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Sitting at the Massey Marina counter, you couldn’t be in a bad mood for long.

For starters, there are a dozen wooden signs with motivational phrases ranging from, “Live, laugh and love” to “No pouting.” There is an up-close view of the Mississippi River and cupcakes being passed around. Within a minute of my arrival, the woman behind the counter wonders if I’d like a beer.

That woman is Pattie Marks, the general manager, and she doesn’t have to ask if this is my first time here. She changes her mind about the beer and says, “Do you like margaritas?” She goes to the refrigerator and clicks open a margarita-in-a-can and puts a menu in front of me. She says everything is good and homemade, but she’s known for her jalapeño poppers, burgers and pie. She brings me a sample of goulash, the daily special.

“Take your time deciding,” she said before returning to her chatter with regulars about the previous day’s Fourth of July celebration that delivered a large crowd to Massey Marina.

The restaurant/bait shop/gas station in Dubuque County was first on my stretch of stops for our travel series on Mississippi River-related locales.

After the marina, I traveled about 90 miles down Great River Road, passing through Bellevue, Clinton, Princeton and LeClaire.

My mission was to explore the food and drink side of things on this route and I tried, despite my road-trip and journalistic instincts, to avoid doing too much research. I wanted to keep it spontaneous and see what caught my eye. The scenic highway can make for a long journey and enthusiastic appetite, and a number of places cater to tourists or locals looking to get close to the river.

Spoiler alert: What kept catching my eye was the beauty of the road, the bright green trees and bluffs around it and, when I could see it, the flowing river to my left. Each place I stopped offered a view of the Mississippi.

Before my adventure continued, though, I had to decide what to eat.

Massey Marina: Pattie has been running the place, with help from her brother-in-law, "Smiley," since 2010. 

And it's not a place you just pass on the highway.

"We're in the middle of nowhere here," she correctly stated. "You have to know people who have been here to get here. You don't just stumble on it." 

She lives about five minutes away, and her days spent cooking for customers can be busy and long. But she misses the place during the winter or when flooding shuts her down, which it did for a few weeks this season. 

When Pattie's not working, she also misses helping the boaters who pass through to fill up on gas or grab a bite to eat, and she misses catching up with her regulars.

"The best part is the people I get to meet and talk to," she said. "You can't beat river people." 

As I chowed down on my order of jalapeño poppers and a Rodeo Burger, I chatted with one of the other people at the counter, a local farmer named Rick LeConte. He goes by "Hollywood."

I told him I'm a reporter with the Quad-City Times and asked if he's a Massey Marina regular.

"Yeah, I was even here the last time you all were here," he said. "I'm in that book you guys did." 

He's referring to "The Great River: 400 miles of the Mississippi," which was photographed and written by three of my Times colleagues and released late last year. It features hundreds of river-focused photos, beginning at the northeast tip of Iowa and flowing downward.

On cue, Pattie brought out her copy of "The Great River," and turned to the page featuring photos of her and Massey Marina. Hollywood is in one of the photos and, as I talked to him, he was sitting in the same spot as he was in the photo. 

He was even wearing the same shirt. 

"I love my regulars," Pattie said with a smile. "And I love meeting new people." 

The place hosts baby showers and birthday parties and, last year, was the site of Pattie's own wedding. 

An outdoor stage hosts live music from 2 to 6 p.m. every Saturday in the summer, and the audience includes diners as well as boaters. 

"When there's live music, this is the place to be," Pattie said. "It's a destination." 

As I finished eating, I kept looking around at the decorations, which Pattie said she finds mostly at garage sales. 

"I want people to feel at home," she said. "I want them to leave here happy." 

Near the cash register, I spotted a framed and unsigned poem titled, "Massey," which ended with these words, "Imperfect people offering perfect friendship. It may not be heaven ... but it's close." 

River Ridge Brewing: Things were pretty quiet along Riverview Drive in Bellevue when I arrived in the late afternoon. Walking along the town’s main drag, I saw a marquee suggesting a weekly farmers market would be setting up soon.

I saw a few antique shops and decided to check out The Bookworm, a store filled with books, local artwork and home decor, including picture frames reading, “The best memories are made at the river” and “The river is my happy place.”

