Derek Johnson Muses

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Road (and Flight Notes): Idaho

Saturday night Sunset near Twin Falls

Saturday night Sunset near Twin Falls

It’s weird flying out of Omaha at 2:30 in the afternoon-if you have been impressed by numerous early morning departures. That was the time that my Dad and I left to go, first to Salt Lake City, then to Boise. It is a rarity to fly out of Omaha with your first leg of a connection being the longest, but it’s a blessing when it does happen. And after only two days at home to recoup from my last trip, leaving at 6 A.M. on Saturday would have been horrendous.

There was no line at the security checkpoint at Eppley, and I was almost disappointed. Both flights were full, and on-time, with minimal turbulence as we descended into Boise. There were a few interesting characters: a tanned skinned, foreign man in a fedora who went up to three separate Delta employees to ask about something; a man and a woman with a child who rushed onto to our flight to Boise at the last minute to complain about how bad their flight from Atlanta was; and some guy at the lost luggage counter to try and get back a bag he’d lost, as he’d started his travel day in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania at 5:30 (I could see where he was coming from). It didn’t seem as eventful. Both are flights were full, not surprising for this time of year, but it did seem like fewer people were traveling.

I had left my phone on the flight from Salt Lake City to Boise, but I was able to retrieve it in short order. The drive out to Twin Falls (home of our dears) took place on Saturday, under the glorious clouds of a high sky. We stopped at Burger King in Mountain Home for dinner, and there was a car with New York tags in the parking lot, and another with Massachusetts tags.

I forget often what it’s like to be out here in the Western United states, where the sky is so big and there’s such a distance between the small towns and the big ones. Even when I drive around the towns of 500-1,000 people in Nebraska, Iowa, and Wisconsin, it all feels so close together. Out here, everything feels so far apart. Towns are either 10,000 or 150, with half of the buildings empty.

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Sunday afternoon, my father and I visited the two national parks around Twin falls, the Minidoka relocation camp for the Japanese during World War II and the Hagerman Fossil Beds Museum. On the way out of Hagerman, we stopped at the town’s museum and met a man who grew up in Columbus, but had moved out here. He’s going to the Nebraska-UCLA game this year, so I gave him my card and hope to see him at Noyes. We drove back to Twin Falls over fifty miles of sun-worn highway, past houses with tiled roof built on slabs of cement. Small homes. Now that I own a home, I miss being there more than I’m on the road, and I can see how you get tied to a particular place. I wonder what’s  like to be tied down here, in a place that’s so much more isolated.

Old Guardhouse at Minidoka

Old Guardhouse at Minidoka

What I Wish I Had Known 10 Years Ago in College

I planned for a year and a half that I would go to Concordia University-St. Paul after I graduated high school. I came into that freshmen year very gun-ho, going to learn and get stuff done, a typical attitude for a homeschooled person. Three years and one transfer later, I graduated college feeling burnt out and bottoming into several years of not doing a lot with my life beyond moping. So every now and then, I wonder, what I have learned in the last ten years that would have helped me back then

Change is going to be harder when you get older-After a year at CSP, I transferred to Concordia-Wisconsin, which, while not the worst decision I ever made, did take some uprooting. When I graduated college, I went home and thought I’d do exactly what I wanted to do. Instead, I spent way too many days and nights play video games and thinking of what I would do. Since graduating, I have thought many times about moving, but the thought of how hard it usually gets in the way now.

Do something every day and stick with it-This factor is complicated for me because, I was studying to become a pastor and bailed out on that at last minute; if I had a better inventory of my skill set at the time, I would have taken more English course with writing emphasis, along with a core of theology, history, and languages, and pursued a career in writing.

Instead, I was on track to go to seminary, but pulled out at the last minute. The thing I regret most about that wasn’t quitting (although I don’t think that was where God wanted me at the time), but that I had no plan when I left college. I wish I had stuck with the plan I was on, and figure out how to adapt my gifts later. I ended up spending nearly three years waiting around until I started working for my dad.

Sometimes, what you do doesn’t matter. What matters is if you are sold out to what you do. When you are in college, you have a lot of resources around you-professors, counselors (free, even), different people, plus various recruiters are coming to seek you out. Those winnow pretty quickly when you move on with your life.

Don’t let little things bother you, and you’ll run into difficult people in work and life-I left after two semesters, after putting myself in courses that were too advanced and ignoring the people I disagreed with theologically. The first job I had out of college, I quit quickly when I didn’t get a management position at the end of training. You don’t really appreciate work until you have too many long days to yourself.

