Labor Day Ribs

We had a lovely Labor Day weekend together, watching temperatures climb to near 100 and then drop to the 50s with a clash of thunder once the weekend was over. We made the most of the time, however, particularly having fun outdoors for one last taste of summer.

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On Friday night, Bellevue Christian Center hosted a movie night. Vivian and Aaron had missed out on our one outing to the SumTur back in July. Hannah and Aaron got some much-needed time running around on the playground before the movie started. We had been told the film would be “Homeward,” which is a knock-off of Pixar’s “Onward” produced by the infamous low-budget film company, The Asylum. Fortunately, it turned out to be “Homeward Bound,” an undoubtedly much better film, albeit one we’d seen a couple times before.

Vivian seemed happy either way to have seen at least one outdoor film this season, particularly with Covid cancelling pretty much everything fun between March and summer.


On Saturday, we had a big smoke-out/cookout at my parents’ house with a big batch of beef short ribs I’d bought from Just Good Meat. I’d never smoked ribs before, so my walked me through the process as we prepped his smoker, lit the coals, and then seasoned up the meat (with some spice from Volcanic Peppers) for a five-hour smoke job on the patio. I was amazed at how much the ribs shrank, going from square blocks to giant bone-in-meat chunks reminiscent of the Flintstones. We cut them up and served them around six, and I found just one of these meat hunks was enough for a meal it itself (in fact, I sliced some for a barbecue sandwich the next day). I’m just glad everyone was able to have a bite.

We had some fun playing with Uncle Jonny’s Nintendo Switch before we left, specifically letting the kids put together a few levels in Super Mario Maker 2, a game that wound probably keep Aaron occupied for years (if we ever got around to buying a switch). Uncle Jonny was hesitant to let him play, as he predictably wanted to keep playing well after the sun went down (and the next day as well).


Sunday was predicted to be around 100 degrees, so after church (and a little house cleaning), we decided to take the kids off to a water park. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts of research online, we found every single public pool and water park on this side of the state had been closed, some of them for the whole year. So instead, we went down to Louisville Lake for a second dip in the water instead. There was a predictably giant crowd there already for the Labor Day weekend, but we had a good time getting wet in the cold water and letting the kids have one last float on their floaties before fall.

We also had a bit of a surprise when we went to get ice cream afterward and ran into Vala’s Pig Wrangler. When he isn’t calling hogs at Vala’s, Mark Celesky runs the concession stand at Louisville Lake. We got to tell him we were looking forward to seeing him next month, and he gave our kids a pig nose before we left, which was very nice.

IMG_20200907_174728809Labor Day itself was quiet and lovely, with temperatures dipping down to the 70s. I helped my dad put away his smoker and took a nice walk with the kids to and from his house, and later on I mowed the lawn in the cool and cloudy afternoon and didn’t even break a sweat.

We’ve also been taking care of Harold’s mommy while the Mills have been in South Dakota, so we let her and Harold have a nice graze in the lawn before the cold and rain came upon us for the rest of the week.

I hope you all had a lovely three-day weekend as we unofficially kick off another fun fall season!

Life, the Universe, and Everything

I had a fantastic little birthday over the weekend, celebrating Life, the Universe, and Everything as I turned 42 — AKA the “answer.” What made it great were all the great friends and family I had to share in all the fun — and food.

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I started off my birthday having breakfast with my folks down at Summer Kitchen in Gretna. I’d gone to the Summer Kitchen in Bellevue a number of times (before it mysteriously closed), and found this one very much the same, enjoying some chicken fried steak and several cups of coffee while watching up with my folks about everything. The only difference was bulletin board full of sternly-worded Covid messages at the front door that was just a bit off putting on our way to breakfast.

Then back home, Vivian and the kids had a handful of lovely little gifts and birthday cards for me — all hand decorated with images of pizzas and mazes and cartoon versions of myself and the family. I got a candy burger and a sleep shade from the kids, along with a lovely T-shirt and a gadget for connecting our car to my smart phone from Vivian. The T-shirt was a particularly nice surprise, as I wanted a nice, goofy shirt to wear for my birthday, and this fit the bill perfectly (especially for a CATurday).


