Derek Johnson Muses

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Pretty Grain Tower in Northwest Iowa



The grain tower above is somewhere in northwest Iowa, on the diagonal highway that runs from Storm Lake to the I-29-US Highway 30 interchange. It’s backlight because I drove past that area in the early evening sometime last August, heading for a nice dinner in Omaha, hoping to get back to Seward before 9 PM.

Last summer had too many nights were I drove until it was almost dark. Over the last two years, I felt like I told the story of my life on the road for Blue River, and there wasn’t anything new I could find about that those little family restaurants in central Illinois. It’s also why I’m going to take a short vacation this spring before I really get busy. I need perspective.

But hey, there were some good photos right?

End of the Season

It’s that time of year again. The end. The last time I go to certain fields before they are harvested.

Almost in

Almost in

The time our family visits Lake Michigan.



And the time of year my writer’s block gets as bad as it ever does. My focus is divided, and the last thing I want to do is plop down at my computer during the middle of football season and waste my energy on a post that no more than 30 people will read by this Christmas.

But here I am.

I sweated and toiled all summer. I gardened and froze and pickled until the life flowed out of me. I mowed, in essence, three lawns. Now, I’m picking apples from a neighbor’s tree. (If you live near Seward or Lincoln, you’re welcome to have some.) All the while, I’ve kept up an active travel schedule that’s left me feeling like I have nothing left to give. And, with all this running around, I’ve felt that I haven’t needed to share it with anyone. Which has lead me to the question, do I need to consider doing something else with my time, maybe even a major life change? d

In my adult life, my actions indicate that I want my daily routines to change as little as possible. Yes, I run through different causes and jobs, but the basic routine of kitchen work/writing/household choirs, all of that has stayed the same. I try not to cling to things (hey, people tear it up and move all the time), but homeostasis gives me a lot of peace. A lot. Maybe even too much.

One more trip, and I won’t be making the long circle through Iowa and Illinois. Eventually, there won’t be apples to pick, and the garden will be winterized. After that, who know what I’ll do.

Close and Personal

Close and Personal

Through Trees and Branches Across the Nation


Presidio of San Francisco, April 2011

Whenever I would take a photo like this, I would think it was great until it was on my computer.

Kansas, Fall 2009

Kansas, Fall 2009

I mean the bush in the foreground dwarfs the shoreline in back. It’s incredible!

Southern California Palms

California Palms on Coronado Island, San Diego, California, December 2009

A couple of them I took when I was on a hyper-relaxing vacation in sunny weather while Nebraska drowned in snow. Those photos, I took because the world seemed to slow down.

San Antonio, March 2011

San Antonio, March 2011

Some of them were taken when I was in the south, amidst the ruins of a Catholic mission from several ceturies ago.


Sleep Bear Dunes, May 2010

This one was from one of the greatest evening of photographing, along Sleeping Beer Dunes in northern Michigan. The shores and winds run forever, and it’s a great place to get away from city stress and get into nature.

Tree, Interrupted. Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan. May 2010.

The wind-wiped-out half-tree above is one of the hallmarks of Sleeping Bear Dunes. Bottom line: if you’re a tree, hope your seed gets blown inland a ways.

Central Wisconsin off WISC HWY 21, September 2013

Central Wisconsin off WISC HWY 21, September 2013

Can you tell by the fuzziness of the leaves here that these are classic fall foilage in the woodlands of central Wisconsin, miles off of the grid, or does it just look like the lint you pull out of your dryer?

Middle of Nowhere, Who Knows When

Middle of Nowhere, Who Knows When

This burnt building is in a barren area of the country, and that is an understatement. Every 40 miles, there is a town of around 3,000 and that about it for 500 miles in any direction. In between are a bunch of small burnt-down ghettos like this one.


White noise.

There are of course plenty of trees closer to my roost, like these in the Platte River valley off Nebraska Highway 92, lighting up the lowly March morning sky. (Okay, these I did something with when I got them on the computer.

Florida Tree

Florida Tree

This is a special one. I used to keep an 8×10 print of this tree within line sight of my bed, so I could see it when I got up in the morning and fell asleep at night. It always seemed menacing, like an orge.


