Holiday Road Trip – Now With Added Iowa!

Well, yet another festive season has come and (mostly) gone (I see you around the corner, New Year’s), which means traveling and, for me at least, that traveling means road tripping because that’s the only way I’m going to get from A to B with Christmas gifts in tow. I can already hear you saying “Why not just fly there and have gifts sent?” but that just isn’t practical, since I don’t want to have a bunch of gifts waiting to be wrapped when I get to my parents’ house. And I suppose I could ask my parents to wrap them all, but that doesn’t really seem fair to them, plus it would take a lot of explaining to make sure the right gifts get wrapped for the right people. So anyway, I’m not gonna fly. 🙂

For Christmas this year, I just needed to travel to see my family in good ol’ Omaha as we were going to be doing Christmas with Scott’s family locally. With three siblings, three of us with families of our own, we decided last year that doing Christmas early works the best because then we can pick whatever weekend in December when we can all get to Omaha and then leave the actual Christmas holiday free to celebrate with our spouses/families. We landed on the weekend a good few months ago, so I’ve known about this road trip for awhile. But as I thought more about it, I realized I could potentially sneak in a little something extra. You know what that means, right??


Well actually, the road trip part was a given, but instead of just doing a direct, 5.5-hour drive to Omaha, I decided to throw in a stop in Iowa, which then turned into two stops (more on that later). Although I made a trip to my hometown of Fort Dodge about 2.5 years ago, I hadn’t been to my parent’s hometown of Storm Lake (about an hour from Fort Dodge) since my grandpa died nearly seven years ago, so I decided it was time to stop by and say hello. Although I never lived in Storm Lake, my parents did and my grandparents (my mom’s parents) lived there until they moved to Omaha in the early 2000s and we visited them often, so I have lots of happy memories from my childhood. My oldest brother also went to college there, so we would also go there to visit him, see him at his concerts and track meets, etc. I also had other family there on my dad’s side, so we had lots of connections there for decades! My grandparents died in 2010 and 2013 and, though they had lived in Omaha for the last ~10 years of their lives, they were buried in Storm Lake as part of my grandpa’s family plot. Their funerals were in Omaha, so we only went to Storm Lake for the burials afterwards, which meant we didn’t have much time there on either trip. And even if we had, since it had been nearly seven years since my last visit, this holiday season was as good a time as any to go back!

One of the bonuses of going to Storm Lake is that it broke the drive up a little bit. It’s almost exactly four hours away, so I drove there on a Tuesday afternoon, knowing I would only have a couple hours’ drive the next day to get to Omaha. Bonus! Storm Lake isn’t a big place (maybe 10k people live there), so there isn’t necessarily a lot to do, but I was happy to just see the town again. And it was neat to see the sights off the Iowa highways that I saw so many times in the family station wagon (later minivan). Before I knew it, I arrived at my hotel during a very Christmassy-feeling evening, with cold weather and lots of snow on the ground. Being a small town, there aren’t a lot of hotel choices, so after looking into (and subsequently passing on) the tiny, non-chain hotels (I just have a hard time getting down with hotel rooms that open to the exterior, which those small ones all do), I ended up with a perfectly serviceable room at the local Quality Inn. Nothing fancy, but comfortable enough for a room I was only going to be in for maybe 14 hours.

After getting a little settled in the hotel (well, as settled as I’ll get for a one-night stay), I did a little driving around. From the main drag (that’s Lake Avenue), with it’s three-screen movie theater, small-town bank, and an increasingly-small number of mom-and-pop stores/restaurants, it felt a lot like it did when I as a kid. I definitely remember going to the Benjamin Franklin (now long since gone) at the far end, right by my grandparents’ house. Since it was dark out, I couldn’t see a ton of sights anyway, so I decided to head over to Santa’s Castle. Why, you may ask? Although I don’t have any memories of going there (though my brother Chris swears I went there at least once as a two-year-old), it’s a kitschy collection of holiday decor, Santas, trains, and more housed in a former Carnegie library, so I thought it would be worth a visit. For a whopping $4 entry fee, I got to wander around and bask in the Christmassy goodness. I had heard that the place can get pretty crowded (it’s not a huge space and there’s a LOT of stuff inside it, so I assume it doesn’t take much to fill it up), but I was happy to find it not very busy, perhaps because it was still a couple of weeks before Christmas or maybe because it was a really cold night. Either way, it was a neat stop and an interesting slice of small-town Iowa, so give it a try the next time you pass through Storm Lake around the holidays. And afterwards, catch a tasty meal at The Villager, like I did. That’s a place I do remember from my childhood, so I was happy to revisit it.

After a decent night’s sleep, I wanted to make a few stops before I left town, since I couldn’t see much in the dark the previous evening. The strongest memories I have are, unsurprisingly, of my grandparents’ house and their neighborhood and the lake from which the town gets its name, because my grandparents loved to fish and we always drove by the lake going into and leaving town. Truly, this visit was about the little things and I was really happy to get to say hello to a piece of my childhood again!

And now, some small-town photos.

My room at the Quality Inn. Not too shabby!

Santa and the reindeer across the street from Santa’s Castle.

Outside the library-turned-Santa’s house.

A better shot of the building. As a Carnegie library, it’s a protected building and won’t be torn down.

Lots of Christmas signs in the entryway.

