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.


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.



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.


Border Signs

Road Notes: Quick Trip in Semi-Winter

It was a wee bit nippy outside...

It was a wee bit nippy outside…

Sometimes my world gets rocked a bit. Take last Tuesday afternoon, when my dad called me and asked me to go to Eastern Iowa the next day to pick up seed inoculant to take to northeast Kansas because it had to stay above freezing and couldn’t be sent  via UPS. I had fourteen hours notice before I was to leave, so I prioritized quickly. I got a hold on my mail, found out where I was supposed to go, and called my friend Tom to let him know I’d be stopping over the next night. The goals were simple: get the inoculant and get to Dubuque Wednesday, then deliver the inoculant and possibly get home Thursday night, if it didn’t get too late.

I woke at five on Wednesday morning and drove furiously. Tom had the day off, so I wanted to get to Dubuque as soon as I could. Other than the Crane Coffee in Omaha and the Culver’s in Des Moines, I managed not to stop for food or gas. The adrenaline rush was so strong, I didn’t even drink one of the two Starbucks refreshers I had brought.

I don’t have to drive in winter very often. But if there is no snow, January interstate traffic is blissfully light. Up until I got to Cedar Rapids, only light scattered flurries intruded on my drive. At Cedar Rapids, I stopped to get gas at the the Casey’s on the east side of town, and when I got back in the truck, this is what it looked like outside.

Not great.

Not great.

Mercifully, the dark clouds plagued me for only a short distance, although snow had drifted over parts of US 151 between Cedar Rapids and Dubuque, and  I took appropriate caution. Still, it could have been worse

The innoculant resided at Naylor Seed in Scotch Grove, Iowa, a town with a total of about 20 buildings sitting around a square, several of them empty. But for all the snow and decay, the town seemed pleasant, like it was a place people wanted to live. It was a quick in-and-out and back on the road, and I reached Dubuque close to my goal of 4 P.M.

Bright Winter's Day...

Bright Winter’s Day…

For the evening, Tom planned that we drive up to Platteville, Wisconsin and attend a men’s basketball game UWP (against UW-Stevens Point), the former school of current Wisconsin Badgers coach Paul Ryan. One of Tom’s friends is UWP corporate sponsor who has tickets right off the court. It was a great experience-even though UWP lost, it was great to just watch some basketball that involved crisp shooting and passing, and not just guys looking to cut to the rim. (Like the last 12 years of Nebrasketball.)


Big Name Court!

After the game, I remembered I would regret it if I didn’t bring back New Glarus beer, my favorite Wisconsin beer, or any local beer from anywhere. Hence, a Piggly Wiggly run.


Main Reason Anyone goes to America’s Dairyland

Thursday started out with a 20-minute ordeal of trying to get my truck throw snow drifts out onto the narrow, ridge-top road that runs by the farm where Tom lives (thankfully, I had help.) The omen for the day got even worse when I realized, 30 minutes after leaving Dubuque, I had taken US 61 instead of US 151 and was twenty miles north of Davenport. I shrugged it off and found a crossing highway from Maquoketa to Anamosa, enjoying the unintended change of scenery. I still made it to the Culver’s by Newton, Iowa in time for lunch, so most of my goals where still intact.

I ate the pork tenderloin combo for lunch, as I’d been thinking of that big breaded piece of meat for the longest time. I’d only had a snack-pack for lunch the previous day, so I’d earned the reward. As I passed Des Moines on the south side (something I almost never do), I took time to find the Caribou Coffee off the interstate, and it took time. After consecutive nights of 6-hours of sleep, plus 15-hours of driving, I wasn’t at my sharpest and was questioning my ability to get back home that night.

In the past year, I’ve crossed the Iowa-Missouri border 3 times not on I-29, where most Nebraskans cross it. It’s the most nondescript college of modest size towns in this country.

Stick Gone By..

Stick Gone By..

I made hay through rush hour traffic in St. Joseph, cruising though the industrial district after yet another wrong turn and passing an accident in mess of on-raps before getting onto the Pony Express Bridge and crossing into Kansas. Finally, I was in the land of small spurs off the highway.

I delivered the innoculant to a grower in Robinson, Kansas, a hundeds-something town only a couple of miles from US 36. I dropped it off at 6, and by the time I was headed back to the highway, it was pitch black. Normally, I hate night driving, but at this point in the day, I could surprisingly bear it. I made hay down US 36, opting not to take the Google Maps-recommended rout of US 75 through Auburn and Nebraska City, and instead using US 77 through Beatrice. It may have taken more time, but the difference to me was negligible, given that I would not have to drive through south Lincoln.

