icy water and reach for my phone.
I am stranded on the side of the road, crying in severe pain, standing in a cooler, and trying to wave down assistance. The road was fairly busy, but no one stopped. After 15 minutes, an older couple stopped to help, but they had no signal either. The gentleman wrote me a sign that said 911 to try to attract more help. I'm unclear if they ever tried calling themselves, but at least they tried.
Another 45 minutes pass. There I am. Fat guy on the back of a van, standing in a cooler, sobbing, and now holding a sign that said 911. No else ever stopped.
Finally, I had one bar. I quickly dialed 911, and they dispatched an ambulance. But the ambulance was an hour away. After two hours on the side of the road standing in an icy cooler, help finally arrived.
The kind paramedics had loaded me into an ambulance, but as my foot quickly thawed pain like I've never known hit me and it hit hard.
I do not claim to be tough. I'm an entertainer and a traveler, but lying there in that ambulance, I have never felt like a bigger baby screaming in pain.
The paramedic in the back of the ambulance with me could not find a vein to give me pain killers, so tried administering them through my nose. I am unsure what he tried first, but I know the later were two doses of fentanyl, and it was doing nothing.
Burn pains are difficult to treat like that I was later told.
We finally arrived at the hospital in Wickenburg, AZ, where they moved me to a bed, rubbed lotion on my foot, wrapped it, and declared that would be $1600.
I will say the lotion worked for a while, and now it was time to figure out what to do. I was an hour from my car and two hours from my destination. No one had an iPhone charger.
One other way I had made sure to prepare for my scouting trip was to make sure I had premium AAA, which allowed a 200-mile tow. Would you like to guess how far it was to the recommended AAA mechanic? 198 miles.
The first tow truck decided they could not do it because it was across state lines from Arizona into Nevada and thankfully they found another one that was gracious enough to pick me up and not count the miles until they attached the vehicle.
The driver and I found out this kindness was in part because the dispatcher wanted the driver to bring her back a specific burger from Las Vegas. We were going to be arriving too late for him to go to the restaurant, but thanks to some out of the box planning and a few trial and errors we got her that burger.
I was finally at my hotel in Las Vegas. The benefit was that most of this week was my actual vacation, so I was not changing hotels every night, but the bad part is it was my actual vacation and my luck in the car carried over in the casinos.
It has been six weeks since this happened. I wore fluffy bedroom slippers the first two weeks after as it was the only thing I could find soft enough for my foot and then I switched to soft brown sandals so at least I was not drawing as much attention. I hope to be able to wear shoes again soon. I am still scared every time I get in my van to drive, but I am talking to Dodge about this design issue. I've been told to sue and contacted by lawyers, but I am still hoping not to line a bunch of lawyers pockets.
I am writing all this so you know that things can happen when you travel, and they are a lot more likely to happen traveling alone. Make plans, be aware, but do not let fear stop you from taking a great adventure. Experienced tour guides like those that work with us are one of the simplest ways not to end up in a mess like mine.
I'm also writing this because I want you to know why the next couple of stops along the tour may seem incomplete. I was not able to walk as much so some things were just left out and I hate not to give you a full picture of what these places have to offer.
America is such a beautiful place, and there is so much in each section for you to see. We want to continue to encourage you to join us.
I hope you found this story interesting and that you never have to go through it personally.
By the way, the next town I broke down in front of was called Nothing, Arizona.
Continuing on the Southwest tour we come upon the Phoenix, AZ metroplex. Here you not only visit Phoenix, but the surrounding cities of Scottsdale, Tempe, Mesa, and other communities.
I was happy to be visiting Phoenix on July 4th and enjoyed the great folks at Visit Phoenix helped set me up with a wonderful dinner reservation at a wonderful restaurant called Rustler's Rooste. The steak and view were just amazing. My reservation was a bit early so I did not get to see the fireworks, but I really loved looking over the entire area They also had a wonderful live band and I recommend finishing your dinner with their delicious ice cream sundae.
I must admit, I love travel and seeing these places with so much diverse history and culture, but it gets exhausting. I typically stay in a different hotel each night to try to find the best for our tour groups and only get a couple of days in each place so I have to cram a lot in. I do not recommend leisure travel like this and when looking at planning our cross country tour I am working to balance attractions and down time. I say that because fatigue was hitting in and I sadly did not see as much of Phoenix as I wanted, but it was still an amazing city.
