Here’s an idea: take a trip across the country, from the Atlantic to the Pacific… by boat. That’s the idea that author William Least Heat-Moon came up with. So, he plotted a course that would require the least amount of portage and the most actual water miles, determined when was the best time to start so as to catch the snow melt in the Rockies, fitted a workhorse of a boat for the journey, and enlisted a group of friends to accompany him.
It’s a bold notion, one that would feel more at home in an offbeat independent film rather than a true-life travel book, but Heat-Moon put Nikawa in the water in New York and pushed forward for over three months and five-thousand miles. Perhaps that’s a spoiler, but a simple perusal of the table of contents describes the bare-bones scope of their voyage, if not the thousand details.
Heat-Moon’s prose is remarkable. At times wistful, and occasionally hilarious, the book is also unhurried, laconic, pulling the reader along just as a river might. He has an eye for the big picture as he describes plains and lakes and canyons and sky, but also for the eccentric place names and colorful characters they meet on the way. There is an undercurrent of environmentalism, but not a heavy-handed one. It’s hard not to decry strip mining and water conservation efforts when they scar the landscape. However, these are grace notes in a larger melody of his love of the land, the people in it, and the simple act of journeying. The author says it best: “I’ve never believed speed and ease are conducive to living fully, becoming aware, or deepening memory, a tripod of urges to stabilize and lend meaning to any life.”
I doubt I’ll ever undertake a voyage quite as singular as this one, but I can hope to take a little of this to heart and enjoy the moments of the journey as much as I enjoyed this book about them.