River-Horse: The Logbook of a Boat Across America
In our minds we're all adventurers, and narratives that extol the virtues of finding one's own way can either make our own dreams more vivid and accessible or come off as self-satisfied and smarmy mirrors of ugly ego.
Enter William Least Heat-Moon, whose travels on the blue highways of America almost two decades ago made the aimless journey a spiritual and communal necessity. Now, he's taken on the "web of faint azure lines, a varicose scribing of my atlas" --- the rivers and waterways that extend nearly nonstop from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific Northwest.
The result, once again, is both spectacular and inspirational.
The four-month voyage, undertaken in a 22-foot motor boat equipped with two Honda engines, a kayak, and a canoe, springs from the depths of the soul, the journey motivated by the maps that Heat-Moon has taken as his Bible, their meanderings and interconnections his gospel. The outset is understated and oddly grandiose, the effect of a traveler truly passionate enough about his pursuit to become simultaneously (and paradoxically) arrogant and small. His copilot, Pilotis (one of seven people who accompanied the author throughout the trip and whom Heat-Moon grouped under the one name), records the occasion and the author responds:
"'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 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 better than 500 pages, one wonders why the author chooses "to skip details of how, during those two decades [of road travel], 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 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." He skips very few other details of the journey, and that's a good thing. The observations and the historical asides accrete nicely to form the bigger picture.
In fact, it is fitting that this edition of Heat-Moon's narrative should be a paperback (the hardcover having been published in 1999): The satisfying heft of the book and the very nature of the adventure make it a prime candidate for the Dog-Ear Hall of Fame. This is the kind of book that you carry with you wherever you go, read as you please, and maybe, just maybe, use as a bludgeon in a street fight --- before you go back to reading, of course.
The "logbook" is a miscellany of water facts, description, and "iconograms" (epigraphs on the nature of water from such disparate sources as Charles Dickens and George Catlin), almost as random as it is engaging. One need only pick this book up and open to any page --- and to find chapters named "The Day Begins with a Goonieburger," "Why Odysseus Didn't Discover America," "Eating the Force that Drives Your Life," or "Bungholes and Bodacious Bounces" --- to get a sense of how water changes our perception of the land around us and ourselves. It's no surprise that this compilation, whose essays are connected by their genesis on America's waterways, reads like a hundred different snapshots of American life; like water, the eddies and currents define the river of words, and the chapters' meanings change with each successive glimpse.
For the lover of Blue Highways, though, a brief caveat: four months on a boat can lead to a more introspective journey than years of driving back roads and chatting with everyone a person meets.
Ask Ishmael. Water travel, even with able companions, can ofttimes be a lonely and humbling experience. Still, there's more than enough human interaction here to please the staunchest fan of Heat-Moon's land-driven narratives.
One of the few shortcomings of this journey, and a choice that might explain the directions that the narrative takes, is that the author felt compelled to place himself under a time constraint to finish the journey in one season so that he could say he was the first so-and-so to do the trip in such-and-such a manner. Whatever happened to stopping and staying awhile, to letting the spirit move you?
Too, occasionally, the author's prose is purplish, the sentences perhaps overlong and stuffed to bursting with the myriad thoughts and feelings that flow through Heat-Moon's head like, well, water. Such overwriting, seldom as it occurs, is forgivable: The passion with which the book is written and the circumstances under which this adventure takes shape almost require the occasional inadequacy of language to validate the profound spiritual experience. When the author finally reaches the Pacific after a voyage of some 5,288 miles and pours a pint of the Atlantic Ocean into its western sister, "my own words failed me utterly."
When language isn't enough, there is the experience itself. That's what William Least Heat-Moon conveys best.
Reviewed by Patrick A. Smith on April 3, 2001