The weather had also suddenly gone from weeks and weeks of smoldering hot and humid weather to nearly fall-like 70s, so we took advantage by taking the kids down to Washington Park. We let them climb around and play on the teeter-totter while I had a lunch of fried mushrooms and cauliflower along with a banana split, all from Dairy Twist. The cool weather was heavenly after so many weeks of unbearable heat, and we could have stayed all afternoon, but I had more fun in store.


I decided to have a redo of my birthday back in 2014, namely heading down to Lincoln for some pizza at my favorite pizza joint, Big Sal’s. Yes, I’ve tried many other pizza places in Omaha and elsewhere, but I keep coming back to this little dive at 27th and Vine. Joining me were our friends Nate and Lexi, along with Phil and Jen, Jon Paper, and Jolene. Even my brother Nathan showed up, so we all enjoyed a combo, a Big Sal, and a Hawaiian pizza together. (Along with wings and chili cheese fries from Phil and Jen — who even knew Big Sal’s had those?)


After dinner, we headed on up the road to James Arthur Vineyards in Raymond. They had an evening of live music planned with no cover charge, so naturally the place was absolutely packed. The weather was also absolutely gorgeous, with temperatures in the 70s that made for the perfect evening to sit out on the patio sipping wine (and a peach boba drink courtesy of Phil and Jen). They also had a live band — Tunafish Jones — coincidentally the same band they had when I celebrated my birthday here back in 2014.

We were able to claim the very last open table in the place and watched the sun set over the rows and rows of St. Croix grapes on the horizon. I even walked up to the top to watch the sun go down and the deer come out. Lisa was able to join us for the last bit of the evening, as were Nathan, Richard, Jolene, Phil, and Jen. Nate and Lexi somehow hid inside eating truffles most of the evening, but I caught up with them later and got a pair to take home with me.


We still had things to celebrate on Sunday, not the least of which was the return of children’s Sunday School at Wildewood church. Vivian and I were able to get the kids out the door on time to participate in the kids’ activities that morning, something he hadn’t been able to do since March this year. It felt good to be back out and fellowship in person, though Vivian seemed to miss the “virtual church” we’d been able to do in our jammies instead.

Then that afternoon, Grammy came by with a birthday cake for me. This year, she created one with an ocean theme — with a chocolate layer cake sitting in a translucent ocean of blue gelatin. She was even able to put little sea creatures in the “ocean” itself. Naturally, when it came time to eat, Hannah and Aaron laid claim to various sea creatures they could see in the gelatin ocean.

The celebrating didn’t quite stop there, either. After the kids were in bed, Vivian brought up a large batch of ceviche, which she and I ate downstairs while watching Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (in preparation for the third installment of the franchise).


Then at work the next day, Dr. Keefe had our standard birthday surprised waiting at my desk — birthday banner, birthday hat (and sunglasses), and Pinkie Pie. There was also cake later, of course with candles I carefully blew out (which re-lit).

Dr. Keefe also had a gift for me: the book “Lost Restaurants of Omaha” by Kim Reiner, a book that coincidentally contains a few pictures I personally took at Venice Inn before it closed! The author had contacted me four years ago for permission to use them, which I’d given and since forgotten about. That was a very nice surprise.


In other news, the starter went out on my car right before my birthday weekend, but I had so much fun on my mind that it barely registered. Instead, I managed to “make lemonade” of the situation and had another breakfast with my dad in Olde Towne Bellevue as the starter got put in on Tuesday morning. We went by the Downtown Coffee Shop (literally called the “Downtown Coffee Shop“) which was a cozy, hole-in-the-wall diner, perfect for bacon and eggs and coffee on a cool Tuesday morning.

It was a long, fun weekend, one I enjoyed celebrating not just getting older, but also spending time with some of the friends I’ve made on this journey called life. Now let’s see how year 43 goes!