Open Box

This group of sticks was on the borders of one of the fields I used to go see out at Hastings. There’s a farm in the distance, not that you can see it clearly.

Living Room

Living Room

And these sticks are a few miles from where I live. How about that.

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.


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. 



Writing Road Notes

Open Road West of Flint

Out There…

Last year, my main method of writing while I traveled was to type notes on my iPod touch during lunches and driving breaks, but this year I haven’t done that as much, for two reason. One, as I have gone back through old posts, I have found that this writing style leaves me with an incoherent narrative, a problem similar to the problem of tweeting-thoughts are broken into too many pieces. If I sit down the day I get back from a trip, I can write a more focused, direct first draft while it’s still fresh.

Two, I just feel more hurried when I’m away from home. I have a house now and wanting to spend time there, given what I’m paying for it and how much I have to do to maintain it. Either way, whenever I’m on the road, I think more and more about how long it will be until I’m back, although Tom staying at my place now relieves my nerves.

The road can be such a lonely place at times. Maybe it’s no more lonely than the rest of my life, but I still feel so isolated when I’m out there, passing miles of other truckers and minivans packed with kids on summer vacations. The gas stations, the hotels, and the restaurants are all same, which is a very comforting thing. But as the wear of the temporal adds up, I have to accept the confidence to let certain details melt away and remain on the asphalt, trusting that if that colorful mural on the side of an aging brick building in central Wisconsin is really significant, I’ll remember it when I get home and write it down.  All part of using the judgment of a good writer.

Whenever I would stop at a rest stop in central Michigan to write about how the shops in Small Town X were, I was doing so out of an insecurity of a novice who was sure he’d forget. Not that I’ve mastered the craft, but I’m more confident in letting the narrative form in my mind. Now I’m ready to face the silence of the road between my destination and home.



Road Notes: Brush with the South and Dragging On

It started out "promising" (field in northern Missouri)...

It started out “promising” (field in northern Missouri)…

Last Sunday morning, I rolled out of bed at 10 A.M. and took three hours to pack and square things around the house before I left. The previous day, I had come up with a flawless plan of how I would leave around nine and get to Columbia, Missouri by four at the latest for an evening of enjoying Mizzou’s campustown. Instead, I ended up rolling into Moberly, Missouri at 8 P.M. and eating a Subway sub on my bed while watching Sunday Night Baseball.

On the hour drive from Moberly to Thompson in the morning, I realized it might have been just as efficient to have spent the night in Mexico, Missouri, from which Thompson was a much shorter drive. But I pressed on to the farm, where I met our dealer-grower. He was not able to plant until June 30, but his soybeans looked promising as they battled the weeds, coming up among the straw that was grown in the field over winter. In central Missouri, the earliest frost is usually late enough so that he will be fine.

From there, I drove down US Highway 54 toward I-70, only to pull over at a Wal-Mart in order to get an oil change that I had been putting off. I got out of my truck at the drop-off spot just outside the mechanic’s bay, but none of the three guys in the garage to came up of to help me I had to wander into the office to find someone, and if I hadn’t had to take the time to get lunch there, the stop would have been an utter waste. Do I even remember my own time-saving principals?

My extra time gone, I made haste down the interstate. The next guy I had to met lived all the way down in Braggadoccio, Missouri, fourteen miles from the Arkansas border in the Missouri Bootheel. He had an appointment the next morning, but agreed to met me that afternoon, so I bolted through the St. Louis suburbs, by the bluffs of the Mississippi, until they rolled themselves into flatter country south of Cape Girardeau. I actually did see some corn, but I didn’t notice the crop I expected, cotton. I arrived in Braggadoccio just before 5, and met our grower by the tiny post office, and an old building that turned out to be his storefront.

Flooded Rice Field

Flooded Rice Field

Much of Braggadoccio was destroyed by a tornado several years ago, but our grower rebuilt his home and farming enterprise, and now is doing very well. He farms rice as a rotation crop, as it setups up the field with the nutrients that corn and soybeans need. Rice farming involves flooding the fields, a method that wouldn’t be possible without the abundance of water the Mississippi and St. Francis Rivers provide. I asked our grower to point out a cotton field to me, and it turns out, a cotton field looks just like a soybean field.

