Derek Johnson Muses

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Road Notes: Nebraska Hinterlands

The Undefined Country

The Undefined Country

The first bad decision was made the night before. Around 9:20, I was in the kitchen slicing cucumbers to pickle. In the morning, I was supposed to get up and go to take a promo picture with our grower who lives in Page, Nebraska. I looked up at the clock, and feeling energetic, I thought, I can probably can these pickles in half an hour, right? Why wait until Thursday to do it?

Long story short, I fell asleep after midnight and woke up at 5:40, knowing it was going to be a long day, even if it was a trip I’d been looking forward to.

I have a two ideas about where I’d move if I’d ever left Seward. One, hit a large city and assimilate and try everything. The other, head west into the great beyond of western Nebraska, Wyoming, or other somewhere else on the high plains. Last Wednesday, I ventured out into the that Western sky that has been calling my name all summer. My eastward travel this year has made me apathetic toward taking a short trip westward, until a real reason came about.

Sign/Times

Sign/Times

I got up and grabbed my energy drink of choice (Starbucks Refresh-it doesn’t dehydrate a person) and pressed west through all the communities whose names I heard growing up on Sports Overtime. York. Stromsburg. Albion. All out on these high plains. Corn and soybean country gradually turning into ranching country, a town of 3,000 being a mid-sized city instead of a small town.

Rural Iowa and rural Nebraska are very different. The further you get away from population centers of over 100,000, the more the area changes. For one, you see a lot more signs for high school teams than anywhere else in the country. At most, these people make to a couple of Husker games a year, if that. The high school team is your major college or NFL team. It’s surprising how many new homes and new medical buildings line the streets of small towns. More money is making its way out of the city.

Celebration

Celebration

You look out over these plains, and there is so much independence. Or at the least, the illusion of independence in the bright summer sun shimmering down on the faded grass. There are no more lands left to pioneer, but these lands are not bad for the occasional adventure.

Catch your eye?

Catch your eye?

I Force It

I’ll admit it-there are a lot of times I sit down at this computer and post something simply for the sake of posting something, or for the sake of sharing a photograph. I wish I had done something earlier in the week worth sharing like cleaning off my coach or purchasing new furniture. Actually, I did just get new furniture.

The truth is, I don’t tell everything on this blog. There are things I want to say, but I don’t feel like it’s for the best. Okay, sometimes my courage is wanting, but otherwise there are plenty of things that will stay inside me own word processor. I am sorting through major decisions about my future. When the time is right, I’ll share them.

So, why do I keep throwing up posts without a second thought? Maybe because it takes so much energy to keep what needs to stay private private. Or because I just don’t know how else to express myself. Or more likely, because I’m an attention hog.

Right now today, I have a story inside me. I feel today that I will write it, but it will take a lot of struggle until it sees the light of day. Until then, here’s another calming photo to tide you over.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Aforementioned Picture

 

 

Wisdom of Nicodemus (Kansas)

Nicodemus Museum

Nicodemus Museum

In August of 2010, I was taking a swing through Kansas to visit National Parks and collect stamps for my National Parks Passport. I had just finished a final visit to Hastings to examine our fields and had spent the night in Stockton, Kansas. My first destination was Nicodemus, roughly twenty miles to the west.

The Nicodemus National Historic Site is a model to how much anyone can get when they care deeply about something. Nicodemus is an outpost town, almost a ghost town on US Highway 24. It’s 60 miles north of I-70, and three hours from Manhattan, the closest city over 100,000. There’s a retirement home, a couple of churches, and a few places where some people may or may not live. And there’s the national historic site.

Nicodemus is a national historic site because it is the first African American settlement west of the Mississippi founded during the reconstruction period. Basically what happened was several black families moved out to a place where they thought the railroad would be built through, but the railroad was built further south. A lot of families left the community, but a small number stayed, and the community now has a parade every year at the end of July to celebrate their heritage. The displays are set up in a community theater/multipurpose building, and take a person less than an hour to go through, video included. After I left, I wondered why our debt-ridden government was subsidizing a small community historical society. (Probably because it was hidden in the middle of nowhere.) I wish they would have had more on the African Americans who moved west after the Civil War and took up farming and ranching. It’s a very underrepresented part of our country’s history.

