Hole in the Rock

Two Days Spent in Phoenix

To wrap up October, I set off to explore another state – Arizona. This trip had been in the works since May, when I decided to throw in a mini mid-week fall vacation. Since Southwest had bargain fares for Phoenix, I decided to head for “The Grand Canyon State”. After arriving on my early morning flight, I was ready to start seeing everything that this desert city had to offer!

Arizona is known for its mountains, and so I decided that Dobbins Lookout, a scenic mountaintop observation point, would be my first stop. A part of South Mountain Park, one of the largest municipal parks in the country, Dobbins Lookout is the highest publicly-accessible point in South Mountain. The best part is that there is no hiking required – winding mountain roads take you all the way up to the summit, clocking in at an elevation of 2,330 feet. Look at those views!

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A stone ramada made for a great place to hang out, while also providing shelter from  the direct sun in those hot summer months.

dobbins lookout

Due to it being a weekday, there weren’t a lot of other people around. The lack of noise made it a pretty serene place to be, and although the temperatures were slowly starting to climb, the lack of humidity kept it relatively comfortable.

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Dobbins Lookout is one great spot to see Phoenix and the Valley of the Sun.

After enjoying the sights for about an hour or so, it was time to explore the city, starting with the Arizona State Capitol. Located close to downtown, the state capitol complex is unlike any other I’ve seen, with a design similar to the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Unlike D.C. though, there was an abundance of free parking!

Arizona State Capitol
Making up Arizona’s capitol complex is the Bolin Memorial Plaza, with the capitol museum and executive tower in the background.

Starting off with the Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza, different memorials paid tribute to military veterans, law enforcement, and firefighters, just to name a few. There was also a 9/11 memorial, and other various markers commemorating the different wars the U.S. has been involved in.

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A mast and anchor from the USS Arizona, which was one of the ships bombed during Pearl Harbor, was also on display here.

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Before heading into the capitol museum, I stopped by the House and Senate buildings flanking it. Both were open to the public, and it was pretty neat seeing the legislative chambers where the laws of Arizona are made.

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The House chamber.
Arizona State Capitol
The Senate chamber.

The capitol museum, formerly the working capitol building until 1974, was well laid out and allowed me to get a good understanding of Arizona’s history. Different exhibits on the four different floors talked about various events in the state’s history, ranging from statehood to a boxcar full of gifts received from France. On that day, it was pretty busy, with a few groups of schoolkids coming here for a field trip.

Arizona State Capitol
The Arizona State Capitol Museum.

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The majority of the rooms were open for visitors to explore, including the old legislative chambers, the governor’s office, and Supreme Court chambers once used to keep Arizona running.

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The old House chamber.
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The historic Arizona Supreme Court chambers.

The capitol museum had a rotunda design, like most state capitols. However, I found it to be pretty small. It wasn’t just me, as one of the main factors that caused the state to build the present day Executive Tower was overcrowding of the historic capitol.

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Arizona State Capitol

Before leaving, I briefly looked around the Executive Tower. It really is as plain on the inside as it is on the outside – nothing but state employees walking around a rather un-appealing lobby. Definitely not worth the hassle of having to go thru security.

Arizona State Capitol
The Executive Tower, where the Governor and other state officials office out of.

After lunch was a journey to the days of the Wild West, with a visit to the Wells Fargo History Museum, located in the heart of downtown.

Wells Fargo Phoenix Museum
The Wells Fargo Plaza, which houses the Wells Fargo History Museum.

As the name implies, the museum is owned and run by Wells Fargo. Admission is free, although they are closed on the weekends and bank holidays. Here, you can learn the story of the company’s history, and how they started from hauling gold and other precious metals to being one of the biggest banks in the nation.

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In addition to different artifacts and relics from their early days kept in glass displays, there were also several interactive exhibits, perfect for families with kids. Here, you get to ride on a stage wagon, get your picture taken at two photo booths, and try your hand at Morse code.

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After learning about Wells Fargo’s connection to the American Southwest, I set off to visit another museum, this one talking about the Native American population here in Arizona. At The Heard Museum, all sorts of artifacts related to American Indians are exhibited, from rows and rows of pottery to different pieces of art.

Heard Museum
Due to copyright issues, I barely took any photos. However, this is a museum that’s worth seeing, especially if you are into art or Native American culture!