To get a jump start on the next day, I drove back north, stopping first in New Madrid, Missouri to take some pictures of the Mississippi from the town’s long river access amidst the industrial villages lining. After soaking in humid river air, I drove to Sikeston, where I spent the night.

Mississippi at New Madrid, Missouri; Kentucky on the Other Side.

Mississippi at New Madrid, Missouri; Kentucky on the Other Side.

There were four signs of the south I noted on this trip. First, the accents. Two, the abundance of mobile homes. Three, the rice and cotton fields. Four, how horrendously friendly everyone was. And fifth, when the hostess at Ruby Tuesday’s sat me for dinner, she said “Ms. Amber will be with you in a moment.” #outofmycomfortzone



Tuesday morning, I got up late and drove up through a small slip of the delta and crossed the Mississippi at Cairo, Illinois, right by the mouth of the Ohio River near some of the flattest ground I’ve ever seen. (BTW, the mouth of the Ohio is so much grander than the mouth of the Missouri for some reason.) Cairo, like many of the mid-sized towns in Illinois, is bleak and run-down, with one too many civic buildings downtown. Mass construction (undoubtedly to spend Obama stimulus dollars) slowed the traffic on I-57 as I passed turnoffs for Louisville and Nashville, and continued toward my destination of Pana, Illinois.

After my third meal at Subway in three days (coupon) at the Salem, Illinois exit, I drove up a gritty US Highway 51 to my field north of Pana. It had some weed issues, but the stand was good. Not wanting to drive too late into the night, I headed up towards Springfield. I had to share a couple of my posts on social media, but instead of doing the easy thing and stopping at a Starbucks I knew from last year, I bypassed Springfield and decided that I would happen upon WiFi connection elsewhere. Surprisingly, my brazen spirit was rewarded at a gas station west of Jacksonville, Illinois.

I spent the night at the Super 8 in Hannibal, Missouri. Dinner was my official trip splurge-pizza and wine at an Italian brick-oven bistro. The chicken alfredo pizza satiated my craving for fine food, but the wine made me really sleepy. Nevertheless, I went for dessert at Java Jive and hung around downtown until dusk.

Wednesday, my final day passed like a dream, as I whisked across a near anonymous section of the Iowa-Missouri border, then criss-crossed across southeast Iowa until I got to our grower in Pella. This guy had actually planted his beans May in spite, and they looked healthy. I made one fatal mistake-the best time to met the grower was at 12:30, so I thought it wouldn’t be a big deal to put off lunch. By the time I finished going over the fields at two o’clock, I was in such a fowl mood it didn’t matter. (At least I got Culver’s.)

Even though I barely stopped, the drive back to Seward seemed to get so much longer when I reached Des Moines and began driving on the section of I-80 that I drive when I go to Ames. My mind has cataloged every stop and what’s at every stop, so now it always seems tedious and unnew. But I kept pressing on, and was never more relieved to arrive at home when I rolled in just before nine.

Looks promising...

Looks promising…


Idaho Stops and Observations


Shoshone Falls, low for this time of year due to low snowfall and irrigation needs.

(First part of the trip)

Monday and Tuesday, my father and I visited our fields in Idaho along the Snake River Canyon, some geared toward next year, some at work for customers now. It’s an important part of the business, to let the people we work with know they are part of our BRH team and that we care about helping them raise the best crop possible.

Go for Green!

Go for Green! (Alfalfa, that is)

Idaho has become a much more diverse place agriculturally speaking. Our dealer told us potato production is down from what it had been, but guys will still move potatoes up in the cycle if the price suddenly goes up. They plant corn, wheat, oats, alfalfa (as a serious crop), soybeans, sugar beets, onions, and even radishes as a rotation crop. Everything is watered to death, but it has to be. It’s either dump water into the foot of earth above the lava rock that is buried under the ground, or nothing grows but sage brush. It is possible to turn some of the unfarmable ground into workable ground, but it requires a lot of time and money.