In my final hours driving back, I kept one goal clear in my head: if I get back by 10, there would be a replay of PTI at 10:30. I made that goal.

End Day...

End Day…

Road Notes: Back in a Hurry


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.


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.



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



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: Dodging Iowa Tornadoes

Burlington, Iowa Bridge

Mississippi River Bridge at Burlington, Iowa

Last Sunday, I finally left to see fields that were planted two weeks late due to the rain and take photos for the Blue River Hybrids product guide. I spent the two days before I left running around tying stuff up and prepping for game night (why did I buy this house?), and had worship committee at 11 A.M. before loading my new duffel into the truck and jutting off to Ames.

I made one stop on the way up, at Crane Coffee because I had run out of coffee on Friday and been crushing Starbucks Vias. The barista recommended Smooth Omaha (thanks Heather). Already weary, I treated myself to Crane’s specialty Turtle Latte and was back on the interstate, weaving my way through Colorado SVUs with Michigan bumper stickers and luggage racks loaded with bikes and canoes.

Monday morning, I was out the door at seven after waking early, reading and walking. Under a sky divided by dark and light clouds, I drove to Hubbard Iowa, about an hour north of Ames, passing an industrial truck that had a headlight that pointed into its cab (?). I turned off I-35 onto Iowa Highway 175 and passed the gas station/repair shop/utility store in Radcliffe for what must be the fifth time. I had to wait for about half an hour at the home of a grower, due to an emergency, but he made the appointment. By 9:00-sometime, I was back on US 65, heading south to get to Washington to avoid passing Radcliffe again.

Lil' Beans

Lil’ Beans

It rained off and on the way, reinforcing my belief that I was better off for not going back I-35 and adding another thirty miles to my trip. I had to use a back road highway to eventually get on I-80 due to construction, but by the time I did, the rain had stopped.

For lunch, I stopped at the Perkins in Newton, Iowa. I don’t normally care for the other clientele at Perkins (this one was no exception), and it is one of the few restaurants that can be busy in between peak meal hours, but they have bacon and eggs all day. My server, a pretty student-type named Auburn, was very good, and I received my meal in short order and was back on the road around noon.

There isn’t a good road to Washington if you are coming from the east, so I cut off on Exit 230, ten miles east of Iowa and headed south on the blacktop of Black Hawk Avenue through the hills and gullies of Eastern Iowa, eventually rumbling into Highway 1.

When I got to Kalona, I made the critical decision to go ahead and stop for gas and to use the bathroom. If I hadn’t made the stop, I would have passed the fourteen miles to Washington with ease before the severe rain started. It slowed me down, and by the time I got Washington, I had to spend forty-five minutes in the basement of the library because of a tornado warning.

Washington Public Library

Washington Public Library

After my appointment, I took the same route I took last fall prior across the Mississippi into Illinois to met the soybean growers who live around Peoria. I stayed in the same hotel I did last year, but ate dinner at Stake ‘N’ Shake, watching a bunch of teenagers working what must be their worst summer job ever. (I forgot about the grease that accumulates in the fast food industry.) I had to change my order because they were out of chicken strips and had to remind them to get my milkshake. They were lucky I was at the end of a long day.

No Report

No Report

The next day, I awoke early and went through the circle of growers around Peoria. They are all guys who we haven’t worked with much in the past and who we hope to help get a better start this year. Most of them are doing okay, even though they all planted on a late start. When I was done, I grabbed a Turkey flatbread sandwich and coffee at Mika’s in Eureka, a coffee shop with maroon concrete walls, all the while reading the reaction to Nebraska’s alternate uniforms. Before heading out of town, I stopped by Eureka College and took in the Regan Statue, then drove up and at times along I-39 to take photos.

My final appointment was delayed until Wednesday morning, but it was worth it. I got the photos with the Breslins, a father-daughter farming team by Ottawa just before a fierce rain storm started. They invited me to stay for tea, which was enough time for the rain to stop and the sky to clear. I then bolted down I-80 toward Nebraska, stopping at the Starbucks in Des Moines to read the Superme Court/Aaron Hernandez new of the day. I was relieved to be home-after all, I’m leaving Saturday for Idaho.

Coming to another farmer soon...

Hope springs anew…

Trailways to Dubuque

This spring, I wanted to visit my friend Tom in Dubuque and didn’t want to drive. I know that by the end of this summer, I will be so tired of driving I will want to throw up, and these miles would count toward that. Other than driving, there’s only one way of transportation to get to Dubuque, and that’s Trailways bus.

