In 1805, while Lewis and Clark were making history on the Missouri River, another explorer was heading up the Mississippi.
Sent by a general who was a double agent for Spain, 26-year-old Lt. Zebulon Pike was assigned to find sites for forts, determine the source of the Mississippi, make peace between warring tribes and stop unlicensed British trade on land just acquired by the Americans.
He did find a fort site on 500-foot bluffs in Iowa, but it was scrapped for a more practical site across the river in Prairie du Chien, Wis.
It's easy to speed right through the river town of Fountain City, on the way to someplace else, but that would be a mistake.
In Fountain City, all is not as it seems. A Hindu temple sits amid hay fields. One of the world's largest collections of toy pedal cars occupies five barns on a bluff. Dreamlike Santas ride fish in a riverfront studio, models for copies sold around the nation.
On this seemingly ordinary stretch of the Mississippi, people have been inspired by . . . something. Perhaps it's the dramatic bluffs that loom above town.
All kinds of paths cross in the Wisconsin village of Trempealeau.
Canoes and cormorants, tugboats and trains, bicyclists and blues fans all are drawn toward this Mississippi River town. Its just a little burg, but its smack in the middle of Mother Natures playground.
Perrot State Park starts at the end of Trempealeaus First Street, with hiking trails that give vistors spectacular views of far-off Winona, the river valley and a hill French explorers called La Montagne Qui Trempe a l'Eau, or "the mountain that soaks in the water.''
Long before the second-growth forests of Minnesota and Wisconsins north woods became fall destinations, sightseers were flocking to northeast Iowa.
Flat? Hardly. In this part of Iowa, only the river is flat. Towering bluffs line the Mississippi, providing unparalleled views of the sprawling river plain.
For more than 150 years, people have gone to great lengths to see these views. In 1851, when the town of Lansing consisted of a few log cabins, a 20-year-old steamboat passenger named Harriet Hosmer noticed a particularly steep bluff there.
We'd been in La Crosse for barely an hour, and everyone we'd met was a certified character.
In Riverside Park, Frank and Faith Rimmert and Jonathan and Barb Rimmert were decked out in top hats, waistcoats and crinolines to meet the Mississippi Queen paddlewheeler, portraying the 19th-century locals who would have assembled.
"If your relatives were coming for a visit, you'd come to greet them," said Faith Rimmert, a volunteer for the La Crosse County Historical Society. "People picked up things being shipped in, or maybe you'd be looking for a servant you'd say, 'I want that person for a servant in my house.'"
He was young and dashing, the son of Wisconsin's first millionaire, an Indian trader who became a country gentleman.
She was a beautiful debutante, daughter of a Fort Snelling general who was Custer's commander in South Dakota.
The pair loved art, horses and books; after they met in St. Paul and married, they honeymooned in Europe, where they commissioned an artist to cast their handsome faces in bronze.
Over the years, the byways around McGregor, Iowa, have seen an extraordinary procession of people.
Between 650 and 1300, Woodland Indians built animal-shaped burial mounds, 29 of which are preserved nearby at Effigy Mounds National Monument.
In 1673, Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet arrived via the Wisconsin River, claiming the land for France and paving the way for the fur trade, whose center was just across the river in Prairie du Chien.
For much of its existence, Dubuque, Iowa, has been a little short on charisma.
It started out well, with a lead-mining boom and eight breweries and Victorian mansions filled with millionaires.
But it faded into obscurity. For years, its last brewery sat empty next to the 1856 Shot Tower, where laborers once turned molten lead into bullets and cannonballs by dropping it through screens into cool river water.
For many years, Red Wing has been Twin Citians favorite day-trip destination.
Its adorable, with its brick storefronts, flowering planters hung from lampposts and rows of stately Victorian houses in three historic districts.
Sitting on a sharp elbow of the Mississippi, its a small town that still looks the part it has a bakery, a barber shop, a homespun café and it was the first Minnesota town on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of Distinctive Destinations.
Once, people went through hell to get to Stockholm, Wis.
It's different nowadays. It's only a joy ride away from the Twin Cities, and the streets of this pretty hamlet on Lake Pepin are lined with sports cars and motorcycles on weekends.
There are shops, galleries, inns, a pub; it's the place to go for a room with a view or vroom with a brew.
Along the Mississippi River, the fortunes of Wabasha have risen right along with the once-endangered bald eagle.
Eagles reappeared slowly after DDT was banned in 1972, and one of the first places they could be seen was in this Minnesota town, just downriver from the mouth of the Chippewa River, which kept water open in winter so eagles could fish.
The city built a deck downtown and staffed it with spotting scopes and volunteers from November through March. Then it started a makeshift eagle center behind an empty storefront. In 2007, it opened the National Eagle Center in a handsome brick building on the river banks.
Eagles don't really have lovable personalities. But, man, are they fun to watch.
Those haughty pale eyes, that 6-foot wing span, those wicked talons and the flesh-shredding beak eagles are just plain cool.
Everything about them is larger than life, right down to their nests, which are so big and sturdy that bears sometimes climb into them to hibernate.
For a river town that has everything going for it, Winona is a little hard for a tourist to get to know.
Those who venture off U.S. 61 find a downtown that's long, spread out and a little forlorn on weekends. To find its Mississippi riverfront, they have to cut across train tracks and around a concrete levee wall.
For 50 years, a paddlewheeler sat atop the riverbank, serving as museum, event center and gathering spot. The Julius C. Wilkie was only a replica of a steamboat, but it served as city icon and festival namesake, so when the rotting structure was demolished in 2008, it left a dent in the city's identity.
In the sloughs of the Upper Mississippi, birds of a feather flock together.
Bird-watchers, especially. On chilly days in late fall, they crowd onto wooden platforms to watch tundra swans paddling around sloughs of the Mississippi River.
This big bird needs a lot of fuel for its flight from the Arctic Circle to the marshes of Chesapeake Bay.
Tucked into the tip of northeast Iowa, Lansing has been overlooked for a long time.
In 1851, a 20-year-old steamboat passenger named Harriet Hosmer noticed its steep bluff and won a footrace to the top; the peak became Mount Hosmer.
Lansing was the county seat until 1867, when a posse from Waukon stole the county records. And it was a boom town in the 1870s and '80s, when farmers beat a path to its grain elevator and levee.
For centuries, blufftop views of the Mississippi have inspired superlatives.
Jonathan Carver called the view from Barn Bluff "the most beautiful prospect that imagination can form.'' Stephen Long said, "The sublime and beautiful (are) here blended in the most enchanting manner.''
Those early explorers embellished their speech to impress folks back home. Nowadays, most people who take in the scenery just say "Wow.''
Sometimes, skiers have a hard time figuring out Mother Nature.
It's supposed to snow across northern Minnesota and Wisconsin, but often, storms have veered to the south instead. It's odd, but what can you do? You have to go with the snow.
One year, at the end of February, my friend Becky and I were just about to make the long drive to the snowy Upper Peninsula of Michigan when the southeast Minnesota town of Winona got blanketed with 30 inches.