Derek Johnson Muses

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Cheap Motels

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Inn For the Night

I’ve stayed in my share of crappy motels. Sometimes, I did so out of necessity, as I did when I visited Omro, Wisconsin to harvest corn samples in the summer of 2012 and the home-run motel was my only choice. Other places, like Morton, Illinois, I just stay at the Travel Lodge because I’ve always stayed there. Like a lot of my elders who lived through the Great Depression, I can pride myself in being cheap, or telling myself something is too nice for me. Our family stayed at Super 8 AKA one-step-above-Motel 6 all the time when I was growing up, so why should I care about staying at crappy places? It’s not like I’m traveling with a woman I’m trying to impress.

Then comes the one night where I’m just so tired, my back is hurting and I just have to get a good night’s rest and crash at the Quality Inn. Those nights, I  feel like the fool, even if I’m too tired to care. 

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Is it really that grim?

Twisted Streets

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Trucked

Large bodies of water always mess up a large city’s traffic, and make their streets run in odd directions. Above is one of the few streets that come out from Wisconsin‘s state capital and runs between the lakes smack-dab in the middle of Madison, Wisconsin.

Below is the forced end of both a street and city, San Francisco to be exact. Behind the sign is a beach full of birds, drifters, seals, and other sun-soaked things.

The Very End of the Street

The Very End of the Street

 

Face the Future

Face the Future.

Face the Future.

 

 

Pretty Grain Tower in Northwest Iowa

Full

Full

The grain tower above is somewhere in northwest Iowa, on the diagonal highway that runs from Storm Lake to the I-29-US Highway 30 interchange. It’s backlight because I drove past that area in the early evening sometime last August, heading for a nice dinner in Omaha, hoping to get back to Seward before 9 PM.

Last summer had too many nights were I drove until it was almost dark. Over the last two years, I felt like I told the story of my life on the road for Blue River, and there wasn’t anything new I could find about that those little family restaurants in central Illinois. It’s also why I’m going to take a short vacation this spring before I really get busy. I need perspective.

But hey, there were some good photos right?

End of the Season

It’s that time of year again. The end. The last time I go to certain fields before they are harvested.

Almost in

Almost in

The time our family visits Lake Michigan.

Shoreline

Shoreline

And the time of year my writer’s block gets as bad as it ever does. My focus is divided, and the last thing I want to do is plop down at my computer during the middle of football season and waste my energy on a post that no more than 30 people will read by this Christmas.

But here I am.

I sweated and toiled all summer. I gardened and froze and pickled until the life flowed out of me. I mowed, in essence, three lawns. Now, I’m picking apples from a neighbor’s tree. (If you live near Seward or Lincoln, you’re welcome to have some.) All the while, I’ve kept up an active travel schedule that’s left me feeling like I have nothing left to give. And, with all this running around, I’ve felt that I haven’t needed to share it with anyone. Which has lead me to the question, do I need to consider doing something else with my time, maybe even a major life change? d

In my adult life, my actions indicate that I want my daily routines to change as little as possible. Yes, I run through different causes and jobs, but the basic routine of kitchen work/writing/household choirs, all of that has stayed the same. I try not to cling to things (hey, people tear it up and move all the time), but homeostasis gives me a lot of peace. A lot. Maybe even too much.

One more trip, and I won’t be making the long circle through Iowa and Illinois. Eventually, there won’t be apples to pick, and the garden will be winterized. After that, who know what I’ll do.

Close and Personal

Close and Personal

Road Notes: Off the Grid in Western Kentucky/Tennessee

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Enter Here

Last week I went to Tennessee. I was disappointed when I started passing a bunch of cornfields and the region started to look like Nebraska.

Seriously though it was a great break from my usual criss-crossing through Midwest power lines and family restaurants to go through quaint southern junk yards and vine overgrowth. Okay, seriously, the region of the Missouri bootheel/western Tennessee and Kentucky has a lot of nice homes, logging mills (never seen one of those before) and stretches of road that mostly go straight. And even though they don’t get snow and have six Pentecostal churches per town of 1,500, it feels just as familiar as any other part of the country I go to.

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Get that number

This time, Cairo, Illinois seemed even more rundown than the other two times I’ve been through there. It’s the only town under 5,000 I’ve ever been to that I’ve feared for my safety. My grower told me virtually the entire town is on welfare, words that rang through my head as I drove through town, expecting someone to jump out of an abandoned building with a gun. Of the five people I saw on the street, I wouldn’t have been surprised if any of them used drugs. As many hurting towns as I’ve seen, this is one is as sad as I’ve ever seen.

