Dakotas part 1 – Pittsburgh PA to Mitchell, SD

Dakotas part 1 – Pittsburgh PA to Mitchell, SD

We set off on a sunny October day from Zelienople, PA, the base of my old flying club. We were flying ‘573, a four-seat Cessna 172 with an engine that had been upgraded from 160hp to 180hp. It didn’t offer much extra speed, but definitely gave a significant improvement in take-off distance and climb rate. With three of us on board plus camping gear, a little extra power was very welcome.

We had a pretty long way to go on this first day, across the wide flat mid-western states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. The flights were fairly unremarkable and Mike and I shared the flying duties, giving plenty of opportunity for sight-seeing. Juvy had created a sort of nest in the back of the airplane that would be her photography base for the next couple of weeks; after her first big adventure the previous year she had bought a fancy DSLR camera and some lenses to properly document our future travels!

We barely saw a cloud across the whole of Ohio. In Indiana, we stopped at Warsaw Municipal airport for fuel, before continuing west; we were chasing daylight.

Dakotas trip, day 1

Our next stop after Warsaw was Clinton Municipal Airport, on the very eastern edge of Iowa. We saw an occasional other aircraft down below us, mostly cruising down low while we were up at around 8,000 feet. We had a slight headwind, typical when heading west, but nothing too frustrating.

As evening drew in, we droned across Iowa towards the setting sun. We were stopping for the night in Council Bluffs, Iowa; right on the border with Omaha. We were stopping here because it was convenient for our first tourist destination of Omaha, Nebraska; home of the world famous Omaha Zoo.

We touched down at Council Bluffs where our rental car was waiting for us, and drove across the state line into the center of Omaha. Juvy had arranged a hotel suite for us using points from work travel; it had two bed rooms, and a couch in the main room that could be slept on! Perfect for the three of us.

The gel ear seal on my headset had leaked all over my head during the day, so I took it with me to the hotel, having bought a new set of ear seals at an FBO, to try and work out how to replace them. After settling in to the hotel, and reading a local news article all about an unfortunate penis self-mutilation, we headed out for dinner at a nearby brewery and grill.

Nebraska is not well known for tourism. What is does offer, however, is the Omaha Zoo. TripAdvisor rated it the “World’s Best Zoo” in 2014, so we were keen to check it out! It first opened in 1894, and within 4 years had more than 120 animals. These days it is one of the prime tourist destinations in the country, and features several notable exhibits such as a 42,000 square foot desert dome, an enormous indoor rain forest, and a large “Gorilla Valley”.

We spent most of the day exploring the zoo and the many impressive exhibits. Several of them were under construction, upgrading them ready for new animal arrivals or just better conditions for the ones already there.

We spent the morning and half of the afternoon at the zoo before it was time to be on our way. It was without a doubt one of the most impressive zoos that I had visited, and apparently also does a lot of work in the field of conservation, in addition to their work at the main location in Omaha. They also have a top class research facility, which successfully delivered the world’s first artificially inseminated tiger and gorilla.

On the way back to the airport, we made a stop for a local specialty that Juvy was keen to experience, the “runza”. A runza is a Nebraskan specialty, and is a “yeast dough bread product” traditionally stuffed with beef, cabbage or sauerkraut, onion and seasonings. We had our introduction to the runza at the “Runza” fast food chain. For my own part, I can best describe the experience as “distressing”. Juvy provides a much more detailed account:

Before the runza, I counted myself among the ranks of those intrepid traveling gourmets, hunting down each region’s specialties. You know the type. They’ve got food blogs and Instagram posts, detailing that secret izakaya on a Tokyo back street, or snazzily-lit portaits of Nonna lovingly making cavatelli right by her olive grove. 

