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?

Road Notes: Peacocks and Delivery to North Kansas

Yesterday was the first work trip since September, as I came out of hibernation and on to the asphalt. I went down to Kansas to take thirteen bags of corn seed to a customer who lived thirty miles north of Topeka by the town of Valley Falls, Kansas. It was a little more than three hours from Seward one way, the perfect day trip. I woke up at 5:30 and rolled out of the warehouse by 7:20. Everything was marvelous, until I hit rush hour traffic on Highway 2 in Lincoln and had to sit through two red lights at 14th Street.

After I got through Lincoln, it was more or less smooth sailing. I had taken the route to Topeka several times as we have a dealer in Sabetha, Kansas, although the last time I remember was back in 2010. I’ve done a lot of the photography along the way, particularly in Auburn, Nebraska but there was still plenty of spaces I hadn’t been. This time of year, a rainy early April, is a good time for finding contrasting colors, as the green grass has started to grow around the brown grass.

New beginnings...

New beginnings…

The road construction crews have also come out for the season. I ran into one as I arrived at the Kansas border on Highway 75. It facilitated a ten minute wait and a ten mile stretch of driving on de-surfaced road at forty-five miles per hour, an unpleasant stretch if you drive a hand-me down pickup with 200,000+ miles and a load. I took Highway 73 through Falls City on my way home and was also able to stop in Syracuse and return a Tupperware to one of my guest artists from February.

The farm that I delivered the seed to was on the west side of tree sanctuary. Four pet peacocks roamed the yard (?), along with a large black-and-white speckled dog the size of a St. Bernard. Surprisingly, they didn’t seem to bother each other. The buyer was absent, so I unloaded the bags and left quickly. The dog didn’t bark much, but I was still nervous, based on past experiences.

Just one of the farm animals...

Just one of the farm animals…

On the way back, I stopped for lunch in Horton (not Holton, a few miles down the road-so confusing) at a burger-and-ice-cream drive-in and had a taco burger. Kansas and the other wasteland states (Nebraska, Wyoming, etc.) seems to have a high number of these little drive-in places, like Sonic but more basic. I always admire whoever it is who chooses to run a business like this in off-the-map America, because they do not make a lot of money considering the time they have to put in.

On the way back, I got tired, but I managed to make it back on a single energy drink (Starbucks Refesher-doesn’t leave me feeling dehydrated).  I listened to several Issues, Etc. 24 podcasts, on the work of Christ, sin, and justification, but still have most of that program left for the summer miles ahead. Finding the perfect tracks for these trips is important, because when I remember them later on, I remember what I was listening to at the time. Like when I drove this route three years ago listening to a call from Mike in Indy on the Jim Rome Show.

It sprinkled at a couple points, but it never really rained, a relief. The long, multi-day trips in my cab are still a few months ahead of me, but I was glad for yesterday. I got to take a route that was familiar, but that I wouldn’t take very often once summer starts, and some unique shots. Best of all, it kept me working.

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.

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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