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Wapello/Muscatine, IA 

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Wapello, Iowa, and Levee District Eight are about 40 miles south of the Quad Cities, home of Buffalo Bill Cody's birthplace and other notable attractions. But the Big River is the big draw in this part of the world.

The states along the Mississippi have designated various highways as part of the Great River Road, and following them will give you your best views of the river. Take I-80 west from Chicago. It becomes I-280 in the Quad Cities area. Get off the Interstate at Exit 11, and take Illinois 92 south. This is the Great River Road. You'll pass the Upper Mississippi Wildlife and Fish Refuge, where you can see some floodplain forest. You'll pass Lock and Dam Number 16, part of the Corps of Engineers' river-control system. And you'll cross a bridge into Muscatine, Iowa.

Mark Twain once lived in Muscatine. He said it had the most beautiful sunsets he had ever seen. The chamber of commerce has been known to use that line in its promotional literature. It does not use the second part of the quote: "But why anybody would go all the way to Muscatine just to see a sunset, I'll never know."

Muscatine is a lovely little town. There is money here. In addition to branches of major companies, it is home to the head offices of some international corporations. The money is visible on the bluffs that rise above the floodplain. Very large, very gorgeous old houses fill several blocks. They date from around the turn of the century, and they give the impression of being places that never had to be rehabbed because they were never run down. You can get a tour guide to the town's notable architecture at the public library (304 Iowa Ave., 319-263-3065) or the chamber of commerce (319 E. Second St., 319-263-8895).

The downtown, which is just slightly uphill from the riverbank, is surprisingly lively. Antiques have become a major business in Muscatine, with at least seven dealers scattered around Second Street in the main business district. Park your car and walk around and browse.

Muscatine was once the manufacturing center for mother-of-pearl buttons. The raw material for these was clam and mussel shells from the river. The Pearl Button Museum at the corner of Second and Iowa shows how it was done; call the chamber of commerce to schedule a tour of it.

An impressive post-Civil War courthouse, complete with cupola and memorial to the Union dead, overlooks downtown (it's on the corner of Third and Mulberry).

Muscatine is famous for its fruits and vegetables, and the locals are especially proud of their melons (one of the local antique dealers is called Melon City Antiques). Take U.S. 61 south from town to find roadside stands that sell the local produce. These generally open the first week in July, when the first sweet corn is ready.

At the south edge of town U.S. 61 crosses the U.S. 61 bypass. Turn east here and go to Stewart Road, then turn south on Stewart. You'll pass more vegetable stands. When you cross from Muscatine to Louisa County, the road becomes county road X61. The surface is gravel, but it is well kept, although in dry weather it can be dusty.

X61 follows the edge of the bluffs south--it is the Great River Road in this part of Iowa--and provides access to the Louisa and Big Timber divisions of the Mark Twain National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge's office is also on this road if you want to stop for maps or other information.

The refuge land is genuine floodplain forest. There are boat landings at several points, and a county park called Flaming Prairie that has camping and picnic grounds.

This spring the roads into the refuge areas--like the road into Mud Bottoms--were closed. They were washed out by the floods and had not yet been repaired. You can walk in if you want, or you can check with the refuge headquarters (open 7:30 to 4 Monday through Friday; 319-523- 6982; 10728 County Road X61, Wapello, IA 52653) to learn the current status of the roads.

X61 ends at Iowa 99, which you can follow south--it skirts the east edge of Mud Bottoms--to the Iowa River. Beyond the river is the little town of Oakville. Take another country road--X71--north out of Oakville to a small park at the mouth of the Iowa where you can see--or at least you could in April--some of the aftermath of the flood. The park is in a grove of trees that were ankle deep in sand when I visited.

Muscatine has the usual assortment of motels (Holiday Inn, 319-264-5550, $54 for a single; Super 8, 319-263-9100, $41), but why not stay downtown in the Hotel Muscatine (319- 263-8231)? It's right on the river, and the view from the upper floors is mildly spectacular. You can get a single for as little as $45, or you could splurge and reserve the bridal suite. It is not really a suite, but it is a very large room, six floors up, with a king-size four-poster bed, two-person hot tub, wet bar, fridge, and big-screen TV. Only $100 per night.

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