By Ed Chasteen
No Interstates come anywhere near these places. An eclectic assortment of vehicles travels these roads: bicycles, motorcycles, horse-drawn Amish buggies, farm machinery of all shapes and sizes, 18-wheelers bringing goods and groceries; taking tons of corn to market, pickup trucks with work to do down these gravel side roads.
At the intersection of J-40 and V-64 in Van Buren County, two buildings sit on opposite sides of the road kitty-corner from each other. Neither draws attention. No sign stands in front or above either. The bigger building is the Amish school where some 30 children learn basic reading, writing and arithmetic. The smaller building has a small sign lettered in black on the glass door: Lebanon Store Junction Café 1-319-397-2447.
Two hours up I-35 from Liberty and two hours east on Iowa 2 has brought son, Brain, and me to Bonaparte Inn B&B, our home for four nights while we Bike The Villages of Van Buren. For 27 years now from Keosaquah, the county seat of Van Buren County, a ride by this name has occurred. I have come many times. But Brian and I cannot come together then, so now we come in early June for our own variation on a theme. Using their maps, we expand the ride and double the miles. Bonaparte, Bentonsport, Keosaquah, Pittsburg, Lebanon, Cantril, Leando-Douds, Birmingham, Selma, Milton, Vernon, Stockport, Farmington, Mount Sterling: collectively, the Villages of Van Buren. Not very big. Not far apart. Some along the banks of the Des Moines River. Steep climbs and rolling hills to reach the others.
Our second day we come to Junction Café. No cars or people about. Brian and I take booth #3. Deb, owner, waitress and cook, takes our order. Grilled cheese sandwich and ice tea for me. Oatmeal and ice tea for Brian. One other patron comes in the hour we spend.
Cantril is our destination today, to visit Dutchman our goal. The heart of the Amish community, this little village and this giant store draw folks from afar. The Jalipino Eggs in a jar and the Vanilla Peaches pique my interest. Bundles of work gloves, bins of seeds to plant, hanging baskets of flowers to buy! Dutchman has it all. And the people have come to get it. Brian stands in line to buy three bananas and a pair of socks.
Our third day we miss a turn coming out of Keosaquah and climb a monster hill to Pittsburg, its boarded up General Store off to our right and a view of the river back behind at a distance through the trees. We find ourselves at mid-morning back at Junction Café, seated again at #3. When Deb comes, I order “the usual. “And you want oatmeal?” She asks Brian. Deb has worked here 10 years. Owned the place for four. Open seven days a week for breakfast and lunch. “Tough now, she says, “sometimes I have more bills than customers.”
Croton does not appear on the Villages of Van Buren map we carry. But when Brian and I come across an inviting road coming out of Farmington and running along the river, we want to know where it goes. Five miles later we come to a modest monument announcing “Croton, site of the fartherest north battle of the Civil War, August 5, 1861” Two hundred yards later brings us to the boarded up General Store. Just beyond, the road turns to gravel and we turn around.
On this road a couple miles out of Farmington on our way to Croton, we had seen two concrete walls parallel to one another, each about a foot thick, eight feet apart, six feet high and 12 feet long. Lettered on the end of the wall facing the road: HORSE WASH. As we ride back to Farmington, two beautiful horses stand between these walls, one tied to either side. A middle age man and woman are spraying both horses with jets of water and wiping them down with something from a bottle.
Up the road a little piece, we stop our bikes to gaze at a pasture full of horses, big and tiny. Mares and foals! Two dozen mares and as many tiny horses shadowing them on spindly legs. A little later over all-you-can-eat catfish at the Bridge Café in Farmington, Brian is talking to Maura back in Kansas City on his cell phone and mentions the mares and foals. Maura’s brother is a large animal vet in Philadelphia. He has told her, she says, that horses have their young in May. And we’re here to see them on June 5, a sight that those who come to the official Villages of Van Buren Bike Ride can never see.
Too early yet to plan next year’s ride. But odds are we’ll do the usual.