Air Date: Week of November 5, 1999
Steve Curwood and author William Least Heat Moon discuss his newest book River-Horse. The author reads from his work and talks about the discoveries he made traveling by water across America.
CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Americans have long felt the romance of transcontinental treks from the east coast to the west, whether by covered wagon or station wagon. Author William Least-Heat Moon made the trip along the nation's back roads for his bestseller Blue Highways years ago. Now, he chronicles his latest voyage across the continent, by water, in his new book River Horse. Most of the way he traveled aboard the 22-foot flat-bottom C-Dory called Nikawa, or River Horse in the language of his tribe the Osage. When the passage was too narrow or shallow, he took to a canoe. In all, William Least-Heat Moon covered more than 5,000 watery miles in what he describes as a quest for a new vision of America.
MOON: I'm always trying to memorize the topographical face of America since, I don't know, maybe I was ten years old when I got interested in learning what the place looked like. So, as I get older, I try to find new ways to do this. And I began looking once again at a road map, and noticed that there were some blue lines on there. These were not the blue highways, the back roads that I used in my first book, Blue Highways. These were little blue lines that meant rivers. And I started trying to connect those rivers to see if I might go from sea to sea by water. It took me 20 years to find a route that had a chance of making it.
CURWOOD: So quickly tell me the route that you took.
MOON: The route began in New York City, went west along the Erie Canal. I'll skip some of the smaller bodies of water. To the Allegheny River, the Ohio, the Mississippi, the Missouri, which was more than two-fifths of the route. Over the Rocky Mountains, the Snake, Salmon, and Columbia Rivers.
CURWOOD: And the hardest part to get through?
MOON: Well, it could be anywhere. We had a hell of a time on Lake Erie.
CURWOOD: You write about that in the book. Could you read from that section for us, please? I think it's on page 76 there.
MOON: This is after we came off of the lake, and we wanted to make sure that if we got into more water like this, that Nikawa could withstand this kind of a beating. (Reads) I telephoned the builder of Nikawa to ask whether she could continue to take such beatings. And he said, "The C-Dory can take it. The question is whether her crew can." When I sat down to a hot bowl of Greek lemon soup and a stack of a sandwich, I wished I'd heard his words a day sooner. To have understood that the only weakness lay in me, and not also in Nikawa, would have cut fear by half, and also laid out a challenge to lift a kitten-hearted sailor. We had no celebratory toasting, because merely drawing breath was elation enough, and there was still Chautauqua Lake waiting in the warm afternoon. Seamen should hold off a week before trying to convey to a landsman what a hard voyage was like, but we didn't. And the photographer, an excellent fellow but a worrier of the highest caliber, said, "Do you realize after ten days you're still in New York?" I said, "Do you realize after another revelation like that, you'll die in New York?" (Curwood laughs)
CURWOOD: When you left New York and you were along the Erie Canal and then down the Allegheny and the Ohio, when you get to the Missouri, you're heading upstream. So, you say in your book that the Missouri was really quite a challenge and it was, what, 40 percent of your trip. I'm wondering if the troubles you had with the Missouri didn't in fact come from the fact that you were going upstream. You were really having to work.
MOON: Oh, that was very much a part of it. The lower part of the Missouri was in flood, and although that made it risky at night trying to find a place to get the boat off the river, through the day, in many ways, it made things easier for us because there was so much water. We could go anywhere we wanted in the river in this shallow boat and not have to worry about it. But once we got beyond the flooded sections and got into other aspects of the river, then we were faced with the current going against us. With the 22-foot C-Dory it wasn't much of a problem, but when we were in that canoe with the little four-horse motor, we were really working to make that thing move against the current. And as we got toward the headwaters in Montana, we finally had reached the limits of what that little motor could do. The river there was pouring down so hard, that at times we would move at the rate of about, oh I don't know, two or three inches every half a minute or something. We were just creeping slightly beyond the current.
CURWOOD: And so what happened then? Did you get out and push?
MOON: Well, we had one horrible day in which we spent a lot of time pushing with the paddles, pulling essentially, and grabbing onto overhanging willows to try to gain some headway in certain difficult channels. But that was the end of the Missouri. It saved all of that part for the very last. I've talked about rivers becoming human as you deal with them in this way. And I think we all felt that the Missouri was like a cross great-uncle that had wanted to pull tricks on you and wanted to make things difficult. But it didn't really want to kill you or defeat you. It wanted you to get there but you had to earn its respect to let you pass. This may sound quite mad to people to talk about rivers in this way, but when you've been on a river like that for six weeks, you certainly see and feel about them differently.
CURWOOD: So, what was the reward? What was the greatest success of this trip?
MOON: Well, I think the greatest thing for me was seeing America in a way that I had never seen it before. I knew rivers primarily before this from crossing them on bridges, in which you approach them laterally. Well, that doesn't really give you the sense of what a river's like, because rivers flow the other way. To see them with their current or against their current, to follow their lines, the country looks radically different. And I must say, in most ways it looks, it's a more handsome country. I felt more optimistic after this trip. When we would come into a city, even something, say, as big as Pittsburgh, we would come in and there would be, for miles and miles and miles, a screen of trees along the river. And then the trees would fall away and suddenly the city was there; we were right in the heart of things. It's not like arriving in Pittsburgh or Utica or any other place in the United States by car, in which you have to go through these miles of sprawl, you have to see the billboards, you have to see the businesses and metal buildings, you've got to go through all the franchises, the chains. You arrive by river, typically, in what seems to be a natural world. Although that's a bit of illusion, because behind that screen of trees the city is there. But suddenly it opens up and there it is. Kind of like Dorothy coming out of the dark into the light before the city of Oz.
CURWOOD: Will, thanks for joining us today.
MOON: Thanks, Steve, for having me by.
CURWOOD: William Least-Heat Moon's newest book is called River Horse.
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