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Column: A visit to Iowa's scenic river towns

In the past two weeks I've enjoyed the distinct pleasure of driving across Iowa twice. Iowa's reputation is much maligned by rumors about the state being an endless sea of corn, yet I find it scenic and tranquil. Driving south on US-52 through Iowa you pass through picturesque towns such as Guttenberg, perched above the Mississippi River. The Iowan painter John Vander Stelt called Guttenberg "a page ripped out of a Mark Twain novel where the Main Street storefronts face the mighty Mississippi."

I stopped at one of the scenic outlooks in Guttenberg, about an hour north of Dubuque. I gazed out over the expanse of the river below me, the limestone bluffs rising almost straight from the water. A bald eagle dove to the river's ever moving surface. He skimmed the water, perhaps angling for a fish for lunch, and then rose effortlessly back into the humid air.

The traffic buzzed along behind me on US-52 as a pleasure cruise boat leisurely floated down the river. The boat slowly wound its way past a long center island, topped with towering deciduous trees and tall clapboard houses. I could pick out the stars and stripes on a flag flapping from the porch of one of the houses, miniature in the distance.

Forbes magazine called Guttenberg one of America's prettiest towns. The striking view combined with the Americana of the limestone buildings and clapboard houses make it a perfect place to stretch your legs during a long drive. Right along the highway is Greaser's Drive-In, a classic car hangout with 30 flavors of ice cream. The owners, Rob and Sherri Moser, have been serving double-dip cones and cheeseburgers to hungry tourists for over twenty years. I can't wait to return for a banana split.

Just a bit south of Guttenberg is the city of Dubuque, home to the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium. At the aquarium you can get up close and personal with some Mississippi river residents, like catfish, sturgeon, and alligator gar. If you're not too squeamish you can even pet a crawfish in the touch tank.

The museum building faces the river's great expanse, graciously situated beneath the steel tiered arch bridge that connects Dubuque with Wisconsin. The museum is partially housed in a restored train depot, a red brick structure topped with an elaborate white dome. It's easy to imagine steam locomotives parked on the tracks, their cars being loaded with people and goods. The Port of Dubuque was quiet as I drove past on a holiday weekend, but the strong curves of the tracks and the bridge readily recalled the industrial bustle of the past.

Iowa is much more than cornfields and cows, although there are plenty of bucolic farms dotting its landscape. Instead it is a state of contrasts, from prairie to riverbed, bluffs to woodlands. The peaceful nature and graceful architecture in the Mississippi river towns of Iowa seem to be a well-kept secret. As I pulled away from Dubuque, climbing the rise of US-52 above the great river, I thought I caught a glimpse of a white steamship on the water below.

In a collection of essays published after his death, Mark Twain wrote that piloting a steamboat on the Mississippi was "delightful play, vigorous play, adventurous play." With the sunshine of an early summer afternoon dancing on the river's surface, his words ring with veracity, that to spend a life alongside the river would seem like delightful and adventurous play. I wouldn't mind spending a few more days of my life alongside the Mississippi in one of the quaint river towns of Iowa. Although the days of Twain's steamboats have long since passed, the delightful beauty of the river and its people is still very much alive.