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All-American Iowa

Catherine Ledner Enjoying a meal at Taylor's Maid-Rite, a Marshalltown establishment since 1928.

Photo: Catherine Ledner

Aside from the considerable wreckage left behind by last night's twister, it's a perfect morning in western Iowa. Old men in over-alls, wielding rakes and chain saws, look up from the debris piled on their lawns and wave to my girlfriend and me as we stroll past. A girl of 12 or so whose best friend's sister narrowly avoided death, she claims, when a tumbling maple crushed her bicycle, falls into step with us on a downtown sidewalk and, after asking if we're here to shop and inquiring whether we've eaten breakfast yet, recommends a place for freshly baked cinnamon rolls. Yes, the streets are littered with asphalt shingles and blocked here and there by toppled trees, but that doesn't mean that the little town of Walnut—whose profusion of modest stores crammed with Depression-era glassware, wrought-iron beds, and wooden farmhouse cupboards has earned it the nickname Iowa's Antique City—can't welcome its two newest visitors with a smile.

The girl was right: we're here to shop. Having purchased antiques through the years all over the country, I've learned that Iowa is just the place to look for the sort of pieces I'm most fond of: a little worn, a little beaten up, but designed simply and built to last. If we don't find anything to buy, though, that will be fine, because mostly we've come to Iowa to clear our crowded minds of modern clutter. If the purpose of travel is to refresh the soul, then nothing could be more appealing than a state whose landscapes, towns, and residents seem to embody a time before one's birth. For people who've seen the world, and then some, Iowa is what her aunt's farmhouse was to Dorothy after she'd been to Oz.

We walk from the Antique City Bed & Breakfast—in whose candlelit drawing room we sat out last night's twister reverse-cheating at Scrabble (playing badly on purpose so that our fellow houseguests could beat us)—to what would be called the other end of town if Walnut were large enough to have two ends. The inventories of the antiques shops spill out onto the sidewalks and consist of just the right ratio of trash (a service-station sign riddled with bullet holes) to treasure (a painted-wicker porch swing). The store we like best is the Granary Antique Mall, in a building that's a wonder of rustic craftsmanship, a cavernous ark-like barn of beams and trusses, where Lola, my girlfriend, spots a wooden side table finished in adorable chipped cream paint.

"It's cute, but I'm not sure it's great. Let's pass," she says. This is how antiquers always think on the first day of a journey through new territory. The sense of possibility is high, the space in the SUV is limited, and who knows what awaits one farther down the highway?Something nicer?Maybe, maybe not. The things we pass up in our quest for better things are, very often, the things we long for afterward.

Which is one reason not to pass up Iowa.

Just a few miles south of Walnut, in Atlantic, we stop at a café called Ezzy's—sadly, since closed—for the locally famous Sunday buffet. For less than $10 a head (considerably less) we defy the American Heart Association by pouring white gravy over almost every foodstuff, from scrambled eggs to fried chicken to pork sausage—all flavors the gravy is thought to complement although, in reality, it is indistinguishable from them. In the countrified style of our fellow diners—including a well-mannered multigenerational family with two white-haired grandparents at one end of the table, five blond grandkids at the other end, and a graying middle-aged mom and dad between them whose job is to cut up the kids' and old folks' meat—we sip black coffee after every bite. However, white gravy being the Valium of the plains, we don't feel jumpy when we leave. Indeed, we're almost too sleepy to drive.

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