But at the same time, I had another thought: good for the people who got their community recognized. They worked hard to get their community recognized, and they achieved that goal. It took years of going to Washington and lobbying, but they got some recognition because they cared and were persistent.  They even got on national news programs. I wish I could borrow that work ethic. And their ancestors did do something remarkable by moving out to the prairie, far from their homes. That is pretty cool.

African Methodist Episcopal Church

African Methodist Episcopal Church

Busiest street for miles.

Busiest street for miles.

 

January Get-Up

It’s been a good couple of weeks around Seward. Since the mega-snow that fell around December 20th, the snow has gradually melted away, and I’ve worn shorts outside. Gradually, I’m starting to adjust to warm weather, and yesterday morning, my subconscious gave me a kick.

Friday morning, I woke up at three and couldn’t get back to sleep. I was particularly frustrated because I had just got my awake/sleep balance to where I wanted it to be the day before, and now it was going to get thrown out of whack again. Normally, I can’t sleep, I’ll get up and read after an hour or so, but this time, I spent most of the next two hours tossing and turning. I really, really wanted to sleep normally, but my body would not permit it.

I admitted defeat around 5:20 and decided to take advantage of my insomnia by going for a drive and taking some photographs. Idealizing my path, I envisioned taking the interstate west, stop at Starbucks in York for my morning coffee, and get off at Bradshaw or someplace. By then, the sun would be rising, and I could happen upon some structures to photograph.

I got as far as Tenneco before I realized that I didn’t want to drive in such think fog unless I had to. So I decided to turn back and head into Seward to get some coffee and breakfast at Amigos. The only thing worse than trying to drive in fog was trying to drive in fog without coffee.

So I went to Amigos and ordered a breakfast biscuit, a donut, and coffee. I caught up on Facebook and read the news, all the while trying to turn out the country music that was playing above me. Once I was bored, I decided to try taking Highway 34 out of town this time.

The sense of adventure from this new course lasted until I got two miles outside of Seward and found the fog even more intolerable. All of a sudden, I remembered that I had some trays and carts to wash, and I turned back toward home. Great plans, only to be abandoned.

Later on Friday afternoon, I went for a walk and realized that I hadn’t taken as much time to walk around Seward, even though I could. I’ve been writing a lot recently, trying to break ground on a new story, and I needed that head-space.

World Waking Up...

World Waking Up…

Where Was I? A Personal Update

All in front of me

Fittingly, this personal update is coming on the first anniversary of my first post on this blog. Since then, I’ve posted over 250 times, proving I have no life. (Pretty remarkable, considering I started another blog for Noyes this summer.) The other day, it occurred to me how long it’s been since I sat down and wrote a post that was about…well, me. It seems overdue, since my last post in mid-September, and since then, I’ve rented a new apartment and moved my bed there.

Life this fall has felt different. I haven’t watched as much football as I have in years past. I had a late trip, end of September, to Illinois to see soybeans. A few samples have come in for me to test, and I have taken care of that. There’s the trip to Chicago and meetings at church about the building campaign. It’s been a great fall for photographs to. I went down to Wilbur for kolaches and meats one day, and got some great stuff along the way. The trip to Chicago was great for that too. There’s been Husker football, on a roll, which is awesome. I cut back my blogging and have started to save the good stuff.

I’ve watched a lot less TV this fall then I have in years past. Hulu was the main reason, or so I thought. Now that I live in a place without Internet or TV, I try to spend more time reading. This was my intention. Break the cycle, tell yourself that you’re doing something important.

The experience of moving and cleaning stuff out has been unique. I wouldn’t call myself a hoarder, but I’m apathetic toward throwing stuff away. I keep the most irrelevant stuff, things like church bulletins, business cards, letters from charities have piled up in my closets. Even as I write this, there’s a bunch of assorted paper sitting on the couch next to me. I beginning to wonder how much time I’m wasting moving irrelevant books and paper that I’ll never read again.

