Safari in Our Backyard: Nebraska’s Wildlife Safari

It might seem an unlikely place for a safari: 16 miles west of Omaha, Nebraska. But all it takes is one leisurely drive through Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari to find it’s actually an ideal place to see wildlife in their natural habitat.

The park is owned and operated by the world-renowned Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo — a surefire sign of quality.

Visitors see the wildlife primarily from their air conditioned cars, ala Bear Country in South Dakota. The journey begins by winding through hills and forested areas. What starts as glimpses of elk turns into close-up encounters with American Elk — some males butting each other with their horns, others just basking in the sun.

As you weave over the gravel paths, you’re transported to what feels like the mountains of Colorado. If you look closely, you’ll catch white-tailed deer under shade trees in the distance. The deer have perfectly natural camouflage, so you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled.

One of the most memorable encounters are in the wetlands with what loos like pelicans that approach your car, getting so close you actually have to weave away from them for fear of hitting one. The birds are hard to miss — much bigger in person as you stick your head forward to get the most extreme close-up possible. It’s like fantastic wildlife photography on a silver platter, courtesy of the Wildlife Safari.

It’s also a good time to educate yourself and your traveling party on some of the major environmental issues we’re facing as you weave through these rapidly diminishing areas. Twenty-two states have lost at least half of their original wetlands — Nebraska alone has lost about 80 percent. I don’t think any of us, even the staunchest global warming deny-ers, would want to only see these habitats at area attractions and parks. That’s orchestrated naturalism — not genuine nature.

Bird enthusiasts will continue to be pleased, as they encounter sandhill cranes, their distinctive red heads and peg legs dotting the wetlands. Graceful swans and blue and green-winged teal and wood ducks share vast expanses of water.

One of the few areas where you emerge from your car is a quarter-mile trek to see black bears and gray (a.k.a. timber) wolves. Though most of the park is handicapped accessible, unfortunately my grandmother and I were unable to get her wheelchair over the bumpy, rocky trek enroute to see the gray wolves at wolf canyon. We were able to get a close-up look at a large black bear, thanks to a relatively smooth, quarter-mile path up to the bear’s quarters. Along the way, we looked very closely for owls in large cages, masquerading as leaves and trees, thanks to nature’s camouflage.

Some of the most impressive sights were saved for last. Long before you even encounter the bison, you can see a few of the largest off in the distance, as you wind through heavily-wooded areas with delicate pronhorn antelope.

Eventually, you get so close to the bison you feel you could almost touch them (though they don’t cross right in front of your car to the extent that the pelicans and other large birds do, which probably draws a sigh of relief for many passer-by). The largest American bison at the park is about six feet tall at the shoulder and weighs almost 2,100 pounds. I’m pretty sure I captured a photo of him — after all, the guy is pretty hard to miss.

The safari is also home to the unusual white buffalo, which is highly significant to Native Americans. Virtually all Native Americans see the birth of a white buffalo as the most significant of prophetic signs, akin to how Christians might perceive the second coming of Christ.

One of the most disturbing encounters was not by any means with the animals who call this place home — it was with the human visitors who had this area on loan to them for a few hours.

There were several people who actually got out of their cars to experience an even closer look at the bison, despite literature and instructions to remain in your car. There is a reason why this is called the “Wildlife” Safari — these animals are still wild.

If a bison does decide to charge or use its 2,000 pounds to rock a vehicle, the only creature I feel for is the provoked or threatened one who would inevitibly have to be put down if it attacked a human. My response to the human: “Good. It’s called thinning the herd.”

Sound harsh? Yes. My point is we must respect nature. This is a gem of an attraction in an unlikely place. Humans have already destroyed so much of these animal’s natural habitats, they must be told time and time again not to litter along the path and here they are, getting out of their cars, peeking their heads out of sun roofs and in general just making a scene.

Trips to such parks are times for leisurely reflection as well as enjoyment. Use these opportunities to also educate oneself and others about these creatures and humanity’s impact on them.

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News flash: Vegetarians Don’t Eat Meat and Wendy’s Stop “Those” Commercials

Just a taste of more to come tomorrow …

I recently was at a restaurant and told the waitress that I was a vegetarian.

