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: 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.)

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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.

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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: Ear Samples 2013, North Edition

Leftover Ears...

Leftover Ears…

Blue River did not grow any seed in Hastings, Nebraska this year, so I didn’t go there for ear samples, or at any time this year. Instead, Dad had me retrieve ear samples from our plots in Wisconsin and Illinois last week. It was my last trip of the year, and when it was over, I was really happy.

Something must have been in my water, because I left Seward promptly after church, aimlessly throwing hastily packed bags into my passengers seat and heading for Dubuque to spend the night with Tom, and his friends George and Jill, an amazing couple whose kids are all grown who Tom is staying with for now. I hadn’t seen them in forever, so it was great to catch-up.

Monday morning after I talked to Tom (he himself was driving back from Nebraska on Sunday), I rolled out at 7 and took the crappy, narrow US Highway 20 bridge into Illinois, navigating the lesser highways along the Mississippi and in no man’s land to Sterling. Once I made east a ways, I caught ESPN Radio 1000 out of Chicago, a great listen on the first NFL Monday of the year.

The Fine Ear...

The Fine Ear…

Prairie Hybrids, our grower south of Sterling, is run by an Amish-like community, but they have cell phones and trucks along with the neatly-trimmed beards. In typical Derek Johnson-fashion, it took me longer than I expected to get all the information I needed. Backtracking a bit, I went back for lunch at the Culver’s in Rock Falls. Pretty much all of the Culver’s have TV’s in them, and even better, they are all set to ESPN. Finally, I got to watch NFL highlights.

Another great thing about Culver’s is they now have WiFi, so I took occasion to check my rout to my next stop. My tablet directed me to take a county highway from Rock Falls up to Dakota, and I was skeptical, but it turned out to be surprisingly straight and speedy. I had two hybrids to gather, and when I did it in an hour, I counted it as a huge victory. I was able to make it back to Dubuque by 6, and enjoyed an evening with Tom, dinning at the Copper Kettle and watching the Eagles tear it up on Monday Night Football.

The Mississippi that fateful Tuesday morning...

The Mississippi that fateful Tuesday morning…

The next day, I started off with my camera batteries dying and having to stop by Hy-vee. I crossed the US Highway 151 Bridge into Wisconsin, enjoying a morning sun bringing out the orange in the Westconsin rock deposits the Highways are cut into. When I got to Madison,  I decided I would find my own way to cut around the west side of the city, since the state of Madison has not built a suitable by-pass from US 151 to I-39 going north. I zig-zagged through the urban sprawl and the suburbs, heading to our field up by Coloma.

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Ripening corn in the urban sprawl…

Coloma is a town of 500 people where I’ve rarely stopped, which is a bit odd considering how many times I’ve come to our field there. After I got what I need from the field and updated my Twitter, I decided to get lunch at Subway…until I drove up and found they weren’t open yet. There was a nice diner about twenty miles east that I’d eaten at before, but I decided not to take the time to sit down, instead grabbing a sandwich and cookie from a roadside deli.

Main Street in Coloma...

Main Street in Coloma…

The road from Coloma to Tomah is straight but frustrating slow, passing small towns, cranberry bogs, and an Ocean Spray facility advertising for seasonal help. (Passing the bogs, I couldn’t discern an obvious sign that it was time to pick cranberries.) From Tomah all the way up to Eau Claire, there are all these great stops advertising bakeries and cheese houses that I always think about stopping at but never do. This time around, I’m right not to smell the roses because time turned out to be in sparse supply.

While I was thinking the trip through in my head, I had thought that maybe, just maybe, I could finish up at our grower west of Eau Claire 5 or so. I arrive at four, but gather samples from the four fields takes me until 6. That’s what I always hate about coming here to Colfax, is that I always end up here totally exhausted because I’ve driven from someplace else. But I’m done gathering the samples, and I head east. I had thought in my head that I would spend the night at Super 8 I’d stayed at before in Hudson, Wisconsin, but I arrogantly press on and cut through the Twin Cities satellites and stop in Lakeview, Minnesota for the night. A foreign man checks me into the Americinn, and asks about my business. I ramble on about fields for a good two minutes.

The St. Croix River on the Wisconsin-Minnesota Border. One of my favorite secondary rivers.

The St. Croix River on the Wisconsin-Minnesota Border. One of my favorite secondary rivers.

Once I’ve showered and unloaded the truck, I head over to the Green Mill, a Minnesota chain of upscale restaurant/bars that has been a favorite of mine since my college years. I order a walleye sandwich and a light beer. The Twins are playing the Athletics on one TV, US soccer on another, Sports Center is on a third. Two guys are watching the Twins, and a group of girls is giggling while guzzling mixed drinks. I can’t help but wonder if I would have been better off ordering fast food and staying in my room to read my Twitter feed and download the photos from my camera.