One extremely unique museum in Phoenix was the Musical Instruments Museum (MIM). This museum houses over 15,000 musical instruments from over 200 countries along with other cultural artifacts. It was started by Bob Ulrich, the former CEO of Target in 2010. As you tour the museum you are given person bluetooth headsets that pick up videos automatically so you can hear how the instruments sound. The building is 200,000 square feet and has a beautiful contemporary design. Along with instruments on display there is a section on different styles of music and a section on famous musicians and performers. As you end the tour there is a room you can try the instruments yourself. Personally, I enjoyed the giant gong.
This trip across the southwest has really started to ignite in me a love of art. I am certainly new to seeing and understanding much of it, but there is a spark. That is why I was so impressed with Western Spirit: Scottsdale's Museum of the West. This museum features various southwestern artist and Native American art. This is the newest museum I visited on my tour as it only opened in 2015.
There are eight exhibit spaces and a sculpture courtyard. I was really interested in the photography work of former Senator Barry Goldwater. His talented eye for capturing the southwest and native people was exquisite.
For me the most breathtaking exhibit was the Chris Calle Collection. His graphite work was astonishing and the piece remembering the Kent State shooting nearly brought me to tears.
As I mentioned above, some of the photos on display were from Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater. Whatever you think of his politics this is one of the most interesting Americans of the 20th century. He was a five term senator, a photographer, he was a collector of Hopi Kachina dolls, flew across the ocean solo, and had an interest in UFOs. On the way out of Phoenix I stopped at a small park remembering his life in the town of Paradise Valley, AZ.
Let me start by saying what an absolutely amazing convention visitors bureau Tucson has developed. Jalyssa from Visit Tucson was an absolute joy to plan this trip with and she showed me several sites I would not have bothered to check out if not for her insistence and they were great. Thank you Jalyssa for loving your job and your town and helping others love it as well!
If you are headed west before you even arrive in Tucson you must take a 30 minute detour to visit a bit of history. The infamous city of Tombstone, AZ lie off the highway and is worth the trip. If you have not seen any of the movies about the town it is most known for the shootout at the O.K. Corral. The 30 second shootout between lawmen and outlaws encapsulates so much of the intrigue of the Old West. Here we find real life legends like Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, and the Clanton Brothers.
The town is also known for it's unique cemetery, Boothill Graveyard. Here lie several famous figures such as the three men that died at the shootout: Billy Clanton, Tom McLaury, and Frank McLaury. Also laid to rest are Al Lum aka China Mary, and the perpetrators of the Bisbee Massacre. In order to attract tourist fake gravestones were also placed such as Lester Moore whose placement reads, "Here lies Lester Moore, Four slugs from a .44, No Les No more."
They actually have reenactments and a lot more to see in Tombstone, but it was the afternoon in July and so I didn't want to be outside for the rest of it.
Moving on to Tucson.
Tucson, AZ has so much wonderful history, art, and culture to offer. It has has wonderful natural beauty. I was there right before the wet season began so everything was extremely dry. The first location I checked out was the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area in the Coronado National Forest.
The canyon was once significant land of the Hohokam people and the U.S. Forest Service began care for it in 1905. During the Great Depression the Works Program Administration began building the Sabino Dam, nine bridges within the canyon, and a 4.5 mile road. The road was meant to reach the top of Mount Lemmon. The road was not completed due to the steep nature of the mount. You can hike, walk, or take a tram through through the canyon. You can guess how I just to explore it.
There is a great deal of wildlife in this area, but I did not see any this except a deer that blended in extremely well to the canyon walls.
My next stop was not what I expected at all. I was really blown away though and so glad I went. Before this trip I had no idea who Ettore Ted DeGrazia was, but I am now a huge fan of his art after visiting his home at Gallery in the Sun. This is where he built his home and his own chapel and created amazing art honor Native American people.
DeGrazia was born in Arizona in 1909 before it was yet a state. His family had immigrated from Italy in 1898 and returned for a time in 1920 after the Morenci Mines closed. It was while they were in Italy DeGrazia fell in love with cathedral art. The family would move back to Arizona in 1925 when the mines reopened. Due to these move DeGrazia had forgotten how to speak English and at 16 was placed in the first grade. He did not graduate high school until he was 23. Then with $15 to his name he enrolled in the University of Arizona. He would perform with a trumpet in the evening and work on the University's landscape during the day to pay his way. He earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts and then a Bachelor of Arts Education in 1945 at the age of 36.