Trees along the Ohio River

Trees along the Ohio River

It’s been a good year in the fields. Some of my fields have been average, but I haven’t had a field that flopped or massively underachieved. I was overjoyed to be counting the pods on the plants and sending yield estimates to my father. Harvest may still be six weeks away, but the majority of my miles are behind me. Get your 2015 orders in.

Ready!

Ready!

 

Road Notes: Far From Home

Oh, those early mornings

Oh, those 6 A.M starts. In a filter no less.

Even on familiar roads, I set a personal record, hitting over 15 fields in five days. There were plenty of Subway sandwiches, coffees, lunches in the truck, and desperate map checks in between. Praise the Lord for my iPhone’s map app. The longer I check fields, the more my time on the road becomes simple directions rather than complex thinking. Gives me time to reflect on things.

The highlights:

Southeast Iowa has a bunch of towns (Pella, Burlington, Ottumwa, Oskaloosa, Washington and Fairfield) that I can’t tell apart. I spent 15 minutes driving around Fairfield looking for a Subway that was really in Oskaloosa. I think.

Fairfield, Iowa. Passed this very same light in September of 2009.

Fairfield, Iowa. Passed this very same light in September of 2009, and photographed the diamond store on the corner.

In an odd juxtaposition, Shelton Fireworks has locations off I-29 at the Iowa-Missouri border, and off Highway 27 in the eastern part of the state.

St. Louis seems to have a need to keep all of its office buildings close to the interstate. You rarely even see shopping centers there or even just houses, just miles of glass windows. It’s as if St. Louis has to keep reminding itself that it’s a major city for influence, even though it’s fallen down a few rungs over the past 100 years or so.

I have no hope of finding a better place to eat lunch or dinner than Subway or Culver’s. It’s always Subway and Culver’s. I know everything on their menus. At least Culver’s has variety; my final meal at Subway I searched for a special I hadn’t tried before.

My grower in southeast Missouri is suffering from what he calls the worst rainfall he’s ever had in his life (he has grown daughters, by the way.) The beans are up, but they have a ways to go. Tuesday afternoon, it rained on me for three hours, and one crossing of the Mississippi River.

Tear Drops

Tear Drops

Cairo, Illinois is a dead city. Everyone there has to have moved to either Kentucky or Missouri to get away from paying high taxes for the pensions of lazy government workers.

I’ve had two bad experiences with Wal-Mart oil changes, one in Dubuque where I was rejected and another in Kingdom City, Missouri which took forever when I was in a rush. One guy named Dean at the Wal-Mart in Mount Vernon, Illinois salvaged their reputation.

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Empty Street in Cairo, Illinois

The Wisconsin-Illinois border should be shaded in gray between the small towns on either side of it. The land and farmhouses between the two states are indistinguishable. But the run-down houses of Dakota, Illinois are nothing compared to the brightly-slanted houses just across the border in Brodhead, Wisconsin. The difference in pride is so obvious.

I found a favorite new restaurant just north of Madison called The Pine Cone, a bakery/dinner. I had all the signs: a menu I couldn’t put down, employees who helped each other and were always communicating, and shelves full of beautiful pastries, all of which I wanted to try. I’ll be going back.

Wisconsin Woods

Wisconsin Woods

Tomah, Wisconsin needs a coffee shop. Like, four years ago.

The biggest challenge I have in making these trips is discernment. When do I need to stop for the day? When can I keep going? There was one night when I stopped sooner than I would have liked, but I got my oil changed, rested, read, and started out that morning at six A.M.

Every night but the one I mentioned above, I worked until 9. One night I got an early motel room and took a leisurely dinner, but I still went to my field that night. Thought I would have time to get a Huskermax post up sometime that week, and that pipe dream went out the window.

I missed my garden.

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Promise

The Photo that’s Just So Important

Originally, I had tried to think of something to write about a human flaw, just so I could use the photo below in a post. But I struck out, so here it is. Just the photo.

Hometown Store

Hometown Store

I photographed this store on a road trip I took two years ago. It was trip that I took and told no one about, and even now, the only thing I’ll say about it is that it was to one of the most sparsely populated areas of the country. It was a three-day trip. The first day featured glorious weather. The next two featured bothersome rain.

Tell me, is this picture pretty enough to stand on its merit? Do you need to know the name of the town it is in, that I took it in the afternoon, that it is the only significant town for several miles? Do I have through in long exposition about how I rolled into town looking for a coffee shop but didn’t find one, then continuing to push on towards a state borderline? Does it matter that a whole town full of people spent years of their lives walking by this store, and that part of me feels like I traveled a whole world to find it? It is, after all, just a store, sitting out there on the prairie, with so much in between.

Or is this just another desperate ploy on my part to get attention? Probably, but I hope the other stuff matters too.

