Derek Johnson Muses

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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

Road Notes: Back in a Hurry

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Just flaunting Husker pride!

Last week, I went on a maddening, four-day circle through Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, and back to Iowa, revisiting all the soybean fields I had already been to. It had all typical aspects of a Derek Johnson-road trip: receiving field information right when arrived at the field itself, figuring out my route on the fly, lunches at Subway, dinners after 7 P.M., and pick-me-up lattes whenever a Starbucks fell out of the sky. It was so crazy that I didn’t share the blog post I uploaded on Tuesday morning in my Waupun, Wisconsin hotel until Thursday afternoon in the Washington, Iowa, public library. Most of the routes I’ve driven on before and have written about in detail, so I will simply share some of the highlights and lessons.

I made a valuable life-adjustment: I went to bed before 10:30 each night, the benefit of dumping my Netflix subscription and of not justifying an extra hour of cable I didn’t get at home. I can see how valuable that extra hour is during the day; that hour I would have spent watching TV was putting to better use, even if I just watched more TV. I am trying to adjust my life at home to the same schedule.

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The Wisconsin River east of Bridgeport

I met the dairy farmer who does our test plots near Spring Green plots on the banks of the Wisconsin River. (For Husker fans, it is five miles downriver from where Nebraska AD Shawn Eichorst grew up in Lone Rock.) Jim also raises corn and potatoes. I asked him if anyone in the area raises cranberries, a crop which requires field flooding, but he said no, the geography isn’t conducive to it, although he never has water issues himself. (More cranberries are raised north of Spring Green, up by Tomah.)

Good ear? I think so.

Good ear? I think so.

I’m more cautious of the speed limit in Illinois than in any other state because of the ticket I received in Peoria last year. When I crossed the Wisconsin-Illinois border on I-39, I passed two speed patrols in the space of about twenty-five miles. Still chasing that out-of-state dollar. At least they must be generating some revenue with the road renovations in the southern part of the state.

Tuesday night, I stayed in El Paso, Illinois, and dinner at Monical’s Pizza just of I-39. It was a nostalgia place with all this stuff on the wall from the 1940’s and ’50’s, and even though the pasta dish was generic and the sauce cheap, I enjoyed it because it’s not something I make for myself. It felt a bit bizarre observing the teenagers working there, thinking back to time working for Valentino’s. I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them were dying to get out of El Paso.

I realized why Subway has the most locations of any restaurant in the United States: you can put one in a strip mall and don’t need to build a stand-alone building, you don’t need a fryer, and you need three or four employees to run one. Genius business.

Wednesday night, I could have received 20% off dinner if ate at the Iron Skillet off the Kingdom City, Missouri exit, but I didn’t because I worry truck stop food will upset my stomach. Okay, it’s because I’m too good for truck stops, but either way, I ate at Panhead’s, a Mizzou Tigers tavern. I’m such a snob, but at least I had a good pork barbecue.

I saw an Iowa State Cyclones flag on Iowa Highway 92 between Washington and Signourney. As I tweeted out on Thursday night, it was the first time that I had seen ISU house decoration closer to Iowa City than Ames. The ‘Hawks are trending down.

Little flower...

Little flower…

My biggest disappointment was that I didn’t patronize a local coffeehouse. I passed one in southwest Illinois in some town on Illinois Highway 16; it even had an used bookstore. But I didn’t stop, and on Thursday, I was too exhausted to even consider hitting up the coffeehouse in Washington, Iowa.

I was so exhausted on Thursday because I had been battling allergies the entire trip and had to pull off US Highway 24 by Mark Twain Lake in Missouri because my eyes had become so watery. The corn pollen, plus the weed pollen, proved to be too much.

Thursday afternoon, I burned through a stockpile of PTI podcast from July while I used minor highways to get from Peoria, Iowa to the I-80, then enjoyed the sight of rush hour traffic going the other way while I bolted to Ames. That night, I crushed a Culver’s chicken dinner while watching the NFL preseason.

I didn’t write anything down while I was driving, only because I wanted to see how things collected in my mind. Actually, I was forcing myself to take a break, although I should have worked on some of Husker writing. Now that weekly Husker writing is coming up, I need to find the right balance between writing and reading. And editing what I already have written.

More...

More…

Road Notes: Brush with the South and Dragging On

It started out "promising" (field in northern Missouri)...

It started out “promising” (field in northern Missouri)…

Last Sunday morning, I rolled out of bed at 10 A.M. and took three hours to pack and square things around the house before I left. The previous day, I had come up with a flawless plan of how I would leave around nine and get to Columbia, Missouri by four at the latest for an evening of enjoying Mizzou’s campustown. Instead, I ended up rolling into Moberly, Missouri at 8 P.M. and eating a Subway sub on my bed while watching Sunday Night Baseball.

On the hour drive from Moberly to Thompson in the morning, I realized it might have been just as efficient to have spent the night in Mexico, Missouri, from which Thompson was a much shorter drive. But I pressed on to the farm, where I met our dealer-grower. He was not able to plant until June 30, but his soybeans looked promising as they battled the weeds, coming up among the straw that was grown in the field over winter. In central Missouri, the earliest frost is usually late enough so that he will be fine.

From there, I drove down US Highway 54 toward I-70, only to pull over at a Wal-Mart in order to get an oil change that I had been putting off. I got out of my truck at the drop-off spot just outside the mechanic’s bay, but none of the three guys in the garage to came up of to help me I had to wander into the office to find someone, and if I hadn’t had to take the time to get lunch there, the stop would have been an utter waste. Do I even remember my own time-saving principals?