With two stories and over 40,000 items, the Heard is the largest private museum dedicated to exhibiting all things Native American. All-in-all, it was an interesting hour-and-a-half experiencing the culture and story of the indigenous peoples.

Heard Museum

With the sun setting soon, it was time to head to my last stop of the day, the Hole-in-the-Rock at Papago Park. One true geological marvel, it literally is…a hole in the rock!

Hole in the Rock
The Hole-in-the-Rock at Papago Park.

One of the most popular places to watch the sunset here in Phoenix, this giant rock formation was created by the forces of erosion over millions of years. Early indigenous inhabitants used this hole to mark the different seasons and positions of the sun. To get up to the hole, a short hike is involved, with different rock formations and man-made stairs leading you all the way to the top.

Hole in the Rock

Hole in the Rock
The view while hiking up.

The hike up took around 7 minutes, although I’m sure more experienced folks can ascent much faster since it’s not a steep elevation by any means. From there, I joined others watching the Arizona sunset.

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After picking a comfortable spot, I spent around 30 minutes up here, taking in the beautiful scenery.

There was some rain that had begun to fall on the drive to Papago Park, which luckily had stopped by the time I began my ascent. Seeing some dark clouds in the distance, I decided it was time to get back down before the rain moved back in. It took me around five minutes for the descent, and I was ready for dinner and wrapping up the day after that.

Hole in the Rock
The beautiful sunset with downtown Phoenix in the background. It was a successful and fun first day here in Arizona!

After breakfast the next morning, I was ready to start another day’s worth of exploring. Yesterday I had gone to see the stuff within Phoenix, and today I wanted to hit some spots in the suburbs. Universities are someplace I usually visit in every city, and so I stopped by Arizona State University, located in Tempe.

Arizona State University Campus
The entrance to Arizona State University.

Parking my car in one of the pay-per-hour covered garages, I spent close to two hours here, checking out the various buildings that made up one of the largest public universities in the nation by enrollment.

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Most of the buildings were pretty modern, and reminded me of my school, UT Dallas. The exception to that would be Old Main, the first building constructed at ASU back in 1898.

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Arizona State University Campus
Old Main.

Old Main, used by the alumni association, is open to the public and welcomes visitors. The lady that greeted me gave me a brochure, which detailed a self-guided tour thru various rooms like the historic auditorium. Unfortunately, most of these rooms listed were closed off. However, the second-floor balcony was open, providing a great view of University Drive.

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Arizona State University Campus
Photos show different historical milestones here at ASU.

After this short tour was over, I continued exploring the campus. I happened to walk into a random building when I discovered a room with a glass observation window. It turned out that this was the operations center of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera, capturing the surface of the Moon in a partnership with NASA.

Arizona State University Campus

There were free posters, postcards, and other small souvenirs that were placed by the guest book for visitors to take. Definitely unique!

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Finishing up at ASU, I stopped by several other places on campus, like the Memorial Union and the W.P. Carey School of Business. Much like what I had seen before, they were new and modern.

Arizona State University Campus
The Memorial Union, ASU’s student union. On a weekday morning, it was pretty busy with students studying, visiting different offices, or grabbing some Starbucks.
Arizona State University Campus
The W.P. Carey School of Business.
Arizona State University Campus
A state-of-the-art video wall located inside the business school.

In the afternoon, it was time to get a real-world look into the lives of Native Americans, with a visit to the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, located in Scottsdale. Having watched various documentaries of the living conditions on many of the nation’s Indian reservations, I was curious to see firsthand how good or bad these communities were. After driving around for a few minutes and seeing mostly barren land, this ominous sign greeted me, a reminder of the substance abuse problems present.

Salt River Indian Community
The sign reads “Tradition not Addiction”.

Not all of the roads here were paved, and there were some crops being grown in fields within the reservation.

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Offices used by the tribal government were relatively modern. I didn’t go inside, but they reminded me of my visit to the Choctaw Nation in Durant, Oklahoma.

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On the other hand, a lot of the houses here were in less-than-ideal condition. Unfortunately, the landscape of the community appeared deserted and run-down in general.

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Seeing how the Native Americans live today was a real eye-opener. Problems like alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, and suicide are prevalent amongst this group of people, and real change is needed so that conditions improve.