But the biggest change has been something internal. I have noticed a lot of the old books I had in college while I was moving and I cracked a few of them over the last couple of days. When I opened them, I remembered what it was like to be a student and give myself over to a major project. And then I started to wonder…what exactly am I doing with my life?

Watching football every Saturday in the fall is great. Working for my Dad is great, with the travel, and writing about Husker football is great. But after observing the election, and the constant erosion of a family-oriented society, I’ve wondered what it is exactly I should do for the rest of my life. The whole world is before me, and, with all the freedom I have, I want to write about things that matter.

I’ve been pursuing career opportunities and beefing up my resume. I’m looking for artist to host in the focus gallery at Noyes this upcoming February. Via a trip to Syracuse this week, I’ve locked up all the artist I need for the event. I keep writing notes on various novel/writing projects, but unfortunately, nothing has griped me yet. My focus is to become a better person every day and have a positive impact on everyone I come in contact with, and to deliver the best content to my readers. Here’s to a great year: hope to hear more from you in the future.

(200th Post, with some milestones for me and my blog.)

Illinois, Issues Etc., and Missouri Road Notes: Part 2

Thursday

Morning coffee at Starbucks in Edwardsville, Illinois. At separate tables are sitting two identical girls: nerd glasses like mine, brown hair pulled back, studying. One wears running gear, the other wears average dull college class clothes. Then a third girl walks in who looks exactly the same except her hair is done and she’s wear black pants & a sleeveless vest with a white shirt underneath. Then I look around and realize… all the girls around here look like that.

Wish I would have gone to the place on the Missouri side where the Missouri River flows into the Mississippi. I could have gotten a good view of it. Instead, I go up a tower where you can view the convergence, and view it from across the way, at Lewis and Clark’s winter camp before their expedition up the river. Love all things Lewis and Clark.

View from the top

Meet Pastor Wilken, Jeff, and Craig, the team behind Issues, Etc. They do the show in a small section of a strip mall in Collinsville because they want to be good stewards of the funds they receive. Such a blessing to come and encourage those who labor in the gospel. Great to see the operations of an actual radio station. Most intriguing thing I observed: Pastor Wilken looks at a poster of President Obama while he’s doing the show (I’m dead serious).

Lunch at Stake and Shake, one place I always try to eat at if I go far enough east. They overcharge me for my order (or get it wrong entirely), but it’s a good sandwich, even though thin. The fries are flimsy too.

Visit the Gateway Arch, which looks impressive, but when I get close to it, I realize it’s not the Golden Gate Bridge. The Bridge is massive, and looks the part of something huge. Maybe it’s because the Arch doesn’t serve a purpose of transportation or has no foreign tourists swarming it. I go into the Jefferson Western Expansion Museum, stamp my passport, and buy some novelty snack. I don’t ride to the top because I don’t like heights.

View from the ground.

Visit the U.S. Grant Home, where I complete the stamps for the Midwest part of passport. The roads down their make no sense to me; I have to stop at walking trails.

St. Louis is the lousiest piece of junk I’ve ever seen. Rotten railroads cross the river, whose banks team with unkept brush, and cracked buildings dot the streets. Even the high-end hotels aren’t kept up.The bad neighborhoods I observe from the interstate are what I imagine Detroit looks like, but this city has to be worse in places. The suburbs have so many empty sections in their strip malls, plus empty spots in the big malls, it’s embarrassing. St. Louis is a spralling city, but it doesn’t look that much more special than Omaha.

Get off the interstate just east of Jonesburg, Missouri and do my rural photographing thing. Going through Jonesburg, I pass over a dead turtle in the middle of the road. I hate driving around on the country roads, which are paved with golf-ball sized Missouri limestone.

Exit at Columbia, deciding  to eat at Steak and Shake again, then notice that Steak and Shake is next to Bob Evans. Remembering the time I had eating at Bob Evans in Lima, Ohio two and a half year when I was this tired, I head across the street. Chicken pot pie, with a roll and broccoli. I tip a solid twenty percent, good service. I mull which hotel to choose and call the Howard Johnson on my phone to see how much they are. Then I see a new Motel 6 as I cross the interstate, and decide to take my chances. It pays off: the room is clean and very respectable, and even has a couch.