My extra time gone, I made haste down the interstate. The next guy I had to met lived all the way down in Braggadoccio, Missouri, fourteen miles from the Arkansas border in the Missouri Bootheel. He had an appointment the next morning, but agreed to met me that afternoon, so I bolted through the St. Louis suburbs, by the bluffs of the Mississippi, until they rolled themselves into flatter country south of Cape Girardeau. I actually did see some corn, but I didn’t notice the crop I expected, cotton. I arrived in Braggadoccio just before 5, and met our grower by the tiny post office, and an old building that turned out to be his storefront.

Flooded Rice Field

Flooded Rice Field

Much of Braggadoccio was destroyed by a tornado several years ago, but our grower rebuilt his home and farming enterprise, and now is doing very well. He farms rice as a rotation crop, as it setups up the field with the nutrients that corn and soybeans need. Rice farming involves flooding the fields, a method that wouldn’t be possible without the abundance of water the Mississippi and St. Francis Rivers provide. I asked our grower to point out a cotton field to me, and it turns out, a cotton field looks just like a soybean field.

To get a jump start on the next day, I drove back north, stopping first in New Madrid, Missouri to take some pictures of the Mississippi from the town’s long river access amidst the industrial villages lining. After soaking in humid river air, I drove to Sikeston, where I spent the night.

Mississippi at New Madrid, Missouri; Kentucky on the Other Side.

Mississippi at New Madrid, Missouri; Kentucky on the Other Side.

There were four signs of the south I noted on this trip. First, the accents. Two, the abundance of mobile homes. Three, the rice and cotton fields. Four, how horrendously friendly everyone was. And fifth, when the hostess at Ruby Tuesday’s sat me for dinner, she said “Ms. Amber will be with you in a moment.” #outofmycomfortzone

Typical?

Typical?

Tuesday morning, I got up late and drove up through a small slip of the delta and crossed the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois, right by the mouth of the Ohio River near some of the flattest ground I’ve ever seen. (BTW, the mouth of the Ohio is so much grander than the mouth of the Missouri for some reason.) Cairo, like many of the mid-sized towns in Illinois, is bleak and run-down, with one too many civic buildings downtown. Mass construction (undoubtedly to spend Obama stimulus dollars) slowed the traffic on I-57 as I passed turnoffs for Louisville and Nashville, and continued toward my destination of Pana, Illinois.

After my third meal at Subway in three days (coupon) at the Salem, Illinois exit, I drove up a gritty US Highway 51 to my field north of Pana. It had some weed issues, but the stand was good. Not wanting to drive too late into the night, I headed up towards Springfield. I had to share a couple of my posts on social media, but instead of doing the easy thing and stopping at a Starbucks I knew from last year, I bypassed Springfield and decided that I would happen upon WiFi connection elsewhere. Surprisingly, my brazen spirit was rewarded at a gas station west of Jacksonville, Illinois.

I spent the night at the Super 8 in Hannibal, Missouri. Dinner was my official trip splurge-pizza and wine at an Italian brick-oven bistro. The chicken alfredo pizza satiated my craving for fine food, but the wine made me really sleepy. Nevertheless, I went for dessert at Java Jive and hung around downtown until dusk.

Wednesday, my final day passed like a dream, as I whisked across a near anonymous section of the Iowa-Missouri border, then criss-crossed across southeast Iowa until I got to our grower in Pella. This guy had actually planted his beans May in spite, and they looked healthy. I made one fatal mistake-the best time to met the grower was at 12:30, so I thought it wouldn’t be a big deal to put off lunch. By the time I finished going over the fields at two o’clock, I was in such a fowl mood it didn’t matter. (At least I got Culver’s.)

Even though I barely stopped, the drive back to Seward seemed to get so much longer when I reached Des Moines and began driving on the section of I-80 that I drive when I go to Ames. My mind has cataloged every stop and what’s at every stop, so now it always seems tedious and unnew. But I kept pressing on, and was never more relieved to arrive at home when I rolled in just before nine.

Looks promising...

Looks promising…

 

Road notes: Iowa and Illinois Soybeans and the Last Production Trip

Earlier this month, my father tasked me with visiting our tasked with visiting our soybean plots in southeast Iowa and western Illinois. Due to my own over-scheduling, I was forced to leave after working at the gallery last Wednesday at five and drive to Ames, the only break being a quick stop at the Corn Crib for dinner. It was a short night, and I barely took time to review my itinerary before crashing into bed. This would be my last work trip of the season, and when it was over, I was relieved.

I rolled out of bed at 4:20 and did the route work on my computer, and once it was done, I went back to bed. Another hour of sleep, I got back up, breakfasted, and conferred with my dad before hitting the road with some rush hour stragglers headed to Des Moines. I followed I-235 downtown, then took Iowa Highway 163 through the mess of burbs into the empty fields of a misty morning.

Soybeans Intertwined with Rogue Grass

Said mist burned off by the time I reached my first set of fields northeast of Pella. They had some weeds, but nothing major. The second plot was only fifteen miles away, and it had a longer way to go until it would be ready to harvest. I made my observations and took the country roads to US Highway 63 to go down to Oskaloosa.

After some circles, I located the Subway on the east end of town and ordered the a chicken teriyaki without onions and was rung up by a jolly cashier who seemed to be very happy in his menial job. I took two attitudes toward this: one, I was really encouraged by his enthusiasm, and two, isn’t kind of scary to be this enthusiastic about cashiering at Subway? Not saying he doesn’t have higher aspirations, he has a every right too. I just wonder.