The next morning, I allow myself the treat of Minnesota’s own Caribou Coffee and get up early to upload a blog post. I manage to leave by seven, drifting down past golden Minnesota fields towards Ames. My grand plan is to get lunch and stop at my parent’s apartment to take a nap. There is one more customer I have to see who lives between Des Moines and Omaha, and I’ll see if I can met said customer late this afternoon. That way, I’ll still be able to get back to Seward by night fall.

Of course, I wasn’t exactly precise when I did the estimates of where this grower lives. My mother told me he lives south of Watertown, which, when I typed Watertown into my computer, it gave me a location around Atlantic. When I typed in the name of the actual town after lunch, I found it was an hour and fifteen minutes east of Ames. Deflated, I decide to take the afternoon off, stay in Ames, and met the customer tomorrow morning. I call the customer and make the arrangements, then mope about the fact I could have driven straight south from Colfax yesterday and saved myself two or three hours of driving.

The next morning, I make myself Starbucks Via and drag out of Ames, getting to the farm near Clutier around 9. It’s a pleasant couple, who are enthused that they finally were able to get the weeds out of their field. They made my day better, and I wish I had more to offer them. I enjoy my drive through the Iowa hinterlands, linking up to the interstate by Adventureland. I stop for lunch at Culver’s, and press forward, grateful to be home by 4. I left half a load of laundry in my washer, and I unload clothes directly from suitcase.

Leaves Turning in Wisconsin...

Leaves Turning in Wisconsin…

End Note: I purposely watch for rest-stops to throw my recyclables away at. I will let them sit in the back of my truck for days, weeks, and hundreds of miles. Easier than going to the one close to my house. 

Utility...

Utility…

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: 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.

Michigan and The Long Road to Fairgrove

It is an eight-hour roundtrip drive from my sister’s apartment in La Porte, Indiana to the Mantey’s Family Farm in Fairgrove, Michigan. My dad made this drive many times over the years, which is a nine-hour round trip from my aunt’s in Tinley Park, Illinois. I’ve split the trip into two days sometimes to see more along the way. Michigan in the summer is the lushest shade of green, and their interstates are peaceful compared to the rest of the country. Trucks are kept to a speed limit below other vehicles, tranquilizing them, and the traffic is mostly local and generally less than other parts of the counrty. I think about living here, but then again, I never see winter here. Other than the first two hours of the drive, I’m never more than an hour away from a major city.

Warren Dunes on a Sunny Day

Warren Dunes on a Sunny Day

I stopped at Warren Dunes State Park one morning to read, and we’ve spend Labor Day Weekends near there too. It’s spacious and adventuresome, and the bluffs are majestic.

There’s a nice urban stretch on I-94 between Kalmazoo and Battle Creek home to the only coffeehouse that is (as far as I know) within a short driving distance from my route. It feels odd rolling through all those suburbs along the interstate because I’m not by a major city but I’m passing a major stretch of strip malls.

Michigan State Capitol in Lansing

Michigan State Capitol in Lansing

The halfway points comes a little after the break off of I-94, where I turn north to go to Lansing/East Lansing on I-69. I’ve taken the detour by the Michigan State Capitol and Spartan Stadium. Downtown Lansing is a blend of east coast corporate built into Midwestern stones; it’s Madison without the extreme hippies. MSU is a beautiful campus, laden with bushy green trees when I go, and alive with the young people who stay on campus during the summer. The campus seems close together, but not cramped. The loop around Lansing takes twenty minutes, and then I’m headed towards Flint.

Open Road West of Flint

Open Road West of Flint

My first time driving by Flint, I turned off I-69 a few miles before I got to I-75 and took Michigan Highway 13 north, dodging the interstate land of Flint. By coincidence, I found a fruit stand at an apple orchard, and acquired some of the best apples I’ve ever tasted.

That little highway without a shoulder turns me on to I-75 a few miles south of Frankenmuth, AKA Michigan’s Little Bavaria. Our family spent a long weekend there in 2008, and it’s a great place to stop and buy gifts, and a couple of the unique food items I like. For sure, it’s corny, and it doesn’t get a lot of business from outside of Michigan, but I credit to the locals who worked to make their community what it is.

From Frankenmuth, it’s all up on county highways. Sometimes, I have had to make way stops in Bay City to use the Internet, and I’ve found this great coffee shop downtown called Brewopia. It’s one of the best coffee environments I’ve ever been to, with high ceilings, brick walls, and great music, and a great old store front. Other times when I’ve there I go wander by the river downtown.

Brewtopia in Bay City

Brewtopia in Bay City

Store in Bay City

Store in Bay City

The Mantey’s farm is live straight west of Fairgrove. The entire family went to Michigan State, and their barns are painting Green and White, with the Spartan log. In addition to the corn we get from them, there are a lot of wheat and grain fields in the area, many with the signs of cereal companies. It usually takes me several hours to get through all their fields, but the time spent there is worth it. The is land off the grid, with no major interstates cutting through it. I enjoy that, even when I’m pressed for time. Given how short the growing season is in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, time is indeed precious when frost comes earlier.