Many of our foreages are grown in the Snake River Valley near a town called Bliss, which according to our grower, “is a town with a happy name where no one gets along.” He says a third of the people are retirees, a third farm their tails off, and another third wish to do nothing whatsoever. Of the massive sewage facilities located to the north of his farm, he claims they were built in haste years ago before the housing market collapsed, when the city thought  thousands of Californians would immigrate to Bliss in the next ten years. Instead, Bliss’ stated population remains beneath 500, and the only Californians who moved in are trying to sell their huge houses on the river banks for more than million dollars, without takers. If you are going to build a house twenty minutes from the nearest competent grocery store, there are a lot more attractive locales to build it. The Tetons, for example. (Reminds me of other small towns.)

Snake River Canyon

Snake River Canyon

In fact, California immigrants seeking refuge from excessive taxes and high costs of living make native Idahoans quite chatty. The Boise metro area is a mass of urban sprawl, with half-a-million dollar houses next to front yards with goats herds and a single cow together. (Really? You’d think the goats wouldn’t stop bothering the cow.) Our contact near Boise told me that, when the demand for land around Boise was high pre-housing crash, a number of farmers were reluctant to sell, which resulted in the patchy neighborhood structure.  

Thankfully, we also had some time to visit some great places, like the World Center for Birds of Prey (where I had been as a kid), the Idaho State Capitol, and Bronco Stadium. As I did in Madison last year, I got a glimpse of the blue turf, even if the thrill of running through the stadium without authorization was withheld. Boise seems hipper and cleaner than either Lincoln or Omaha (the lack of snow helps), but even with all of the modernites who’ve come from California, the city still looks like middle America from the inside. 

Closest I'll get to the Blue Turf

Closest I’ll get to the Blue Turf

And here’s what I found to be…well, quirky.

Stinker’s gas station-Okay, the skunk mascot is kind of cute, but you’re ripping off Bucky the Banger, the University of Wisconsin’s mascot. The red trim is just insulting. And who would buy gas from an establishment that puts bad smells into its name? Selling gas is the same everywhere; don’t screw it up.

The fake rocks every other shopping center or high end home uses-you’re Idaho, why are you using fake rocks when you could literally go out to any field within a ten mile radius and fetch actual black lava rocks to use in construction? Okay, it looks pretty, but it just blinds everyone when it’s really sunny. Which is pretty much every day.

Yards full of every last truck, tractor, and other farm vehicle the farmer has ever owned-I was told by someone who grew up in Montana that the far West farmer never get rid of any of their old vehicles or equipment because they may need a part of that old tractor when their current tractor breaks down. Okay, I get that, but still, does the world need to look at such a mess in the middle of your yard?

Boise State’s Hipness-I walked into a Boise State fanshop, and it was literally a mantle full of every possible combination of orange and blue. (Does anyone know how much BSU has ripped from the Denver Broncos?) There were not a lot of wall hangings and T-shirts with game dates and opponents on them, like you see in a Nebraska fan shops. Even the wall hangings they had mixed in the orange and blue. Husker Nation, we cling to the past.

Road (and Flight Notes): Idaho

Saturday night Sunset near Twin Falls

Saturday night Sunset near Twin Falls

It’s weird flying out of Omaha at 2:30 in the afternoon-if you have been impressed by numerous early morning departures. That was the time that my Dad and I left to go, first to Salt Lake City, then to Boise. It is a rarity to fly out of Omaha with your first leg of a connection being the longest, but it’s a blessing when it does happen. And after only two days at home to recoup from my last trip, leaving at 6 A.M. on Saturday would have been horrendous.

There was no line at the security checkpoint at Eppley, and I was almost disappointed. Both flights were full, and on-time, with minimal turbulence as we descended into Boise. There were a few interesting characters: a tanned skinned, foreign man in a fedora who went up to three separate Delta employees to ask about something; a man and a woman with a child who rushed onto to our flight to Boise at the last minute to complain about how bad their flight from Atlanta was; and some guy at the lost luggage counter to try and get back a bag he’d lost, as he’d started his travel day in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania at 5:30 (I could see where he was coming from). It didn’t seem as eventful. Both are flights were full, not surprising for this time of year, but it did seem like fewer people were traveling.