You’re going to have bad bosses and have to deal with people who treat you poorly in life. Don’t take personally when someone else blows up at you, or things don’t go your way all of the time. (Great bosses are mean at times because it’s what makes them great.) Not that you won’t walk into bad situations where you do need to leave, but there are many times where you would be better off sticking out and gaining some resilience than just bailing. The greatest sense of achievement you’ll get in life is when you stick with something for several years, and it works out.

People are limited and aren’t going to automatically to fulfill your every need-When I first arrived on the scene at CUW, I thought everyone I met would end up being my best friend. I ended up in some very one-sided friendships and didn’t do as well socially as I hoped. (If any of my former classmates are reading this and have active grievances, I’m sorry.)

The vast majority of us have limits, and we don’t find each other that interesting. Listen to other people talk about what they love about themselves and what interests them, and if repertoire doesn’t develop between the two of you, it’s okay. There are a lot of people out there to find. If you value what interests them, that’s the most you can do.

And sometimes, you have to recognize what a person can give you. If they can help you get through a rough patch great, but if you can tell early in a relationship that you’re not going to get what you need, it’s better to just move on.

Don’t buy into the cultural narcissism around you– Not that you are scum, but you are not as shiny as advertisers and recruiters tell you you are. Advertisers and TV executives are out there trying to get your money and attention, but they won’t offer you as much in return. The world, your peers, and maybe even your parents are showering you with massive amounts of attention without criticism. And by the way, it won’t make you happy in the long run.

You can do everything that makes you happy, buy everything you want, travel, but what really brings lasting enjoyment is sacrifice, commitment, and doing a couple things as well as you can. Don’t worry about having it all if you aren’t able to have it all. Have what your abilities will allow and be grateful.

Learn how to manage your time-This was one of the bad things that happens in prolonged unemployment, is that one turns things like cooking, laundry, and even watching TV into your job. Looking back on it, I wish I would have one of those college semesters where I took on way too many things and had to start using a day planner.

Figure out your limits and abilities-I still struggle with this one mightily. Part of this is knowing when to go to talk to someone about something that bothers me, part of it is knowing when I need either encouragement or tough love. There have been times in talking to others when I have expressed a situation I’m in, and I had no idea what kind of advice I needed or wanted.

Coming out of a wasteland of time, I still haven’t quite figured out what my plan for the next year is going to be, but I know that it had better be set by the time I start traveling this summer.

For those of you in college who are reading this, I hope you’ve read something that serves you on your journey through life. Don’t get down on yourself; life is what it is. Just control how you respond to it.

The dorm I lived four semesters in at CUW

The dorm I lived four semesters in at CUW

Where Family Experience Left Me

I grew up in a small family. My parents married shortly after college, but waited until they were in their thirties until they had my older sister and myself. It always bugged me that they didn’t have more kids. My sister and I would go out and socialize with other, larger homeschool families, many of whom had six or seven kids, from unions that began in their early twenties. My mother raised my sister and I in a large farmhouse, and because we never left for school in the morning, I learned to burrow in and find adventures in my own mind.

As I’ve grown into the world, I have lived a life mostly by myself, but recently, I have come to appreciate more how important large families can be. It started when I was watching Arrested Development on Netfix. I observed, whenever someone in the family had a problem, they went and talked about it with someone else in the family. The family, while not perfect, had a lot of different people to turn to when something bad happened, and a lot of bad stuff happened to this family. It got me to thinking: in our society, did we replace our brothers and sisters with therapists and life coaches? Was sexual promiscuity a way to replace our cousin Becky who told us about how sensitive some girls were, or uncle Bill who taught us how to change a tire? Was a family just God’s way of providing for many of our physical needs.

While our family isn’t exactly the closest, meddle-in-each-others business that some families are, it has been a great boon for me. I don’t have college debt because of my parents, and when I struggled to find a job after college, I was able to begin working for my dad’s company, a position that has afforded me a lot of flexibility.

In the years after I left college, I saw a number of people who were not as fortunate as I was. Having been homeschooled and gone to liberal arts, private college, I was stunned to met co-workers who literally had no curiosity about life, people, and relationships. Some had been burned by their parents’ divorce or their own, some had children out of wedlock they were trying to support. They simply went to their jobs and went home at night, never asking the question of what would make their lives better, or how they could serve their neighbor.

