Writer Meanders The Mississippi River, Town By Town

ST. LOUIS — Bruised by brain-numbing bureaucracy and maddened by multiplying meetings, Dean Klinkenberg took off.

And that's how a clinical psychologist becomes a travel writer.

"It was soul-killing. I knew I needed a career change, because I just wasn't willing to settle into a desk job for the rest of my life," said Klinkenberg, 46, of south St. Louis.

He has written two books about Mississippi River towns. His goal is a complete series — "The Mississippi Valley Traveler" — which offers advice and guidance for those visiting areas from the great river's headwaters down past New Orleans.

"I think we in the Midwest take the Mississippi for granted," Klinkenberg said. "I've talked to people from other countries who have gone to Chicago and then rented a car so they could drive to see the Mississippi."

Last year, he published two guides: "Quad Cities," which covers the quartet of linked towns in southern Iowa and northwestern Illinois; and "Lansing to LeClaire," analyzing an area from north of the Quad Cities to south of the Minnesota border.

Both areas, to say the least, are not known as tourist meccas. That's why Klinkenberg was drawn to them.

"A lot of people write about exotic locations. But I like these smaller towns, and the people who live there are proud of their communities," he said.

Practical matters also came into play when he selected his subjects.

"If I was going to take this plunge, I figured it would be best to go with an area I knew — and one that didn't cost a lot of money to visit," Klinkenberg said with a smile.

"And with the downturn in the economy, I think people are looking for things to do closer to home," he said.

Klinkenberg attended the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, then earned a doctorate in psychology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and began working for the state. A St. Louis resident for more than 20 years now, he decided to return to his college stomping grounds for his first books.

So he loaded up his 2003 Toyota Prius and headed to the Quad Cities — "which has become sort of a home away from home for me" — and various points north in 2007 to begin compiling information.

"Since then, I've put 55,000 miles on it just on travels," he said. "Nothing fancy, but it sure gets good gas mileage."

Klinkenberg has a three-point approach to collecting data.

Drive around — "See what the place looks like, where things are. Some towns have done a remarkable job of preserving their historical buildings."

Go to the library — "I check out the local history. People started living there for a reason, and I like to find out why. I try to always include at least one paragraph of history about every place."

Hang out — "Go to a diner or a corner bar. Find out about places from people who actually live there."

"I tend to avoid chains on my trips and I prefer the mom-and-pop places. That's where you will find something unique. I mean, do you really need me to write in detail about a Red Lobster?"

His books reflect this love of local hidden gems, such as noting that in McGregor, Iowa, the "Hole in the Sock Gang" stages Old West shootouts in Triangle Park during the summer and early fall.

Please be advised his books do include mentions of chain businesses, and they also include campground information for those who are so inclined. And as with any other worthwhile travel book, they contain information about museums, sports, festivals, hiking and biking opportunities and music.

All of that is written in a humorous, colloquial style, like this paragraph in which he explains his efforts:

"No one gave me a free meal or free place to stay in exchange for a listing. The recommendations in this book, for better or for worse, are based upon my judgment of what is good, interesting, fascinating, or just worthy of your time."

Klinkenberg's goal is to publish two books a year until he has covered the Mississippi River valley from top to bottom.

"I'm not going to quit," he said, "until I reach the Gulf of Mexico."