“Why are you going to Omaha?”

Nearly every person who I told about my road trip asked in the days leading up to the cross-country adventure.

It’s an easy answer, really: two of my closest friends who know me very well told me to go. That’s it. There was no research. There was no hemming or hawing. It was simple. They said “go.” I put it on the itinerary.

So, trusting them, Erica and I pulled up to Howard Street in Downtown Omaha. Running perpendicular to the river, Howard Street is this little hamlet of quaint, restaurant-lined adorableness.

Old brick buildings baring marks of decades past with faded paint and rickety awnings give way to a patio-lined street on a brick road dotted with restaurants and bars with ample outdoor dining to take in the summer weather. And, as Erica and I sit at one of the town’s award-winning (and inexpensive) restaurants, Indian Oven, we are delighted at the charm this city oozes.

People here are friendly. Even when a driver cuts me off as we turn out of Super 8 and onto the main road, she waves, smiles apologetically and keeps going. (Which of course delights the two of us, resulting in comments to the extent of “Oh, what a sweetheart!”)

When we walk inside the restaurant to take the obligatory photos, Erica and I meet Kim Reid Kuhn, a local artist who is about to have a show there.

As we look at her work, she politely asks us if we would like to see her studio down the street.

Of course, we oblige.

 

Kimberly, along with another artist, Sarah Rowe, guide us on a walk past antique shops, vintage stores and restaurants, before we arrive to her studio. The old building with brick walls and corridors that end with huge windows letting in blankets of light, is home to numerous studios and apartments.

We enter her space and both of us smile with delight.

We are in Omaha. And have already met people to make this trip memorable.

“You all want to come out with us tonight?” Kimberly asks as we walk around her studio, taking in her latest work — a huge piece of canvas secured to the wall. “We can show you all of the cool dive bars in town.”

Erica looks at me like she just got the best present in the world — eyes wide, smile encompassing her entire face. I am pretty sure her delight at being asked mimics mine.

Why, yes. Yes, we do.

We spend a few more minutes chatting with the two artists, learning about their work and marveling at their talents, and then head out.

Later that night, after dinner and a quick walk through a little slice of downtown, we find ourselves sipping PBR for $1.75 in Midtown at a punk rock bar, Brother’s Lounge.

The bathroom at Brother’s, complete with a false lash.

“Let’s do this tour!” Kimberly exclaims as we scoot out of the first bar and head to the next, Bud Olson Bar.

When we pull up and parallel park in front of the bar, she give us a friendly warning.

“This bar … it is old men and old hookers, plus an ugly mural in the back room and birthday cake on the ceiling.”

You have to see it to believe it.

We walk into Olson’s and the smell of cat piss permeates the air. Tonight, there aren’t many old men or old hookers there. But, just walking in and sitting at the long, smelly bar seems oddly comfortable. It is a neighborhood bar, a place that has long since vanished from many cities I have visited.

Kim and Sarah know the bartender and when we go in the back to take photos of the mural, no one questions us or our loud laughter.

Then, it’s on to the last stop of the night, Oleavers, a “club” with a mix of artists, musicians and hipsters.

“Careful, you can get an STD here just by taking off your shoes,” Kim warns, laughing.

Yes, I did sit on this chair.

For a couple of hours, Kim, Sarah, Erica and I hold court at the bar, learning about the music and art culture in Omaha. We chat with the bartender, a skinny guy with thinning hair and a full beard who wears a red and blue tasselled shirt and proudly pulls out a calendar featuring the Oleavers staff. His photo instantly draws smiles. He’s perched on a motorcycle, shirtless, doing his best “rawr,” complete with a come hither look.

When it is time to go, the owner of the bar takes us into a back room to give Erica and I “gifts” to take with us — a LP, a torn poster, his employee’s Christmas stockings from last year. When he tries to give us a bottle of lighter fluid, we pass. Arms full of these little tokens of our night, we head back to our hotel on the other side of town.

As we drive home, late into the evening, Erica and I take it all in.

What an amazing night, we say to each other on repeat.

One meal, one little decision, changed our entire time in Omaha.

And, that, my friends, is the beauty of travel. And Omaha.

Editor’s Note: This post is a part of the #winosontheroad series. Over Yonderlust and d travels ’round went road tripping and exploring America from Colorado to Maryland in June 2012. Be sure to check out all of the posts of life on the open road.

40 comments

  1. Omaha?? Who knew Nebraska could be so cool? Seriously, this sounds like SO much fun, D. I wish I’d meet super cool artists who’d show me all the best dive bars in town. This is so not how I pictured Omaha in my mind at all – just goes to show that preconceptions can be wrong.

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  2. That sounds like a ridiculous amount of fun! Especially reading it from the confines of my office… And I love how open you guys were. Kimberly sounds awesome Love the vintage-y pics. Yay Omaha!

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    1. It was such fun! Actually, our entire trip was about hanging out with locals and seeing places we wouldn’t see if we were just playing tourist. Although we definitely did some of that, too!

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    1. I have the pleasure of living 5 minutes from Omaha and the art is amazing lately – very talented people with unique takes on vision.