Departing Salt River, I headed for my last destination of the trip, the Hall of Flame Fire Museum, located close to Papago Park. Originally founded in 1961, the Hall of Flame is the world’s largest firefighting museum, containing over 90 fire engines in five galleries. Add in over 10,000 various other artifacts, and you have quite the collection that displays everything in the world of firefighting.

Hall of Flame Museum

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After paying the admission fee, I got handed a binder full of information about each fire apparatus on display, which served as my virtual tour guide. From horse-drawn wagons all the way to modern-day engines, it was super cool seeing how the technology of firefighting has evolved over the years.

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Close to the back of the museum, one particular engine stood out. It was the New York Fire Department’s Rescue #4, which responded to the World Trade Center on 9/11. I learned that none of the 6 people that responded to the scene on this truck made it back.

Another exhibit I found neat at the Hall of Flame was the patch wall. Over 4000 arm patches from fire departments across the world were displayed. I was able to find the ones used by fire departments close to where I live!

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For families, this would be a great place to visit, as there is a small Fire Safety section specifically for kids, with different interactive objects to teach fire safety. On top of that, there is an antique fire engine that everyone can board for photos.

After spending over an hour here checking out all the different pieces of equipment, it was time to head to the airport, since my flight was leaving in a couple of hours. I enjoyed my time at the Hall of Flame, and Phoenix in general. This city wouldn’t have been much fun to visit had it been July, but the relatively temperate fall weather made it nice for all that exploring. Every state that I’ve visited had something unique to offer, and Arizona was certainly no exception. Although “The Grand Canyon State” is now officially off the list of states I have yet to see, I know that since I haven’t visited the Grand Canyon National Park, I will be back!

Seeing a Few Sights of Omaha

After a good night’s sleep from seeing Iowa towns like Des Moines and Ames, I made my way back into Nebraska to see the last place on my Midwest tour – Omaha. Nebraska’s largest city, Omaha is home to close to 447,000 people and sits on the banks of the Missouri River. Although there were cool things I saw in the capital city of Lincoln, Omaha had its own share of visit-worthy places I wanted to check out before heading home.

Upon arriving in town after a two-hour drive, the first stop I went to was the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge. Spanning 3000 feet long and crossing the Missouri River, this bridge links the cities of Omaha, Nebraska and Council Bluffs, Iowa.

Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge
The Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.

One super cool activity that can be done here is standing in both Nebraska and Iowa at the same time – and that I did!

Although it was a weekday morning, there was still a constant stream of foot traffic here. Many folks were getting their morning run in, while others simply came to see this piece of American engineering. This bridge has probably the best view of the Missouri River here in town! Signs placed all around served to educate visitors about the history of the river, the bridge’s origins, and so forth.

Missouri River in Omaha

Bob Kerrey Bridge educational panel

Before heading into downtown Omaha, I stopped briefly at the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters and Visitor Center, located right next to the Bob Kerrey and run by the National Park Service. As the name suggests, this place is the headquarters of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail system, which stretches through eleven states(with Omaha being a stop!).

Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters and Visitor Center.
The Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters and Visitor Center.

Although most of the building is office space used by the National Park Service, the first floor had several exhibits that talked about Lewis and Clark’s expedition. Venturing across the United States in an effort to map out and study the west, this journey took over two years back in the early 1800s. Photos and maps displayed here gave me a good clue as to the places the explorers passed through. There were also a few interactive activities that make this a good family-friendly stop. A gift shop sold Lewis and Clark themed merchandise, as well as NPS hats and other souvenirs.

Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters and Visitor Center

Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Headquarters and Visitor Center

When doing my trip planning, I saw that Union Pacific had their headquarters in downtown Omaha, and I stopped there briefly, wanting to see if there were tours available or exhibits on display.

Union Pacific headquarter building
The headquarters of Union Pacific.

My advice: not really worth stopping by unless you know someone there that can show you around. There weren’t tours, and the gift shop was disappointing. Pretty much it was just a typical multi-story office building.

From there, it was off to my next stop, the Durham Museum, a railroad museum located inside the city’s former Union Station.

Durham Museum
The Durham Museum.