I go to bed at 9:30 but I can’t sleep. I get up and drive to campustown, where I went once with Elizabeth when she went graduate school here in Columbia. The bars and clubs are abuzz, but the only coffee place open past eleven is Starbucks. I sit and type on my IPod while I watch the festivities of the students, girls trying to walk in high heels and dresses. I gradually make my way back to my car, hoping no one notices my red Husker shorts.

Friday

When I get back to Motel 6, it’s past midnight. I send an e-mail, take two pills, and hit the hay.

Have morning coffee at Kaldi’s: spiced maple coffee which surprises me. I expected it to be typical flavored coffee, basically food coloring with no body. Instead, it’s body with an apple-cinnamon accent, and I remember why I love food. I study a devotion over an egg and bacon bagel, enjoying the hip vibe of Kaldi’s. Take a pic of the sign for my sister.

I photograph a few barns, but not many. I want to get home.

Eating lunch at one of America’s northern-most Waffle Houses (Platte City, MO). I don’t know why this chain appeals to me. The last Waffle House I went to was in Florida and was a mess. This one is clean, but the vibe from the staff is lax, and don’t know how much I want to watch of my chicken being fried and my waffle being made. I know it’s part of the charming experience, but somethings are better left unknown. The meal is adequate and way too filling, and I don’t skimp on the tip.

I take one more photo detour in furthest northwest corner of Missouri, a state that’s unbelievably diverse. I bolt when I get onto Highway Two, and am equally relieved when I hear Unsportsmanlike Conduct on the radio. I arrive home at four, and head to bed.

How My Journey of Photographing Barns Began

As God told Eve after the fall, births are never painful. How I became a photographer was a rough journey. It took place in two parts. One was a trip to Wyoming in August of 2008. The other was a day in 2009 when I went to visit a field by central Iowa and had a panic attack.

The trip to Wyoming was to visit our alfalfa grower by Otto. Otto is small town about50 miles east Cody and the gates of Yellowstone . Calling it a town is an exaggeration; it is more like a collection houses and old buildings. There are roughly four households there, and a post office that is run out of a small room in our grower’s home. Mail is delivered to the town twice a week, and you pick it up.

The drive from my home in Seward to Otto is over 750 miles, roughly twelve and a half hours. The problem with that is, it is just over the amount of time that you can make it in one day. Add in the time I spend visiting with the grower, it was a three days. The trip is more rural than any of the trips that I go on, and I travel to rural areas all the time. Sure there are great places along the way: Hokes Cafe in Hastings, Cabela’s in Sidney, Sierra Trading Post in Cheyenne. But it’s empty land, and I have never passed more farmyards littered with old trucks, tractors, and other broken down machinery from the last four decades. It’s like they expect another depression to hit any day now. (Given the greedy morons who run our economy and our gutless politicians, they may be on to something.)

But while I was passing also rotting barns, breaking down sheds, and combines that were older than I was, I got to thinking about how cool it would be to drive through that country and just take photographs of everything. It could make a good coffee table book or home art; I could remember the painting my grandparents kept in their farmhouses. I stowed those ideas in the back of my mind and while I mostly photographed the landscapes and roads around me.

The day in August of 2009, I was headed out to rural Iowa to look at a field of soybeans. It was a bad day in a really bad time in my life, and for a variety of reasons a bunch of problems had come to a head that day. After I left the field distraught, I drove down the road back to the highway, and right by the turn-on to the road, there were these two barns, with a windmill sitting between them, its blades facing one of the barns. Here, I thought I would take some of the frustration out of my experience of going to fields, and photograph some barns. So I took my camera, and photographed the barns and the windmills. I often photographed a lot of the little towns I went through, but this was the first time I can remember shooting barn.

An 8’x”10 of those barns and windmill now hangs on the wall by the staircase in our basement. There is something eerie and haunting about it to me, because at the time, I was feeling like a failure. In many ways, that’s what photographing a barn is like for me: seeing ghosts. But now, I taking steps to show my photos around, and I realize that that day, I was starting a new chapter in my life.

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