Failing to find a park, I ate behind the wheel on my way out of town. Having to navigate around a traffic pitfall between Oskaloosa and Sigourney, I took occasion for some extra photographs. I stopped in Sirgourney at the library to text my dad back. I felt like stopping to take a nap, but I waited until I got to Washington to do so, as they had a city park that was right off the highway.

Our soybean fields in Washington were plagued with weeds, as they were when I visted them three years prior, but at least we’d get something out of them. Our grower conveniently lives next to Wal-Mart, so I buy batteries for my camera that has been showing me a diminishing battery sign for a few days now. I end up in another loop around town and have to disobey my GPS to get on US Highway 218 south to Mount Pleasant, then on to US 34 east to Burlington. In a double dose of irony, US Highway 34 goes through my hometown of Seward and goes directly along the Amtrak rail from Chicago that I rode a few weeks earlier.

I gassed up at Burlington (gas is always cheaper in Iowa), stopped by Shopko to buy a razor and Axe Shower Gel (a must to clean up from the fields), and checked the map. My GPS recommended following 34 to Galesburg to get to Peoria, but I checked the map and found Illinois 116, which looked be less miles. I wanted to hit the country roads for my photographs anyway. I cross the spectacularly-suspended white bridge (it looks dingy from the railroad bridge promptly made a wrong turn into Gulf Port, Illinois, where Burlington undoubtedly stashes their organized crime.

The drive to Peoria, once I made my way though Mississippi-mud drenched fields and my own over-correction in the railroad town of Stronghurst, was a brisk half-an-hour. I glided passed harvesting farmers and finally into an industrial park by the on ramp in western Peoria. I drove out to Morton, as it was only ten miles from my first stop tomorrow. I stayed in a new Travelodge, a bargain room with a soft bed with multiple pillows. I ate at Ruby Tuesdays: good food and a good spot to watch an NFL Network game, but the service wasn’t as good. There were a bunch of staff wandering around, and one person actually waiting. I tipped 10% and rushed out afterward.

Close to Harvest

I got up late on Friday, but all my fields were within a twenty miles of Morton. They had the same moderate weed problems as the other fields. I passed through the town of Eureka and briefly contemplated seeing the Reagan Museum, as I’d often passed his growing-up home in Dixon up by I-88. But I just contemplated it. The highlight of my day was meeting one of our growers who had to drive me down to his fields which were at the bottom of a steep hill. He happened to come to western Nebraska to hunt coyotes, a subject that fascinates me even though I have little desire to hunt myself.

Fields once inspected, I left to go back to Goodfield, where I’d gotten on the interstate and use their library’s WiFi to upload a blog post. Unfortunately, the library, which was the size of a garden shed, was only open from nine to noon, and over the course of a week, was only open for a few four hour increments. Sigh. I got in I-74 and made a blitz for Galesburg, dodging Peoria’s speed traps the whole way.

Heading toward Galesburg, I saw signs for a Perkins, which didn’t mention that I would incur a two mile detour, first on US 34, then on an another street. Illinois seems made for home-town cafes. I went with chicken soup and a half-sandwich, post roast on Parmesan bread, an inventive combination but poorly executed. There were two overweight managers on-duty; not to be insensitive, but I couldn’t picture how they managed when it was busy. Post-lunch, I grabbed a coffee and donuts at a shop next door, and used their shoddy WiFi to get my blog post up. Unfortunately, I could only get one other podcast I wanted up and had to make a second stop two hours later in Iowa City at the mall.

Traffic between the Iowa City and Des Moines (post 4 P.M. on a Friday) was chaotic, as I passed a number of Huskers and Hawkeyes heading to their respective Saturday games. At least Californians have a certain etiquette to the way they drive. Here in the Midwest, everyone camps out in the left lane like it’s their God-given rite, and if a truck wants to pass, then it’s ten minutes of ten other cars going 60. I delighted in getting to my parents and watching football.

Saturday, I got up early and hit Starbucks for a pumpkin spice latte, an event that required me to purchase a Casey’s turnover in Stuart, Iowa. I glided through the brown fields, wistful that my travel season was done. For the first time this season, I was able to stop at farmer’s market in Omaha and get some fresh produce, a happy coincidence to the end of a good trip.

Bound Railyards

Amtraking

The day after the third harvest, I had to make travel arrangements to come to out to my sister’s for Labor Day lake weekend. Last year, I got made my arrangements too soon, not factoring in my other travel. This year, I waited until I knew work travel for sure. Unfortunately, my plans didn’t firm until a week before, so my cheapest option (by $100+) was to take Amtrak from Osceola.

After a fifteen-hour work day and five-and-a-half hours of sleep, I made a peaceable drive of an hour and a half from Ames to Osceola, with the light traffic of pre-rush hour. Parking at the station is (shocking) free. The crowd to get on was modest-a lot of Iowa fans heading to the Hawkeye’s game at Soldier Field against Northern Illinois. The train was only fifteen minutes late, and I got on eagerly.

This was my third trip to Chicago on Amtrak. Trains really only work well in more urban areas. If you want to go to Chicago on Amtrak from Lincoln or Omaha, you have to leave at 3:45 now, which is literally the most inconvenient time of night for a tree to leave as it is to late to stay up, or too early to get a respectable amount of sleep. If you can’t sleep on mass transit (I can’t, no matter how hard I try), you’re in for a very disrupted day. This time around, I thought hey, train leaves from Osceola at 7:40, it’s only seven hours to Chicago and six back. How bad could it be?