Over the past few months, I began reading a lot online about the marriage debate and about how birth control, and eventually abortion have changed our society, causing us to put our focus on what doesn’t matter. There were a number of influences: Jennifer Roeback Morse on Issues, Etc. and her own blog, dealing marriage and the sexually promiscuous culture; the book The Flip Side of Feminism by Suzanne Venker, calling out our modern generation of twenty-somethings for their entitlement and indulgence; and, most recently, Mark Preus’ paper on his natural family and fatherhood, and how it connects to the Biblical family.

This whole process of realizing the truth about family and life style choices has been very humbling, because of the years I’ve run of and hid in my own depression. But I have come to realize that I have to start making incremental changes in my attitude, the music I listen to, and even the stuff I read online. There are certain things I can’t change about myself right now. I don’t have the means to start a family (kind of need a woman for that), but I know I will come into it with a different attitude. I don’t know if I’ll even want to have kids of my own, but I’ve warmed to the possibility.

2009 Holiday Bowl: Out of the Snow & Into the Sunshine


Sunset from the San Diego Maritime Museum

I didn’t really start to worry until afternoon on Christmas Day, but that’s just my nonchalant nature. The Christmas snow of 2009 had blanketed Nebraska the previous night, and now snow plows were not even running because the snow would just fall right back over and make the street look like it hadn’t been plowed at all. The reason I was concerned this Christmas afternoon was because my father and I had a flight booked to go from Kansas City to San Diego on December 27th to watch Nebraska play in the Holiday Bowl against Arizona.

But surprisingly, when we started down the interstate to Lincoln the next day, we had no problems whatsoever. The day was clear, and there was absolutely no one on the road. Some light flurries came down after we passed Lincoln, but we made it safely to St. Joseph to stay the night and then on to the airport in Kansas City the next day.

Those three days in California were like time spent on an island paradise. Time moved so much slower there. We went to the beach, hit museums in Balboa park, saw restored ships, and visited Cabrillo National Monument and saw its lighthouse. I’d go back to San Diego in a heartbeat because there’s more there I want to do. If I could have only picked one place to see, it would have been the Maritime Museum, with all of its restored ships from all kinds of eras. Submarines, cargo ships, freighters, the whole works. (P.s.-if you come to SD for a bowl game, wear your team colors. They will give you a discount.

But by far, the best part of the trip was simply sitting at a coffee shop on Coronado Island, having a light lunch and reading Prey by Michael Crichton. It was a white-washed, 1840’s style house where they gave you letter as marker for your order. Time passed slowly, the people were so relaxed, it made me want to think about moving. No wonder people get lost out here

The game itself was a spectacle. Having to get there early because of the limited parking, then napping in the car. (Californians always tell you to get to an event way before it happens.) Qualcomm itself is a decrepit pile of concrete, that, if it were in any other state other than California, would have been replaced by now. (Subsequent to this trip, I have had the opportunity to attend an A’s game at the Coliseum in Oakland. Virtually the same stadium.) From a Nebraska perspective, the game on the field was an extension of the fine vacation we were having.

I have to confess, as it began to rain at the game, I felt like complaining about it. Seriously, San Diego must get rain ten year, if that, and it has to rain while I’m visiting and outside watching my beloved Huskers? All the while, there is snow on the ground in Nebraska.

Pregame festivities

Pregame festivities

During that game, it felt as if nothing could go wrong, which, when you have the immovable Ndamukong Suh in the middle of your defense, is actually realistic. Bo Pelini’s post game proclamation (“Nebraska’s back and we’re here to stay!”) had months to brew with fans. But at the end of a season where you win six of your last seven, don’t you automatically expect to get better, with a coach only in his second year? But that’s what it’s like when you have a coach having early success, before you’ve seen the players he’s recruited. Oh well. We are winning, and who would have known after that the quarterback who’d be leading the team wasn’t even on the field yet?

Should Husker fans have learned anything from that game, from the stalled drives that were leading field goals? Maybe; back then, it was to early to say

I slept little at our hotel in Orange County that night, staying up late to read the news on the game and getting up early to catch our flight back. I didn’t get a view of the sea on our way up and down because we drove in the dark, but I couldn’t care less. As we boarded the plane to fly back to the world of snow, I pondered our mystic journey as some of the best days of my life.


Huskers taking the field.