Nowhere to Run

Out Here

Out Here

You couldn’t make a show like 24 in the western plains. Not just because terrorist plotting against Ainsworth, Nebraska, or Gillette, Wyoming would make no sense, but the country west of Lincoln and Omaha (and their respective commuter havens), is tall grass prairie, hill shuttle beneath an expansive sky. These plains are not like Illinois or Iowa, where you see wind turbines and corn and soybeans growing, AKA signs of humanity, and well-worn highways connect the towns and population centers. When the cattle-grazing ground begins in abundance, you know that you’re stepping out into the real west, the west as it was.

Tough Row to Hoe

Tough Road to Hoe

These are indeed mysterious lands. Miles between major cities, or even just cities of substance. It’s always fascinating when you drive into a city like Scottsbluff or North Platte and realize just how many people drive 30 miles just for a simple Wal-Mart visit. Every day treats most people get are an ocean away for the people who live out here.

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Will it Get You?

Whenever I head west (which happens every so often), I think of the major events: the millions of buffalo that once commanded the hills, the coming of settlers, the 1930’s dust bowls, and the inevitable exodus back to the cities, after the cities themselves stopped having children. They probably are more connected to the big cities now through TV and the internet; online shopping has probably reduced some of their long trips into towns. But life there probably carries on like it always does.

Always the Same, No Matter How Redundant

Always the Same, No Matter How Redundant

Booking Road Notes: Back to Kansas

Watertower of Du Bois, Nebraska

Watertower of Du Bois, Nebraska

This past Monday, I took another delivery for my warehouse landlord, again sneaking into Kansas long enough to say I was there, this time to Seneca. I went off-the most beaten path, taking Nebraska Highways 41 and 50 respectively to get around Beatrice. Just north of Du Bois,the highway service had a sign up saying the road was closed, but since I’m no stranger to the dirt road, I decided to follow the highway as long as I could. Good thing-I would have gone forty miles out of my way just to avoid a single bridge that was out. Come on, Nebraska and Kansas-you can still just divert the traffic on paved roads.

This time, I told myself I wasn’t just going to make my time on the road matter, so I downloaded an audiobook to my Kindle to feed my cuturediness. Culturediness is my bad habit that I feed by buying stuff to feel high-minded. Books. A white end table. A rain barrel. A park bench. My 20-year old Chevy. Even my house to a point. And yes, listening to a biography of Charles Lindbergh and early aviation makes me feel better than if I were listening to KFRX.

Issues, Etc and other podcasts are great for filing the time when I’m entering numbers into the computer, scrambling eggs for lunch, or hanging a shelf. They work in the truck, but books give breadth and depth of knowledge podcasts can’t. Plus turn on some nice stories or history in the truck, and you get the a breadth to the rolling Wisconsin hills or twisting Illinois highway that you just can’t get with the Best of Mike and Mike. Okay, that was snobbish. But also true.

The Lindbergh biography took up two and a half hours of my drive time, with another eight left. I’ll need at least one trip to Illinois/Wisconsin to finish that puppy, and then I’ll have a free book to choose from the audiobooks iPhone ap. Won’t last the summer, but should go a long ways.

 

 

Road Notes: Full of Surprises and Joy

Back to the Future

Back to the Future. I was there.

I spent three days last week trucking around the four awkward fitting corners of Nebraska-Missouri-Iowa-Kansas delivering and picking up seed. Couple of long days and short nights, but it was a lot of fun to be back in the truck, getting caught up on podcasts while watching the entire world wake up to spring.

It all started Tuesday, when the owner of the lab space I rent asked me to run some seed to his dealer in Graham, Missouri, a 200-size town roughly 20 miles east of I-29 off the Mound City exit. It’s the fourth time since December that I’ve driven down or across the I-29/Missouri River Valley, and the hills still roll like an endless wave. At least I-29 is better than I-35 between Des Moines and KC. On my way home, I grabbed dinner at Crave in Lincoln, thinking I’d spend Wednesday dutifully catching up.

The Long and Wavy Bluffs that Stretch from OMA to KC

The Long and Wavy Bluffs that Stretch from OMA to KC

On actual Wednesday, those tidy plans were disrupted when I was asked to go to Belle Plaine, Iowa and pick up a bulk load of seed. I gratefully threw my plans for the day out the window and left promptly because, as sudden as it was, too many ordinary days lead to too many ordinary thoughts. Besides I got to eat at the Corn Crib. 

Thankfully, I pressed hard to get to Belle Plaine and arrived at the processing plant just before the secretary I had to bother was about to leave for the day. I was loaded quickly and peacefully traversed to my parents’ apartment in Ames, along the tight hills-corridor of US Highway 30, until it opens up to four lanes around Marshalltown.

