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: 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…

Big Cities or Little Towns?

Seward My Anchor

I’m divided when it comes to “being from Seward”. I don’t think of myself as a lifelong Seward resident, even though that’s what I am. When I asked, I say this is where I’m from, not with any conscious shame, but with a wondering if I’m really in the best place for myself. Not that I run from the title or feel I have anything to be ashamed by it. Would I like to live in a larger city with more opportunities and new things to do every weekend? Yes, it depends on where my life goes, and I’m not very big on planning.

Small towns can be risky places. There have been many times over the past summer I have been driving around Nebraska and Wisconsin and have come across children and teenagers roaming the street, having that board look in their eyes. Heck, I even find myself doing that. I’ve debated this with some of my friends here; while you can find events and culture wherever you live, there are certain limitations to smaller towns. If you grow up in one and have a circle of friends who you click with, you can have a very happy, productive life. But if you burn through your bridges, you can become isolated and bitter, and gossip can eat you alive.

But I’ve felt at home in small towns to. When I visited Omro, Wisconsin five times this past summer, it felt very peaceful and free. Driving through the parts of Michigan that are off the beaten path, I find myself wondering what it would be like to live there. Of course, I visit all these northern states in the summer and understand that nearly four months of bitter cold can be wearing on a person. (By the by, the reasons barns in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have slating roofs is for all that snow to fall off.)

Over a year ago, I spent a month roaming around San Francisco. I visit Chicago, Milwaukee, and the Twin Cities regularly. I don’t know that I’d care for a huge metropolis, but a mid-sized city with enough parks and walking trails would be great. California is a great place to get lost, but I won’t want to live there long term if I wasn’t making huge money. Omaha seems like it would be a good place, as would Des Moines. But if I got the right job offer, I’d jump at the big city.

For me, it comes down to quality of life. Where can I find the right place to accomplish the goal of being the best and most effective writer I can be? Any place that has a working internet connection will do; beyond that, I’ll forge any path.

Bright Lights

Harvest Lessons: Set Goals High

Celebrate Rarely, Grind Regularly -Colin Cowherd

Two weeks ago, the second harvest of silage samples was approaching, and I was facing a dilemma. The first harvest took me three days, plus two and a half extra travel days. Coming off my work days at the gallery, I’d barely had any time to prepare another show I’d agreed to do at the Civic Center in Seward. The thought of losing three more days that week and not getting back until Wednesday weighed on my mind. I planned to leave and stay at Tom’s Sunday night, but as I was doing and redoing routes on Google Maps, I realized that, the total drive time from Omro to Slater was seven hours and the total harvest time I need for the three plots was seven hours. I would be an extremely long day, but I could pull it off if I just went to Omro and started at six. The cost of a hotel room would be less than the gas I’d spend on a second trip.

I did just that, and it was one of toughest days of my working life. I got back to Slater after 10, and on the drive back to my parents’ apartment, I felt that I was at my physical limit. Although the extra time was irreplaceable, I had serious doubts about doing the same thing for the third harvest. When my father called and told me I’d have to do the third harvest on Thursday of the next week, I had my reservations about doing all three fields on the same day. Sure, it would be priceless if I finished early and could spend Labor Day Weekend relaxing at our lake house, but if I had a major problem, I could really get myself in trouble.

Last Thursday, I rolled into our analyst’s shop at 8 P.M. sharp, with all thirty-six samples from all three locations. I was really proud of myself, more so than I ever have been. I can’t really explain how I finished two hours earlier, except to say that I nailed the routine. With only a couple of tweaks, I did pretty much everything the same as I had the first time. But I did gain time in a couple of areas, some planned, some not.

-I left my motel earlier, while it was just starting to get light.

-I didn’t stop for coffee before starting. I acquired cold water and ice the night before and made Starbucks Via with it. (Side note: the Verona is good, but not as good over ice as it should be.)

-Last time, fog prevented me from getting to the Omro plot in a timely manner. (This time, I started harvesting Omro a whole half-hour earlier.

-Last time at Spring Green, I dropped my plot key that had sample ID’s written on it. This forced a ten minute search, then another seven or eight minutes for me to return to the truck to acquire a back-up. This time I found the dropped plot key and picked it back up.

-At Fennimore, I had previously parked further up the hill because I couldn’t find a way to back down and still get out. This time, I found a way to get further down. This saved at least fifteen minutes, maybe more due to less exhaustion from carrying samples up hill.

-The killer last time was going out of my way in Dubuque to download a podcast at Culvers, which took about forty-five extra minutes. This time, I was content with what I had on my iPod.

