Derek Johnson Muses

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Monthly Archives: September 2013

Where it Used to Be

A little known-fact about me: for a brief four-month stint after I graduated college in 2005, I took up residence in Lincoln between 17th and 27th, just south of A. The Sunken Gardens and numerous parks were with reasonable walking distance of my hobbit’s layer, the bottom floor of a large house that had been carved into apartments. The surrounding neighborhood, a stone’s throw from downtown Lincoln, was full of nice, reasonably well-kept homes and apartments, enough so that I was not scared at night.

Old crib...

Old crib…

I had a meeting in the area and drove by there again last week. The place feels not-me-now, although to be fair, the neighborhood is very similar to the one I live in now. At the time, I was living the life I thought I was always bound to live in my twenties, a cheap apartment in an urban area, working all the time, and spare time at the coffee shops.

I’ve always been fascinated by these houses that get carved up into apartments. Some time ago, probably in the fifties, a working class family lived there, but as we’ve become more mobile and moved the suburbs, it was divided into apartments. People have fewer children and want more closet space.

In the long run, it might have been better that circumstance sent me back to the more-economical Seward. Yes, there is not as much to do here, and there are fewer options, but God had a plan. Still does.

Road Notes: Ear Samples 2013, North Edition

Leftover Ears...

Leftover Ears…

Blue River did not grow any seed in Hastings, Nebraska this year, so I didn’t go there for ear samples, or at any time this year. Instead, Dad had me retrieve ear samples from our plots in Wisconsin and Illinois last week. It was my last trip of the year, and when it was over, I was really happy.

Something must have been in my water, because I left Seward promptly after church, aimlessly throwing hastily packed bags into my passengers seat and heading for Dubuque to spend the night with Tom, and his friends George and Jill, an amazing couple whose kids are all grown who Tom is staying with for now. I hadn’t seen them in forever, so it was great to catch-up.

Monday morning after I talked to Tom (he himself was driving back from Nebraska on Sunday), I rolled out at 7 and took the crappy, narrow US Highway 20 bridge into Illinois, navigating the lesser highways along the Mississippi and in no man’s land to Sterling. Once I made east a ways, I caught ESPN Radio 1000 out of Chicago, a great listen on the first NFL Monday of the year.

The Fine Ear...

The Fine Ear…

Prairie Hybrids, our grower south of Sterling, is run by an Amish-like community, but they have cell phones and trucks along with the neatly-trimmed beards. In typical Derek Johnson-fashion, it took me longer than I expected to get all the information I needed. Backtracking a bit, I went back for lunch at the Culver’s in Rock Falls. Pretty much all of the Culver’s have TV’s in them, and even better, they are all set to ESPN. Finally, I got to watch NFL highlights.

Another great thing about Culver’s is they now have WiFi, so I took occasion to check my rout to my next stop. My tablet directed me to take a county highway from Rock Falls up to Dakota, and I was skeptical, but it turned out to be surprisingly straight and speedy. I had two hybrids to gather, and when I did it in an hour, I counted it as a huge victory. I was able to make it back to Dubuque by 6, and enjoyed an evening with Tom, dinning at the Copper Kettle and watching the Eagles tear it up on Monday Night Football.

The Mississippi that fateful Tuesday morning...

The Mississippi that fateful Tuesday morning…

The next day, I started off with my camera batteries dying and having to stop by Hy-vee. I crossed the US Highway 151 Bridge into Wisconsin, enjoying a morning sun bringing out the orange in the Westconsin rock deposits the Highways are cut into. When I got to Madison,  I decided I would find my own way to cut around the west side of the city, since the state of Madison has not built a suitable by-pass from US 151 to I-39 going north. I zig-zagged through the urban sprawl and the suburbs, heading to our field up by Coloma.


Ripening corn in the urban sprawl…

Coloma is a town of 500 people where I’ve rarely stopped, which is a bit odd considering how many times I’ve come to our field there. After I got what I need from the field and updated my Twitter, I decided to get lunch at Subway…until I drove up and found they weren’t open yet. There was a nice diner about twenty miles east that I’d eaten at before, but I decided not to take the time to sit down, instead grabbing a sandwich and cookie from a roadside deli.

Main Street in Coloma...

Main Street in Coloma…

The road from Coloma to Tomah is straight but frustrating slow, passing small towns, cranberry bogs, and an Ocean Spray facility advertising for seasonal help. (Passing the bogs, I couldn’t discern an obvious sign that it was time to pick cranberries.) From Tomah all the way up to Eau Claire, there are all these great stops advertising bakeries and cheese houses that I always think about stopping at but never do. This time around, I’m right not to smell the roses because time turned out to be in sparse supply.

