Maria and I looked out the window of the small plane. It was our second plane ride of the day. You can’t get to Cedar Rapids from Long Island, New York by direct flight. From above the land looked like a quilt of various shades of green, yellow and brown. We were nervous watching mile after mile of corn and soybeans roll by. It was late October.
We didn’t know what to expect as we landed in Iowa. We booked a farmhouse bed and breakfast located on a real working farm in Lamont. Right in the middle of what most people would call nowhere.
But… we made a pact. If we didn’t want to stay, we would take that famous line from the Brady Bunch, “Sorry we have to leave, something suddenly came up,” and hightail it back to the Big Apple. If it was too remote, to removed from what we were use to, we would drive to the nearest big city and find the quickest way home. We gave each other that look husbands and wives give each other when they know what each other is thinking. Was this going to be too much for us?
Why were we flying into Cedar Rapids, and then driving another hour to Lamont? I’m a television producer of children’s animation. You can look me up. I won’t bore you with the details. I’m also an artist and I’ve work for most major magazines and written and illustrated many children’s books. You can look that up too. We were here to research a new idea for a book.
My wife grew up on the East End of Long Island where we now live. She lived and worked with her father and mother on their farm in Manorville. She wanted to turn her idea of, Cricket, a slick city kid who is force one summer to live on her grandfather’s farm, into a book. She dug on the internet and suggested we fly to Iowa to experience the trip as Cricket would have in our book. The East End or as most people know it, The Hamptons, lost its small town feeling a long time ago. Now it’s filled with mansions and millionaires.
We climbed into the rental car and headed to Lamont. Iowa stretched before us. Mile after mile of corn. Mile after mile… of more corn. We had never seen so much corn. Corn and more corn. It was mind numbing for someone who grew up in the New York metropolitan area. Finally, the voice of the GPS ordered me to turn left. I stopped and stared at the gravel road it was telling me to drive three miles on to our destination. I’m glad we rented a large SUV instead of a tinny small midsize car. Those dusty, bumpy gravel roads are not for the weak of heart. I was glad we booked this trip before winter settled in and snow covered the area.
“We can turn back,” I said turning to see the look on my wife’s face.
“It’s only noon… let’s see the house,” my wife said. She was trying to be upbeat but I could tell behind the smile was the fear of the unknown.
The sun was bright, the air was clean with a chill and the breeze blew through the endless corn. Our car kicked up a mile long plume of dirt and dust.
We passed a small church with a small graveyard next to it. It reminded us of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. There were a dozen menacing crows sitting atop the paint peeled steeple.
“You’re destination is ahead on the left,” barked the GPS.
Linda, the owner, hugged us with her warm smile. In less than ten minutes of casual conversation my wife and I felt as if we had found a long lost relative. Ten minutes of talk felt like a lifetime. Only a few times in a lifetime do you meet strangers that you know you’ll be friends for life.
The old, charming farmhouse was filled with antiques and sunshine and memories of farm life. The light was perfect for painting and sketching. Linda asked if we wanted to get up on one of the tractors.
Within the hour we were riding a combine. I felt like a ten-year old sitting in the cabin of the giant beast that was harvesting the corn. Gary, Linda’s husband, welcomed me aboard. I chatted about life in Iowa and farming. I didn’t have a clue to what I was talking about, but Gary sure did, and he gave me a brief talk on corn and the harvest.
We headed to the local grocery store in Oelwein where the locals spotted us as outsiders immediately. One of the clerks was happy to meet us. “I’ve never met anyone from New York before,” she smiled.
We grabbed a few items (best meat we’ve had in a long time) and headed back to the farmhouse to settle in.
The sunset burned across the blue sky with colors across the spectrum. I’ve seen plenty of sunsets in the Hamptons over the years but nothing like this one.
In the morning we headed into Strawberry Point for a tasty breakfast where we met up with our host. Linda introduced us Rick and Brenda, brother and sister, owner and operator, of Back Home Country Cookin’.