Through this experience, I learned a truism that St. John’s consultant for our building project shared with us. It’s fine to take survey and guess your limits, but don’t be afraid to set goals over those limits. Finishing that project a whole two hours early showed me the benefit of putting work first and not worrying about the small stuff. Now I’m writing this at our lake house, and I’m actually kind of proud of myself.

Triumph of the Harvest

College Football Week 1: Rise of the Tech-ola Crap, the Fall of Big Schools #2’s

Around the country, top teams struggled with lesser competition. I’m not even going to count Ohio beating Penn State and Nevada downing Cal in new Memorial Stadium-Florida, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and Georgia all struggled on some level to put away lesser, unheralded mid-majors at home. Pitt lost to FCS Youngstown State-by two scores at home, and Maryland barely got by William and Mary. Of course, Duke went out and crushed upstart Florida International, so who knows.

As I reflect on this phenomenon, I’d cite two reasons, beyond the Appalachian State effect. First there’s the super-conference effect: teams in every conference, not just the SEC are playing tougher conference schedules and can only count on so many carries from their stars in early season games (Rex Burkhead not coming back for Nebraska against Southern Miss, for example.) Depth has been depleted not just by scholarship reductions, but transfers. Two, all the mid-majors know they are going to have chances to move up, and need to showcase themselves in these games.

Florida, if you wanted an easier week one opponent, you should have scheduled a Big 10 team. But let’s not scorn Michigan-they took on the challenge of Alabama and there isn’t as much shame in being humbled by the nation’s best program and coach happens. The serious causaulty is that Dennard Robinson got hurt again. And speaking of the ‘Nard Dawg, shouldn’t Nebraska’s Taylor Martinez be even more commended for sliding and getting help with his passing game in light of Robinon’s constant injuries?

Big 10 teams exhausting lead backs in Week 1. Le’Veon Bell, Damon Bullock, and Montee Ball all needed to tote the rock more than thirty times to lead their teams to victory. Meanwhile, Nebraska lost their workhorse back Burkhead and thrived on offense. With all these teams exhausting their running backs with big games still to come, it could be long years in East Lansing, Madison, and Iowa City. Iowa has the most to be concerned about, with their losses at tailback in the off-season. But Michigan State and Wisconsin have new quarterbacks who should help shoulder the load as the season goes on.

The biggest assistant coaching gain and loss may have been on display in the Georgia Dome Saturday night, as Clemson’s defense, now under the leadership of Brent Venables, stopped Auburn’s offense, now minus Gus Malzahn. Nothing made me happier last year than watching Clemson revive their tradition behind a funky offense with Tahj Boyd and Sammy Watkins; with Venables, they could shoot into the stratosphere.

It’s only one loss, but the slow trot toward exile begins at PSU. The Nittany Lions are going to get every teams best shot, as teams know they are down. And judging by Bill O’Brien’s press conference, he doesn’t have the personality of an elite recruiter. Ouch. With games at Virginia, and home against Temple and Navy, Penn State is going to struggle to get a win in September.

Final point: great to see Erin Andrews hosting on Fox, but seriously, could ABC or Fox have a competitive game to switch to at least?

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.

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.

House on the Way out of Town

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

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.

Filibuster: Bo Ryan Reacts to Jarrod Uthoff’s Request for a Divorce

When I got out of the shower this morning, I heard some old geezer whining on ESPN Radio with Mike and Mike, and when I heard Mike Greenberg ask him to stay on through a break, I  assumed it was Bo Ryan, the Wisconsin basketball coach who was not allowing Jarrod Uthoff, a true freshman who redshirted this past season, to transfer. What I couldn’t understand is why Ryan would call up in the middle of a radio show he was being criticized on and offer up additional fodder. (Mike and Mike Interview.)

While Ryan clearly made his situation much worse, I was reminded of Darnell Autry wanting to leave Northwestern prior to the Wildcats’ miracle run to the Rose Bowl in 1995, a story that I read in Gary Barnett’s book High Hopes over ten years ago. Autry was even visiting Arizona State when Barnett called then-Sun Devils coach Bruce Synder and told him that Autry wouldn’t be given a release. The memory of that story struck me, so I serached for it and found a LA Times article (Link) from before the ’96 Rose Bowl about Autry’s literally playing Hamlet in the 1995 off-season. The difference between that situation and the Ryan/Uthoff was that, one, Autry’s debate stayed private, and two, we are listening to Ryan discuss the situation mid-divorce.

To be fair, Ryan should be angry at this point. Uthoff told him he was leaving while Ryan on vacation, and, with all that Wisconsin has invested in Uthoff’s development, Ryan has a right to expect a conversation with him. In many ways, Bo Ryan is like a spouse who has been asked for a divorce out of the blue; maybe didn’t even realize that Uthoff didn’t like it at Wisconsin. So he feels betrayed, but going on a popular national radio isn’t exactly keeping it “in house”.

