River Horse

by Bruce Carlson

About ten years ago, a travel book appeared in which the author checked out our country by driving from coast to coast on the back highways. Blue Highways, written by William Least Heat-Moon, was very engaging. The author was an English teacher at a small Midwestern liberal arts college (North Park?). His observations were elegant, wry, and astute. Then, a few years ago, I noticed in a boating magazine that this same fellow was working on another travel book, this time crossing the country by boat. Boat travel, to me anyway, seems very magical. I anxiously awaited this new book.

A few weeks ago I saw it advertised. River Horse is the title. I beamed up Amazon.com and a few days later it was on my doorstep. Heat-Moon launched himself in the spring, with a 22-foot out-board in Manhattan. He headed up the East River, Hudson, Erie Canal, down the Allegheny, the Ohio, up the Mississippi and Missouri, across the Rockies on various streams, and into the mighty Columbia to the Pacific. He only portaged 75 miles.

When he reached Astoria, Oregon, he dumped into the Pacific a pint of Atlantic sea water that he’d dippered up at the beginning of the voyage. During the five-thousand mile journey, there were adventures; think of those huge barges on the Mississippi. But this merry philosopher pressed on. And he has fine observations: "To follow a river is to find one’s way into the territory because a river follows the terrain absolutely. 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." Then this curious, sharp truth: "When I was home, I’d dreamed of the river, but on the river, I dreamed of home." His route is a bit like that of Lewis and Clark two hundred years ago, and his book brings to mind Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage, the brilliant story of the Lewis and Clark expedition that came out a few years ago. "When we speak of land, we talk about our lives, but when we speak of rivers, we talk about life," the author’s aphoristic companion suggests. A fine book which may slip under Oprah Winfrey’s radar, but it is one which I highly recommend.

Bruce Carlson (1940-2006) was the Executive Director of the Schubert Club and Pietisten Editor of Poetry and Navigation.

See all articles by Bruce Carlson