Her response: “That’s okay. We have fish.”

This has happened often.

News flash to anyone who thinks they are a vegetarian but they eat fish, seafood, chicken (yes, some pseudo-vegetarians actually think they’re vegetarians and they actually eat poultry): You are NOT a vegetarian.

I take this as a personal affront. To me these people do not adequately understand what it means to be a vegetarian. To be a vegetarian you don’t eat, nor do you have the desire to eat anything that ever had a mother, ever breathed, be it under water or on land. Fish fall into the category, as do those disgusting sea cucumburs. They may be so-called simple creatures, but they are still creatures.

Also, Wendy’s please stop the “Meat-atarian” commercials already. We get the point. And it’s disgusting.

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Get Super Minty

Now more than ever I have had to monitor every dime I spend. I’m trying to turn this into a fun challenge. As if living paycheck to paycheck could ever be fun! But this discipline and diligence IS a challenge and is really testing my limits, my sheer will power.

I do have someone in my corner. If you haven’t heard about it already it’s a site called Mint.com at www.mint.com. Basically, it’s a secure site where you attach all of your credit cards, investments (such as Roth IRAs and 401ks), debit cards and savings and any loans. Every time you deposit into your savings account, spend a dime on your debit card, or pay off a portion of your student loan or car payment, Mint.com will monitor it.

It creates a pie chart that shows exactly where you are spending your money. It creates pie charts for each month, the past three months and then an all-inclusive, all-time pie chart. This better demonstrates how your spending has fluctuated, i.e. when you go on a trip or have a massive, unexpected expense.

Another interesting, albeit scary, aspect of Mint.com is it also tracks each shop you frequent. It creates a running tabulation showing, for example, that you visited Buckys Gas six times this month and Target four times. It also shows how much you spent at each shop or business.

For example, from June 1 to September 1 I spent $327 at Starbucks over the course of 61 visits. Yes, Starbucks, I am the cog that keeps your machine running during the so-called difficult times. I’m addicted.

Even though you may not curb your addictions or shop-aholic tendencies it does provide food for thought. It has encouraged me to be better about documenting my spending and tracking each expense that I make. I do think twice about buying those burgundy Mary Jane pumps at Target, and I do really agonize if I really need that lemon bar with my iced white chocolate mocha. Every bit helps.

Oh, be sure to get set up for alerts on your cell phone or e-mail. You can set up alerts that notify you when, say, your bank account dips below $500 or one of your credit cards drops below $1,000 balance.

One caveat: If you are a customer of smaller credit unions or local banks, you may not be able to attach your account so that it may be tracked by Mint. You will have to contact Mint’s representatives, who will then do the digging for you by checking with your establishment to see if your account can be linked. Be advised that this can take some time. In the meantime, any larger establishments or better-known banks and businesses have already partnered with Mint.

Among them, one of my favorites, Sallie Mae. I give most of my paycheck unwillingly to her. The portion I give to Mr. Star Bucks now, that’s really my fault!

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Stuck in El Hell

Around this time last week I was sitting on the El. That’s how my traveling party and I spent the better part of our vacation. Sitting on the El.

The weekend of two major games, the Cubs vs. the Cardinals and the White Sox vs. the “other” Sox, the Chicago Transit Authority decided to take on a big construction project. This construction project involved rerouting trains and more. Read on.

Let’s just say this isn’t a good idea at the height of the tourist season with already bumbling tourists even more confused, and highly drunk baseball fans navigating even more blindly through these frustrating alterations to their schedules.

Perhaps the most frustrating construction snafu involved when we had to get off of the train at Jefferson Park. We walked out to a bus, which transported us to the NEXT stop, Montrose, where we RE-BOARDED the train. Yes, we had to get off of the train for ONE stop to bypass the construction.

It was quite exasperating. The bus ride alone was tedious enough.

Look, I understand the need for progress and often necessary changes to outmoded systems. I understand the value and need for construction. I don’t want to sound like an incessantly complaining Andy Rooney on one of his “grumpy old man” tirades.