Now this place is much more interesting! Built in 1931, Union Station quickly became a hub of activity, with 1.5 million passengers passing thru in its first year. Various rail lines brought people in and out of this station. However, starting in the mid-50s, rail service began to stop running thru Omaha, and the station was shuttered and turned into a museum in the 70s.

Not just any boring museum, the station’s interior has been well preserved, and is now a main focal point of this place! From the still-operating soda fountain bar to the ticket counter now serving as a gift shop, it almost felt as though I stepped back in time.

Durham Museum Great Hall
The great hall inside the Durham Museum. Look at that architecture!

Behind the Great Hall were several exhibits talking about the history of the station.

Durham Museum
Various artifacts from the station’s heyday are displayed.

Downstairs, several train cars were on display. Fully open to climb onboard, it was cool seeing how rail transportation was like back in the day.

rail cars inside a railroad museum
Pretty much all the cars were open, allowing for a glimpse into the days of rail travel.

Honestly, many of the seats inside these cars are much more comfortable than those on today’s commercial airplanes!

Durham Museum

Durham Museum

There was also a steam locomotive as well as an Omaha streetcar on display.

Durham Museum

Durham Museum Streetcar

Although a whole exhibit section and model train display was down here as well, I had to get going since my parking meter was about to run out of time, 10 minutes away back at Union Pacific’s headquarters. When I was writing this post, however, I discovered that there was free parking at the museum, so when you go, don’t make the same mistake that I did!

Durham Museum Great Hall
The Durham Museum is a must-see while in Omaha.

After lunch at Panera Bread was my last stop in town, Nebraska Furniture Mart. Living in Dallas, we have a huge NFM, which is also the biggest store in Texas. However, Nebraska Furniture Mart got their start in..you guessed it, Nebraska. I was curious to see how good(or bad) the home store would be.

Nebraska Furniture Mart
The home store of Nebraska Furniture Mart.

Founded right here in Omaha in 1937, what started as a family business has now grown to four locations in four states. The company is currently owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway.

This location is made up of three buildings. The main showroom has all sorts of furniture for sale. Everything from lamps to beds can be found here!

Nebraska Furniture Mart interior
Think of a Rooms To Go store and make it several times bigger, and you’ve got NFM Omaha.

Walking around, I was slightly disappointed. With low ceilings, and not as much energy as the Texas store, it would have been easy to mix up the two had it not been for the name that served as the obvious giveaway.

Nebraska Furniture Mart interior
No second floor, but there is a basement!

The appliances and electronics building, right next door, had gizmos like cameras, computers, and dryers. A Subway restaurant here allowed you to take a break when you got a bit tired of looking for a new washer.

Nebraska Furniture Mart interior

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The last place was Mrs. B’s Clearance Center. Also started by Rose Blumkin, the founder of NFM, this is an outlet type store selling floor samples and various clearance items.

Mrs. B's
Mrs. B’s.

There was an ample selection of products, and a constant stream of people coming in and out. One thing to keep in mind about Mrs. B’s – all sales are final.

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One giant outlet store.

All in all, although it didn’t come close to the Texas location in terms of size or people, the home store still had lots of merchandise and friendly sales associates. It was interesting seeing how this huge store many know of in Texas had humble roots right here in the Midwest.

Nebraska Furniture Mart Logo
Although I didn’t walk out with a new sofa or some rugs, it was still cool seeing NFM’s roots!

From there, it was off to the airport for my flight back home. It had been nice seeing Omaha, and what it had to offer. Although I didn’t get to visit places like the Old Market, an area in downtown filled with dining and shopping options, it was still cool checking out some of the places that make up the “Gateway to the West”.

Until next time, Nebraska!

The chamber of the Iowa House of Representatives

A City Surrounded by Farmland- Visiting Des Moines, Iowa

After a day of exploring Lincoln, Nebraska, I was ready the next morning to go see the other state I planned to visit on my Midwest trip – Iowa. Another place labeled by many as a “flyover state”, I chose to visit its capital city, Des Moines. Located close to the center of the state, it is Iowa’s most populated city. In fact, Des Moines is the only city in the Hawkeye State with a population of over 200,000!

After a nearly two-hour drive, passing by pretty much nothing but cornfields and farmland, I arrived in town. The first destination I went to was the John Deere Des Moines Works factory, located in the city of Ankeny, a suburb of Des Moines.