Within two meals Rick had our favorites remembered and Brenda had baked another couple dozen pies. She proudly counts the pies sold. If I remember correctly it was at about 19,000 plus on our first visit. Back Home is filled with Brenda’s rooster collection consisting of ceramics, tin toys, cookie jars and statues. It’s quite a collection.
Breakfast in New York, eggs, toast, juice and hash browns cost us forty-eight dollars last time we were in the city. Breakfast at Back Home was less that fifteen. Needless to say we always eat here when we’re in town.
Back Home Country Cookin’ burned to the ground a few month after our first visit. It was heartbreaking. I gave them a drawing I had done of the place for an auction to raise some money to rebuild. It’s hanging in the new place today donated by the buyer.
We’ve been back to Lamont and Strawberry point three times and we’ve met a number of people from town and the surrounding areas.
We met a farmer who grew enormous pumpkins. He helped us get the four hundred pound beast into our rental car, (I’m glad it was a rental). It was a gift for the owner of the house we were staying at.
“We do things in a big New York way,” Maria told her when we drove over with the pumpkin. The only promise we got from them was that we would get to keep some of the seeds so that we could grow a few on my mother-in-law’s farm in Manorville, NY. Thank goodness they had a forklift to get the pumpkin out of the SUV. I had visions of it crashing to the driveway with just one slip or nudge the wrong way. Splat.
Our trips to the area let us explore the region. We made it over to Dubuque where we found the best cup of Ice Coffee at Monk’s 373 Bluff St, Dubuque. Every time we drive by we stop for a cup.
We walked out of the cornfields in Dyersville where Field of Dreams was filmed. Worth a visit if you are a baseball fan. Nearby is the National Farm Toy Museum. We thought we had seen it all but there was a second floor. Amazing. Who knew there was a museum for farm toys?
We stopped and shopped in Lamont at Bossen Implement for toy tractors that were the exact replicas of the ones used by my wife’s father on his farm.
One sunny day we drove up to Decorah and stumbled upon Vesterheim, the National Norwegian-American Museum and Heritage Center.
We discovered Dotzey’s in Elgin, a restaurant you could pick up and drop onto a trendy street in Los Angeles. The varnished penny floor is spectacular and so was the Butter Honey Corn Bread, at least that’s what I think it was called.
And of course no trip to Iowa would be complete without stopping by the John Deere Museum.
One trip to Iowa had us perfectly timed to drop in on a Trump rally weeks before the election in Clive, a three-hour drive from where we were staying. It was worth the ride. The best part of the day was talking to the crowd and discussing politics. Iowans take their vote seriously.
We stopped by to see the hogs. What cute little piggies. Their soft eyes looking up at us posing for a photograph almost made us regret eating the bacon at breakfast. Almost…
During the evening all through our trips I sketched and painted what I had seen during the day. I love to sketch on the spot. It makes me think on my feet and let’s me capture the moment as it happens. Photos are simply not good enough for me. I have to have been there. I travel with, paper, a box of watercolors and some basic brushes. After a few days I can usually fill up a sketchbook.
We privately joked, that for us, going to Iowa was like go to the moon. Anywhere we drove from our home away from home was forty miles. We did a lot of driving, as we suspect all the locals are use to. Our rental car was covered in the dirt and dust making our black SUV almost gray.
But what intrigued me most were those long, endless roads stretching all the way to what looked like the end of the world. The miles of cut fields of corn and soybeans. The full sky changing hour to hour, and those glorious sunrises when we ventured out to the back yard to grab a few apples off the tree are all memories that are burned into our minds.
Open roads and open sky spoke to me and encouraged me to paint what you see on these pages. The friends we made there will be with us for life. I guess it’s just something in the air.
We’ll be back for some pie at Back Home Country Cookin’. At last count we checked Brneda is well over 20,000 pies sold.
We described Iowa as a trip to the moon but after experiencing the beauty there and the warmth and welcoming of the Iowan people, we are happy we landed there.
The finest treasure we unburied in Iowa was our friendship with Linda and Gary. The one thing you cannot purchase is wonderful people. In this pair we found special people, who we think of as family. This is our favorite find in Iowa and for this we are grateful we stepped into that rocket and blasted off.