In 1941, Arizona Highways magazine began publishing DeGrazia's work. DeGrazia became world famous in 1960 when UNICEF asked to reproduce his painting "Los Niños" for their campaign. The painting of children dancing in a circle became his most famous piece.
In 1976, DeGrazia became furious at the idea that on paper the federal government declared him a millionaire and could take his children's inheritance from them. To protest, he rode to the and burned hundreds of his own paintings.
Ted DeGrazia died in 1982 and is buried at his Gallery in the Sun.
My final stop in Tucson was the Pima Air and Space Museum. I was supposed to do a tram tour, but I was late and they did not offer afternoon trams.
Pima Air has 300 aircraft spread out over 80 acres and is home to the Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame.
Personally, my favorite party of the museum was the flight attendant outfits throughout the decades.
Tucson, AZ was a fantastic journey. If you make it out that way check out the Sheraton Tucson Hotel and Suites or the Courtyard by Marriott at Williams. Both were wonderful hotels.
One more time, thank you to Jalyssa from Visit Tucson for being so amazing.
If you are interested in planning a trip to Tucson for your school group or other tour group please make sure to touch base with the Blue Ridge Tours office team.
After I left San Angelo, TX I continued west. This was actually my first time exploring the west besides a couple of times in California. Once you get further in West Texas the terrain definitely changes. You slowly start seeing the Chihuahuan Desert form. You drive for hours through the oil fields with thousands of oil wells pumping. Then you finally cross into New Mexico and eventually you come to one of America's great underground wonders: Carlsbad Caverns National Park.
In 1898, a teen named Jim White explored the limestone caverns and named many of the features such as the Big Room, King's Palace, and Fairyland. In 1923 it became a national monument and in 1930 it was declared a national park.
I found the online information about times to be confusing. If you are hiking down the long entrance you have to begin by 3:30 PM, if you are taking the elevators down then you have until 5:00 PM, and if want to see the bats then there is a presentation at 8 PM. The times may change so I suggest calling. Good said they were closed, but that was inaccurate and I wasted a day waiting around because I didn't call.
The largest and most beautiful portions of the cave have an easy to navigate path fit for people of almost any ability. It is wheelchair friendly and I watched a lady on crutches explore as well. If you stay until dusk you can see thousands of bats fly out for their nightly dinners. I did not catch it this time, but I'm told it is an impressive site.
Carlsbad has had a massive oil boom over the last decade and their hotels are full or overpriced so I do not recommend staying near the caverns. Instead you can continue about an hour away and end up in Roswell, NM.
Roswell may be the quirkiest cities in America. After a UFO was spotted in 1947 and legends and stories spread of little green men many made their way to Roswell to explore the town and the town embraced. Making for a economic boost alien art and souvenirs are found throughout the town. I decided to stop at the International UFO Museum and go for a tour. I expected a small, cheesy museum with no visitors, but I found a medium, cheesy museum packed with people from around the world. Along with a timeline and eyewitness reports of the 1947 crash there are props from movies, ancient alien tales, and sightings from around the world. I was also pleased to meet Thomas J Carey, co-author of Witness to Roswell and Children of Roswell.
If you make it to Roswell I recommend the Hampton Inn and Suites in town.
Hawaii, Las Vegas, New York, Austin, all of these are places that come to mind when we think of places to visit, but what about all the towns we pass by on the way to those major cities? Small town America may not have unlimited culture and cuisine from around the world, but it often has charm and history you will not find elsewhere, but you have to look for it.
I recently began another trip for site selection for Blue Ridge Tours. My mom is the co-owner and is always on the lookout for unique ideas for student trips to encourage learning and embrace America. Currently, I am working on a future tour idea I’m calling Triple S: From Sea to Shining Sea. The idea would be to take juniors and seniors in high school on a multi-week trip across the country and see what America has to offer.
That is what took me to San Angelo, TX. San Angelo is the population center of the Concho Valley. The town was founded around Fort Conchowhich was built to protect people moving out west in the 1800s. The stone fort is still there today and intact. The region is also home to a large portion of the country’s sheep. So you can see sheep painted by various artists all over town.
In 1909, the railroad depot opened and helped move those sheep, people, and other goods between Kansas and Mexico. The passenger line stopped in the 1960s and the rest ended in the mid-80s, but the depot still stands today as a museum to bygone days of railway travel. There are several toy trains and dioramas that show the history and are just fun to bring out your inner Dr. Sheldon Cooper.