John Deere Des Moines Works

I took a tour of this massive plant, which I had arranged in advance. Tours are available to the public, and can be arranged by following the instructions on John Deere’s website. Although photography was prohibited, the tour was amazing! Our group of around ten people started off watching a film in a “briefing” room, followed by getting onboard a small tractor with attached seats in the back. We then went around to pretty much every building on the lot, seeing how equipment like sprayers and cotton harvesters are made first-hand.

John Deere Cotton Harvester
A cotton harvester module.

From the assembly line to the painting booth where the famous John Deere green is applied, it was a cool 1.5 hours spent seeing the work that goes into making these huge pieces of equipment.

John Deere Des Moines Works
This tour should be on your list of things to do here!

Leaving John Deere and after a nice lunch at a local pizza place, was the Iowa State Capitol.

Iowa State Capitol
The Iowa State Capitol.

Standing out immediately amongst the Des Moines skyline with its gold-covered dome, the capitol was built in 1886 at a cost of close to $2.9 million dollars. It is the only five domed state capitol in the country.

Inside, many parts of the building were open to the public for exploration, including the Governor and Lieutenant Governor’s offices!

Iowa Governor's Office
The Governor’s office.
Iowa Lt. Governor's Office
The Lieutenant Governor’s office.

On the map I got from the information desk, it showed that even the Secretary of State and the Auditor of State’s office was open for exploration. What’s to see there?, I thought. It turned out there are a few items unique to their offices that makes it worth the stop. In the Secretary of State’s space, there was the Iowa Constitution, while the state auditor had a historic safe that they let me check out.

Iowa State Constitution
The Iowa State Constitution.
Iowa State Auditor's Safe
This safe door was heavy!

Much like the rest of the country, Iowa has both a House and a Senate, and I got to see their chambers. Although the architecture of both of these chambers were not as grand as those of Nebraska, they were still very nice. Both the floor and gallery were open.

The chamber of the Iowa House of Representatives
The chamber of the House of Representatives.
Iowa Senate Chamber
The Senate’s working space.

One of the last places I saw here was the State Law Library, located on the second floor. Gorgeous would be an understatement, as the combination of five floors accessed through a spiral staircase makes this one of the grandest libraries I have seen to date.

Iowa Law Library
Libraries can’t get much nicer than this design-wise!

Although a guided tour of the Capitol was available, which (of several destinations) included a visit up to the dome, I had to get going to my next stop. However, if you have time I’d go for walking the 130 steps up there!

My last stop in “DSM” was the State Historical Museum of Iowa, located just west of the Capitol.

State Historical Museum of Iowa
The State Historical Museum of Iowa.

At first, I didn’t know that this museum was so close to the Capitol, for I would have just left my car in their free parking lot. After a few minutes of circling around trying to find a spot, I eventually found some free roadside parking, which was surprising considering there were meters everywhere else.

The museum was free of charge, and talked mainly about the story of Iowa.

State Historical Museum of Iowa

State Historical Museum of Iowa

The importance of agriculture to the state’s economy was well-mentioned, as there were a couple different exhibits talking about food production and the importance of Iowa in feeding the world.

State Historical Museum of Iowa

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There was also a section talking about the Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, or RAGBRAI for short. An annual bike ride going from one side of the state to the other, it is the largest and longest bike-touring event in the world. Artifacts from previous years rides were on display here, and display panels provided me with a detailed history as to how the event got started, equipment used, and so on and so forth.

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State Historical Museum of Iowa

Did you know Iowa had coal mines? I didn’t! A section here talked about the history of this often-dangerous job, as well as life in the mines.

State Historical Museum of Iowa Coal Miner Exhibit
Mining was(and still is) a hard and dangerous profession.

All in all, the State Historical Museum of Iowa was nice, although I will have to say the content can get pretty dry at times. It might have just been me being a bit exhausted from all the sightseeing, but some of the stuff just wasn’t too interesting to read through. That being said, this place does provide you with a well-rounded glimpse into Iowa’s past, present, and future.

Although I didn’t get to see everything in Des Moines, due to me heading off to visit Iowa State University in Ames next, many of the highlights were covered. Every state in the country has some significance, and I certainly learned quite a bit about what Iowa had to offer and the highlights of their capital city!