A colorful sign over one of the doorways.

Lots of kitsch!

Part of the big train set on the ground floor.

A setup of a kid’s bedroom.

Santa with the Storm Lake Lighthouse.

More Christmas decor.

A cozy fireplace setup.

Lots of stuff to see at Santa’s Castle.

And a big Christmas tree, too.

A sneaky shot of the conductor with the model train set.

My tasty pizza burger from The Villager.

My grandparents’ old house. Other than the front door, it looks identical!

Directly across the street is this small apartment building (I assume it’s still apartments, at least) where my grandpa’s sister lived.

St. Mary’s is the church my grandparents (and my mom and her siblings) went to for decades. It’s around the corner from their house, so very easy to get to.

Since the doors were open, I popped in for a quick photo.

A shot of Storm Lake (the body of water, not the town) with the sun shining over it.

Another shot of the lake.

I stopped St. Mary’s Cemetery, where my grandparents are buried, on my way out of town.

Remember how I mentioned a second stop earlier? Well, it may come as no surprise, but since it’s only about an hour away, that stop was Fort Dodge. This was definitely a shorter stop than my last trip there a couple of years ago (read all about it in the post above), but I got to drive by a few landmarks and then decided at kind of the last minute to swing by and visit my third grade teacher. I can’t say I visited my old school though, since it doesn’t exist anymore (well, the building does, but it’s a different school now – read about it in that same post above), but the one Catholic school in town isn’t hard to find, especially as it’s really close to the second house we lived in! I tried to time it right, hoping her class might be at lunch and the stars aligned – I got the time right! I’d never been in the school before, but the admin assistant in the office was super helpful in directing me to her classroom. I had just missed them, apparently, but I found my way to the lunchroom and surprised her there. And she was definitely surprised! I hadn’t seen her since we left Fort Dodge (though we’re friends on Facebook), but she was exactly as I remembered her. All the other teachers I had in that school have since retired, but I was so happy to get the chance to see Mrs. R again!

Since Fort Dodge was more of a detour, I didn’t take a lot of pictures, but I have a few to share.

The last house we lived in, with a fresh paint job since I last saw it. If you zoom in on the picture, you can just about see the broken bits on the front steps. That’s courtesy of me and a hammer, one sunny afternoon. I had no reason to do that – just thought it would be fun. I’m sure my parents disagreed. 🙂

The first house we lived in is definitely rough, but considering it was almost condemned at one point (many years after we lived there), I guess it’s doing okay.

I stopped into the local mall, Crossroads Mall, and it’s even more dismal than it was 2.5 years ago. The Sears has been demolished and Younkers has gone the way of the dodo. I was surprised to see they still had a Santa setup!

This is the new church being built near the school and will apparently be open next summer.

Catching up with Mrs. R in the lunchroom!

After my drive-by of Fort Dodge, I was officially on the way to Omaha. The drive was uneventful and mostly on the highway (rather than the interstate), but went by quickly. Even though my total drive time ended up being longer than it would have been if I had driven straight from home to Omaha (four hours to Storm Lake on Tuesday, and then on Wednesday, an hour to Fort Dodge and about three hours to Omaha), I really enjoyed getting to see both towns again, so it was definitely worth the extra time.

As for Omaha, I had a good few days with the fam. I arrived on Wednesday afternoon, but my oldest brother couldn’t come with his family until Friday afternoon/evening because of work and school, the next oldest (who lives in Omaha) was working, and the next oldest ended up not being able to make it, so I spent Thursday and Friday working in a Target store as I often do when I’m visiting Omaha. I actually really enjoy it and it allows me time to reconnect with some friends who work in the store and a few other friends who stopped in to see me. The weekend came quickly and we did our family Christmas with gifts and goodies on the Friday night and then spent Saturday hanging out, playing games, and relaxing before heading our separate ways on Sunday morning. It’s always great to my family and the times when we can all get together are hard to come by. Looking forward to the next time it happens!

Just a few pictures from our family Christmas. Gifts for all! Oh, and a couple from my hotel – more space there than staying with the parents. 🙂

My room at the Marriott near my parents’ house was really comfortable!

Nice, spacious bathroom, too.

The family tree.

Chris always wears his trusty Santa hat and hands out gifts around the room.

Brian opening a Blu-ray set from me and Scott.

And now it’s my dad’s turn, with my sister-in-law looking on.

Brian looking really happy about his new shirt!

And that was my holiday road trip! Up next, it’s another trip, but not by car. In an unusual (for us) move, we’re heading to Mexico for the week of New Year’s. We’ll be with three good friends and, as is always the case with sunny/beachy vacations, I won’t have a ton to post about (we’ll be doing far too much sunning and swimming to post much), but check back very soon to read about our time in…

Riviera Maya!!

See you in the sun. 🙂

3 thoughts on “Holiday Road Trip – Now With Added Iowa!

  1. OMG! Your grandparents’ house is identical to the one where I grew up in Oskaloosa, except ours was red brick.!

      1. It does have some similarities to Storm Lake. I did one of my earliest B & B reviews there at McNeill Stone Mansion. Small town. Main drag with mom & pop shops. A small college. Dandy little steakhouse called Tasos’.

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About thejeffelston

Based in St. Paul, MN and love to blog about travel. Comment, follow, and join me on my journey!