Long before the city of San Angelo though there was the legend of the Lady in Blue. She was a Franciscan nun from Spain named, María Jesus de Ágreda. Legend says that in the early 1600s she was seen in this area of Texas ministering to and baptizing the Native Americans even though she never physically left Spain. Currently, the Vatican is being petitioned to name her as a saint. Today, her body is interred at her convent in Spain and according to a Spanish physician, her remains have never deteriorated.
If you make your way to San Angelo, make sure to see the large sculptures dedicated to the Lady in Blue.
If Spanish nuns aren’t for you then perhaps you’ll enjoy touring Miss Hattie’s Bordello. This upstairs museum is full of authentic items from the time as the Texas Rangers raided the establishment and all the furnishings were left in place. This interesting tour gives insight into what life was like for the women that worked there.
If you happen to be in town at the right time you may be able to catch a show at the Angelo Civic Theatre. I was grateful to receive a tour of this old movie theater turned stage ready. They perform around six shows a season along with some other benefits. Make sure to check out the amazing retro tiled bathrooms if your visit.
Just down the street is a beautiful display of water lilies from around the world. They are all part of one man’s collection that has contracted with the city and he even grew some of the special hybrid varieties himself.
There is plenty more to do and check out in San Angelo from the lobby of the Cactus Hotel to watching handmade boots through the window of M.L. Leddy’s. And of course, the Paintbrush Alley where over 50 artists came together with Art in Uncommon Places to create amazing pieces for the public to explore.
There are also plenty of wonderful hotels to choose from for your visit. I checked out the Springhill Suites which has a nice modern look and the older but still wonderful Red Lion. With of these places would make you happy and all the hotels in the area are a great bargain price.
I was told about several restaurants I should try while I was in town, but of course, even I can only eat so much. It was fun to meet Brenda Gunter, the city mayor and owner of Miss Hattie’s restaurant and I do believe I had one of my top three Mexican dinners at Franco’s. The fajita quesadilla was superb.
I would like to think the wonderful staff of Downtown San Angelo and Discover San Angelo for being great hosts. They shared so many great ideas for tours and visitors that it made my job really simple. This is a great community and worth exploring. I met several business owners and the passion for their town will surely make San Angelo, TX a place that continues to be inviting.
Blue Ridge Tours had a wonderful Christmas party this year. We celebrated what Christmas is all about by adopting a family in need for the holidays. We were able to provide items such a clothing for the Duncan Family. They are truly deserving of all we could provide. It was an amazing team effort from our employees here at BRT! We can’t thank Bernie Lowry enough for playing the role of Santa! Also we had frosty the snowman and twinkle toes the elf show up! This was truly a memorable experience for all involved. We will definitely be making this a yearly tradition.
Frands has been a long time employee of Blue Ridge Tours. He is a real asset to our company for many reasons. He is also very cultured as he is originally from Denmark. He has a vast knowledge of our tour destinations and would be a great addition to any Student Tour trip. He is allot of fun and has a great personality. You will not be disappointed working with this true gentleman.
Here are a few questions we asked to get to know Frans Better:
1. What is your favorite tour destination?
Washington DC, New York City, Charleston, Barrier Islands SC.
2. What’s the best memory you have working with Blue Ridge Tours?
When I was told James Brown Elementary School requested me back after our first trip together
3. What is your best travel tip?
Leave room for adjustment in your travel plan
4. What’s your favorite movie?
Lord Of The Rings
5.What’s your favorite dessert?
6. What kind of music do you like best?
Blues rock, progressive rock
7. What’s your favorite food?
My wife's cooking
8. What’s your favorite vacation spot?
Coastal wildlife areas
9. How long have you worked at BRT?
10. What’s your favorite hobby?
As you all wake up this morning and carry on with your day, remember....
Remember these times 8:46, 9:03, 9:37 and 10:03
Remember 2977 total, remember 343 were firefighters, remember 60 were police officers, remember 8 were EMTs
Remember all those that rushed up the stairs while everyone else was running down. Remember all those that found the courage to take back a plane. Remember those who volunteered to serve in Afghanistan, Iraq or other hostile lands and never returned. Remember all the families that will never be the same. And remember that real heroes don't have capes or super powers or jerseys.
And remember they may have wounded us, but they will never break our spirit. They may have scared us, but we will not cower in fear. Remember forever and remain united together.