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Wheat Field, or possibly a bowl of cereal.

There are always lots of empty buildings that I pass along the way. Some are large factories in Saginaw, some are store fronts in little towns like Unionville or Caro, some are barns that are falling apart. It always makes me sad to see them, but I keep going past the four neglected walls through my mythical land of green. I’m only supposed to be there during the growing season, but I treasure my Michigan memories all year.

The Seed Lab

The chambers-cold is on the left

Many of the you probably wonder, Derek, what is it you do for a living? I mean, this is America; everyone has to get paid. The truth of the matter is, I am in fact one of those people who is always doing something but no one quite knows what exactly it is I do, myself included. As I tell everyone, most of my time in the winter is spent doing germination test on corn. It took me about a year or two to learn how to do it well, and now it goes like clockwork.

Every year, I prepare for samples arriving by ordering kimpak, an oversized, tougher paper towel, and cutting the sheets half. I also dig up soil to use and mix it with sand to plant in.

To prep for planting, I take a tray and pour 400 milliliters of water on it and set sheet of kimpak on the water and load the trays into carts. I leave them overnight in the cold chamber, and the next day I press 200 seeds into the kimpak, now evenly saturated with water, and cover the seeds with the sand-soil mixture.

Trays read to play

Trays read to plant

Tray in the midst of planting

Tray in the midst of planting

The trays lay dormant in the cold chamber for a week at 50 degrees, and then are moved into the warm chamber. After four or five days, I count how many plants have germinated, and then record and send the numbers to my father. Then I dispose of the waste and wash the trays and the carts with bleach.

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Plants that are about a day or so away from counting

This is what I do when I’m not shuffling our companies profits off to offshore accounts in the Caymans to hid our money from the greedy agents at the IRS.

(More odd work I’ve done)

Harvest Day, Long Day

My Parking Marker at Omro

I rose that day shortly before five and dawdled for over an hour. Typical me; whenever I have a big project in front of me, I tend to do two million little choirs before I can get to it. I left my motel room a little before six, the sun peaking beyond the silo on the horizon. Should have been to the field by five-third and taken advantage of Wisconsin’s long summer days.

Today I would harvest silage samples from our plot in Omro, Wisconsin. I would need to harvest six plants from each of the eleven hybrids from our plot here, and, presuming I finished by nine, I would try to harvest samples from our plot over in Spring Green, Wisconsin. The other night, I had estimated that between the time of both harvests, drive time, and stopping time, I was looking at a twelve to thirteen hour day, minimum. Which was why I was concerned about starting early.

Sunrise on the Plot

I made it to the plot a few minutes after six, after a coffee and drink break at the the Omro (more wasted time, come on Derek). Thankfully, our samples are close to the road in this plot (in others, I have had to carry samples for forty-five minutes, leaving scratch marks on my arms). I get in, harvest quickly, and have my truck loaded before eight. I even have time for a short video.

After obtaining ice from Omro’s gas station/Subway/hardware store, I open up my GPS and get directions to Spring Green, figuring whatever route Mavis gave, it will be better than going back down County Roads to Waupun. The route calls for me to take the ten mile route east out of Omro, which I started on. But when I got to the east end of town, I decided that I would second guess myself less if I take the road I know as opposed to the one that’s potentially twenty miles out of my way. I head back to the county roads.

The familiar road down to Waupun didn’t feel as tiresome, only because I was numb to its curves and slow goings. I didn’t check my map when I was driving; I knew it would be a little less than an hour. I spent five miles on that trek stuck behind a flatbed truck loaded with hay bales. Scraps kept flying off, which didn’t bother me, but probably bothered the convertible (driven by a couple of hip grayheads) who pulled up behind me.

As I had found out the previous day, US 151 from Waupun to Madison was blissfully quick, compared to driving from Arlington, to Watertown, then up to Waupun. (An hour and forty minutes compared to four or five.) The route I approximated as the best (checking again the next day, I found others that were less urban) lead me through Sun Prairie’s pleasant suburban walls into Westconsin’s rolling hills.
That is the remarkable difference between the halves of Wisconsin on either side of Madison. The east half is generally flat, like Nebraska or Iowa. Westconsin is a majestic mess of hills and valleys, limestone popping out all over.

Typical Westconsin

So I weave through the mess on Wisconsin Highway 19, a slim two-laner. In Wanaukee there’s a Culver’s, and as several billboards have wet my appetite, I’m tempted to eat there. But since it’s not quite 11 A.M., I decide to pass even though I may not find a town large enough for a fast food place. I met up with US 18 ten miles from Spring Green, and I end up crushing a Subway sub in 1,600-pop Mazomanie.