It took me about to three hours in to question whether or not the $100 I saved by not flying was worth it. The only way to withstand the tedium is to have enough reading, writing, or viewing material to get you through it (should have brought a TV show on DVD). The smell of the train is intoxicating, with heavy emphasis on the toxic. To top it off, you’re sitting by all these people who thinks trains are nostalgic and “so cool”. Please; how on earth did I not remember all this stuff?

I don’t even get the argument that taking the train allow a person “to see so much”. My life is sent driving around rural America, and I don’t know how people get a better view from the train. Try driving from Chicago to Lincoln on country roads, you’ll get a good view that way.

Never the mind. The trains I take out to my sister’s, the South Shoreline and the Amtrak train from New Buffalo, Michigan are much better in terms of cleanliness, although they cover much less ground. If I lived in the northeast, I’d probably like taking trains much more, and they are more convenient than driving in most situations.

My train back to Osceola was about half-an-hour late, and we had to do that ridiculously thing where they make us wait on the wrong side of the tracks until after the train passes. But I didn’t mind the half-an-hour drive back to Ames: it was free cookie day at Subway, and, when I stopped at Starbucks in Des Moines, I observed the return of pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks. So all wasn’t lost.

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Visiting the Chicago Art Institute

After my last trip to visit production fields and test plots, I accomplished one of my important goals for my artistic development and visited the Art Institute of Chicago. I’d walked past it several times, but to go and observe the paintings was something else.

Actually took this photo three years ago, but it’s the best one I have.

My sister and I took the South Shoreline in from La Porte, Indiana, where we enjoyed some quality reading/discussion time. We both agree-it would be so awesome to live someplace where you could ride a train every day to work, so you’d get an hour plus of quality reading time. I’d give up my car for that. After an early lunch at Corner Bakery (the greatest spice-mixing eatery on the earth) and grabbing some Starbucks coffee (they got my drink wrong), we were off to the museum.

Rolling in, we found that we were arriving on free admission day…for Illinois residents. But at least this meant there would be a lot of people in the museum, which I actually do like. I visited the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on their free admission day, and it’s fun when there’s more people there. It makes it the place to be.

The Institute is way too big for its own good. My sister and I took over four hours and we still didn’t get through everything (although we probably did see over half of it). It took me less time to see every at the SF MOMA. The lesson I learned was don’t waste as much time on the abstracts on the things you don’t care for as much, spend time with photographs, twentieth century paintings, and realist paintings that you like.We didn’t even get to the Lichtenshien special exhibit. 1930’s cartoon have their place, but this is the Chicago Art Institute.

A couple of things stood out on this visit. First, the exhibition Capturing the Sublime: Italian Drawings of the Renaissance and Baroque, collection of strained drawing from the Renaissance, many of them nudes. I started glancing through them and thought little of them. I took first and second glances and found the drawings to be too distant, grayish and emphasizing tendon-like lines. Then I wandered on to the next exhibit and realized that a lot of my black and whites of barns are the same. Later, I came back and compared some of my photos, and there were probably more similarities than I would like to admit. Talk about a good dose of humility.

Asian art I still don’t get. I didn’t get it when I visit the Asian Museum of Art in San Francisco last year, and I don’t get it well. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy connecting with their culture, but overall, I think Asian art might have been the forerunner of the comic book. So many white glass dishes covered in wispy blue lines.But I do like their animal sculptures.

Like this guy

But the real moment of truth for me came when I was observing the American art. While I was sitting on a bench taking in the paintings in a particular room, I was draw to a patch of white light that stood out on a black tower. The painting looked like it was from an industrial city in the 1870’s or something, like Chicago, Dubuque, or Milwaukee. I was captivated by the way the box of light just jumped off the canvas and presented itself to me. I spent the rest of my time looking through the gallery the same way that painting presented itself to me, trying to find the hole of light in the painting.

When I visit an art museum, I love to sit back and soak in what it has to offer me. That’s why I made it a goal to visit the Art Institute in Chicago, and while it’s now my goal to visit the Met in New York, along one other significant art museum in my time in that city. That museum gave me so much new perspective, perspective that I need to grow as an artist and as a writer. Reflecting on it, I know my work has to get better.

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Roads Notes from my First Production Trip: Wisconsin

Tuesday-Left home ten until nine. Dropped off recyclables in north Lincoln. Get off at 84th street to go to Crane Coffee, but stop at Husker Hounds first; score a mesh shirt on sale. Then get a green tea smoothie and write on my IPod at Crane.

Lunch at the Corn Crib. Usually, I order off the menu, but to save time, I get a pre-made pork tenderloin out of the warmer. The flavor is authentic as it always is. Watch the weather channel and read Body Surfing by Anita Shreve. (Why am I even starting that book? I’m reading another five already.)

The Corn Crib in the Shelby, Iowa (I-80 exit 34)

Took a detour from I-80 MM 60 through 67 to shot some barns. Found several, and only had one mile of road to drive on. Took 1/2 an hour somehow, & when I got back on the road, found a text that said my meeting was at 3 instead of 3:30 Arrived 15 minutes late.

Wednesday-Got up at 5:38 and left at 6:55. It’s partly cloudy with scattered rains off and on, threatening to blind me with the rising if a sudden hard rain comes. But after I-35 MM 165, the clouds burn off.

At 8:39, stop & use restroom at MN welcome center. Grab hotel coupons. While most of the work is done, Owatonna is still working on their construction project from last summer.

