Derek Johnson Muses

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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.

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.

Road Notes: Wisconsin Test Plot Tour

The trip before me..

Friday morning, I get up early and leave Dubuque by seven, determined not to waste time today. I get coffee at one of those drive-through huts by the mall and receive the third punch on a card that needs ten. I cross the Mississippi on the Wisconsin bridge and head for Fennimore, a semi-straight shot north. Fennimore has a Casey’s gas station plopped down right across from the town square; only other small town that I know has that is David City, Nebraska. I use the bathroom and buy vitamin water.There is a cornfield at the GPS coordinates I’ve been given, but there are no stakes to indicate the division of hybrids. I take some photos, check with my dad, and head out.

The next plot is in Spring Green, Wisconsin, to the east and a bit north. On the way there, I stop at the Frank Lloyd Wright Center to use the bathroom, darting past the retired tourist. It is overcast, but not raining. After checking my GPS and getting back on the road, my truck fails to get up past 45 MPH. I panic at first, but after I turn off to go the field, I see that I put the truck in second gear instead of overdrive. The plot is three miles from the Wisconsin River and is properly marked. I dally around Spring Green and almost go into a book store before I realize I have too many book already.

The Wisconsin River

Wheat field next to Spring Green plot

On the way up to my next plot in Tomah, I stop in downtown Mauston to get lunch at a local cafe, but when I see they don’t accept credit card, I walk out. (Michaelangelo’s didn’t take my card yesterday either.) I head up to the interstate and eat lunch at Subway in a travel plaza that has Brewer, Packer, and Badgers logos painted on the walls. Wisconsin love its sports and shows it. The plaza crowd: parents with kids, twenty-something guys heading to the wilds, a group of people dressed up for something (maybe a funeral), kids in some group, and a fifty-something guy alone wearing an Aaron Rodgers shirt.

I-94/I-90 to Tomah is laden with rock formation that I’d love to photograph. I get off on the north side of town and head to the field that I passed six miles from yesterday. I have to drive past a No Trespassing sign on a crude access road to get to the field, but no one comes by.

Back in Tomah, I check my online communications in the Culver’s parking lot and find an Amish guy selling baking goods and jam on the side of the road. I buy some monster cookies and a rhubarb crumb pie from him, and we chat for a minute about farming. I get back on I-94 and fly toward Madison.

Border of our Tomah plot

Wisconsin Dells looks like its packed up for the summer with kids and families. I get off at the exit right before I-90/I-94 merge with I-39 as the traffic begins to back up. I get gas at BP, where they are advertising free Brewers tickets, although you have to have seven purchases of eight gallons to get the tickets. I get two of the seven from my truck. I debate taking an alternate route, but don’t. Turns out to be the right decision as the traffic on I-90/I-94 has cleared.

It takes a while to get to the fourth field, by Arlington, because I have to take a bunch of county roads. It’s next to a farmhouse, so I don’t stay for long. It’s four o’clock, but I decide to head to one more field, this one by Watertown, before calling it a day.

I try to find a quicker way to Watertown that will involve using county roads. This leads to driving in the wrong direction for four miles, and I’m spent by the end of it. So I give in and drive through Watertown, and find the field, which is behind a dairy barn. I introduce myself to the owners and make my observations.

I decide to head up to Beaver Dam, which has hotels and is within ten miles of my next field. It’s just a half hour drive back through Watertown, who hasn’t yet finished a by-pass highway that will allow travelers like me to skip their quaint downtown. I spend the night and the Super 8 in Beaver Dam and eat dinner at the classy upscale sports bar in front of it (which serves breakfast for some reason). They don’t seat me when I come in the door, so I don’t tip as well I normally do, even though the Friday night walleye is really good.

Saturday morning, there’s an anxious woman behind the desk who asks if she can check me out while I’m eating breakfast. (There were at most four other parties staying at the hotel besides me.) After breakfast, I go to Wallgreens to get some meds and work on some blog articles, delaying my leave until nine. I stop by a river front market in downtown Beaver Dam and buy some honey, but it’s mostly a disappointment. I head back out of town and up Fox Lake where my plot is. The plot is on the side of County Road A. I have to walk a little bit from the turnoff where I park my truck.

Fox Lake test plot marker

Head into Fox Lake and put the GPS coordinates of the next field into my map, which turn out to be the wrong coordinates. The right coordinates are in an e-mail attachment that I can’t open on my iPod, and I need to have a WiFi connection to access. I find the little town library (which looks like a run down gas station, which chipped white paint and cement blocks) but it doesn’t open for another hour.

The public library in Waupun (15 miles up the road) has this zanny blue carpet with stars on it. The place is dead, and I have a seat on a couch in the teen section. After ten minutes of fiddling, I decide its not worth any more trouble to try and get on and leave. On the way out of town, I pull into a McDonald’s parking lot and find out that I can use my iPod to access the e-mail attachment I need.

Pass a number of dairy farms, noting how close the farms in Wisconsin are to each other, and how much more traffic there is. I stop at a park by the Fox River in Omro to use the restroom. The plot is five miles north of Omro, and I take my time there since it’s the last one. Upon finishing up there, I head back to Omro and get my lunch at the Colonial Cheese House, which is more like a specialty cheese store that happens to have a grill. I get a meal along with a huge pack of cheese curds, half of which I will certainly through away. I go back to the park and listen to Issues, Etc. while I enjoy lunch.

My Lunch View of the Fox River in Omro

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