Around 11:30 and halfway through a podcast on Bach, I make it to Spring Green. Like Omro, our hybrids are a short walking distance from a place on the road where there is a clear marking place, the driveway of a house. It’s overcast, which I’m grateful for, but as I’m in the middle of tying the bundles together, I begin to feel raindrops. I worry I’ll be soaked through and have to drag my feet through mud, but I got all the samples out and in the back of my truck in time and pull out of field while it’s still not raining. It starts raining as soon as hit curvy Wisconsin Highway 23 down to Dodgeville.

My Parking Marker at Spring Green

When I opened the back of my truck, I found half of the ice melted. I’d bought the same amount of ice that I had two days ago, and it was melting at a faster rate, proving there’s nothing like Casey’s ice. I piled in the new samples and headed into town to get some extra ice. Ice acquired, I stopped by Acardia Books again to get an iced mocha. I’m filthy and shouldn’t be going into coffee shop with old issues of The New Yorker on the wall while I’m reeking of muddy soil, but the thing is, I don’t care.

It is roughly sixty-seven miles from Spring Green to Dubuque, aka the end of the massive Westconsin hills and windy roads.  US Highway 30 is one of the great blessings of these travels: two lanes of light traffic for over two hours of the drive from Dubuque. I’m not as fortunate on the other side of the Mississippi: it rains, which slows me somewhat, but it’s not nearly as bad as it could have been. The sky is still light.

When I reach Dyersville, Iowa, I make a point of getting off the highways and find a place to download the full episode of the Herd on ESPN Radio. McDonald’s WiFi is crap, but I make due at the public library. I fume the whole seven minute drive into Dyersville to find the library; how extra options make us so pushy. But I get my podcast, and once I’m west of Dubuque, the drive feels down hill.

I reach our researcher’s place by 7:30, and my Dad comes to help me unload the samples. I am relieved to have this down while it’s still light. We finish quickly, and then I head back to my parents’ apartment for dinner, remembering last year when our plots where in Owatonna, Minnesota and Reinbeck, Iowa.

Return to the Road

I first tasted daylight yesterday around 5:10. I had to run out to Hastings and pick up some seed, and then take it to Ames in the afternoon. I debated about getting up and trying to leave by 6, getting to Starr’s at first light. Instead, I rolled over, slept some more, and got up at 6:15. Still left a bit at 7:10.

This is the time of year were I start wearing thin of driving. Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing fields, and I love hitting up certain restaurants. But after this much time in the road, I need to spend a month at home to recoop mentally and put the ideas I’ve come up with to the page. I love the photograph, but I need time away  from it Labor Day weekend at the lake can’t get here soon enough.

I make the jaunt to Hastings at least four times a year, the last time being when the ears have filled out and I take measurements and pictures for our buyers. I can usually make it in an hour and twenty minutes, but Saturday I took my time. I stopped for a flash rain and got Starbucks in York. The barista was way to friendly for 8AM Saturday morning, but I got a receipt for a $2 drink after 2 PM.

I get to Hastings at 9, right when our grower was supposed to have a meeting. We load seed and talk about the drought. They had to shut off one of their pivots for a week during detasseling, but their starting to come back around. There’s a reason my dad tries not to call the growers between August 1 and August 18. It is the fear range when they’re worried about the size of the ear, and understandably so.

The Platte is dead dry, and I don’t just mean shallow as usual. I mean there’s no water in it and farmers have been disking it. I have to drive 65 back because of my load, making the road more tedious than ever. Funny thing is, driving five miles below the speed limit on the interstate is so relaxing. You rarely have to pass anyone and can just relax in one lane. I get home and take another nap before eating a carefully planned last meal, packing, and leaving.

The packing for this trip was easier: since I will just be going to fields, I only need grubby shirts and shorts. I take fewer books than on previous trips. I do the dishes, hang up the last load of laundry, and bolt.

On the way to redeeming my receipt for a $2 drink, I find out it was easier to get to a Starbucks in Omaha off the interstate than I’d originally conceived: just take the I-680 and get off at Pacific, there’s one right by Westside High at 87th. It’s one of the best Starbucks I’ve ever been to, sitting at the corner of a strip mall so half of the walls have huge windows on them. I get my drink, write a little, and head out.

I listen to Issues, Etc. as I drive, programs on the Old Testament prophets mostly. This the time of year where I have seemingly unlimited time to catch up on all the stuff I like to listen to, especially Issues. That’s a lot of what makes this worthwhile.

Issues are black and white

Road Notes: Back to Wisconsin and Dodging Biting Dogs

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

Plot in Spring Green is Shedding

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

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

The Cottage Bakery in Fennimore

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Pond on the way

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

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

The dying plot

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

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

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

Watertown

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

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

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

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.

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