Derek Johnson Muses

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The Photo that’s Just So Important

Originally, I had tried to think of something to write about a human flaw, just so I could use the photo below in a post. But I struck out, so here it is. Just the photo.

Hometown Store

Hometown Store

I photographed this store on a road trip I took two years ago. It was trip that I took and told no one about, and even now, the only thing I’ll say about it is that it was to one of the most sparsely populated areas of the country. It was a three-day trip. The first day featured glorious weather. The next two featured bothersome rain.

Tell me, is this picture pretty enough to stand on its merit? Do you need to know the name of the town it is in, that I took it in the afternoon, that it is the only significant town for several miles? Do I have through in long exposition about how I rolled into town looking for a coffee shop but didn’t find one, then continuing to push on towards a state borderline? Does it matter that a whole town full of people spent years of their lives walking by this store, and that part of me feels like I traveled a whole world to find it? It is, after all, just a store, sitting out there on the prairie, with so much in between.

Or is this just another desperate ploy on my part to get attention? Probably, but I hope the other stuff matters too.

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.

DSCN1791

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…

Seward, Tear Down Your Unused Buildings!

Could have done it back in the 90's

Revenge of the 80’s?

Seward has been my home base for my nearly thirty-years of life, and one of the constants has been the empty buildings on the Jones Bank lot. One was a Napa Auto Parts store, and the other use to be a roller rink, but I can barely remember a time when either front was used. (Someone I knew reminded that a flea market was in there nearly twenty years ago.) But finally, with the renovations underway at the bank, both buildings have been reduced to rubble.

Good freaking riddance.

As I record here, I traverse a lot of country, and there’s one thing you see everywhere: empty storefronts. I’ve seen them in Bay Area suburbs where my aunt and uncle live, in major Midwest cities , and in small towns everywhere. Rotting wood, cracking paint, rocks with holes in them. It’s sad, and it says a lot about how a town cares about its image. Frankly, if I had had money, I would have bought the old Napa Auto Parts store and turned it into a trendy townhouse/loft. Of course, the reason I don’t have any money is probably related to the fact that I would build a trendy town home in Seward, Nebraska.

But back to my point. The point is, America has way too rotting empty buildings. Some of this is probably inevitable (like the employment rate never hitting zero). But a building sitting vacate in the same town for twenty-some years is unacceptable, in the middle of downtown no less. At least the building across the highway from Wal-Mart south of Seward that has kept various restaurants rotating through it. NOTHING was in this two buildings for nearly twenty years. Couldn’t we at least have pulled it down and made a park?

But now these are gone, an accomplishment this town can celebrate. Here’s to Seward. And while we’re at, let’s try and get something permanent in the old hardware store across the street from Cattle Bank. Not to mention that there’s several old, empty homes around our city, paint cracking and ivy flowing out of them. Let’s do something about those too. Anyone got some loose capital lying around?

The Omro of it All

Building by the Fox River

The road to Omro from Waupun (and US HWY 151) is fifty solid minutes on Wisconsin County Roads. I suppose I shouldn’t complain and should be grateful to the people who are willing to work with us, but last Tuesday as I made my way up County Road M, past the swivel in the road at County Road TC, I thought to myself, “Maybe it’s worth the extra twenty miles to take the major roads through Fon Du Lac and Oshkosh.”

This past trip marked my fourth trip to Omro overall. The first was last year, when I passed the town without much notice on a Thursday morning, exhausted after crossing Lake Michigan the previous night. Each of the other three trips, I ended up hanging around the town for an extended period of time that was longer than I intended. I didn’t have to go anywhere.

The Ben Franklin-style pharmacy

Omro is a pleasant city of just over 3,000, enough to seem substantial, but still really small. There’s a Piggly Wiggly and a BP/McDonald’s travel sitting on the east end of town, a small token of independence. The old fashioned, Ben Franklin-style pharmacy was in a state of remodel when I came in looking for twine. They didn’t have any, but I did find some at combo gas station/Subway/hardware store down the street.. There is a modest courthouse and town museum. It’s the smallest town I’d ever seen to have two thrift stores (until someone corrected me of this on Facebook), and there’s a bar next to the baseball fields which you could easily mistake for a machine shed. The largest restaurant location in Omro, a green roofed bar standing alone with dark tinted windows, currently sits empty. It is pledging to reopen in September “under new management.”

Omro’s Courthouse

I tried to off the restaurants in town and liked both. First, it was the Colonial Cheese House, and the last time, I sampled Jake’s Pizza, whose ad was on a tray in my room at the roadside motel. I was skeptical, but after obtaining the twine I needed, Jake’s was the first restaurant I walked by on the street. (Other than an authentic Mexican place, the likes of which I can find in Nebraska. There were two employees behind the counter, both on the phone most of the time I was there. I ordered a fish dinner and sat down to wait, expecting to write a full post by the time my food came. When the girl brought me my food, I’d written a measly two paragraphs. The way she handed the container to me, I knew it would be great, and it was. A small business ten miles from a major city has to work that much harder to keep its business.

The most distinctive part of Omro is the Fox River, which runs roughly through the middle of town. The city has several parks next to it, and there are a few homes with docks. In many ways, the river is to Omro is like Yellowstone is to Wyoming: a very unique feature, but it doesn’t seem to upgrade the town that much.

Bench on the Fox

It is in my work as a field monitor over the summer that I have to rely on the Omros, the Tomahs, the Reinbeck, Iowas, and the Doniphan, Nebraskas to get the things I need, like that ball of twine or the ice to keep the samples cold. I don’t romanticize these small towns, but I’m grateful for their presence. I admire the Jake’s Pizza and the gas station that takes in two other businesses, because they have to do more with less too stay in business. And every little memento I take from those towns, like that ball of twine and the legion baseball T-shirt of the Omro Dairy (“Thundering Herd) I bought at one of the two thrift stores, is logged into my brain and will be remembered every time I see that ball of twine or wear that T-shirt.

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