I am just saying that the re-routing was quite confusing even for someone who knows the El well (I lived in Chicago for six years). The one-stop bus ride was just exasperating and time-consuming.

If I and my travel companions were confused and had much of our leisure time eaten up by never-ending train rides and attempts to find stations which were actually open amid all this construction, I can’t even imagine what tourists new to the area must have gone through. This construction truly had the potential to destroy what limited time they may have had to enjoy themselves.

All I am saying is that better planning could have made this run a lot more smoothly, not to mention better TIMING. Making such massive changes during a weekend where two big games are taking place and at the height of the tourist season is simply not a good public relations move. Though someone will always complain about the inconvenience, I believe it is all the more justified in this case.

I, and the many people who shared the trains with me that week, would like to know what CTA was thinking … Some nasty psychedelic fumes must have blown into the Windy City and headed straight for CTA chairman Carole Brown’s office when she and other organizational leaders made that decision.

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Don’t Take Nyquil, Visit Nebraska, Well, Actually …

I never noticed it before but there was something actually beautiful about driving along Highway 6, weaving through little Nebraska towns.

As a native Nebraskan, I spent the first 17 years of my life figuring out ways to get out of my small, central Nebraskan town. I thought there was nothing more boring than the endless rows of corn and stretches of flat land. 

I now make the hellishly boring two-and-a-half hour drive from Omaha to Hastings every weekend to see my grandmother, who is currently living at a nursing home in Blue Hill, pop: 800. As I mentioned, I dispute that population number. I think they’ve included the pheasants, chipmunks and other creatures that dart out in front of me during the drive back and forth from Hastings to Blue Hill.

This weekend there was some awful road construction taking place on the Interstate. After traffic came to a standstill and we lurched ahead at 5 miles an hour max, I decided to get off onto Highway 6, at the first exit (first escape) that became available.

It was a pleasant departure from the norm. The landscape was incredibly hilly (yes, there are hills in Nebraska so, yes, Blue HILL actually makes sense) and several times I felt as if I’d been transported back to the 1940s, sometimes 1960s, but definitely not this decade.

It was Saturday. People had lined up outside small-town, walk-up ice cream shops and hamburger stands.

Some downtowns seemed quite vibrant. Charming. The streets covered in bricks.

An old neon sign (circa: 1960) proclaimed “Welcome to Exeter.”

Used car dealerships held on in towns that are losing more and more people every day.

Neat little brick houses with well-trimmed bushes and well-groomed lawns were set off from the road.

Horses rolled around in the dirt, and waded in the water, so close to the road you felt you could touch them.

It got you to slow down and look around. You didn’t need to, didn’t want to, go 75 miles or 80 miles an hour, just hoping that the tedious, dull stretch of asphalt would just end.

I will take that road again. Next time around I’ll bring a camera. How many of these towns will be around in a year or two? It needs to be documented. Most people don’t live like this, or ever have the chance to live like this. To slow down. To simplify.

I finally understand “why” some people decide to stay in a small town, though the numbers are falling. Beauty is not simply found in a scintillating, architectural wonder such as a skyscraper, an awe-inspiring tropical rainforest like the ones I trekked through in Australia, or an ocean dotted with islands as I saw in New Zealand.

That beauty is face value. This beauty is harder to find, and harder to understand. But if you stand still long enough, or drive slow enough, you’ll capture it. It can hook you. And after 29 years of not understanding or making sense of “why” anyone could embrace this seemingly barren region, you finally get it.

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Penniless in a Nursing Home: When Long-Term Care is No Longer An Option

My bread and butter often involves writing stories about long-term care insurance, elder care and senior issues. Yet my own grandmother did not have long-term care insurance.

Let me preface this by saying my grandmother reared me. She is my mom. Without her my sister and I probably would have been shuffled through the foster care system. 

Over the past few weeks I have had to wrestle with the guilt of “sticking” her in a nursing home. I am three hours away. If I had my way, and could make all my student loans disappear and all my responsibilities disappear, I would be there with her — I would be taking care of her, not some strangers who, from what I’ve witnessed, shove her in front of a television to pass the day away.