As I dart through the MSP suburbs, stop in Woodbury for gas and a Quizno’s breakfast sub in a strip mall built for wealthy wives with stated parking time limits on parking individual spaces. There’s a non-chain coffee shop I’m intrigued by but don’t stop in. Cross into Wisconsin to be greeted by rain showers and sunshine. Not blinded, but a few never-racking miles.

Get off where I’m supposed to, but take a wrong turn and end up in the middle of Hoffman Hills State Park. Arrived at our growers, field tour lasts an hour. Plants hand high. Forget my camera and have to take photos on my way out.

Hopefully, this will be a field of gold in September.

Take a wrong turn and end up taking WI-HWY 29 into Eau Claire instead of I-94. Minus a Wisconsin map, I have to rely on my GPS, and find my way down to the interstate. Detour leads past Starbucks and I grab an iced caramel macchiato and a blueberry muffin while I check e-mail and social media Eat ravenously as my lunch was inadequate.

Around I-94 MM 111, there’s grafatti on a rock quarry. See a lot of roadside signs supporting Governor Walker, only two calling for him to be recalled.

Stop at rest stop about MM 137 to see if they have a Wisconsin road map. They don’t, but after observing the framed map in the lobby, I decide to get off at Warrens and see if there’s a cool cranberry-themed shop. There is, but it’s closed when I get there. I take backroads to Tomah, where I stop by a Humrid Cheese, a store I’ve observed several times. But fudge and summer sausage and cheese pack.

Photograph both the Wisconsin River and Ship Rocks on my way to the field. I really like the Ship Rocks photos and might frame one for myself. The field takes me too long to find, due to it being 5 o’clock and curved Wisconsin roads. Afterward, I get on I-39 and head down to Portage. I check the Super 8 first, but it’s full. The woman behind the counter tells me to check the Best Western behind Wall-Mart. It looks like a midlevel conference center, and I worry it’ll be over $100, but the corporate rate is $80 with tax.

Ship Rocks

I check the steak and seafood house across the street, but it’s got nothing I want. I go to Culver’s and order cheese curds, fries, and chili: three sides that cost as much as a value meal. I go back to my room and eat in front of baseball and the Western Conference Finals, but I got to sleep at 9:30.

Thursday-Zip Down to Madison on I-39. Some construction, but the sun is shining. Get off on US 151 to head downtown, find that it offers a few of the Camp Randall press box in the distance, like the one you get of Memorial Stadium’s when you’re driving west on Vine Street. Madison has college town feel akin to Eat Lansing and Berkeley: dingy houses with obvious snow wear, lots of trees, people wear odd clothing combinations. Before I get to downtown, I get stuck waiting for a train, so I check my GPS and write this.

Walk around the Lake Mendota and the river flowing into it. Pass a group of kids who must be in some summer day camp, three older African American guys fishing, and two girls who look be going kayaking. Admire the Lilly pads, then get in the truck and continue heading downtown. Like Milwaukee, the houses in Madison suddenly get nicer the closer you get to the lake.

Summer Lake

When I approach the Capitol, I realize what I thought must be the Camp Randall press box is really a building with a lot of glass windows. I circle the Capitol, and park on street, only to find my thirty-five cents net me 14 minutes of parking time. I make a quick run inside the Capitol, observe a protest against governor Walker, see where I want to eat on State Street, and move my truck into a parking facility I passed up on my way to park on the street.

Madtown

I have lunch at Michalengo’s Coffee on State Street: turkey and asparagus on focaccia, with baklava for dessert. Unfortunately, they don’t take my company credit card. I lunch while staring at their bright, homey abstracts which seem strangely accessible.

Post lunch, I stroll down State to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, which I technically don’t have time to go to. It requests donation, but I don’t have the right bills. (Actually, I do, but they’re stuffed down in my wallet.) I check out one of the floors sheepishly as the docent watches everyone like a hawk. The show is of abstract animals; I bail after a quick glance through, wishing I had the time.

Drive in circles looking for Camp Randall Stadium, and then drive around Camp Randall once before deciding to park there. Sneak and get a view of the field through a supply hall were some chair backs are stored. Field turf shimmers like a lake in the Wisconsin summer sun.

My Secret View of the Badgers’ Home Turf

After threading my way through Madison’s quaint, 1950’s box home neighborhoods, I get on Highway 14 to go to Dakota, Illinois where our next grower is. Most of the highways I have to use are county roads, and I am forced to use my GPS often. Lots of little towns and dairy farms, but I finally get there after another wrong turn. The farms here are closely clustered together, more so than in Nebraska and Iowa.

While I’m at the field, my Dad calls me to say he’s received the locations of our test plots in Wisconsin. Previously, I understood there would just be one or two, but now he tells me that there’s eight, some of which are east of Madison. He suggests that I go back up to Madison to start in the morning, but I decide to go to Freeport (which is only six miles away) and check the e-mail. This is the first time it would have been helpful for me to have 3G.

Freeport, Illinois is so much more run down than it’s neighbor to the west, Dubuque, Iowa. What a difference a state government can make. While Dubuque is defined by its shipping yards on the Mississippi and its agrarian fields to the west, Freeport is a run down factory town. Initially, I target McDonald’s for WiFi, but then I find the public library, which happens to be in a municipal building. I sit in the building’s main hall and check the e-mail: the first field is by Fennimore, Wisconsin, which is directly north of Dubuque, so I go there as I planned and spend the night with my friend Tom.

Illinois Road Notes: Part 1

Last week, I left Dubuque and went on a trip that took me to my aunt’s house in Tinley Park, Illinois to Princeton, Illinois, down to the St. Louis suburbs, then back home. The following is the first half of some notes from my ride that I wrote on my IPod as I drove, or things that I was thinking along the way.