Taking the bus was better than taking the train. It was indirect-an extra hour or two was added because of the stops we had to make, some of which were miles off the highway in campus-town Ames and downtown Waterloo. In the end, I got to read a lot and watched a couple of movies I wouldn’t have ordinarily gotten to see: 2008’s Journery to the Center of the Earth, 2010’s The Karate Kid, a Veggie Tales‘ episode called “Lord of the Beans” (forgot how funny Bob the Tomato is), and Cinderella Man (too bad it bombed-it was good), a movie I had wanted to see when it was in theaters eight years ago, but didn’t because too many other good movies came out that summer. Glad I never rented it.

Trailways does a good job, but they are helped by the fact that not many people take the bus to begin with. There’s still the smell of recycled air you get on planes, but I read a lot of the books I brought, and thanks to the wifi on the bus between Des Moines and Dubuque, I got to watch some college football highlights from last year that I wanted to see. Even if I know what’s going to happen, it’s still feels like a crisp fall afternoon or a Christmas destination game when I watch those highlights.

But the most important part of this trip was getting to see my best friend, who I have racked up a lot of long phone calls and good times together. He really is my brother, and it’s great to catch-up and laugh together again. He’s got a great life; this past weekend, I met his significant other (finally!) and saw his friends, all of whom are awesome and great Christian persons who encourage me.

Saturday, I volunteered with Tom at the Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, clearing away leaves from rose beds and putting the leaves back on once the plants had been fertilized. It was great exercise, and we got to met a man who had grown up in Michigan just west of where our grower is and went to college in the Upper Peninsula, an area that has always fascinated me. It’s amazing how Michiganders, Wisconsinites, and Minnesotans live in 40-inches of snow per year and face snow storms in May just shrug it off.

Railroad on the Mississippi in the Mines of Spain near Dubuque

Railroad on the Mississippi in the Mines of Spain near Dubuque

Sunday, we went out to the Mines of Spain State Rec Park just south of town, to hike and enjoy the sun. The Mines of Spain are exactly what a great park should be: open prairie to walk, hills and cliffs to climb, and a majestic body of water. The birds were out, singing their spring songs and displaying their colors. Like I saw in Kansas, the countryside hasn’t been overrun with green summer growth. But that will change son.

And the best part of the visit? Tom telling me that he’s moving back to Seward for the summer and that he wants to stay with me while he detassells! It’s going to be an awesome summer!

Train Ride

This update comes from the leftovers pile. I took these notes when I was on the long Amtrak ride from back from Michigan to Osceola, Iowa after Labor Day Weekend. These were just the people I saw along the way.

I don’t know what it is with me and the people I notice. I see them everywhere-at the coffee shop, airport, rest stops, on the street. I watch them and invent their entire life story , what they do for a living, their emotional disposition. Maybe I’m just bored with my own life, but I enjoy this kind of social observation. People are complicated, and I just pick up on it.

People on the train from Osceola to Chicago: Guy from Hastings. (2AM) Green garb, military ripoff that stores sell. Burly type, gentle giant. Said he was going to wait 3 hours for another train.

Hawkeye couple that sat next me on OSC-CHI. Said they were first timers. He wore a black polo, she a white, tight, fan girl faded hawk-faced shirt. (Iowa was playing Northern Illinois at Soldier Field that weekend.)

Waiting at New Buffalo: Travelers gathering on the platform all over the age of fifty, sans me, white-washed weekenders returning to their normal lives. Two guys, my age, backpacker types, wandering around the tracks wondering if they

Conductor was wearing a big stiff in a black hat, likely has had a lot in-transit food.

Two girls my age BFFing next to me. Pink bag above them. Blonde and black hair. This road trip must be the highlight of their year.

Guy w/black shirt union bay shorts w/ iPhone & headphones alone but clearly a confident guy.

Late 50s business man w/Jimmie John’s sack reading business reports in front of me. Stood alone on the platform. Elite black leather rolling briefcase.

Girl with gray thermal shirt and simple blue jeans goes to the bathroom. She looks approachable for a blonde. Her mirror image blonde, in a pink hoodie, goes to the bathroom right after her.

Gray-to-white haired woman in a black shirt and a group of four leans over her seat to talk to to people behind her.

Hipster guy with a black shirt (sitting behind me), long lost twin of the guy I sat next to on the Amtrak train from Osceola. Has his phone out the whole time.

Train-ing for Inefficiency


Ironically, the anniversary of this train ride was two years ago yesterday. Today is the two year anniversary of the final Iowa State-Nebraska conference game.