Thankfully, I slept poorly and woke up at 3:18 A.M. After 45 minutes of kidding myself, I got up, showered, and was out the door by 5 A.M., eager to beat rush hour traffic around Des Moines. So giddy, I celebrated with Starbucks breakfast: oatmeal with a vanilla latte, things I always want to get at Starbucks, but never do because I’m never there that early.

I glided cheerily through lighter traffic and the world waking up, even as my energy inconveniently burned off around 7:45, forcing me to crush a Starbucks Refresher. I still dragged, but clung to the thought that I would be back to Seward before noon and who knows what the afternoon would hold.

And upon my return to office, I was asked to take one more delivery to Kansas that afternoon! I eagerly said yes. After all, I could go home for lunch and crash for ten minutes and be back to normal. If I didn’t have another delivery, I would be on pins and needles from the Refresher all afternoon. Imagine the waste.

I went home, ate, started a load of laundry, and repeated the delivery cycle. This particular delivery was just across the Nebraska-Kansas border, south of Odell, Nebraska. The familiar turns on I-80 east to Lincoln, them south to Beatrice whizzed by me, almost as if it were happening to someone else. I crossed the border on an obscure country road (miss the welcome-to-Nebraska signs!), and after a bit of searching, found the farm. Then it was back up the highway, and another special dinner (Culver’s this time around), rushing back to Seward in time for church. A delightful day indeed.

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Border Signs

College Stadiums Through a Prism

In my travels, I’ve passed many college stadiums, and have endeavored to keep a photographic record of them. I love seeing them when they’re empty, because you can tell so much about their character, and what kind of fans go into them. Here’s a few of them, on game days and other days.

Uppers...

Uppers…

This walled-in construction lot this is Cal’s Memorial Stadium during its renovation in 2011. Literally, they tore it all out except for the walls. You couldn’t even go up next to it with all the construction fences, but you could still see inside from up on Tightwad Hill.

Closest I'll get to the Blue Turf

Famous Turf…

As I’ve shared before, this photo was taken through the chain fence at Boise Stadium. That strategy was not as ingenious as the one I utilized below…

My Secret View of the Badgers' Home Turf

My Secret View of the Badgers’ Home Turf

..where I actually snuck into Camp Randal Stadium and found a window. Looks like a snow globe.

Spartans lying in Wait...

Spartans lying in Wait…

If you look close to the left of the tree, that’s the south side of Spartan Stadium. At the time, I was on a short time table, and there was not an open parking space close to the stadium, so I ended up with this crappy, obstructed picture. The stadium has some dazzling windows, and fits with the summer greenery.

Hawk Nest...

Hawk Nest…

This photo was taken on an early morning in September of 2009, you know, way before Nebraska and Iowa would be shoehorned into a rivalry. At the time, I was just moseying through the lazy Iowa cornfields, wanting to capture a great stadium in the most glamorous college league in America. I’d have a different attitude about it if I were passing by it today.

Corner...

Corner…

This is stadium on a game day. The Big House in Ann Arbor, Michigan to be exact. The flag is the Nebraska flag that flies in the northwest endzone. Pretty simple for such an important college football venue. (More photos from last year’s Nebraska-at-Michigan game.) I don’t get why people criticize it for being a high-brow stadium. As a visiting fan, I’ve been to both high-brow and low-brow stadiums, and Michigan Stadium was much less threatening stadium for a visitor.

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Sunny Days…

This is Jack Trice Stadium, through the fence at the south end zone. I’ve been to two Husker-ISU games there, in 2006 and 2010. Even though it’s a bit of a band box, it’s noisy as heck, especially at night, and the trees and greenery in this end zone are an unique feature. That dazzling scoreboard at the other end got installed in the first year was Nebraska out of the Big 12. Sigh.

Window Dressing...

Window Dressing…

With Nebraska’s move to the Big 10, the away trips have gotten longer, like our family trip last year to Northwestern. This is the scoreboard that watches over the north exit from the stadium. It’s in desperate need of upgrades, much more so than Jack Trice. Still, it’s great to think that migrations of Husker fans will continue to Evanston over the next ten to twenty years.

Decks of Concrete...

Decks of Concrete…

Technically, Qualcomm is an NFL stadium that happens to host a college program and two college bowl games (shown here before the 2009 Holiday Bowl), so I guess I can count it. While its sun-worn concrete sags away, it is nowhere near being the dump that its northern California doppleganger, the Oakland Coliseum is. Oh, why I am being so hard on it, it is a throwback to a money-saving time when football and baseball stadiums where single venues.

November 29th, 2013

November 29th, 2013

Did you not think I wouldn’t put in a picture of the stadium of my heart?

goingoutandcomingin

"The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore." Psalm 121:8

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