Tuesday

The road from Dubuque to Chicago is at first a frustrating two-laner over hills and curves, made even more frustrating by early morning fog and traffic. At points, I’m going 40-45. I’m gleeful when the road splits into four lanes by Freeport, and I happen upon a farm to photograph. I fill up at the oasis on I-88, just as a bus with high schoolers comes in. Chicago freeway traffic is light.

I exit I-294 and take Cicero down to where my aunt and uncle live. I drove this route several times when I would come down from Milwaukee seven years ago, and there are many more empty store fronts now then there was then. Not the roughest neighborhood I’ve ever been in, but it’s bleak nonetheless. Tinley Park, where they actually live, is much better. Seeing the bus stops with movie ads to me, is the hallmark of city life.

On the way out of Chicago, I get off at Joliet, Illinois, and find a minor highway that runs north of I-80 about ten miles. I have a fleeting thought about taking I-55 instead, but its raining, and I’d like to drive on a road less crowded.

Downhill

After photographing a group of sheds, I pull into a driveway to turn around and have to wait for two vehicles to pass. While I sit there, someone watches from the doorstep of the house, probably the person who owns the sheds. I worry about him approaching me or yelling at me, but he doesn’t do either.

Spend the night in Princeton, Illinois.

Wednesday

There are days when the road turns in unexpected ways, and today’s one of them. After a commitment is canceled, I take it as a sign to go to Collinsville, Illinois and visit the Issues, Etc. studio.

Take a break from driving in the rain. I’m in the middle of a forest preserve by Tiskilwa, Illinois, which appears to be nothing more than a collection of bushes. Found several abandoned buildings to photograph, an extended shoot of the Illinois River by Lacon.

The Illinois

Get coffee at a Starbucks in Peoria, Illinois, answer e-mails, then get soup at Culver’s. Head out on the interstate, but get pulled over by a cop for going 70 in a 55 MPH zone. While the cop takes two full games of IPod Moxie to write my ticket, I see two other people pulled over in front of me and it dawns on me: the state of Illinois is broke. They’ve become Wyoming.

Stop at the Lincoln home in Springfield, decide not to tour it since I remember some of it from our family vacation twenty years ago. I get my national parks passport stamped and wander among the buildings, listening to an audio tour on my phone. Take a vanity photo for my facebook page. Springfield is a rugged town; it has a “historic” downtown, but it still looks more worn down than it should. On the way out of town, I stop at Starbucks and download my e-mail in the parking lot.

Our lives are defined by our actions.

Stay at the Congressional Motel, a $45 a night shop for a room that smells like drugs were used in it. The WiFi doesn’t work, so I have to go to Panera Bread, which for some reason is called the St. Louis Bread Company. Come back and watch the sad coverage of the Junior Seau suicide and see Marcellus Wiley crying on ESPN. Heartbreaking.

Missouri’s Move to the SEC: Is this really who you think you are?

Over the last, I have followed the realignment of college conferences closely, given that it has involved my team (Nebraska) and my favorite sport. The most interesting move to me has been Missouri going from the Big 12 to the SEC. Many thought that Missouri would eventually join in the Big 10, but instead, the Tigers choose to cast their lot in the toughest football conference in America, leading them on a path to play new rivals and leaving their two most natural rivals (Illinois and Kansas) behind. An audacious move for a school that doesn’t care passionately for the SEC’s number one sport: football

Missouri’s move is one that frustrates me because it could have made a move that promoted rivalries instead of destroying them. College football realignment has taken out some of the great rivalries in the sport, such as Nebraska-Oklahoma, Virginia Tech-West Virginia, and going back twenty year, Arkansas-Texas. Not to mention having ended good regional series (Nebraska-Iowa State for example) in favor of more sparse conferences. Missouri could have waited and tried again to get into the Big 10, a league that many expect it to get into in the spring of 2010, until the Tigers ran their mouths about the move and Jim Delany choose the more modest Nebraska for the rust belt league. Unlike many other conference realignment moves, this one would have maintained Missouri’s border rivalry with Illinois, and restarted their series with Nebraska. Missouri fits in with the more modest intensity in the Big 10, and would only be out-resource by a handful of schools. Instead, Missouri goes to a league where they won’t even play their primary border state Arkansas.

Missouri really did fail to realize their own power in the realignment scheme. After the ACC invited Pitt and Syracuse, the Big 10’s candidates were dwindling. Missouri would give the Big 10 a new TV market in Kansas City, and as I said before, promote rivalries that the Big 10 values. Right now, the Big 10, with its TV network and its coupe of landing Nebraska a year ago, thinks it should only expand if it can land the big fish of Notre Dame, even though the Irish would rather go to the easier ACC now. If Missouri had just waited it out, the Big 10 would have moved on from Notre Dame, and there’s no way the Big 10 would take Louisville or Rutgers over Missouri.

Don’t get me wrong; I understand Missouri’s move to a degree. Even though the Big 12 has some mild stability now with Chuck Neinas as commissioner, a pledge of TV rights, and equal revenue sharing, there still is an albatross hanging over the league as long as Texas could go independent. I understand the frustration of having to go through the conference realignment mess two years in a row and wanting to be in a league that’s stable. I get all that, and if the SEC was out there, there could be stability in a conference that will be around and the one of the top revenue stream in college sports. And the SEC will likely continue to give teams four non-conference games a season, meaning that the Tigers can easily schedule four wins a year and only need two conference wins to get to a bowl.

