So full disclosure here…some of us (not naming names) were none too excited about visiting some of the interior states of our nation. The prospect of high heat and humidity, miles of flat terrain, and little familiar to us had most of our family ready to just drive through, spending our “required” one night in each state and calling it good. Even some reviews on our fulltime families forums said to just “skip” Iowa, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. This however, was not in the spirit of really experiencing each state. After all, it’s the journey, not the destination, right?!
I decided that even amidst COVID, there was something memorable we could find about each state that we would enjoy. After visiting with Julie and Macy in Ohio, we headed West into Illinois. Some of the quintessential Illinois experiences were not an option, due to COVID. For example, riding to the top of the St. Louis Arch in a confined space was not even a consideration. We decided we’d try a Boondockers Welcome spot in central Illinois for a couple of evenings. Our hosts were genuinely awesome and invited us to swim and fish in their pond the first evening, and the second, invited us to a socially-distanced cocktail hour where we also watched a beautiful Illinois sunset. With daytime highs in the mid to upper 90s and high humidity, keeping cool was a must. We visited the tallest totem pole east of the Mississippi in Abingdon. We also drove to Galesburg to Lake Storey Park. While the pool and water slide were closed, the small beach was open, and the kids sure had a great time frolicking in the warm, shallow water.
With the Illinois temperatures not in our favor, we decided to say goodbye to our hosts and save more Illinois experiences for another day. Traveling West, we quickly crossed into Iowa. A few things were on our “list” of things to see and do. The biggest truck stop in the world is off I-80, near Walcott. We pulled in for lunch, but somehow missed the RV parking and ended up in the semi-truck parking. No worries, by now, Jason is a pro at backing and swinging around, so we pulled around to the designated RV parking and ate our lunch inside (with the solar inverter really working to run one of our air conditioners…July is HOT in Iowa!). I really wanted to go inside and get a coffee from Caribou, but the potential risk of COVID exposure at the biggest truck stop in the world squelched my desire, so we settled with some photos by the sign instead.
Jason and I have been wanting to stay at an Army Corps of Engineers campground, since we’ve heard so many good things about them. We reserved a site for a couple of nights mid-week at Tailwater West campground (Coralville Dam/Lake) and were NOT disappointed. We had a great view of the dam, the Iowa River, and a nice wide campsite with 50 amp service, which was really appreciated with the temps and humidity so high! The campground had well-kept facilities, as well as “extras” like a disc golf course, beach with SHADE, ample fishing opportunities, and a cool fossil gorge we were able to explore. Since we were close to Herbert Hoover National Historic Site, we took a morning to head over there, not knowing what to expect, since the Visitor Center was closed. Rangers had done a really nice job of setting materials out on a table in the shade. Ella and Liam were able to take a Junior Ranger booklet and work on completing it while we toured the different buildings on the grounds, listened to the audio tour, and watched the informational video from our phone. The kids earned another badge, we gained some knowledge about our 31st President, and we really enjoyed exploring a new area (to us anyway).
There actually seemed like quite a lot to see and do in Iowa, but we were working with wanting to escape to the mountains in relatively quick order. We did take time to see the “other” tulip city of Pella, Iowa (Holland, MI being the hometown standard), which was lovely. We were fortunate again to find a Boondockers Welcome spot near Pella where we had a great spot overlooking the soybean fields of the farm we were on. One of the many memories we will carry with us is an evening of DELICIOUS Iowa sweet corn, watching Field of Dreams, and being amazed at the sheer number of fireflies that were lighting up the soybean fields. They were brillant, and we interrupted movie night to try our luck at catching some.
We also stayed a couple of nights at Winterset City Park so we could visit the bridges of Madison county. It ended up being a fun quest…one we split over two days, which was nice, as this way the kids didn’t get burned out. The bridges were charming and very fun to photograph. Yes…we did watch the movie after the first day of visits, so it became more tangible for the kids. Liam even said he liked he movie! The Winterset City Park also had a unique feature…a hedge maze. We waited for an evening where we were the only ones around the maze and spent some quality family time finding our way to the center, sneaking up on each other, and appreciating Iowan treasures.
While there was much more to see in Iowa, the mountains were still calling, so we crossed into a new state…Nebraska! In researching what we could do/see while there, I came across my new favorite quote from the NE Department of Tourism: “Only boring people get bored!” There really is so much so see and do, even in the states others may dismiss. Liam and Ella don’t love me using the quote with them, but hey…I like it! We decided to focus our time on a couple of National Monuments. With the forecast being 102 degrees and similar, we weren’t too keen on sightseeing or just SLEEPING in the RV without our air-conditioning. Luckily, we found a city park in Beatrice, Nebraska that had full hook-ups for a reasonable price. This allowed us to spend a relaxing afternoon/evening in Beatrice before exploring Homestead National Monument the next day. Homestead National Monument is a informative and interesting stop. While it may be a lesser-known National Monument, there’s a lot of history to absorb. The Visitor’s Center was open, which meant a rare opportunity (in CoVid times) for us to get back to speaking with park rangers, watching the informational video, and touring the museum on the lower level. I particularly enjoyed that the information surrounding the Homestead Act was presented through multiple lenses (Native Americans, Black homesteaders, Latinos, and women as well). Another interesting aspect of this monument is that they have databases set up where you can search to see if any relatives acquired lands under the Homestead Act. We did this of course, with masks on, and the minute I was done (after using ample hand sanitizer), an employee came through and disinfected all the computer terminals. This was very reassuring for the portion of our family that has much anxiety about germ transfer these days.
We stopped one night in Gothenburg, Nebraska as it was a comfortable driving day (Nebraska is a very long state!). We had hoped to get a nice quiet museum tour of the Pony Express Museum, but the morning we went was busy. The museum is quite small, so they only allowed one family at a time to enter. We entered, spent a few minutes looking around and exited to let others in. While it was a short stop, we did learn a few things we didn’t know before, so we’re calling it a win! Also, we decided that in another time, we’d like to come back to the area and tour Bailey Yard, the largest railroad yard in the world. While we aren’t railroad enthusiasts by any means, it certainly looks interesting and we heard that quite a few retired rail men and women give some great tours.
Our final experience in Nebraska this trip was Scotts Bluff National Monument. We were interested in learning more about the Oregon Trail, seeing Chimney Rock (who wouldn’t want to after playing Oregon Trail?), and perhaps seeing wagon ruts still visible today. While the grounds and drive to the summit were open, the visitor center was again closed, so we got a map, and set out walking along a portion of the Oregon Trail. Again, we were fortunate to be able to listen to an audio tour on one of our phones, so we knew the significance of what we were viewing and gain an understanding of why the area was such an obstacle to those traveling West in covered wagons. We also drove up to the summit and had a lovely stroll around the top. The views of Gering and Scottsbluff (towns to the East) were lovely. The bonus part was that were was a little breeze at the top, which provided a break from the heat of the 102 degree day! If you’re headed West through Nebraska, we think this would be an excellent stop!
I’m positive we have more to see and do in Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska and that we’ll be back someday. Some of us want to go “tanking” (look it up…it’s a Nebraskan past-time!), there’s some scenic drives that look beautiful, and when the CoVid epidemic is under control, there are more museums, eateries, and recreational activities that would make for more heartland fun. For now, we are glad we took the time to journey through some new-to-us states, and as always, we are thankful for the people and places that make this adventure one we will always remember.