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My mom getting some fresh air in Ottumwa, IA, with the California Zephyr in the background

Kev’s Travels: November 2019’s trip – Activities and Returning Home

Fun times in Nebraska and returning home

If you have been following along, you know that I spent five days in the greater Omaha, Nebraska area.  If you want to get caught up with the trip, it starts here. The journey wasn’t the most exciting, but I had a great time.

My role as a beloved uncle to Mackenzie is continually changing as she grows, and I learn the changes and needs with every visit. A human niece is undoubtedly different than the bond with Abby, the Newfie, my fur niece. I think I mastered the fantastic older brother role (cough). Don’t ask my sister; she may disagree. I am working on the balance of being a great uncle to both Mackenzie and Abby. Both of them want a lot of attention and love. Love is easy to share, but when they both want your attention, that is a challenge when both have limited vocal skills and lack understanding.

Abby still loves me!

Abby and balls
Her happy place, outside with her toys

Abby was glad to see me, and I think she had someone to play with and focus on her. Late Fall and Winter Abby’s favorite seasons because she loves the cold, so when I could play with her outside, she was ecstatic!

While I was there, it was easier for her to go for walks with Mackenzie. She is a good dog, but she does get excited when she sees other dogs, and at 140 pounds, it is challenging to keep her under control.

Abby loves playing “catch,” but not in the typical way most dogs do because she doesn’t fetch. She wants a ball in her mouth and one to chase. To play, kick the ball for her to pursue. She will run to it but won’t pick it up because you need to run to it so you can kick it again for her to chase. This event repeats until she lays down for a rest.

Food places in the area we all liked

Runza original sandwich with fries

Visiting a fifteen-month-old can be fun; it does limit some activists. She is not big on the bars nor coffee shops, but she does have snacks and nap time, which is cool.  We did find some activities that we all enjoyed. While we did go to a few other places, I only included the unique ones to us.

Runza, a Nebraska based restaurant, has a location in downtown Papillion. Runzas carry the basics, burgers, wraps, fries, onion rings, and salads.  But, my favorite from this fast-food restaurant is their signature sandwich, the Original. As the website states, this delight contains, “Ground beef seasoned with ‘a top-secret’ blend of spices and mixed with cabbage and onions. All wrapped up in fresh-baked bread. It’s the taste that generations of Midwesterners have grown up loving, and it’s our signature sandwich. Get it topped however you want – because while we make it fresh, you make it your own.”

Smallcakes, a cupcake shop with big and mini cupcakes, cupcake shakes, frosting “shooters,” cake pops, pup cakes for dogs, and a few other delights. Smallcakes is a delightful place with staple flavors and daily specials. Mackenzie and her mom enjoy visiting here after library time because it’s toddler Tuesday, and Little Mack gets a free mini-cupcake. There is one in Papillion, but they have other locations.

Graley’s Creamery & Confections is a fun place to visit in downtown Papillion, NE. A walk into the store brings you back to an era that goes back further than the average ice cream lover’s memory. Graley’s has a large variety of ice cream flavors, and honeycomb is my favorite. The store is expanding into lunch; if you are in town, stop by for a tasty treat.

Activities we (or I) enjoyed

Kenefick Park

UP 6900 and 4023
Paula and Mackenzie checking out two retired Union Pacific powerhouses at Kenefick Park, Centennial 6900 and Big Boy 4023,

Kenefick Park is seen by many but visited by few. The park welcomes I-80 travelers to Omaha by showing off two of Union Pacific’slargest locomotives, both retired.

UP 4023
Retired Union Pacific “Big Boy” 4023 welcomes drivers along I-80 to Omaha

4023 is a 1944 Alco 4-8-8-4 steam locomotive, part of the family of 25 engines know as the “Big Boys.” Union Pacific created a lot of interest in this steam engine series in 2019 after they restored and sent the slightly older 4014 out across America.

The other powerhouse is engine 6900, built by EMD in April 1969. The 6900 is a “Centennial” DDA40X diesel-electric with an output of 6000 hp using two diesel locomotives with four-axle trucks.

Kenefick Parks gives you an (almost) up-close view of these powerhouses of railroad history. The signs around the park shares Union Pacific history along with the history of the locomotives. Getting to the park is a little tricky, but not impossible. Drive to the parking lot of the Lauritzen Gardens and head to the south end of the lot where you will see the stairs and a ramp, either of those will lead you to the locomotives.