But when it comes to passion, Missouri does trail every school in the SEC except for Vanderbilt. Every other school in the SEC has mad passion for their their teams; even basketball-first Kentucky draws 60,000-70,000 fans a game in a state with another major university. Meanwhile, Missouri drew around 54,000 for its final home game against Texas, a game that a smart marketing department could easily sell to it fans, and has averaged between 50,000-60,000 even when they’ve had only six games in Columbia. It isn’t that it’s Missouri’s fault that their state has other pro sports their fans care about more, but it is the reason their program is going to be looked down upon in the SEC. Arkansas, who had more significant success than Missouri before joining the SEC, is still looked upon like a step-child among the leagues’ major schools; how bad could it be for Missouri?

Recruiting may also be an area where Missouri might be a little naive. Yes, Missouri is going to the best football conference in America, which produces more NFL players than any conference. But perhaps they’re forgetting what recruiting at Missouri used to be like. Gary Pinkel said in a radio interview with Jim Rome in 2008, when he took over the program, he went into Missouri high schools that wanted nothing to do with the Tiger football program. Even though Missouri produces 20-25 FBS prospects a year, St. Louis and Kansas City are constantly getting hit hard by other programs from the Big 12 and Big 10 who don’t have enough players in their own states. Now the players in Kansas City have to choose between playing at Kansas and K-State, with road games against teams they’ve grown with, or playing in Columbia against teams from the South. Likewise, the players in St. Louis can either go to the familiarity of the Big 10, or choose the fanaticism of the SEC. Yes, Pinkel will probably win some if not most of those battles, but he’s only got so many years left.

That leads to the question of what Missouri football really is: are they a really good program, or have they been elevated by one coach? History would suggest the later, that they’ve been elevated by Gary Pinkel the last ten years from being a poorly manged program the previous thirty. In the end, Missouri football will probably end up like Minnesota football: a program that could be dominate, but ultimately wasn’t because their fans didn’t care as passionately about it when they got pro sports. Yes, perhaps the program could continue to be successful if they make a good hire after Pinkel retires. But Missouri has more margin for error. Florida made a disastrous hire (Ron Zook) but even still was able to hire the best young coaching prospect in the country, Urban Meyer. If Missouri were to make such a disastrous hire, could they still land a good coach after they fired the mistake?

On the basketball sid, there might be a chance that Missouri gets out of Kansas’ shadow. Even though Kentucky is basketball king in the SEC, Missouri could get make some headway in the league, given that many of the schools don’t care about basketball with any kind of passion. It is the reason I often thought that a school like North Carolina State should join the SEC, because they would instantly go right to the top in basketball. Such success may not offset losses in football, but it’s good to make hay nonetheless. And there should be a great basketball rival with Arkansas whose head coach Mike Anderson bolted Columbia last year for what ended up to be only a marginal raise.

The odd irony is, West Virginia, the school that is replacing Missouri in the Big 12, would have been a much better fit in the SEC. Like the other schools in the SEC, West Virginia has fans that push their football program first. They could have a nice border rivalry with Kentucky, and the already have recruiting ties in Florida, and their current leadership has ties to Texas, where they would likely play Texas A&M every year. The Mountaineers may have struggled the first few years, but eventually, they would have gotten a great coach and the recruits to match, just like Arkansas eventually did. West Virginia in the SEC could have been a great fit if someone actually ran realignment. But no one runs conference realignment; it’s just a free-for-all as to who get themselves in the best position to make the most.

So those are my initial thoughts on Missouri’s move to the SEC. I was surprised when I dug into how much there was to process, and later this week, I will deal with at least two specific issues created by the move: whether Missouri could become the tough outlying, northern school of the SEC, and why the bowl selection process was a bad reason to leave the Big 12.

Betting key Big 10 games this weekend

Minnesota at Northwestern (-15.5): Northwestern has had me fooled two of the last three week. After they lost to Penn State, they went to 1-3 against spread versus Big Ten teams (only cover against overrated Illinois). So I looked them up, and going back to last year, found that of their nine wins, only three had been by more than a touchdown. Including in those six TD or less are wins against woeful Central Michigan, Indiana, Minnesota, and Boston College this year. I came to the conclusion that, since Northwestern had played it close against the tough teams like Michigan and Iowa, they didn’t have anything left for the lesser teams. But the public, who mostly bets the Michigans and Notre Dames, only accounts for Northwestern’s good games against their teams. Going into their game at Indiana, I figured Indiana at +9 had some value, given that the last four games between the teams had been close, so I took the Hoosier.
Needless, to say, I was disastrously wrong, as Northwestern blasted Indiana 59-38. This past week, I factored in the same in Northwestern’s game against Rice, figuring there would also be a hangover factor from Northwestern’s win over Nebraska. Again, I was wrong. This week, I am tempted to say that enough’s enough, throw up my hands and throw in the towel. But I may not.
Granted, Northwestern likely will play with some urgency because they need this win for bowl eligibility. (They play Michigan State next week, who may need to win to get into the Big 10 title game.) But they’ve had three high powered weeks in a row. The blowout at Indiana, the upset at Nebraska, the crushing of Rice. Vegas always sees trends coming and gets in front of them, especially when a team consistently covers.
Now the question remains, is -15.5 too many for Minnesota to cover. Right now, the Golden Gophers are just playing for pride, but they have a first year coach whose message is probably fresh. Teams with first year coaches often do elevate late in the year, as they are looking to the long term. Minnesota played well in their last road game at Michigan State, and they may play up now that they’re not facing such a daunting opponent; however, they did get shredded by Purdue’s spread attack.
This line has gone down from -17.5; leaning softly toward Minnesota, but I am going to wait until kickoff to decide.