I had left my phone on the flight from Salt Lake City to Boise, but I was able to retrieve it in short order. The drive out to Twin Falls (home of our dears) took place on Saturday, under the glorious clouds of a high sky. We stopped at Burger King in Mountain Home for dinner, and there was a car with New York tags in the parking lot, and another with Massachusetts tags.

I forget often what it’s like to be out here in the Western United states, where the sky is so big and there’s such a distance between the small towns and the big ones. Even when I drive around the towns of 500-1,000 people in Nebraska, Iowa, and Wisconsin, it all feels so close together. Out here, everything feels so far apart. Towns are either 10,000 or 150, with half of the buildings empty.

Sign up

Sign up

Sunday afternoon, my father and I visited the two national parks around Twin falls, the Minidoka relocation camp for the Japanese during World War II and the Hagerman Fossil Beds Museum. On the way out of Hagerman, we stopped at the town’s museum and met a man who grew up in Columbus, but had moved out here. He’s going to the Nebraska-UCLA game this year, so I gave him my card and hope to see him at Noyes. We drove back to Twin Falls over fifty miles of sun-worn highway, past houses with tiled roof built on slabs of cement. Small homes. Now that I own a home, I miss being there more than I’m on the road, and I can see how you get tied to a particular place. I wonder what’s  like to be tied down here, in a place that’s so much more isolated.

Old Guardhouse at Minidoka

Old Guardhouse at Minidoka

Road Notes: Dodging Iowa Tornadoes

Burlington, Iowa Bridge

Mississippi River Bridge at Burlington, Iowa

Last Sunday, I finally left to see fields that were planted two weeks late due to the rain and take photos for the Blue River Hybrids product guide. I spent the two days before I left running around tying stuff up and prepping for game night (why did I buy this house?), and had worship committee at 11 A.M. before loading my new duffel into the truck and jutting off to Ames.

I made one stop on the way up, at Crane Coffee because I had run out of coffee on Friday and been crushing Starbucks Vias. The barista recommended Smooth Omaha (thanks Heather). Already weary, I treated myself to Crane’s specialty Turtle Latte and was back on the interstate, weaving my way through Colorado SVUs with Michigan bumper stickers and luggage racks loaded with bikes and canoes.

Monday morning, I was out the door at seven after waking early, reading and walking. Under a sky divided by dark and light clouds, I drove to Hubbard Iowa, about an hour north of Ames, passing an industrial truck that had a headlight that pointed into its cab (?). I turned off I-35 onto Iowa Highway 175 and passed the gas station/repair shop/utility store in Radcliffe for what must be the fifth time. I had to wait for about half an hour at the home of a grower, due to an emergency, but he made the appointment. By 9:00-sometime, I was back on US 65, heading south to get to Washington to avoid passing Radcliffe again.

Lil' Beans

Lil’ Beans

It rained off and on the way, reinforcing my belief that I was better off for not going back I-35 and adding another thirty miles to my trip. I had to use a back road highway to eventually get on I-80 due to construction, but by the time I did, the rain had stopped.

For lunch, I stopped at the Perkins in Newton, Iowa. I don’t normally care for the other clientele at Perkins (this one was no exception), and it is one of the few restaurants that can be busy in between peak meal hours, but they have bacon and eggs all day. My server, a pretty student-type named Auburn, was very good, and I received my meal in short order and was back on the road around noon.

There isn’t a good road to Washington if you are coming from the east, so I cut off on Exit 230, ten miles east of Iowa and headed south on the blacktop of Black Hawk Avenue through the hills and gullies of Eastern Iowa, eventually rumbling into Highway 1.

When I got to Kalona, I made the critical decision to go ahead and stop for gas and to use the bathroom. If I hadn’t made the stop, I would have passed the fourteen miles to Washington with ease before the severe rain started. It slowed me down, and by the time I got Washington, I had to spend forty-five minutes in the basement of the library because of a tornado warning.