Last Splash of Summer


We’re continuing to enjoy the last moments of summer as the weather cranks the heat up to near 100 as the dogs days are (hopefully) on their way out. On Saturday morning, I took Hannah down to H.W. Banner Park to celebrate Emmett’s birthday. The splash pad was in full use for the kids to run around and get wet for a little while, and there were a dozen or two total kids running around, making use of the playground, swings, soccer field, and a beach umbrella as the party got started. Jolene brought along a shark piñata, and I managed to find a couple of sticks for the kids to use to whack it open. Hannah enjoyed playing a bit with the remnants of the piñata with another girl before we headed home.


A few days later, we took advantage of a 95+ degree day and took the kids down to Mahoney State Park to spend a couple hours at their aquatic center. We’d originally hoped for another trip to Fun Plex, but they closed early this season because of Covid, so this seemed like an adequate alternative. Vivian and I had come here on our anniversary back in ’13, and it was fun letting the kids experience the violent wave pool (which Aaron and I fought together) and the speedy pair of water slides that had essentially no line on a weekday. They were only open for a couple hours, but we made use of every minute before calling it a day.

An evening at the Mahoney State Park aquatic center

Summer Winds Down

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Now that our long, road trip vacation is over, we’ve had about a week to settle down before school starts up again. We took advantage by taking the kids for one last change to run around at Stinson Park with a few random kids (who had fun despite the oppressive heat and humidity). We also discovered our tomatoes were ripened in our backyard garden, so we immediately turned them into bruschetta.

Our friends the Lenarts invited us over their house for dinner in the meantime as well, giving us the chance to vent a bit about the craziness of an upcoming Kindergarten year for Aaron, specifically because much of it will be spent on an iPad. Our other nearby districts are doing at least a few in-person days of education every week, but OPS has decided the best learning environment for a Kindergartner is via Zoom meetings on a tablet.

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Then on Sunday, we took a trip down to Louisville Lake for one more chance to get wet before school starts. It was a lovely day for the whole family swim about and cool down, and I found the entire lake seemed shallower than last year, letting the kids stand up nearly all the way to the buoys flanking the “deep end.”

The kids got to use their floaties again as well, and after swimming, we drove by Louisville for some ice cream at the “Dari Creme.” We ate our cones out on the back patio where Vivian seemed certain there once existed some tables. Then we saw some thunderclouds slowly rolling in before heading for home.


The day before school started, Aunt Nancy and Uncle Andy came by to visit. I walked Aaron over to say hello, and Vivian brought Hannah by after an orientation with our home school group. We talked a bit about our roads trip and the upcoming academic year, and Aaron got to practice his hand-holding exercises with Uncle Jonny before we left.

Then Aaron started school on Tuesday, posing for his annual picture before experiencing an entire day on an iPad. I’m having a very hard time imagining anyone expecting a group of Kindergartners to sit for four hours straight using an iPad, but that’s apparently happening. I got to sit in on a bit of Aaron’s class, which consisted mostly of the teacher telling all the kids to sit down and stop playing with things and keeping Aaron from hitting the mute button long enough to say “poopy pants.” I have a feeling homeschooling may be in our son’s future before long.


And because politics is still a thing (Did you know it’s an election year?), the Trump Victory Office in Omaha had its grand opening. I stopped by along with about a hundred other people to hear from Gov. Ricketts, State Rep. Lou Ann Linehan, and Omaha City Council Member Rich Pahls. We also had two special guests from Women for TrumpPam Bondi and Mercedes Schlapp. They were in town along with Karen Pence doing some event with Don Bacon, but they stopped by long enough to say hello and encourage the crowd to get out and vote.

The Iowa Caucuses seem so long ago that I’d nearly forgotten what a proper rally like this felt like, but it was fun being back in the midst of it all again. I even got to see my old photographer friend Nati Harnik, who was there snapping photos before heading out.