While I was thinking the trip through in my head, I had thought that maybe, just maybe, I could finish up at our grower west of Eau Claire 5 or so. I arrive at four, but gather samples from the four fields takes me until 6. That’s what I always hate about coming here to Colfax, is that I always end up here totally exhausted because I’ve driven from someplace else. But I’m done gathering the samples, and I head east. I had thought in my head that I would spend the night at Super 8 I’d stayed at before in Hudson, Wisconsin, but I arrogantly press on and cut through the Twin Cities satellites and stop in Lakeview, Minnesota for the night. A foreign man checks me into the Americinn, and asks about my business. I ramble on about fields for a good two minutes.

The St. Croix River on the Wisconsin-Minnesota Border. One of my favorite secondary rivers.

The St. Croix River on the Wisconsin-Minnesota Border. One of my favorite secondary rivers.

Once I’ve showered and unloaded the truck, I head over to the Green Mill, a Minnesota chain of upscale restaurant/bars that has been a favorite of mine since my college years. I order a walleye sandwich and a light beer. The Twins are playing the Athletics on one TV, US soccer on another, Sports Center is on a third. Two guys are watching the Twins, and a group of girls is giggling while guzzling mixed drinks. I can’t help but wonder if I would have been better off ordering fast food and staying in my room to read my Twitter feed and download the photos from my camera.

The next morning, I allow myself the treat of Minnesota’s own Caribou Coffee and get up early to upload a blog post. I manage to leave by seven, drifting down past golden Minnesota fields towards Ames. My grand plan is to get lunch and stop at my parent’s apartment to take a nap. There is one more customer I have to see who lives between Des Moines and Omaha, and I’ll see if I can met said customer late this afternoon. That way, I’ll still be able to get back to Seward by night fall.

Of course, I wasn’t exactly precise when I did the estimates of where this grower lives. My mother told me he lives south of Watertown, which, when I typed Watertown into my computer, it gave me a location around Atlantic. When I typed in the name of the actual town after lunch, I found it was an hour and fifteen minutes east of Ames. Deflated, I decide to take the afternoon off, stay in Ames, and met the customer tomorrow morning. I call the customer and make the arrangements, then mope about the fact I could have driven straight south from Colfax yesterday and saved myself two or three hours of driving.

The next morning, I make myself Starbucks Via and drag out of Ames, getting to the farm near Clutier around 9. It’s a pleasant couple, who are enthused that they finally were able to get the weeds out of their field. They made my day better, and I wish I had more to offer them. I enjoy my drive through the Iowa hinterlands, linking up to the interstate by Adventureland. I stop for lunch at Culver’s, and press forward, grateful to be home by 4. I left half a load of laundry in my washer, and I unload clothes directly from suitcase.

Leaves Turning in Wisconsin...

Leaves Turning in Wisconsin…

End Note: I purposely watch for rest-stops to throw my recyclables away at. I will let them sit in the back of my truck for days, weeks, and hundreds of miles. Easier than going to the one close to my house. 



Seward Nooks: South Trail

As I’ve written before, I love to walk, although since I moved I walk downtown more than I do on the trail near my new home. Technically, it’s the same walking trail as I used to walk on every day at my previous residence, but as you will see, the route feels a bit more cramped, and quite frankly, less inviting in certain spots.

Big Crossing...

Big Crossing…

The worst part of my walk is this intersection of US Highway 34, which is too wide, and at this moment, under construction. But it’s either cross here, or cross a bridge with highway traffic on it, so I always dart in front of the incoming traffic. (For Lutherans, the LCMS Nebraska District office is in the background on the left.)



Up a block from that vast highway cavern, I turn and head down to the low-land floodplain. It’s one of the better streets of old houses in Seward, as all of them are well maintained and have genuine old-world charm that’s unique to each house. Don’t get me started on the cul-de-sac at the bottom of the hill, though.



This is the bridge I have to cross to get to the main trail, and while the bridge is broad and modern, but the pedestrian walk-way is narrow and not big enough for two people to pass by each other. At least it’s not as busy as the interstate. After the narrow crossing I have to go down a narrow connector path to get to…


..the end of a spur.

This is where real trail begins. The John Deere repair place is in the background, on the other side of the soybean field. The trail is basically a whole bunch of curves around the river.






This part of the trail runs beneath US Highway 34. It’s the one part of Seward that feels strangely urban, with the shadows and the lights along the top. But you can always see the greenery from either side.