Washington Public Library

Washington Public Library

After my appointment, I took the same route I took last fall prior across the Mississippi into Illinois to met the soybean growers who live around Peoria. I stayed in the same hotel I did last year, but ate dinner at Stake ‘N’ Shake, watching a bunch of teenagers working what must be their worst summer job ever. (I forgot about the grease that accumulates in the fast food industry.) I had to change my order because they were out of chicken strips and had to remind them to get my milkshake. They were lucky I was at the end of a long day.

No Report

No Report

The next day, I awoke early and went through the circle of growers around Peoria. They are all guys who we haven’t worked with much in the past and who we hope to help get a better start this year. Most of them are doing okay, even though they all planted on a late start. When I was done, I grabbed a Turkey flatbread sandwich and coffee at Mika’s in Eureka, a coffee shop with maroon concrete walls, all the while reading the reaction to Nebraska’s alternate uniforms. Before heading out of town, I stopped by Eureka College and took in the Regan Statue, then drove up and at times along I-39 to take photos.

My final appointment was delayed until Wednesday morning, but it was worth it. I got the photos with the Breslins, a father-daughter farming team by Ottawa just before a fierce rain storm started. They invited me to stay for tea, which was enough time for the rain to stop and the sky to clear. I then bolted down I-80 toward Nebraska, stopping at the Starbucks in Des Moines to read the Superme Court/Aaron Hernandez new of the day. I was relieved to be home-after all, I’m leaving Saturday for Idaho.

Coming to another farmer soon...

Hope springs anew…

Trailways to Dubuque

This spring, I wanted to visit my friend Tom in Dubuque and didn’t want to drive. I know that by the end of this summer, I will be so tired of driving I will want to throw up, and these miles would count toward that. Other than driving, there’s only one way of transportation to get to Dubuque, and that’s Trailways bus.

Taking the bus was better than taking the train. It was indirect-an extra hour or two was added because of the stops we had to make, some of which were miles off the highway in campus-town Ames and downtown Waterloo. In the end, I got to read a lot and watched a couple of movies I wouldn’t have ordinarily gotten to see: 2008’s Journery to the Center of the Earth, 2010’s The Karate Kid, a Veggie Tales‘ episode called “Lord of the Beans” (forgot how funny Bob the Tomato is), and Cinderella Man (too bad it bombed-it was good), a movie I had wanted to see when it was in theaters eight years ago, but didn’t because too many other good movies came out that summer. Glad I never rented it.

Trailways does a good job, but they are helped by the fact that not many people take the bus to begin with. There’s still the smell of recycled air you get on planes, but I read a lot of the books I brought, and thanks to the wifi on the bus between Des Moines and Dubuque, I got to watch some college football highlights from last year that I wanted to see. Even if I know what’s going to happen, it’s still feels like a crisp fall afternoon or a Christmas destination game when I watch those highlights.

But the most important part of this trip was getting to see my best friend, who I have racked up a lot of long phone calls and good times together. He really is my brother, and it’s great to catch-up and laugh together again. He’s got a great life; this past weekend, I met his significant other (finally!) and saw his friends, all of whom are awesome and great Christian persons who encourage me.

Saturday, I volunteered with Tom at the Dubuque Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, clearing away leaves from rose beds and putting the leaves back on once the plants had been fertilized. It was great exercise, and we got to met a man who had grown up in Michigan just west of where our grower is and went to college in the Upper Peninsula, an area that has always fascinated me. It’s amazing how Michiganders, Wisconsinites, and Minnesotans live in 40-inches of snow per year and face snow storms in May just shrug it off.

Railroad on the Mississippi in the Mines of Spain near Dubuque

Railroad on the Mississippi in the Mines of Spain near Dubuque

Sunday, we went out to the Mines of Spain State Rec Park just south of town, to hike and enjoy the sun. The Mines of Spain are exactly what a great park should be: open prairie to walk, hills and cliffs to climb, and a majestic body of water. The birds were out, singing their spring songs and displaying their colors. Like I saw in Kansas, the countryside hasn’t been overrun with green summer growth. But that will change son.

And the best part of the visit? Tom telling me that he’s moving back to Seward for the summer and that he wants to stay with me while he detassells! It’s going to be an awesome summer!