Afternoon at Louisville Lake

Road Trip: Home Movie

One last entry about our big, family road trip: the videos! Yes, I couldn’t be satisfied taking over 500 photos of our travels — I had to record a bunch of video of our trip as well. I have a little over 48 minutes saved below, if you’d like to see a some of the fun things we did on our travels.

Note: for some reason, YouTube has “flagged” this multiple times for violating their “community guidelines” in some unspecified way. If you can’t see, it try again later.

Video highlights from our trip

Road Trip Day 7: Smith Falls & the Long Road Home


Smith Falls

We spent the last bit of our road trip in Valentine, Nebraska, where we got up early and went off to Smith Falls State Park. This was a place we’d visited years earlier on one of our friend Jenny’s many camping trips, but somehow Vivian had never realized that we could access the state’s tallest waterfall by any means other than canoe (or inner tube).

We walked the kids down through the park and across the 110 year old Verdigre Bridge to get to a short boardwalk leading up to the falls. It was warm and humid on this side of the state, so it wasn’t long before the kids and I were down at the foot of the falls getting thoroughly wet and cool in the constant spray of water. I hadn’t brought any swim trunks, of course, but that hardly seemed to matter as Aaron splashed about and Hannah climbed on the rocks seeing how close she could get to the falls. I eventually went all in and got a brief shower under the torrents of water — which was honestly quite refreshing.

IMG_4190We headed on back to the car, but not before Vivian spent a few extra minutes finding Hannah a “gooey.” Hannah had been hoping on the entirety of our trip to encounter a small frog like she had on our camping trip to Two Rivers a year ago.

Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be too many frogs hopping around places like Lake McConaughy, Roubaix Lake, or the Pactola Reservoir. Vivian found one right along the Niobrara, though, so we let Hannah hold it for a minute before heading home.

And a long trip home it was — a little over five hours of driving, plus at least another hour for lunch, dinner, and bathroom breaks. The kids handled it all quite well, though we did manage to provide a tablet and handheld video game to keep them occupied during the drive. Hannah also wanted to see Harold the guinea pig at my parents’ house before we even returned home, who had been keeping busy doing work, exercise, and playing Scrabble while we’d been away.

And thus ends the grand 2020 Johnson Family Road Trip! It was a long, fun adventure, and a chance to “unplug” from the “real world,” particularly since we had zero cell phone coverage west of Lincoln. I hope it was a week Vivian and the kids will look back on fondly for years to come.

Welcome home!

Road Trip Day 6: Storybook Island, Wall Drug, & the Badlands

On Thursday morning, we said goodbye to our lovely campsite with a big breakfast of spam and eggs before packing things up. We then headed down to Rapid City, where I let the kids have some quality playtime at Storybook Island while I got the Highlander a quick oil change.


Storybook Island is an adorable little amusement park on the west side of town, and completely free (with donations requested) thanks to the local Rotary Club. They have dozens of little playground exhibits modeled after various fairy tales and nursery rhymes (with an extra heavy Disney influence, of course). Hannah and Aaron got to ride a train, go on some swings and slides, ride a carousel or two, and explore just about every exhibit, from Pinocchio to Cat in the Hat. It was a nice little place to let the kids explore before heading off on I-90 for a while, and I’m glad we stumbled upon it.


We drove east for an hour and made a stop at Wall Drug (passing about fifty billboards for it along the way). Got filled up on free water and let the kids play in the sprayground and on the jackalope and bucking bronco for a bit. We also waited about ten minutes to hear a dinosaur roar and got a photo next to a cowboy Vivian had met eleven years ago. I was somewhat surprised to find an actual pharmacy among all the souvenirs and T-shirts, and I got a commemorative shirt before we left for the day.


Our next leg of the trip took us through the Badlands, a detour that cost $30 at the gate but included a large amount of scenery and wildlife. We took a wrong turn and wound up at a vista overlooking miles of sandy, rocky terrain. At the very top of it all was a goat perched precariously on one of the peaks. (We’d passed a few of these creatures moments before thinking they might be antelope or mountain goats, but I can’t be sure of its exact species.) Hannah brought out her camera as well for several pictures, and I found it hard not to stop at nearly every scenic overlook we drove past, of which there were several.