More curves and greenery. Off to the right is a small parking area with a couple of historical markers, one of I don’t think I’ve ever read, and another one of those tall Nebraska historical plaques, blue and metal. There’s also a picnic table that I’ve never eaten at. But if I was driving through town on a business trip, I’d like to eat my lunch there.



A few paces down fro the picnic area, this drain hangs over the river. It may not empty anything into the river, in fact it probably doesn’t. There’s a lot I don’t know about this town.



The south tail of the trail runs by the ever bright sewage/water cleaning facility of the great city of Seward, right by this weird dome. It looks like the Trop in Tampa, where the Tampa Bay Rays play, not a great for them.

Gravel Street...

End Line…

Here’s where the trail ends, at Columbia Street across from a farmhouse and field complete with livestock, which you can just make out in the picture above. Columbia turns to gravel just before the it gets to the paved trail, and if there’s a sure sign of a rural town, it’s a gravel street and livestock within city limits.



On the other side of the fence is this winter-bear-float. I think this a Fourth of July Float, but I’m not sure since I never go to the parade. Either way, it looks so cheap in this city yard down on South Columbia in almost-ghetto. You think the city could find some empty shed to put it in.

It’s a long uphill walk, but I don’t think it’s that bad. It’s certainly not as bad as having to go down a steep hill when you’re tired and try to keep yourself from stumbling and falling all over yourself. On the left are the cheap Fox Run Apartments. When I worked at Valentino’s, I had to deliver to a woman in those apartments who always ordered an extra-cheese, extra-black olives small pizza.



This headless mailbox stands in front of an empty house. Like I said before, my neighborhood is a mixed bag of homes that are kept up and homes that have been neglected, the degrees of neglect range from semi to major.

Turn Sign...

Turn Sign…

Here’s where I turn off Columbia. This street runs one way for a single block to accommodate parking for the vision clinic and the insurance agency, hence the reason there’s an inordinate amount of traffic bothering me. I have never liked that this street runs one way,  but if it’s good for the eye clinic, I get that.

Could I Live in the Big O?

Omaha Skyline from the Bob Kerry

Omaha Skyline from the Bob Kerry Pedestrian Bridge, Spring 2010

The last two times I drove from Ames to Seward, I lingered in Omaha for a few hours, once on a busy Friday evening, the other instance on a dull Tuesday afternoon. Omaha is one of the few places where I think to myself when I’m there, I could live here. There are few other places I’ve thought this same thought, like Idaho; Eau Claire, Wisconsin; and Fairgrove, Michigan, although the latter two do have snow issues I find taxing. I think the reason I think this about Omaha is it appears to be a self-contained, hardworking community, but with a bit more bustle than what I’m used to. There are a lot of things to do, although that doesn’t interest me as much as it would have a few years ago.

If you drive down Dodge Street as I did on Tuesday, is you see Omaha change time periods before your very eyes, from run-down working class, to revitalized, to 1950’s maintained-and-respectable, all the while on steep, barely manageable hills, to 1970’s Tomorrowland, to 1990’s and 2000’s land of strip malls and developments on rolling flatlands west Omaha. Having been to Boise just this summer, I was struck by how much the Omaha built in the last twenty years resembles a city risen out of a desert in. Like all communities built in the last twenty years, west Omaha is full of tan fake-rock porticoes and fountains, all of which sparkle in the sun.

I had bought a Chic-Fil-A sandwich in mid-town and drove out to Zorinsky Lake in the west end to eat lunch and walk. I had strolled around the lake several times three or four years ago, and it was odd to be back in there, amid the mass of mid-day joggers and walkers. I felt as I were intruding on their private paradise, but I was going to take a walk anyway, and it couldn’t think of a better place to do it.

Ed Zorinsky Lake in 2010

Ed Zorinsky Lake in 2010

I used to linger at coffee shops and parks a lot in the past, and it’s something I don’t do as much anymore, given how much I’m involved in. I did read a few of the articles I had earmarked for my Kindle, but that was it. Now I leave a few minutes early rather than stay a few minutes too late. The laundry I had to do would be worth getting done.

After my walk, I went to the Starbucks on West Center Road and had my second pumpkin spice latte of the season. I could have made due with just a regular cup of coffee, but I couldn’t help myself. Sometime in the last couple of years they remodeled its sterile gray walls into textured dark black, giving the room a more old-world-factory feel. Just the kind of look upper-middle class people want to make them feel cultured.

Right now, I can’t envision circumstances that would cause me to move, even though I know such circumstances will come at some point. I would have to give up a lot if I did move there, my church community and my other friends here in Seward, but who knows what kind of opportunities will come along? The only thing I know for sure is that if that day does come along, it will be one of the most unusual days of my life.


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