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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

The views open up on the highway outside of Balltown—all-the-way-to-the-horizon panoramas of braided silver Mississippi River channels and rank on rank of grassy, pillowy hills, their outlines magically softened by the humidity and studded with white houses and red barns that could be pieces in a vintage board game called something like Going to Dubuque. In Montana or Colorado, one expects such bracing scenic expanses, but to happen upon one on a ramble through Iowa makes a person feel like Balboa topping a rise and seeing the Pacific for the first time. As an excuse to linger in the area, Lola and I pull over for lunch at Breitbach's, which boasts of being the state's oldest restaurant and the only one to have served "both Jesse James and Brooke Shields." (How far America has come. Oh, Pioneers!) Behind the bar is a haunting, naïve mural of the misty river, supposedly painted by a "gypsy" who traded the artwork for room and board during the Great Depression. (But did he steal the ketchup to make soup?) Attached to the walls and dangling from the ceiling are scores of old iron farm tools, wooden chairs, oil lanterns, and other odds and ends, most of which are for sale, our waitress tells us. We eat our french fries, drink our malts, and shop—all without leaving our table. I spot a corn-bread pan.

"It's becoming an illness," Lola says. "No more."

And in no time we're back in Walnut, across the state, because no time is all it takes to cover Iowa once you say good-bye to the back roads, where a curious driver, weary of modernity, could lose himself for months, tracing ever smaller and smaller grids using grain elevators and water towers as beacons and the acquisition of the perfect corn-bread pan as his motivation. But Lola wanted that chipped cream-painted table, the one that she claims would fetch a tiny fortune in a Shabby Chic store in New York City, and so we turned west again and hit I-80, which is as straight as the part in a small-town banker's hair, except that the hair is made of cornstalks.

Back inside the Granary Antique Mall, we're prepared to dicker for the table, and accept no less than the easy 10 percent discount that most any dealer will give anyone who asks as a sop to the customer's hard-bargaining self-image. We've learned a lot on our lazy, wayward shopping spree, where most of the stores smell overpoweringly of rose petal–and-cinnamon potpourri and have plump orange cats curled up on their glass showcases, and where the genuine items from the past are mixed in with plenty of what Lola calls "untiques"—cleverly dinged-up and distressed new pieces that probably come by the shipload from Indonesia, where underpaid workers sand and dent items to give them the look and feel of treasures from Grandma's attic. The main thing we've learned is to buy on impulse the moment a piece strikes our fancy, lest the thing lodge itself deep inside our psyches and grow into a symbol of paradise lost.

"It was standing right there," Lola says, pointing a finger. "Next to the green grain bin and the pink planter."

"Well, it doesn't seem to be there now."

It takes us a while to acknowledge the obvious: the charming table, all tippy and uneven, its legs carved into spool shapes, its drawer stuck shut, isn't here anymore.

But Iowa still is.

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