Our wrong turn took us to “Prairie Dog Town” next, where we all got to get a good, close-up look at these little critters. They didn’t do much actual parking, but there were dozens of them popping out of their little holes to get a look at us, some of which came right up to within a few feet of Hannah and Aaron. Then, right across the road, was a small herd of grazing buffalo. I kept my distance but snapped several pictures of them, thinking all the while of the song “Home on the range,” and wondering if we’d get to see some deer and antelope playing next.

We didn’t see any deer or antelope, but we did drive through an hour or two of winding roads through beautiful hills, painted in yellow or with red stripes through their various layers of sediment. We stopped a few more times for pictures but eventually had to hurry on back to I-90, where we had an extra hour or two of driving as we eventually left the state and headed south.

So long, South Dakota!

Road Trip Day 5: Wonderland Cave, Sturgis, and Swimming


On Wednesday, we got up with the sun and had a lovely breakfast of bacon, potatoes, and pancakes cooked over hot coals. Every morning waking up in the forest has been lovely, with the sun streaming through the trees the smell of pine in the air. The kids — when we pry away their electronic toys — have also been enjoying exploring the area around our campsite, finding mushrooms, bugs, and especially unusual rocks, which Hannah seems to be collecting.


After breakfast, we headed a ways down the road to Wonderland Cave, a place advertised with enough signs on the highways that it nearly rivals Wall Drug. The cave is located much further away from our campsite than all the signs would imply, much of which had to be traveled via unpaved roads winding up into the steep hills.

The cave itself was first mined back in the 30s in hopes of finding gold. Instead, it contains many layers of damp limestone and “flow rock” that have dribbled into stalagmites, stalactites, and columns over the centuries (into formations that looks quite a bit like snot). It was a lovely 47 degrees down in the mine after we headed down 100+ stairs (which Aaron counted), and we got a good look around via our helpful tour guide before eventually heading back to the surface.


Upon checking the map, we discovered we were just a few miles away from Sturgis, which was a few days’ away from kicking off its 80th annual biker rally, so we decided to stop on by just to say we’d made the trip (encountering a stray cow along the way). It was a surprisingly small town with several main streets decked out with shops and stands preparing for an influx of bikers with swag and merchandise.

We were tempted to stop and get T-shirts but instead grabbed lunch at Taco John’s and borrowed their WiFi long enough to find a place to change the oil in my dad’s Highlander, which had announced to us that it needed one.


We headed back down I-90, 44, and 385 to get to Pactola Reservoir, where we spent a little time in the water with the kids. It was much quieter than Sylvan Lake, and much, much larger (albeit with no rocks to climb on). The lake bottom was all rocks, however, so we put on a few water shoes before going on. We also blew up the kids’ flotation devices so they could float about on the water together. We also encountered a couple ducks who were none to shy about getting close and begging for Cheetos. I brought along my waterproof camera to snap some photos in the water, and Aaron decided to try it out to get some photos of his own before we were done.


Back at the campsite, we walked down to Roubaix Lake to swim a bit more before changing out of our swimsuits. Vivian had some special Camping T-shirts for the kids to wear, which they both changed into once we were done in the water. Then we cooked some hot dogs together over the fire, along with some s’mores before going to bed one last time in our tent together.

Road Trip Day 4: Mount Rushmore, Wax Museum, Sylvan Lake, & Needles Highway


No trip to the Black Hills would be complete without an obligatory visit to Mount Rushmore, one of the most iconic American monuments in history. I’d visited twice before, once as a youngster and once again with Vivian on our one-year anniversary trip, but it’s always breathtaking to see the mountain-carved sculpture with my naked eyes. The kids seemed a little less impressed as we viewed the faces of Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln up close and personal, but we did get plenty of photos with them. We also stuck around for some ice cream, featuring vanilla allegedly made from Thomas Jefferson’s own recipe.