Two years ago, I was planning on going to Ames to the Iowa State-Nebraska game and faced the dilemma of having to bring my truck back to home. Not wanting to leave my car at my parents’ for an extended period of time, I checked on Amtrak, and there was a train ticket from Lincoln to Osceola for $32, a third of the rate to Chicago. My dad agreed to come pick me up, and I booked the ticket. Having used Amtrak before, I looked forward to a quick trip, but at its end, I wondered how it was worth all the trouble.

The saying is supposed to be for people who stay up late, but nothing good happens after 2:30 A.M. even if you’re getting up for the day. Having a train that leaves the station at 4 A.M. doesn’t allow you to go to bed early enough or just stay up late, like it would if it showed up at 1:30, a sign of how outdated trains are in this area of the country. My friend was on-time to take me to the station, and the train was only fifteen or so minutes late. We pulled out by 4:30, and I made a valiant attempt at sleep, but I couldn’t. I can’t sleep longer than ten minutes on planes or trains. I woke up around Waverly, nodding off as the train plodded up to Omaha, then south again toward Plattesmouth. Nebraska may still be the home of Union Pacific, but why the train has to go Omaha when Des Moines, the Quad Cities, and Iowa City don’t get stops is beyond me.

Crossing the Missouri, I noted how beautiful it was and made a mental not that I should come by one morning to photograph the river in early morning light (that commitment took roughly fourteen months to fulfill). We ran slow-the train was suppose to get to Osceola a little before 8, but was chucking at the polar opposite of warp speed.

At Creston, the last stop before Osceola, the train stopped for a medical emergency, delaying us another half hour. I checked with my father, and he sat tight and I played games. When we got to Osceola, one of the conductors came around anxious to make sure there would be enough seats for some large group to sit together. It turned out to be a school band of about forty or fifty, who I had to watch board while I waited to cross the tracks in Osceola. Osceola’s train station is weird: the train comes in on the north tracks, they make the passengers who are getting off wait until the passengers have boarded and the train pulls out. Liability, I’m sure. I kept wandering the pavement platform on the north side while an Amtrak official watched me with caution, so much so I wouldn’t be surprised if he tackled me if I tried to cross the tracks.

My dad picked me up, and we made the tedious drive back up to Ames. We had to stop on the way to pick up the tickets whose purchase I had arranged online, and, mistaking the time it would take us to get to Des Moines, I had to call the guy twice. Thankfully, he did work close to where we wanted to met, at a gas station just of the interstate. Than my dad wanted to stop by Starbucks of the Ankeny exit, which somehow took us half-an-hour. I don’t know why we couldn’t have gone to the one off of I-80 exit 129.

So after eight-plus hours of travel, we rolled into my parents’ apartment complex just after 11. Definitely worth all the money I saved.

(That Iowa State-Nebraska game)

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


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.


Hearing Paul Ryan: A Political Apathete Steps Out

Beign the good Lutheran I am, I’m politically apathetic. Heck, when the zombies rise up, politics are going to get simplified pretty quick. But on Sunday, I received an e-mail about a rally for Paul Ryan in Adel, Iowa, on a day when I just happened to be driving from Ames to Seward, I figured why not go.

Due to some construction, I had to drive into Adel on country roads. I didn’t realize how big the event was until I saw cars lining the street several blocks away from the courthouse. I choose the most expeditious spot and hoofed it. There were barricades set up around the square and the businesses were empty. If you didn’t know, you might have guessed they were filming The Walking Dead, as all of the storefronts in the town square where empty. A giant American flag had been hung over a building that had Obama banners in it.

Passing the security checkpoint, I took a place at the back of the square. The crowd looked to be about two or three hundred; I don’t know where all those cars came from. I showed up late, and it was worth it. I had to listen to twenty minutes of local politicians before Ryan came out. He’s slick and smart; really, the only difference between him and Sarah Palin is that Ryan has something to say and isn’t relevant in the Kardashian-esque way. Even if he and Romney don’t win, he’ll be relevant after the election,which is wonderful.

I was surprised at how much he spoke of job creation and the economy. The one thing he mentioned that I thought was noteworthy was how much prosperity there could be for average people. All politicians, both parties, talk about that kind of stuff, which I find to be pandering. Not that it’s not sad when people lose their jobs; but there’s a limit to how much anyone can achieve, and there’s no shame in admitting it. But of course, politicians don’t get elected by telling people the truth, only what they want to hear. It’s not a Republican or Democrat problem; it’s an American problem.

I stayed for an hour and left at the end of Ryan’s speech, while I believe he was shaking hands. Sorry, Congressman Ryan, I had a life to get to. But I’m glad I took that hour and a half out of my day of travel to listen and consider the issues he talked about. After all, I’m not going to start thing about government and order again until Joe the Plumber wants to bit my neck to feed his ravenous desire for human flesh.


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