The woman behind the counter, Sheila Hardgrave, who I later found out was the owner, said the store has been there for 20 years. “And everyone said we wouldn’t make it,” she said. There’s no doubt shops such as hers have benefited from their placement on the Great River Road, which leads visitors like me to town.

I kept walking and noticed a brewery I hadn’t heard of. The hours on the window for River Ridge Brewing broke the bad news: It is only open Friday-Sunday. I peeked through the windows and saw a sleek, rustic space with beers called Oar What IPA, Rural Route Stout and Flatbottom Amber, among others. A few days later, Kelly Hueneke, one of the nano-brewery’s four Bellevue-native owners, told me via email that River Ridge opened in September 2016.

“All four owners are very passionate about craft beer,” she said. “One of us worked in the craft beer industry and another one was a home brewer, so it just felt right for us to open up a brewery.”

She confirmed that the river brings customers in just about year-round, including boaters in the summer, “leaf lookers” in the fall and eagle-watchers in the winter.

“We get a lot of people who stop in because they were driving the road and saw our sign,” she said. “We really couldn't ask for a better location.”

On my way out of town, I saw a family having ice cream cones outside Grandpas’s Parlour, and I passed by Flatted Fifth Blues + BBQ. I made a mental note to make a trip back to Bellevue sometime soon.

About 30 miles later, I passed signs for Wide River Winery, the winery started by a Clinton attorney in her back yard in 1997. I wrote about the winery and its three tasting rooms in the spring, and winemaker Dorothy O'Brien mentioned that many Great River Road travelers make impromptu stops for wine after seeing her roadside markers. 

I then drove through Princeton and, thanks to more roadside reading, learned about Princeton Days — a two-day community festival set for July 20-21. I also passed Go Fish Marina Bar and Grill, which should be a go-to for anyone who loves a good patio. This is about the time I realized this trip down Great River Road could easily be spread out among several days, rather than several hours. 

Libations Lane: It was just after 5 p.m. when I arrived in LeClaire, and I had planned to run the Bix at Six training run at 6 p.m. in downtown Davenport, so I decided, to get the full experience, to return the following day for LeClaire's monthly First Friday festivities. On First Fridays, shops stay open later than usual and restaurants and bars offer specials.

When I returned on Friday afternoon, I could barely find a parking spot. Cody Road, the town's main drag, was bustling.

Part of LeClaire's booming tourism has been owed to the popularity of “American Pickers,” the History Channel TV show that stars Mike Wolfe (originally from Joliet) and Davenport native Frank Fritz.

“American Pickers,” which is in its eighth season, often features scenes from Wolfe’s LeClaire-based store, Antique Archaeology. As a result, the shop frequently is filled with tourists, hoping for a celebrity sighting or simply a souvenir. Most of them likely hadn't heard of LeClaire 10 years ago.

The quaint and picturesque town has built on the success of the show and now offers plenty for tourists to do, see, eat and drink after getting their photo-opps at Antique Archaeology. The list includes more antique shops and boutiques as well as the sweet-tooth satisfying Shameless Chocoholic, restaurants Crane & Pelican, Happy Joe’s, Blue Iguana and Faithful Pilot among them.

If I’m being honest, though, what keeps me coming back to LeClaire is the two-block stretch dubbed Libations Lane, because it has a distillery, winery and brewery.

On this First Friday, Wide River Winery, Green Tree Brewery and Mississippi River Distilling Co. were packed with people. The distillery offered tours and samples and live music started around 7 p.m.

One of the bartenders said she hadn’t seen it as busy since the cocktail house held its grand opening last July — after the state of Iowa passed a law allowing the distillery to sell alcohol by the glass.

On many weekends, the spots that make up Libations Lane are full of tourists and locals as well as Quad-Citians searching for a small-town escape. That’s how it felt as I sat on the patio and sipped an Old Fashioned that was made at a place inspired by the body of water before me. I listened to a local band play a country song I hadn’t heard in a long time, and I overheard someone ask, “Does it get better than this?”

From where I was sitting, it doesn't.