It’s a sad, lonely procession. A bunch of wheelchairs in a row, watching a television program that is typically about Jesus being cruxified. More importantly, wheelchairs that are filled by more-than-half-empty people who appear to have been discarded. Forgotten by family members, husbands have passed on, friends no longer visit.

After my grandmother got out of the hospital (she survived her second bout with pneumonia), I was asked by the case manager assigned to her: “Does she have the $4,000 a month to pay for her care?”

Stupid question. Yes, we all just have $4,000 PER MONTH lying around. Here, I’ll give you that $4,000 to cover this month. Oh, heck, why don’t I just give you the full $48,000 in one lump sum since I just have it sitting around?

I don’t know a lot of people who could afford that. And this nursing home is in podunks-ville Nebraska. Pop: 800. Not counting the hogs and horses. Facilities in other places cost twice as much.

The case manager went on to say that after my grandmother/mom exhausted Medicare, she would have to either leave or get on Medicaid. To get on Medicaid, she would have to sell her house AND deplete her assets. See the sad circle we all keep walking round and round in?

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Social welfare is non-existent in this country.

Now, more and more people, primarily the Baby Boomer generation, are opting for long-term care insurance. Only because they saw their parents go through what I am seeing my grandmother go through. Their parents didn’t have a plan. They had a casket and funeral paid for by Medicaid, yet no house or other assets to pass on to their grandchildren.

The only answer is to dig into already depleted resources, and start investing in such insurance at an age where the cost won’t be quite so exorbitant.

Our grandparents and parents never really considered long-term care insurance. Yet they were members of the Greatest Generation. Their values built this country, for good or for bad, but mostly for good. My grandfather was 14 when he went to work and live on his own. He fought in the Pacific Theatre, and watched many men (boys, actually) die. How many people now would be able to handle that, and at such a young age?

The survivors of that generation are now, many of them, penniless, sitting in a procession of wheelchairs, watching TVLand.

At least they have Medicaid.

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Oh, Behave! News Anchors Gone Wild

As I returned home from a day of writing articles and setting up interviews, I was reminded of my television past. Well, some of the rather bad aspects of my television past.

My significant other told me that someone who worked in the market he worked in previously had been arrested for a hit and run.

According to police reports, this individual, a weekend anchor, was drinking and driving around 6:30 in the evening. Long story short, this anchor ended up hitting some cars and eventually landed on someone’s lawn.

The news “professional” tried to make a run for it, Someone in the neighborhood approached him and told him he wasn’t going anywhere, to which our drunk and delusional local celeb responded that he was an anchor for Channel ___ and could go whatever the &@*!#% he wanted to do.” At that point, this guy takes off, leaving his BMW behind.

Eventually, police catch up with him. The anchor’s response: “I know I’m drunk … What can I do to make this go away?” Apparently, he also had some difficulty controlling his bowel movements.

There are, of course, idiots, scumbags and dangerously troubled people in every profession but as a public figure, viewers look to anchors for news on hit and run drivers. They do not expect to get an up close and personal look with their windshield as they’re sitting at the dinner table.

Drinking and driving, no matter what your role in society, is a bad idea with often tragic consequences; however, as a person in the public spotlight you realize that people are watching you, sometimes even at the grocery store when your hair is a horrible mess. You act accordingly. Not only are you shaping your own “brand” if you will, but you are also representing the organization, the station. Though you may despise that organization, you realize that your livelihood and even dignity relies heavily on how you behave.

Throwing out the station’s name in a drunken stupor to a possible viewer, pulling out the whole “Don’t you know who I am?!” card and, most notably, pooping in front of police officers (officers he has no doubt interviewed in the past) is no way to behave.

Of course, soiling in your pants no matter your stature in front of anyone, unless you’re a baby, is no way to behave.

Oh, at last report, the guy has not been terminated. I have known people who have done far less (i.e. worked their butts off and gave their all to organizations) who have been fired. This could very well change in the next few days, if it hasn’t already. But it has already been four days since the incident happened …

The station is not saying anything. It’s called PR.

I guess their weekend anchor, his BMW, altered state and dirty drawers spoke volumes.

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