A Voyage Across America
By William Least Heat-Moon
Houghton Mifflin 506pp $26
William Least Heat-Moon's 1983 best-seller, Blue Highways: A Journey Into America, was a lively addition to the bookshelf of American on-the-road literature, from Jack Kerouac to John Steinbeck. With a sharp ear for the sound of Americans talking, Heat-Moon reported the encounters he had along 13,000 miles of byways with a rich cross-section of citizens. He interwove these with his observations and musings on landscape, history, society, philosophy, and himself.
In his latest book, River-Horse: A Journey Across America, Heat-Moon sets off with a very different purpose, as its subtitle suggests. This is the journal of a 5,222-mile adventure driven by a fixed goal: to cross the continent by river from the Atlantic at New York City to the Pacific near Astoria, Ore. Heat-Moon aims to complete the voyage within about 100 days from the Apr. 20, 1995, launching of Nikawa, his 22-foot boat, in New York Harbor. It's a timetable dictated by the need to traverse the shallow Upper Missouri by late spring, when the Rocky Mountain snowmelt increases the river's depth. A major theme of the work is the struggle against adversity, from surly lockkeepers at dams to scary passages on the flooded Missouri.
There's high drama, skillfully captured, in parts of the narrative, along with perceptive observation of people and scenes. Heat-Moon, who holds a PhD in English literature, deepens his tale by interweaving the writings of earlier travelers. But Nikawa's brief, mostly overnight stopovers give the author less opportunity for the kinds of encounters with people and places--sharply etched, revealing, quirky--that kept readers turning pages in his earlier book.
Heat-Moon is the pen name of William Trogdon, 60, who lives in Columbia, Mo., where he taught journalism at the University of Missouri until 1987. From his Osage Indian ancestry, he derived both his pen name and that of Nikawa, which means "river-horse" in the Osage language. A cabin cruiser powered by a pair of 45-horsepower Honda outboards, it carried Heat-Moon and a changing cast of fellow voyagers on a route that followed the Hudson, Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, Salmon, and Columbia rivers, and the Erie Canal.
I first heard of Heat-Moon's cross-continent voyage from Larry Purcell, who runs a restaurant beside a park on the Missouri riverfront in Atchison, Kan. My partner and I had docked our 16-foot boat and pitched our tent overnight there in midsummer last year, as we traveled downstream from Montana to St. Louis. Purcell, a friend to riverine wayfarers, brought us coffee before we set out again in the morning. Three years earlier, Heat-Moon had tied up Nikawa overnight at the same dock, and Purcell had helped refuel his boat. He recalled that Heat-Moon spent an hour writing in his logbook before heading upstream in fast, debris-laden currents. So I looked forward to comparing traveler's notes with Heat-Moon's account of his journey.
It's a massively researched, 506-page book about an expedition for which the author spent 10 years preparing. Some passages are action-packed, from a stormy crossing of a stretch of Lake Erie, with Nikawa bucking and plunging, to a perilous transit up the flooded Mississippi above Cairo, Ill., amid uprooted trees and "the awful thuddings of berserk barges roaming the dark." The narrative is enlivened by encounters with people such as Patrick Kelly, a carpenter and "bank walker" who hopes to sell the Indian artifacts he has found along the Ohio to finance his son's college education. River-wise Billy Joe Conrad, a beer-swigging, profane, part-Santee Indian, helps guide Nikawa through a hazardous stretch of the Missouri even as he faces backward. In southern Indiana, where there are "lots of old people," a young woman casket seller tells Heat-Moon that "it's almost ideal demographics." And in an Idaho bar, Heat-Moon converses with a husband-and-wife pair of psychologists who characterize his note-taking as "writing behavior."
An environmentalist, Heat-Moon also describes the degradation of long stretches of rivers. The banks of the lower Allegheny are "almost unrelieved Rust Belt decay," and the Ohio is an "Interstate of floating things."
The narrative should have had a more ruthless editing, though, to condense Heat-Moon's logbook-like accounts of days on the river when nothing much happened. In an attempt to enliven these passages, Heat-Moon records dialogues with Pilotis, a personified co-pilot who is a composite of seven people who accompanied the author on different parts of the voyage. It's a partly successful narrative device: Pilotis is often literate, witty, and wise. But too much of the dialogue is flat, and the quasi-fictional character blurs the line between reporting and invention.
Inevitably, an expedition like Heat-Moon's raises the question "why?" Of course, it provided a theme for a travel book, and there is the yen for adventure and change. But the mountain climber's cliche, "because it's there," seems too facile. Heat-Moon may have come closer to an explanation. The point is to go by a difficult route, he tells Pilotis, not just to reach the top but to get there "in such a way you learn the nature of the mountain." That sounds like a good enough reason for crossing America in a 22-foot boat.