By Ed Chasteen
Stockport has two Pepsi machines. They are a block apart in a line of sight on the road we ride in on. No other sustenance is available for purchase by hot and hungry riders. We’ve drunk our bottles dry riding from Bentonsport. We’re looking for water. Only the post office is open when we pedal into town about four o’clock.
The lady clerk says no water is available anywhere in town. We thank her and leave. While we had been talking to the clerk, a woman had come in to check her mailbox. Now on the sidewalk, she addresses us. “You won’t find water in Stockport unless some good person offers you some. If you’ll follow me home, I’ll give you water.” We follow. Soon we have full water bottles. With ice!
And we have two new friends: Lela and Charles Heisel. Lela used to be a waitress at a Stockport café back when Stockport had a café. Charles had a meat locker. Now gone. Two of their six children live nearby. They buy groceries in Fairfield, about nine miles away.
Brian and I have ridden since breakfast past Amish (and English as Amish know them) farms and fields of stunted corn. Weeks of unrelenting rain and rivers run wild have savaged Iowa corn and farmers. We have sweated through our water bottles several times and stoked a fierce hunger when we spot the little country café. The 15 at the table are the only ones in the place. We take a nearby booth and strike up a conversation. They soon know who we are, where we’re from and what we’re about. And we know the same of them.
From an island off the coast of Kenya, she sits now as one of 15 at a long table in a little café at the intersection of two rural roads in the poorest county in Iowa. Two sons and a daughter of the matriarch of the family have gathered for reunion from around the world, bringing spouses and children. The island native is the wife of one son. The two of them now live in Romania, where he is a high-tech employee. The matriarch and her now deceased husband years ago farmed here. What started in that distant time is reflected here today at this table.
This morning we stopped at Misty’s Malt Shop in Keosauqua, Van Buren County’s biggest town (called village by locals) a place of roughly a thousand folks. We fell into conversation with a couple who just bought a log cabin and some acreage near here as a place to get away. A man sitting at our table says his family came here in 1838 and bought a farm. A county park down a gravel road a few miles from town is named for his family.
Nearing four o’clock Brian is riding ahead of me when his front tire goes flat and he goes down. The front wheel is bent. No more riding for him today. We’re still discussing how to proceed when a van pulls up. The driver opens the sliding side door, Brian puts his bicycle inside and off they go. Just as they depart, Brian and I agree to meet at Misty’s Malt Shop after I ride on to our B&B in Bentonsport, get the car and come back to get him. About two hours we figure this will take.
He tells Brian his name is Will. He emigrated from Holland more than 50 years ago. “For prosperity,” he says when Brian asks why he came. He now lives in Iowa’s poorest county. His van is filled with potted plants he bought cheap because they’re sick. He will nurse them back to health. Will apologizes to Brian because he must hold one of the plants displaced by Brian’s sick bike. I’m about three miles from our B&B when my bike-phone rings. It’s Brian. Will has driven out of his way to take him to our B&B.
AJ’s Bicycle Shop in Fairfield is open from 10-12 and 1-5. We’re the first ones in this morning for repairs. I don’t think the wheel can be trued, but Mark, AJ’s mechanic, lays his hands on it in the back room and performs a miracle. While we wait, we talk to AJ. When he hears that I’m a retired sociology professor, he says, “My sociology professors had more influence on my life than anyone. They showed me who I am and why.”
AJ’s draws an eclectic assortment of folks in the hour we’re here. One man about my age has brought his biking shoes for an adjustment. He’s from Iran, an oilman who spent most of his career in Texas. Here now for 18 years where his wife is from, he travels to oilfields in far places to give advice. Several little boys are here with their bikes for minor repairs. One breathless man bigger than the average biker says he’s a filmmaker and writer and here to redeem his green bike he found in a dumpster and spent $250.00 on to put in shape. It’s a racing bike he could sell for $800.00, but he wants to ride it to Florida just to prove it can be done and make a documentary of it to sell to public television. He offers to film Brian and me and writes his name on a slip of paper and says he will be in touch and hasn’t made a dime yet from screen writing but when he goes into syndication he’ll be set for life and when people learn he was an infantryman in the army they know he’s up to the job.
Another breathless man appears. “I need a new bike.” He says to AJ. “You know me. Tell me what I need. You know I helped you out with the shop here. Tell me what I need.” AJ says he’s busy. Has a small boy waiting for the bike he’s been working on as the man talked.