Iowa (-1.5)at Purdue: This is a game where situation dictates how I will bet it. Iowa is going on the road, where they are 0-3 this season (remember, they started out as one of the youngest teams in college football this year). Last week, they got embarrassed at home by a Michigan State team that had been terrible on the road up until their win in Iowa City. Since the loss at Minnesota, the Iowa media has once again criticized Kirk Ferentz for not earning his paycheck. Now, Ferentz can take his team on the road, where they can relish the underdog role.
Purdue, on the other hand, made their season the week before beating Ohio State. Yes, they still need a win to become bowl eligible, but they have just as good a chance getting it next week at feeble Indiana. They have won their last two meetings with Iowa, in ’07 and ’08, Joe Tiller’s final two years.
The play here is simple: Iowa has gotten more experience, and Purdue is hung over and can get the win they need next week. Iowa has more to gain, given that this is their most winnable game left. Iowa is a bargain, whether you get them at -1.5 or even -3.

Penn State at Ohio State(-7.5): This the game were Penn State’s distractions start to affect the team. Last week, there really wasn’t an appreciable drop off in Penn State’s play; the energy from playing at home and the pregame activities probably helped the Nittany Lions play harder, and have a chance to win at the end of the game. But now reality sets in: Penn State has lost their head coach, and they have lost arguable one of their top offensive assistants who made adjustments on the sidelines and talked to the players directly when they came out of the game. At home, they may have been okay, but on the road, they’re going to be challenged. In addition to that, Penn State probably is an overrated team who wasn’t even covering against the bad teams of the Big 10, winning with defense, and who didn’t have confidence in their quarterback. A road game at Ohio State should exploit all those problems.
In addition, Ohio State is in a perfect position to pounce on Penn State. Ohio State is returning home from a bad road loss at Purdue, and young teams often play much better at home (witness-Ohio State’s last second upset of Wisconsin, an opponent they dominated for three and a half quarters). It is Senior Day in Columbus, and probably the last home game for interim head coach and Buckeye lifer Luke Fickell. Also, wide receiver Devier Posey is finally returning from suspension. Yes, the Buckeyes are ultra conservative, but their edge playmakers are better than Penn State’s by a mile. I bet this at -7, but even at -7.5, the Buckeyes are a good bet.

Nebraska at Michigan (-3.5): Full disclosure, I’m a Nebraska-native, die-hard Cornhusker fan. I don’t bet my team often, but I pick my spots (I am 5-0 betting Nebraska games this year). I don’t have really strong lean in this game, but if I were betting it, I would probably go with Michigan.
For the record, Michigan is the pick of Vegas Runner, Marco DeAnglo, and Steven Nover of Pregame.com. Here are my thoughts.
Before the season, I thought Nebraska would go either 8-4 or 7-5 in the Big 10; they’re 8-2 now, so any win they get from here on out is gravy for me. The major reason I thought they’d slip would be that they’d have a hard time adjusting to the physicality of the Big 10, a run straight ahead conference. They had primarily built their team to be undersized to deal with the Big 12’s wide open spreads. Sure enough, they’ve had a plethora of injuries at both defensive tackle and at offensive line Only two guards traveled with the team to Penn State last week, and star defensive tackle Jared Crick is out for the year. The Huskers are going to rely on two or three defensive tackles to play most of the snaps. They had to go on a long road trip to Penn State last week, and now have to do it again. Their offense consists mostly of running quarterback Taylor Martinez and running back Rex Burkhead, who at times has looked exhausted from overuse. With Michigan’s improved defense, they could slow down Nebraska’s options.
Michigan, on the other hand, is peaking. They are team that is embracing coaching and stepping up in spots. Much like Nebraska, they are team that is very reliant on Dennard Robinson, and the Husker coaches have shown in the past that they are capable of slowing down big play reliant offenses.
A key stat that came to me via Jon Nyatawa on twitter: Dennard Robinson has thrown an interception once every sixteen passes. Nebraska’s defensive backs have been jumped the ball pretty consistently the second half of the season and Nebraska typically drops seven into coverage on third and long. Could provide opportunities for Nebraska.
Motivation wise, both teams should have max motivation as this could be a de facto play-in game for an at large BCS bid, and Nebraska is still alive for the Big 10 title game. Yes, I think Nebraska, who is 3-7 against the spread, could put up a fight. But I like Michigan’s direction, and if you’re going to bet this, follow the sharps and take Michigan.

Wisconsin (-14.5) at Illinois: I don’t really have a huge feel for this game. Wisconsin, like many teams in the top 10, has consistently covered the spread this year, except in two places you’d almost automatically fade them, at Michigan State and at Ohio State. This game is on the road, and yes, Illinois is starting to turn into same old underachieving Illinois with four straight looses and Ron Zook’s job is in question. Wisconsin needs this one if it’s going to stay in the conference race, and if I were going to bet, likely I’d take the Badgers. But there are better games out there.

Indiana at Michigan State(-27.5): Like the previous game, I don’t have a good feel for this one. Michigan State is a naturally conservative offense, and they don’t always put up as many points on lesser opponents as they should. This could be a good spot to fade the Spartans, as they are coming off a huge road win at Iowa, dispelling some of the critics who say they can’t play on the road. The Hoosiers are 3-3 ATS, and even Illinois cover against them. Personally, I think Wisconsin to cover versus Illinois is a better bet then Michigan State cover against Indiana.

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