(More Husker Trips: Northwestern 2012, Minnesota 2011, Iowa State 2010)

Road Notes: Back to Wisconsin and Dodging Biting Dogs

It was a bit exasperating to my psyche to go back to Wisconsin (even more so when a dog tried literally to bite me-keep reading), driving most of the same route to the same fields that I went to a month ago. But, I have some new experiences, so another edition of Road Notes. (First Edition and Sequel)

Plot in Spring Green is Shedding

Tuesday morning, I wake up in Dubuque, say goodbye to Tom and grab another punch for a free coffee. The morning clouds are laced by blue sun; it’s hazy and humid, but thankfully not a scorcher. When I get to the plot at Fennimore, I have to call our grower to double-check the location and find out the field I assumed was our test is not our test plot. The actual test plot is located in a place that is much more difficult to get to, along roughly graveled access road up-and-down an uneven plane. The plot itself is planted in a strip on a hill, and it’s going to be a long carry when I harvest the plants here.

Post-field, I head into Fennimore, intending find a library to e-mail some field notes to my father to make sure we are on the same page. I park the library parking lot, but see a bakery across the street, so I decide to support the local business. I don’t go in at first, but instead stand right outside the door to make sure they have WiFi. They do. The bakery is run by some conservative protestant women wearing homemade dresses and prayer-head coverings. I buy a pecan roll (incidently, “pecanroll” is the WiFi password). I e-mail my father, facebook a photo of the bakery to a friend of mine who’d love it (he does), and waste another twenty-minutes downloading podcasts, as if I haven’t already purchased two books on CD. Overall, the trip is a disaster.

The Cottage Bakery in Fennimore

This time, I decide to go straight north out of Fennimore instead of taking US Highway 18. Choosing a county road over US 61, which goes only a handful of miles to the west, it is finally cemented in my head that using county roads to navigate the Wisconsin hills just isn’t worth the hassle, especially when you’re slowing down for the Amish, which I do thrice.

Advancing to the town of Blue River on the Wisconsin River, I wonder what most of America would think if they knew that their milk came from dairies in the rotten wooden barns I’m passing. Blue River reminds me of Stapelhurst. Like every American town of 400 or less, it has too many buildings meant for businesses. From Highway 60 east, I get a spectacular view of the Wisconsin, which is dotted with sandbars, but nowhere near as shallow as the Platte.

Post-plot inspection (this one will be much easier to harvest than Fennimore), I drive into Spring Green and eat lunch at The Kitchen at Arcadia Books, the high-class bookshop/coffee shop I passed by last trip. The shop is built for light (light blue walls, varnished wood) and brandishes several old covers of The New Yorker on its walls. Ironic for southwest Wisconsin; must get Chicagoans out her for the Shakespeare festival.


Burn up through the valley to Mauston, where I stop at an Evangelical Christian coffee shop on the square. I’m drawn to the art in their windows, but I order a latte with a shot as well. They’re closing, so I head off and make a wrong turn as I try to get on the interstate and have to go back around the construction in town. Even though I-94 goes at an angle, only Wisconsin Highway 82 has an exit. 58 does not.

Most interesting vehicle I encounter on the way to Colfax is a F-350 with a trailer, North Carolina plates, and N.C. State plate on the front. Colfax is on the end of a dry spell, and our stuff there doesn’t look great, although it’s still July. On the way back down, I stop for dinner at Moe’s Almost Famous Diner, a 1950’a style place that I should have known values environment over food. The waitress is unengaged, tells me where to sit, is late taking my order and in bringing me the check, resulting in her tip getting dock. The food is really bad too, and I drive down to Tomah disappointed. Checking into the Super 8, the guy in front of me speaks with a Canadian accent, so I assume he’s driving the vehicle with Winnipeg Jets plates in the parking lot.

Tuesday morning, I wake up and, forgetting my lesson from the Cottage Bakery, waste a lot of time trying unsuccesfully to sync my iPod to my laptop. Our plot in Tomah has some insect damage but looks okay otherwise. As I get back to my truck, I met one of our plot’s farmers, introduce myself, and give him my card. We chat for a minute about the lack of rain, and I head out.

A couple miles east of Tomah, there’s a roadblock due to a bridge that’s out. I’m out in the middle of cranberry country and national forests, which means a long detour if I decide to take country roads. I consult my GPS and figure it’s worth the risk to go country roads. It pays off: I only have to drive eight or ten miles around, and I’m back on Wisconsin Highway 21.

