|"The Rosebud, historic old Missouri River boat that went up the River from Bismark, N.D. to Coalbanks in Montana, head of navigation." ca. 1878. 111-SC-83 751|
William Least Heat-Moon is the author of three major travel books about the United States. His first, Blue Highways, was a bestseller about his travels around the US on the backroads, the so-called blue highways on the map. (That's because on older maps the secondary roads were indicated with blue lines.) But on his most recent trip he took the true "blue" highways - the rivers and waterways. His goal was to travel, as much as possible, by water across the United States. He starts off in New York Harbor and compltes his jouney in Oregon at the mouth of the Columbia River. He used several boats for his journey, including rubber rafts, a canoe with a 4-horsepower "pisspot" outboard motor, and a C-dory, a flatbottomed boat that is often used for fishing in Alaska. Early on in the book, Least-Heat Moon describes the nature of the river journey this way:
"On we went in the quiet, reflective afternoon. A river with its attendant cascades, eddies, boils, and whirlpools is the most expressive aspect of a natural landscape, for nothing else moves so far, so broadly, so unceasingly, so demonstrably, and nothing else is so susceptible to personification and so much at the heart of our notions about life and death. Across generations and around the globe, humans, we double-footed jugs of seventy percent water, have seen rivers as both our source and the way out of this world. The Osage Indians use the same word, ni, for water, river, sap, breath, life. To the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, the afterworld lay on the far side of a river, a bourn from which no traveler returns, but, the marine sailor might ask, what about seascapes? Ive found the ocean, despite its continuous movement and manifest moods, too overwhelming to comprehend as anything other than an implacable immensity. The sea is the wind made visible, but a river is the land turned liquid. No engineer ever tried to bridge an ocean, dam a sea, or turn its currents another direction: oceans surpass our capacities too far. River travelers, even ones not poetically inclined, soon begin to conceive the water as friend or foe, to view it as possessed of a will, and at times even a primitive mind capable of acting companionably or inimically. In this country, bankside inhabitants often call themselves with pride river rats, a self-inflicted insult expressing their humility before that force controlling their lots and their lives.
"Ive driven more than a million miles over American highways, but I dont recall loving, for itself, even one road. How can you love an unmoving, stone-cold strip of concrete, ever the same except for its aging, its attrition? But a river comes into existence moving, and it grows as it moves, and like a great mother carries within itself lives too varied and multitudinous for our myriad sciences even yet wholly to number and name. I say this now because we had just accomplished our thousandth wet mile, and during that passage I felt we were atop something animate and wondrously strong and strange which, were I but once to fail in my respect, would take me in a moment to its deadly bottom."
River Horse, William Least Heat-Moon, Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1999: (116-7)
The largest portion of his journey was on the Missouri River, the same route taken by Lewis and Clark. Least Heat-Moon had no particular desire to follow the Lewis & Clark route, it was simply the only water route available.
Like so many authors, Heat-Moon wrestles with how truthful his non-fiction must be. He discusses this and other issues in an interview with Salon.com.
In this interview, Heat-Moon discusses his thoughts about bookstores as well as his River Horse travels.
Booknotes: William Least Heat-Moon
This is an interview with Least-Heat Moon about his book River Horse that aired on the C-SPAN program booknotes.
Copyright 2001, Ralph E. Hanson