Afterward, we continued our Presidential kick down at the Presidential Wax Museum, nestled in the heart of the giant Tourist Trap known as Keystone. We got to see the faces of all 45 Presidents, as well as other historic figures. We couldn’t interact with any of them as we had with Madame Tussaud’s back in 2011, but we did get to see several famous moments of Presidential history, including the Lincoln-Douglas debate, Grover Cleveland’s wedding, the moon landing, the JFK assassination, and the 9/11 aftermath.

My favorite part of the visit was the mock Presidential press conference podium, where all four of us got the chance to play POTUS to no one in particular. The kids’ favorite part, however, was the bin of colorful rocks we let them dig through before heading out. Hannah in particular seemed to enjoy collecting rocks on our trip, continuing to find more and more to take with her at every stop.


We drove on down (through a tunnel) to Sylvan Lake along the Needles Highway to have a little lunch and then get our feet wet. This particular lake was featured in the movie National Treasure: Book of Secrets, and Hannah and I got to climb on some of the same rocks traversed by Nicolas Cage and the cast of the film (from this scene, specifically). Aaron did some digging in the sand, but since none of us has brought swimming suits, we couldn’t get too wet before we left.

The lake itself was ridiculously crowded as well, for reasons I couldn’t quite understand, as there were plenty of other lakes nearby in the Black Hills. None of them featured the same fantastic rocks, however, one of which became a diving board for some people who didn’t seem worried about failing to clear the rocks below when jumping off.


We took the long road back to camp, winding our way around the scenic Needles Highway. We got to see plenty of the tall, pointed peaks that give the road its name, and we also had to squeeze through a narrow called the “Needle’s Eye,” a bit of a difficult feat as there was only room for one car at a time and nobody around to direct traffic. On our way back down the mountain, we got to see some spectacular views of the hills and valleys below, and it was hard not to stop at every one to snap photos as we headed back down to the main highway.

On the way back to camp, we passed by the Crazy Horse Memorial, which we could clearly see from Highway 385. Vivian and I had visited it back in 2009, and I could barely tell if anything had changed since then, so we didn’t bother paying $30 to drive inside for a slightly closer look.


We made some foil-wrapped chicken and potatoes for dinner back at the campsite, which we baked right in the fire. Aaron created a kind of story with a collection of toys using our tent’s windows as “panels” of a comic strip. Then we had some more s’mores by the fire before calling it a night.

Road Trip Day 3: Toadstools and Black Hills


On day three, we hit the road to see Toadstool Geological Park up in the very northwest corner of Nebraska. It was like being dropped from an endless, grassy prairie into the middle of a strange, desert landscape. We followed a series of numbered posts through the various rocky structure that looked a bit like another planet, and it was hard to keep the kids from using every sloped rock as a giant, sandy slide. In addition to the strange, mushroom-like rock formations, we also found some 30 million year old rhino tracks, which were embedded into the rock.

The weather was around ninety degrees, but so dry that it barely registered, and when we were done with our little hike, we got to take a bit of the sand hills with us on our way out. If you ever make the same trip, be sure to top off your tank in Chadron. We were driving on fumes all the way to Hot Springs without a gas station in sight.


Before long, the landscape changed again into vast rolling hills covered with pine trees as we entered the Black Hills. We stocked up on some food before heading to our campsite at Roubaix Lake, a lovely little campground about 40 minutes north of Mount Rushmore. We grilled up some burgers for dinner before letting the kids walk down to the lake to wade a bit and look for frogs. There were a bunch of tiny purple daisies blooming along the paths as well, which Hannah picked for all of us (and her stuffed toys). The weather was mostly perfect, though a thunderstorm managed to roll by just as we were finishing up our s’mores for the evening. Fortunately, we were ready for bed anyway, and our tent proved to be dry and water-tight, which made falling asleep to the pitter-patter of raindrops even easier.

One other note: the Black Hills are definitely “Trump country.” Everywhere we went we found little pop-up “Trump shops,” which may have opened just for the President’s visit to Mount Rushmore last month, but were still sticking around with Trump memorabilia for sale.