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On the Road Again
There's no shortage of 20th-century literature about traveling across America in a car. Even William Least Heat-Moon, author of River Horse, wrote a nonfiction work about his search in a beat-up Ford for himself and America (Blue Highways).
But not since the 19th-century adventures of Mark Twain, as told in Life on the Mississippi, have readers had the chance to vicariously take a journey across America by water rather than by road. River Horse, a voyage across America's waterways, is a return to a bygone literary tradition. Following in the footsteps of America's greatest explorers, from Henry Hudson to Lewis and Clark, Heat-Moon traveled around the waterways of America in a 22-foot cruiser boat called Nikawa (Osage for "river horse").
Heat-Moon covers 5,000-plus miles in four months, departing from Astoria, New York, and completing his journey in Astoria, Oregon. RIVER HORSE completes Heat-Moon's trilogy of explorations of America and the American people, which he began with Blue Highways and Prairyerth.
River Horse falls short of providing any great insight into the people whom Heat-Moon encounters along America's waterways, but that's okay. Instead, River Horse is a travel book of the first order because, very simply, it is a book about traveling. Many others have gone off in search of the spirit of the American people and written about their findings, but no one in the history of the world has taken the trip that Heat-Moon has taken, and that alone makes River Horse a fascinating read.
Heat-Moon tells us that after having visited almost every state in the continental United States ("except for a handful in the Deep South, and those I'll get to soon"), he realized that traveling across the country along America's rivers would provide him with a unique vantage point.
Because there's no aquatic equivalent of Route 66, it is almost impossible to see America wholly by water, which presents Heat-Moon with a formidable challenge. With meticulous planning, however, Heat-Moon devised a way for a small boat -- enter the scrappy Nikawa -- to navigate the path from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
Heat-Moon is joined by Pilotus, a compilation of characters who aid Heat-Moon (a.ka. William Trogdon) along the way. Heat-Moon admits up front that Pilotus, "my Pilades, my Pythia, my Pytheas," is the better writer of the two, which is why Pilotus gets all the good lines in the book. For example, Pilotus says to Heat-Moon about the journey: "To go from Gravesend Bay through the Graveyard of the Great Lakes and on to the Graveyard of the Pacific, that's, well, a grave undertaking."
Although River Horse is a work rich in spirit, it lacks an emotional component or impetus to its narrative, save Pilotus's insightful, if not quippy, commentary. It's understandable that Heat-Moon would want to remove himself from the narrative to avoid detracting from the magnitude of his journey. But Heat-Moon overshoots a little here, and as a result he is absent. And, at his worst, the narrator assumes a disembodied, pedagogical voice that is more reminiscent of Cliff Claven, the know-it-all mailman from the television show "Cheers," than a Captain Ahab or even a Tom Joad.
Great travel writing pays equal time to the mechanics of the journey and the experience of the person taking the journey. By that standard, River Horse is not great travel writing. Because of the nature of the traveling involved, River Horse is nothing less than a marvelous story of traveling.
The tale of each river that Heat-Moon crosses is rich with a legacy of Americana. Whether Heat-Moon is discussing Abraham Lincoln's introduction to the law or the pollution of America's waterways, he speaks like an old hand, calmed by the wisdom of his experience but no less enthused about what he has to share with his readers.
Heat-Moon's ambitious journey across America is the perfect antidote to end-of-the-century angst about what the future will hold. It's nice, almost soothing, to take a journey back in time with Heat-Moon, a journey that conveys a firm grounding in America's roots and gives insight into elements of the American spirit and the American landscape.
Emily Burg is a New York-based journalist who has been to 18 of the 50 states.