The Divorcing Parties

But Ryan convinced Uthoff to come to Wisconsin. In his book A March to Madness, John Feinstein chronicled how Mike Krzyzewski did it: he flew back with each recruit after their on-campus visit to make sure they were the kind of player who fit in at Duke, a private, exclusive school which every urban high school basketball player might not be comfortable at. As much as Bo Ryan has to go out to seal Wisconsin, it’s no good if it is to someone who doesn’t want it. Granted, Uthoff may not have realized he didn’t want until he got to Wisconsin, but still, Ryan has to read every recruit and ask himself, will this guy gel on campus?

As for the transfer process itself, it needs to have some restrictions on it. Right now, Garrett Gilbert is taking a whooping 27 credit hours (nine more than I ever took a semester) to graduate from Texas and play this fall at SMU. College basketball is frustrating enough with its one-and-done, and now transfers? In my opinion, Doc Sadler was fired at Nebraska because players transferring (and other reasons here stated), and it’s always easier to keep an old customer than to recruit a new one. Ryan said that other NCAA coaches were supporting him in his efforts to restrict Uthoff’s transfer, and of course they would. Likely most have been in a similar situation, knowing that if the loose a good player already in the program, it could be big trouble

But where Ryan becomes petty is when he blocks Uthoff from transferring to Iowa State, a school that’s isn’t going to be playing Wisconsin in the next couple of years (and where a former Wisconsin Deputy Athletic Director, Jamie Pollard, serves as AD). When Ryan says, you can’t go to Iowa State, he’s basically saying, I’m so upset at you, I’m not even going to let you play in your home state. I’m making this personal.

This is the classic divide between older people and younger people. Hey, I’m the first to admit, young people can be cocky and brash to their elders, and I have been. But young people also have more options in this society then their elders did fifty years ago, and young people know their worth these days. They won’t put up with cranky old guys who are always whining about how much better stuff was forty years ago. The old guys may not like it, but look at Mark Zuckerburg-the guy had a great idea and drive, and he absolutely earned every penny of it. If they had the options we do now, who’s to say they wouldn’t have used all of them? (Being a young man in an old man’s church)

Then there’s the desperation of the rural northern program. While Madison is a great city, there aren’t a plethora of great basketball players who want to play there in the winter. Tom Izzo was willing to consider the Cleveland Cavaliers job because he was frustrated that, after six Final Fours and a National Title, he still had a hard time convincing top recruits to come to the alma mater of Magic Johnson in central Michigan. Consider how it must be for Ryan.

But what I come back to is the point in the Mike and Mike interview where Ryan ended up playing his own defense attorney, trying to muddle the issue after he couldn’t defend himself with the facts. After Mike Golic asked him when the list of schools Uthoff could transfer to was so restrictive, Ryan went on about how it is when a team practices together every day and how Greenberg couldn’t understand because he didn’t play the game. Just what happens in a messy divorce.

A Nebraska Fan on the Arkansas Situation

I have to confess something; as college football fan, and specifically, a Nebraska fan, I feel bad for Arkansas. Maybe it’s because both of us have been the mutual object of the scorn of Texas, and both Arkansas and Nebraska are small states without major cities. And because of their small population, both programs had to make hard choices to leave their historic conferences and move on to super-leagues.
In an odd twist of fate, it was the man who replaced and was succeeded by Steve Pedersen (Nebraska’s prodigal son) at Pittsburgh , the athletic director who had to make the tough call on Bobby Petrino. In a small state like Arkansas, a major football program isn’t just the state’s identity; it’s one of the few major business. Los Angeles has the Lakers, film industry, and countless others to go along with it. In Arkansas, it’s football and that’s it.


Petrino’s firing just represents the futility that surrounds the rural program who hasn’t lived up to the expectation of the past. After twenty years, Arkansas’ football program had finally surpassed Texas and become elite again. On top of which, the Razorbacks no longer had to listen to the Longhorn’s mocking that they had deserted their SWAC rivals; with Texas A&M and Missouri joining the SEC, the Hogs could now boast to Austin that they were ahead of the expansion curb, in the place where it matters most: the homes of Texas high school players.

But to get there, they had to take a chance on a questionable coach. Jeff Long hired Bobby Petrino because, after the school had a decade of Houston Nutt, an average coach who wasn’t bad enough to get himself fired quickly. Ultimately, Bobby Petrino may just be a more successful version of Mark Mangino; a successful coach whose issues got hi relegated to a rural job, although Petrino’s was much better than Mangino’s.

So now Arkansas is open again; at least now it’s a better job than it was when Petrino took over. Oddly enough, Nebraska’s Pelini is rumored to be on Long’s list. Not surprising the two states have the same taste in coaches.

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