Pond on the way

After viewing our field by Coloma, I stop for lunch at the Culver’s in Portage and trying to prove I’m classy, I find a lake and eat lunch in front of a bunch of swimming kids. Swing through downtown, cross the river, and I’m back on I-39.

I arrive at our plot in Arlington circa 12:30. It’s right next to a house, so I figure I should knock there first to let the people know I’m there. When I pull in the driveway, a dog comes up barking. I decide to ignore him, as I do all barking dogs, but he comes up beside me and bits a hole in my pant leg. (Praise the Lord I choose to put on long pants today.) Rattled, I head back to the cab of my truck without knocking on the door and without getting bit again. I debate what to do for a second, but then someone comes driving up the lane from the behind one of the barns. We speak to each other through our respective truck cabs; I don’t tell him about the dog bite, and he instructs me to drive to the field at the end of the lane I’m on. I do, and sit sheepishly in the cab for a few minutes while the dog continues to bark. Eventually, I cautiously get out and head into the field. The dog doesn’t follow me. I’m a bit relieved when I see that most of the crop here has been lost to drought, meaning I won’t have to go here again.

The dying plot

I take a county road (this one actually is straight) down to Sun Prairie, an upscale Madison suburb where I search for a place to buy scissors to cut off the dog rip in my pants. I don’t mess around and tell myself to stop at the first store I see, which turns out to be a Dollar General. No one stares at me when I go to buy the $2 scissors and a Gatorade, or when I come out and stand at the open door of my truck cutting my cargo pants into shorts. Thankfully, these pants were about shot anyway. On my way out of the shopping center where I bought the scissors, I make a failed attempt to jump on McDonald’s WiFi from there parking lot.

While I stop in Marshall to use their sterile peach library’s WiFi and call my Dad, I tweet about the irony of their being towns named Waterloo and Watertown within twenty miles of each other.

After examining the plot (excellent stand in spite of the heat), I drive into Watertown and take a leisurely break at Tribeca, a book/coffee shop with an upstairs that has a view of downtown Watertown. After working on an HL column on Rex Burkhead, I stroll down town to the river which must give Watertown its name. A bunch of teenagers roam the streets, and I wonder if their bored here during the summer.


As I drive north out of Watertown, my dad texts me that the plot in Fox Lake has been abandoned and I won’t have to go there. I drive relieved through the wretched roundabout to get to Wisconsin Highway 26, relieved a stop has been eliminated.

I spend the night at what used to be the AmerInn in Waupun. The hotel is now called Borders for some reason, and a bunch of road crews are staying there. I’m exhausted, so I got to the one restaurant that’s close that I like: Culver’s, for the second time today. Later, I go back for ice cream.

I wake up at four and can’t get back to sleep. I work on my Husker Locker column, getting to the body of the work. I still manage to leave late and get to the first Omro plot at 8:40. The second plot takes me a while to find, but it’s by an abandoned school. The two plots (four miles apart) are works in contrast: the first is completely healthy, the second will be abandoned because of drought and weeds. Relieved, I drive back to Omro and waste some time browsing a thrift store.

Without a Prom-ise

I never had a high school prom. As part of that homeschooling charm,  I didn’t have a centralized prom to go to. A couple of my homeschool friends were invited by others to our local high school’s prom, but I was not. It didn’t really bother me at the time: my boss in high school scornfully told me to skip it and a friend once told me I should consider myself blessed not to have a prom. But when I was staying in Dubuque, I saw a bunch of kids show up at the river wearing tuxes and riding in a limo, and my mind turned again to that ambiguous hole around age eighteen.

Of course, the person I was then was a shelter outsider who didn’t fit in (probably why I became an artist). That kid was living for the day he could move away from his parents, become a pastor, and prove he was better than everyone else. I always figured that it won’t make difference; even now, I rarely think back on who I was in high school.

High school itself is a mystery to me. I don’t get movies or TV shows about high school, even great ones. I just don’t relate to that kind of experience because I never had it. In many ways, I felt like I woke up knowing everything I needed to know already.

What was is prom, really? A fancy, formal dance to celebrate the end of a year at school. Would it matter to me that much if I were dating a teacher and she took me to prom? Probably not, although I would be nice to see what it’s like. But would it top my trip to San Diego to the 2009 Holiday Bowl? Not really.

Ultimately, I fixate on my prom because I wish I could have those years back and build something with people who were there. If it could only be.


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