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A Celestial Call to Board
For about half a league after we came out of the little harbor on Newark Bay at Elizabeth, New Jersey - with its strewn alleys and broken buildings, its pervading aura of collapse, where the mayor himself had met us at the dock and stood before a podium his staff fetched up for him to set his speech on, words to launch us on that Earth Day across the continent as he reminded us of history here, of George Washington on nearly the same date being rowed across to New York City on the last leg of his inaugural journey - and for the half league down the Kill Van Kull (there Henry Hudson lost a sailor to an arrow through the neck), we had to lay in behind a rusting Norwegian freighter heading out to sea with so little cargo that her massive props were no more than half in the water and slapping up a thunderous wake and thrashing such a roil it sent our little teakettle of a boat rolling fore and aft. I quickly throttled back, and the following sea picked up our stern and threatened to ride over the low transom into the welldeck. We had no bilge pump to empty it, and the cabin door stood hooked open to the bright blue April morning and the sea air of New York Bay.
My copilot roared, "Don't cut the motors so fast when we're riding a swell! You'll swamp us!" Only ten minutes out, we were nearly on our way to the bottom, sixty feet below. I turned toward the stern to see the bay rear above the transom just before the water raised Nikawa high enough to let the next wave ride under and shove her fast toward the chopping props of the freighter. Then her bow slipped down the other side of the swell, we pulled away from the big screws, and I idled to let the deep-water tramp move ahead until I got an open lane on her port side. We pushed past, cut through the wake of the Staten Island Ferry, and headed on toward the Atlantic.
"And that's how it begins," said my friend, a blue-water sailor, one whom I shall call Pilotis (rhymes with "my lotus"). It wasn't, of course, the beginning, for who can say where a voyage starts - not the actual passage but the dream of a journey and its urge to find a way? For this trip I can speak of a possible inception: I am a reader of maps, not usually nautical charts but road maps. I read them as others do holy writ, the same text again and again in quest of discoveries, and the books I've written each began with my gaze wandering over maps of American terrain. At home I have an old highway atlas, worn and rebound, the pages so soft from a thousand thumbings they whisper as I turn them. Every road I've ever driven I've marked in yellow, the pages densely highlighted, and I can now say I've visited every county in the contiguous states except for a handful in the Deep South, and those I'll get to soon. Put your finger at random anyplace in this United States atlas, and I've either been there or within twenty-five miles of it, but for the deserts of Nevada where the gap can be about twice that. I didn't set out to do this; it just happened over forty years of trying to memorize the face of America. When someone speaks of Pawtucket or Cross Creek or Marfa, I want an image from my travels to appear; when I read a dateline in a news story about Jackson Hole, I want the torn Teton horizon and a remembered scent of pinyon pine in me. "Have you seen the historic tavern at Scenery Hill?" the Pennsylvanian may say, and I want to ask, How goes the ghost, and are the yeast rolls still good? No words have directed my life more than those from venerable Thomas Fuller, that worthy historian of olde England: "Know most of thy native country before thou goest over the threshold thereof."
Twenty years ago I had been down enough miles of American road that I could visualize the impending end of new territory to light out for - as my fellow Missourian, river traveler Huck Finn, has it - and that's when I noticed the web of faint azure lines, a varicose scribing of my atlas. They were rivers. I began tracing a finger over those twistings in search of a way to cross America in a boat. At first I was simply curious whether one could accomplish such a voyage without coming out of the water repeatedly and for many miles, but later I grew interested in the notion of what America would look like from the rivers, and I wanted to see those secret parts hidden from road travelers. Surely a journey like that would open new country and broader notions, but I could find no transcontinental route of rivers that did not require miles and miles of portages and heavy use of border waters - the Gulf of Mexico or the Great Lakes. For my voyyage, I wanted only an internal route across the nation.
I'll skip details of how, during those two decades, I discovered inch by inch a theoretical route a small vessel might, at the proper time of the year, pursue westward from the Atlantic an interior course of some five thousand miles, equivalent to a fifth of the way around the world, ideally with no more than seventy-five miles of portage, to reach the Pacific in a single season. Travelers have boated across America before but never to my knowledge under those requirements. One night sixteen months earlier, in a thrill of final discovery, I found what I believed to be the last piece of this river puzzle, and at that moment I understood that I had to make the voyage at whatever cost. If a grail appears, the soul must follow. In my excitement I phoned my great friend to join me, teach me the bowline and sheepshank, remind me of the rules of the road, to be my copilot, my pelorus of the heart to steer me clear of desolation, that fell enemy of the lone traveler. Pilotis said, "When my father was dying a few months ago, in his last days when he was out of his head, he lay murmuring - I had to lean close to hear him - he said again and again, Can you make the trip? Can you make the trip? Better be ready.' It was his celestial call to board. Now you ask me the same question, and I don't know."
My friend mulled things for some days and then phoned. "I can make the trip. I'll be ready. Find us a boat that can do it." And that's how we came to be, on the twentieth of April, sliding past the Norwegian freighter on our way to the Atlantic Ocean. Pilotis - my Pylades, my Pythia, my Pytheas - writes well, values memorable language, quotes it as I can never do. After I had nearly sunk us within sight of our departure dock, in the ensuing embarrassed quiet played to good effect, Pilotis said as if lecturing, "Nautical charts carry a standard warning addressed to the prudent mariner.' Revere that adjective above all others."
I, whose boating life to that moment consisted of paddling about in a thirteen-foot canoe and standing below-deck watches and chipping paint on a nine-hundred-foot aircraft carrier, realized more than I wished to admit why I wanted Pilotis along, but I only pointed out the worn stone walls of Fort Wadsworth on the north end of Staten Island near the Narrows. Frédéric Bartholdi, sculptor of the Statue of Liberty, considered that passage the Gate of America, an opening through which four centuries of ships have sailed for the Canaries, Calcutta, the southern capes, Cathay, but few for the Pacific via inland waters. Then we crossed under the lofty, six-lane span of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the great Silver Gate looking improbably thin and fragile hanging above us, and pushed east beyond Coney Island and Gravesend Bay, on into the ocean. We paused at that western edge of the Atlantic so it might set in us a proper watery turn of mind and reset us from lubbers to sailors. Then, in the spindrift, Pilotis leaned over the side to fill a small bottle with brine from the great eastern sea, cork it up and stow it safely in the cabin until, we hoped, I could unstopper it and pour it into the Pacific just beyond the treacherous bar at the mouth of the Columbia River a continent away.
Then I brought Nikawa about, and we headed for New York City and the East River. I said in near disbelief, After twenty years of thinking about this possibility, it's happening! And Pilotis said, "Can you make the trip? Can you make the trip?"
Copyright (c) 1999 by William Least Heat-Moon. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.