Omaha Zoo

Mom and Mack
Mackenzie and her mom walking through the aquarium at the Omaha Zoo

The Omaha Zoo has become a popular activity during my visits. The zoo is open year-round with indoor and outdoor displays for your enjoyment. Most buildings are somewhat close to each other, so if you go to the zoo in cold weather, you can still get a lot out of your visit without freezing any body parts off.

Mack and fish
Mackenzie showing me her favorite exhibit

Mackenzie would undoubtedly tell you (if she was talking, she 15 months give her a break) that the aquarium is her favorite. As you walk into the aquarium, there is an opportunity to make contact with a starfish. Mackenzie does not seem to be a fan of touching critters that live in the water.  Mackenzie loves the first aquarium, a large trank full of fish that are silver in color. She loves watching these fish and will do it for a long time. If it is possible to get her past the puffins and penguins exhibits, she’ll follow through the rest of the aquarium.

Other exhibits include the desert, nocturnal animals, insect and butterfly house, rainforest, giraffes, and elephants. There might be more exhibits open, but those were the ones we hit up.

The growing uncle and niece bond

UP 6900
“Centennial” UP 6900

This article almost missed an essential part of my life, my relationship with Mackenzie. My friendship with my niece continues to grow every time I see her. Honestly, I never knew I could love a tiny human so much. She loves to invite me, and others, into her world. She loves to come up with an outstretched hand, meaning give me your finger, I want you to come into my world.

This trip was the first time I watched both girls, Abby, the Newfie, and Mackenzie, all by myself. Everything went well; no one got hurt, and not too many tears (from either of us).

Thanks you for Knut, Uncle Kevy

Mack and Knut
Mackenzie and Knut

Mackenzie’s curiosity about the exhibits adds to our enjoyment of the Omaha Zoo. Every visit, she becomes more engaged, not only with the animals but with her with us. Her little pointer finger is busy while as she tries to share what she sees or conform, she sees what you want her to see. Here too, when she is allowed to walk around, she will pull you into her world and shows you what she thinks you should see. I think she is learning how to wrap her favorite uncle around her finger.

When she was younger (not that she is that old now), she fell in love with Kunt’s story, a polar bear from the Berlin Zoo. So now for her, she calls all polar bears Knut. The Omaha Zoo does not have “Knuts,” but it does have a gift with small stuff polar bears and other critters, easily purchased by Uncles.

While we were in the gift shop, my sister pointed out the little guys, and I thought it would be a great idea to show Mackenzie the cute plush feller. When I put him in her stroller, she had the joy, and happiness would soften the most hardened heart.  So, this meant someone’s debit card was about to make an appearance at the register, and my sister did contribute; she let me use her Zoo Membership Card to get 5% off.

The ride home

Amtrak Coffee
Coffee tastes better on the rails — coffee from Amtrak’s cafe car.

To bring my mom back home, we took the California Zephyr and Hiawatha home. The Zephyr came into Omaha a little late, and although we left 32 minutes late but arrived 19 minutes early into Chicago. There is some padding build into the schedule.

Amtrak Coach
Amtrak Superliner coach seating

The train ride went well, and we ended up sitting in the same seats that we came out in on. My mom likes to sit by the stairs; these seats are in the middle of the car and not far from the lower-level restrooms.

We board the train before the foodservice open, so after we crossed the Mississippi and started rolling through Iowa, enough time had passed that I could grab something from the cafe. I made my way down to stairs to purchase a cinnamon roll and coffee. Amtrak travel tip: have the cinnamon roll heated; it adds to the goodness. I enjoyed these treats as I relaxed in the lounge car for a while; I almost had the car to myself.  This car is a great place to sit back and enjoy the scenery.

My mom and I did have lunch in the dining car with two guys from New Zealand! We chatted about our trips and families while I enjoyed the veggie burger with cheese and bacon (I am not a vegetarian, but it’s a tasty burger). My mom enjoyed an Angus cheeseburger; both of us had chips with our burgers.

Amtrak Veggie Burger
A Veggie Burger with cheese bacon from Amtraks Dining car

After arriving in Chicago, we walked over to the Hiawatha waiting area. We had extra time to catch the early train home. It was nice to get home a few hours earlier.

Wrap up

I hope that you enjoy these articles. Not every trip needs to be exciting. Sometimes relaxing with loved ones is all that is necessary for a great trip. Thanks to my sister for several of the photos in this article.

Safe Travels! 


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Kev has traveled over 125,000 miles on over 660 trains all around the United States aboard Amtrak. When he is not moving, Kev enjoys making music as an organist.

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