Saturday, November 9, 2013

River Horse

Illus. credit:
River Horse: A Voyage Across America, by William Least Heat-Moon. (Pub. By Houghton Mifflin Co., 1999, 502 pp.) New York Times Bestseller

This book was recommended to me several years ago, but it has taken me awhile to get back around to it. It is an account of the author’s cross-country trip by boat and canoe from New York to Puget Sound, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. With a few other streams included, the trip traversed primarily the Hudson River, Erie Canal, Lake Erie, the Allegheny River, Ohio River, Mississippi River, Missouri River, and closely following the journals of Lewis and Clark he followed the Jefferson, Beaverhead, and Hell Roaring Creek before crossing the Continental Divide, and then the Salmon and Snake Rivers by raft, and finally, the Columbia River back to the sea. Like anyone making such a trip, he runs the range of emotions from excitement, to exhaustion, to despair, and back again. At the end, he puts it all in perspective by saying, “Yet, of the times in my life I must count as wasted, squandered, spent aimlessly, I knew our river days would never be among them, because, ephemeral as they too were, the river had done what it could to make them memorable enough to carry forward to the end. …. Of the gifts of the rivers, none was greater than their making our time upon them indelible.” Earlier, in his own words, “Despite the continuous physical threat in moving water, going down a river can put travelers into a mellow harmony and make them believe all is not yet lost to the selfishness and private greed that so poison our chances for a lasting and healthy prosperity. …. I’d come here in the belief that I could never really know America until I saw it from the bends and reaches of its flowing waters, from hidden spots open only to a small boat.”

He weaves countless witty truisms into the narrative that he discovers along the way, or that he is reminded of, like understanding the relationships between men and women. “…a young man said to his wife, ‘That makes no sense, honey. Why are you doing that?’ She smiled at him and said, ‘Because shut up, that’s why! I’m a girl.” Or at a wedding, the bride gets groomed, and the groom gets bridled. These alone save all the time that would be needed to write enough books on the subject of relationships to fill a library.  Everything is explained in two sentences.

There are tidbits that make our history better appreciated. “Plowboy Bend bears the name of a sternwheeler sunk there…,one of more than four hundred steamboats to go down on the Missouri, half of them from hitting snags. The average life of a nineteenth-century paddle-wheeler on the river was less than two years.”

There’s a lot on environmental topics, from ranchers shoving their dead cattle, cars, trucks and machinery into the river to use it as their personal sewage canal, running barbed wire across streams to claim running rivers as private property, the greed of miners that would blow sixty-five million tons of mountain into a scenic river to claim just thirteen pounds of gold, or the sign he saw that reflects this attitude: “Hungry? Eat an environmentalist.”

If you can’t find the opportunity to make your own trip from Atlantic to Pacific, make your way through this book. You’ll enjoy the ride.


No comments:

Post a Comment