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.

Ferrying Across Lake Michigan on the SS Badger

On a July day in 2010, I had just finished checking fields at the Mantey’s before noon and had driven into Bay City to check online communication and decide on my next move. From my table at Brewtopia (one of the best coffeehouses ever), I examined the schedule for the SS Badger, a car ferry that I could take across Lake Michigan to the next fields I had to see in Wisconsin. It was expensive, but it would save time, city driving, and some gas (key when you drive an F-150). I booked the passage that was scheduled to leave Luddington at 8 and arrive in Manitowoc five hours later.

Rural Road on the Way

Rural Road on the Way

A delightful drive across central Michigan yielded some nice free photos and a stop in great bookstore, but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find an open post office I needed. I had been to Luddington the previous year when my sister and I had taken a joyriding trip up the western Michigan coast. I got dinner at Subway and, since my truck was so close to empty, I filed it up after looping through gas stations, a decision I would come to regret.

So I rolled into a shipyard where the cars were lining up to be loaded into the Badger. I parked my car, and checked in, a remarkably easy process. We weren’t allowed to drive our vehicles on the boat nor would we be allowed access to our vehicles once they were loaded up. Upon hearing that, I jammed as much unnecessary stuff as I could into my bag before I got in line with my ticket to board, making sure I got in front of the seven Amish families who I knew would take forever.

Lighthouse with Well-Wishers

Lighthouse with Well-Wishers

Boarding a boat was universally the same as boarding a plane, only it took longer to get a ship out of port. After we passed the harbor gates, I wandered from one end of the boat to the other, photographing the sunset and taking in the beauty of dimming light on the water. Being on the boat was just like one would imagine it would have been around the turn of the previous century, the black trim, the crew, the stillness of the water. The Badger itself has been in service since the 1950’s, when it ferried railway cars across Lake Michigan before rails were built through Chicago and Gary, Indiana. Even the tracks that were used to load the cars into the ferry remain on the ship.

The five hours grew long, but there was plenty to do on board. I took my photos, watched the news down below decks (a Bernie Madoff special happened to be on), watched part of a movie, and went through the ship’s museum. In the dining room, there was a satellite map of Lake Michigan, with the Badger’s position on it. The ship was traveling at a speed of 18 MPH, or slower than a speed limit on a typical city street. It is eighty miles across Lake Michigan from Michigan to Wisconsin, and even though I was saving a lot of time (and city driving), I was still just chugging along.

Sunset against the boat

Sunset against the boat

We arrived in Manitowoc at what felt like 1 A.M. A smaller boat guided us into the landing, and huge boat awkwardly backed up to a dock that was so small, I could not see how we were going to dock on it. The water seemed to buoy us in, and they hooked us in short order. Surprisingly, there was a huge crowd waiting to make the 2:30 passage back to Michigan. I made my way down as the cars were being driven out by the employees, and thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long until my truck was pulled into one of the five diagonal stalls. When I started to back up, an employee came yelling frantically at me to pull forward instead. It was a mistake of my instincts-besides, the space to go forward was small and it was dark. Blindly, I drove up, and the turn was shorter than I expected.

The first gas station I came to had gas priced twenty cents lower than what it was when I filled up in Michigan. I could have saved at least ten bucks on a tank.

I did have the sense to pick my hotel back when I was in Bay City. Per the recommendation of the Badgers’ website, I selected the Super 8, and called ahead. I thought I would get a late-night, 20% discount, of course not realizing that they get late night passengers all the time. Two bikers guys from the ferry were checking in right after I did, and I watched Sports Center for half an hour before falling asleep.

After six hours of sleep and an hour of breakfast, I returned the road, driving past extra green woodland farms I’d passed in college that frequent the Wisconsin coast. I joined the rush hour traffic to Appleton, and curved back down on to Highway 10, toward Coloma, the site of my first field of the day. (This was my first drive through Omro a town I would come to frequent two years later.) From there, it was on to a new field west of Eau Claire, although I had to stop in Tomah to take a nap. I was exhausted at the end of that day, but it was completely worth it for the time I saved.


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