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  3. It does sound like an interesting place to go! Great luck that you met Kim to show you some places you might not have found on your own. Looks like you had a fun night!

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    1. Kim and Sarah were SO amazing!! We had such a great time seeing what other visitors wouldn’t get to say. I think any place you visit is always made better when you meet locals. So important to try to get out there and be friendly!

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  4. I was just listening to this, and then your post popped up in my reader. Think this is the first time I’ve read about the place, it looks fun!

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  5. As someone who moved to Omaha in November, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your piece. Thank you for spreading the word about Omaha’s awesomeness. Most of my friends and family wondered, “Why Omaha?” when I told them we were moving here. I’m happy to report everyone who has visited us this summer now understands the answer. I briefly met Kim — along with many other fabulous people — at an amazingly original event called ElevATE. My love of my new hometown has prompted me to launch a blog on which I wrote about the event. Like your recent experience, it really summarized Omaha for me. http://www.omahaha.com/2012/06/15/stored-potential-its-not-just-art-on-a-grain-elevator/

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  6. I’m a lifelong Omaha resident (other than 4 years away in college) and I’m very glad that you wrote this and gave this kind of view of Omaha. My friend Binoy’s family runs the Indian Oven restaurant you featured. He’ll be glad to see the mention here.

    Omaha has developed quite the art scene over the past decade, and Conor Oberst and company have made it a music destination as well. If you wanted to do nothing but look at galleries and catch the local music scene you could make an entire vacation out of that.

    There are also plenty of touristy things to do here; I hope you had a chance to check out the zoo, the shopping, and some of the restaurants. The Old Market area is great, but there is a lot more to Omaha than that too.

    Anyone that is a sports fan should come and experience the College World Series here at least once. And if Omaha wins the bid to host the Olympic Swimming Trials for a 3rd time in 2016 it will be fun to see how they try to top the event that was put on this year.

    The people of Omaha do really make the city. There is a nice balance of major city amenities and small town friendliness here right now that I’ve only seen in a few other places. You literally can walk up to about anyone here tell them you’re from out of town and that you’d like to see the city and you’ll likely get a pleasant response with many more suggestions than you’ll have time to see.

    And if you’re looking to move to the midwest Omaha has one of the best local economies around. Plenty of jobs and tons of affordable houses. — The only negative I can say about the city is that the weather goes from one extreme to another and it can change in a hurry. Tornadoes are the only natural disaster you have to worry about, and it is pretty rare that they even come close to the city.

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    1. Indian Oven was SO delicious. I think we met the manager.

      The art and music scene seems like it is really big in the city, which is great. We were only in town two nights, so just had the one day to explore. We actually had Arkansas’ baseball team staying at our hotel. 🙂

      I love the people we met — they were so friendly and so warm. It made the city and our time there really, really special.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

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  7. I’ve lived in Omaha for almost 20 years, what you experienced is exactly why I’ve made Omaha my Homaha. The local art and music scene is fantastic, and we have no shortage of freaky places to drink cheap beer and friendly people to drink it with. I’m so glad you came to visit. I hope you come back!

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    1. Thank you so much, Rosey! I love that so many people who live/lived in Omaha took the time to comment and share their thoughts. I really enjoyed my time there and do plan on making it back!

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  8. So glad you were able to see what I’ve been telling people about my city for years. I love being from Omaha and living here. There is so much to do and see. I get discouraged when I hear locals say it’s boring here. It’s not, you just have to PARTICIPATE! It’s the very rare occasion that I don’t have something to do. From sand volleyball leagues to free outdoor movies and jazz concerts at Midtown Crossing to the many gallary walks in the Old Market, there is always something to do for every budget. And I haven’t even mentioned our world class zoo yet! Thank you for presenting Omaha as the true gem that it is.

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    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to write, Kimberly! I love how much everyone who commented on this post from Omaha loves their city! I am so thankful we got to experience it and share our story. I hope to make it back there after I am done in Thailand! It is a place I could see myself living.

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  9. That sounds like a fabulous and intriguing place. When my friend Syd and I visited the States a good few years ago, we really enjoyed stumbling across little towns like this (if only I could remember where half of them were!)

    I’m even more impressed that with all those dive bars to go to, one of you had the willpower to avoid alcohol all night so that you could drive. I think I’d have caved in, drunk and taken a cab!

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  10. When we drove across the U.S. we stopped in Lincoln, NE to visit some friends who had moved there. I gave my friend no end of trouble for living in the middle of nowhere…. but once we got there, we found that it’s actually a rather cute town!

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  11. We had to reroute our cross-country move NOT to include Omaha, and I was actually pretty bummed! Even though I’d just been to Carhenge two months before, I was actually excited to see Nebraska’s “cosmopolitan” hub.

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  12. I love reading this post. I think there are a lot of cities like this that people can easily pass by and think there’s not much there. Glad you had such a good time in Omaha.

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  13. Only thing that happened to me in Omaha was I got stopped by a cop on the highway and they thought I had stolen the rented Trailblazer I was driving at the time. I wish I would have been in dive bars trying not to catch STDs on my feet! 🙂 Awesome post, awesome experience!!

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