So when we pulled up to the squat, white Runza restaurant, I had fantasies of making like a budget Anthony Bourdain. The runza is a “regional cuisine” of Nebraska, after all. I had read all manner of things about its cultural importance. Did you know that they sell over 10,000 runza sandwiches at each University of Nebraska home football game? And it was a filled pastry. And every single cuisine’s got a filled pastry. Did I not love empanadas? Did I not love xiao long bao? Is not my hometown the spiritual home of pierogi in America? When, I asked myself, have I never loved some item wrapped in some dough and cooked?

The British who accompanied me expressed their misgivings upon entrance to the restaurant. It was a somewhat dreary affair. The lighting was fluorescent. The walls were dingy white, the floor none too clean. The smell? Not what I would call appetizing, but as they seemed to be doing brisk business, I thought nothing of it. And the menu pictures looked appetizing…like Subway sandwiches hollowed out to contain a blend of meat and cabbage and (sometimes) cheese.

Mike and I ordered, scoffing at Ross’s reticence. I recall Mike got the Swiss Mushroom Runza, and I, wanting to taste the runza at “baseline,” got the Original Runza.

And then…it arrived. Never again will I be as innocent as I was then. 

When it arrived, the “sandwich” was somewhat flatter than the pictures. Soggier, too. I didn’t think much of it. Even before I picked it up, I could see that the grease from the fillings were leaking through the bread. I didn’t think much of that, either. The best things in life are greasy, aren’t they?

I knew things were going to be interesting when Mike picked up his sandwich and made a face.

“Good?” I asked.

“No.” he said, “No. Oh no.”

“Pfft,” I thought, “perhaps he’s just picky.”

So I picked it up, and as I did, my fingers squelched through the bread. I took a bite. It was…bad. As it turns out, the cheerful photographs of happy meat-filled breads were a dirty, dirty lie. Nothing on my tongue tasted like beef. Nothing on my tongue tasted quite like cabbage. Imagine a grey sludge made of the rejects of White Castle’s burger patties and the sad ghosts of cabbages, sauced with the fat out of a McDonald’s grease trap, then imagine all of that being combined and blended into the consistency of a chunky snot and stuck into a piece of un-toasted, texture-less bread.

I persisted and ate about half of the sandwich, because I was damned if I would give up too easily. What would M.F.K. Fisher think? Could thousands of Nebraskans be wrong? Who was I to reject the processed bounty of America’s heartland? 

I took a bite of the crinkle-cut fries. Sip of soda. Tried again.


I am no intrepid food blogger. 

The runza won. 

With the runza horror behind us, we made our way back to ‘573 and took off, heading northwest towards South Dakota and the town of Mitchell. This town is relatively large for the region, with a population of a little over 15,000, and is home to the “World’s Only Corn Palace”, which Juvy had discovered in her pre-trip research. This is a large and ornate event center, decorated inside and out with murals created from various colours of dried corn and corn parts.

The flight was smooth, and fairly short, under scattered cirrus cloud. We had great views of Omaha as we headed out, and later of Sioux City as we passed off to its western side. Apart from those two urban centers, the landscape was vast open and rural with occasional farms and small villages.

Crossing the mid-west

We landed at Mitchell and were given use of the crew car for the night; our first course of action was to head towards town and find a place to set up camp. We found a lovely campsite on the shores of Lake Mitchell, and set up tents a safe distance away from Juvy’s anticipated snoring. This done, it was time to go and check out the corn palace!

It turned out that it was our lucky night! The rodeo was in town and would be starting soon. We bought tickets right away, and found some good seats to watch the show. It didn’t get much more American than watching rodeo in a rural town in South Dakota. It was a first time for all of us, and we weren’t disappointed; there were rodeo clowns, horses, bulls and more. Juvy spent most of her time right down against the fence, clicking away and filling memory card after memory card with fantastic photographs.

After the show, we had a bit of a fright; the airplane keys were not in my pocket where they should be! We spent a while having a thorough search around the seating area in the Corn Palace, before returning to the campsite and doing the same there. In the end, we discovered them on the ground back at the airport, by the pedestrian gate. Lucky escape!

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