I was sad when Parson’s College closed in the 1970’s. I was teaching at a small college and hated to see one of us go under. A few years later the college was bought by the Transcendental Movement, TMers, as locals know them, and Maharishi University was born. Fairfield is the county seat of Jefferson County, and the town square is home to three Indian restaurants. There is an Eco Village on the edge of town that’s “off the grid,” as AJ explains it. They supply their own electricity, water and sewage. Many TMers live here. When I ask AJ how the community feels about their presence, he says, “You can’t talk about one community. More like three. One is ambivalent. One is welcoming. One is opposed.”
The 22nd annual Bike Van Buren will take place August 16-17 this year. For some six years running, Rich Groves and I drove the 223 miles from Liberty to take part. The county is home to a dozen little villages, some Amish (and English) farms and NO fast food places or chain stores. It’s like going back in time. On day one of Bike Van Buren, we make a loop of some 50 miles through some of the villages. On day two, we make a loop in the other direction through other villages. Each village has treats waiting. Home made ice cream, cookies, sandwiches, watermelon, cold water, snacks.
Brigadoon, a mythical village in the Scottish Highlands, comes to life for a day once every hundred years. On a visit from America, Tommy happens to be in the Scottish Highlands one morning when Brigadoon appears. He falls in love with a village girl and must decide before nightfall whether to go or stay. I fell in love with the Villages of Van Buren. I cannot stay. There are things I love in other places. The yearly Ethnic Festival in Kansas City is one, and it now takes place on the same weekend in August as Bike Van Buren. Two years ago, Brian and I came in July to ride by our selves the route Bike Van Buren would ride. He loved it as much as I. Now we are back.
Ritzanna Seaton and I met in the 1990s in one of the Van Buren villages when we arrived on our bikes at the same time. Ritzanna lives with her husband, Duane, on their farm near the tiny village of Selma. We became friends. Ritzanna and Russell, her son, came to Liberty in 1999 to ride with about 100 of us to Columbia to visit the grave of Dr. William Jewell, founder of William Jewell College, in celebration of the college’s 150th Anniversary.
Ritzanna rode with Brian and me on three of the five days we rode when we came two years ago. She planned to do so again. But when I call her on Wednesday from Misty’s Malt Shop to tell her we’re here, she says she’s not feeling well and has to go to the doctor. Ritzanna is a nurse. She has ridden RAGBRAI several times and is planning to ride this year. She does not willingly abandon a ride. She says to call her tomorrow.
Now on Saturday she has not been able to ride. She asks the route we plan to ride and tells me to call her from Birmingham, the village where Brian and I plan to have lunch. From there we will ride the 13.8 miles to Douds, where Ritzanna will drive to meet us. She’s still not up to biking but wants to see us.
As we mount our bikes to leave Birmingham, a man just arrived in his pickup spots us and announces in a loud voice, “It’s rainin’ like hell north of here.” I have no idea what direction we’re headed. But a few miles out, it begins to rain. Not much. And it cools down. As we labor up a hill, my bike phone rings. When I reach the top, I listen to my voice mail. It’s Ritzanna. She wants to know if we want her to come pick us up.
Then rain comes harder. A car tops the hill in front of us and pulls to a stop on the shoulder opposite us. A woman gets out and stands beside the car. Brian is the first to her. “Need a ride?” She asks. “No thanks,” Brian says. Then he brakes. “Ritzanna! I didn’t recognize you.”
While we get the bike rack out of her back seat, the rain comes harder. We mount it backwards. We start over. We get wet. Back at Misty’s Malt Shop the three of us sit for an hour, nursing malts and telling stories
The Bonaparte Inn, the Mason House, the Grand View—our three B&Bs. By themselves they would be reason enough for coming, the ambiance of each a touch of heaven, more like visiting old friends than doing business. How it might be improved I can’t imagine. When coming by bicycle to Misty’s Malt Shop, Bonaparte’s Retreat, the Bridge Café and the Dutchman, hunger and thirst have revved into overdrive, giving each place an irresistible attraction not felt by those arriving by more conventional means.
When we will come again to ride quietly into these little villages, we do not know. That we will want to come we do know. In our hearts and minds we really will never have left. Bodies, though, are more limited and time is precious. Other places and people draw us. If we never make it back, still we are blessed by having come.