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Author: William Least Heat-Moon
Publisher: HOUGHTON-MIFFLIN CO, Oct 1999
Binding: Hardcover
ISBN: 0-395-63626-4

Recounts a singular voyage on American waters from sea to sea. Along the route, he offers a lyrical and ceaselessly fascinating shipboard perspective on the country's rivers, lakes, canals, and landscapes. History, drama, humor, and wisdom. B/w photos; 6x9 inches, 528 pgs.

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In River-Horse, the preeminent chronicler of American back roads -- who has given us the classics Blue Highways and Prairyerth -- recounts his singular voyage on American waters from sea to sea. Along the route, he offers a lyrical and ceaselessly fascinating shipboard perspective on the country's rivers, lakes, canals, and towns. Brimming with history, drama, humor, and wisdom, River-Horse belongs in the pantheon of American travel literature. In his most ambitious journey ever, Heat-Moon sets off aboard a small boat he named Nikawa ("river horse" in Osage) from the Atlantic at New York Harbor in hopes of entering the Pacific near Astoria, Oregon. He and his companion, Pilotis, struggle to cover some five thousand watery miles -- more than any other cross-country river traveler has ever managed -- often following in the wakes of our most famous explorers, from Henry Hudson to Lewis and Clark. En route, the voyagers confront massive floods, submerged rocks, dangerous weather, and their own doubts about whether they can complete the trip. But the hard days yield up incomparable pleasures: strangers generous with help and eccentric tales, landscapes unchanged since Sacagawea saw them, riverscapes flowing with a lively past, and the growing belief that efforts to protect our lands and waters are beginning to pay off. And, throughout its course, the expedition enjoys coincidences so breathtaking as to suggest the intervention of a divine and witty Providence. Teeming with humanity and high adventure, Heat-Moon's account is an unsentimental and original arteriogram of our nation at the edge of the millennium. Masterly in its own right, River-Horse, when taken with Blue Highways and Prairyerth, forms the capstone of a peerless and timeless trilogy.

"...His prose is straightforward and folksy, reminiscent of Twain and Melville.... [and t]here is a timeless quality to Heat-Moon's stories, all remarkably spellbinding and enchanting. An excellent book." --Booklist, ALA

"His expertise gained from years of reading and travel along these rivers shines through...."River-Horse" is an adventure, a unique, colorful, and provocative river voyage." --Christian Science Monitor

"A coast-to-coast journey by way of great rivers, conducted by a contemporary master of travel writing.... Writing with an eye for local color and little-examined history (and sneaking in a pages-long sentence worthy of James Joyce in the bargain), Least Heat-Moon turns in a stirring narrative of a journey into landscapes few have seen...Vintage Least Heat-Moon, radiant with intelligence and masterful storytelling." --Kirkus Reviews

"In his favor, Least Heat-Moon is richly prepared for encounters with America's heritage. From all the research, he skillfully delivers bon mots of our past that are endlessly interesting, if seldom connected, a kind of riverbank almanac that reminds us what the writer can do to paint detail in the background of a scene." --The Los Angeles Times

"...Heat-Moon has a serendipitous knack of encountering engaging characters... "; "Heat-Moon is at his descriptive best when he is peering neither fore nor aft but over the gunwales into the water that draws him toward the setting sun... "; "So we all of us are in splendid good luck. All aboard! The skipper is going our way." --The Washington Post

"This time [Heat Moon] voyages across the country, from Atlantic to Pacific, almost entirely by its rivers, lakes and canals in a small outboard-powered boat, a bold and epic notion that should excite any armchair traveler." --The San Francisco Chronicle


Under the name of William Least Heat-Moon, William Trogdon is the author of two best-selling classics Blue Highways and Prairyerth. His newest book is River-Horse: A Voyage Across America. He lives in Columbia, Missouri.


A Celestial Call to Board

For about half a league after we came out of the
little harbor on Newark Bay at Elizabeth, New Jersey -
with its strewn alleys and broken buildings, its
pervading aura of collapse, where the mayor himself
had met us at the dock and stood before a podium
his staff fetched up for him to set his speech on,
words to launch us on that Earth Day across the
continent as he reminded us of history here, of George
Washington on nearly the same date being rowed across
to New York City on the last leg of his inaugural
journey - and for the half league down the Kill Van
Kull (there Henry Hudson lost a sailor to an arrow
through the neck), we had to lay in behind a rusting
Norwegian freighter heading out to sea with so little
cargo that her massive props were no more than half in
the water and slapping up a thunderous wake and
thrashing such a roil it sent our little teakettle
of a boat rolling fore and aft. I quickly throttled
back, and the following sea picked up our stern and
threatened to ride over the low transom into the
welldeck. We had no bilge pump to empty it, and the
cabin door stood hooked open to the bright blue
April morning and the sea air of New York Bay.

My copilot roared, "Don't cut the motors so fast when
we're riding a swell! You'll swamp us!" Only ten
minutes out, we were nearly on our way to the bottom,
sixty feet below. I turned toward the stern to see the
bay rear above the transom just before the water
raised Nikawa high enough to let the next wave
ride under and shove her fast toward the chopping
props of the freighter. Then her bow slipped down the
other side of the swell, we pulled away from the big
screws, and I idled to let the deep-water tramp move
ahead until I got an open lane on her port side. We
pushed past, cut through the wake of the Staten
Island Ferry, and headed on toward the Atlantic.
"And that's how it begins," said my friend, a
blue-water sailor, one whom I shall call Pilotis
(rhymes with "my lotus"). It wasn't, of course, the
beginning, for who can say where a voyage starts - not
the actual passage but the dream of a journey and its
urge to find a way? For this trip I can speak of
a possible inception: I am a reader of maps, not
usually nautical charts but road maps. I read them as
others do holy writ, the same text again and again in
quest of discoveries, and the books I've written each
began with my gaze wandering over maps of American
terrain. At home I have an old highway atlas,
worn and rebound, the pages so soft from a thousand
thumbings they whisper as I turn them. Every road I've
ever driven I've marked in yellow, the pages densely
highlighted, and I can now say I've visited every
county in the contiguous states except for a handful
in the Deep South, and those I'll get to soon. Put
your finger at random anyplace in this United States
atlas, and I've either been there or within
twenty-five miles of it, but for the deserts of Nevada
where the gap can be about twice that. I didn't set
out to do this; it just happened over forty years
of trying to memorize the face of America. When
someone speaks of Pawtucket or Cross Creek or Marfa, I
want an image from my travels to appear; when I read a
dateline in a news story about Jackson Hole, I want
the torn Teton horizon and a remembered scent of
pinyon pine in me. "Have you seen the historic tavern
at Scenery Hill?" the Pennsylvanian may say, and I
want to ask, How goes the ghost, and are the yeast
rolls still good? No words have directed my life more
than those from venerable Thomas Fuller, that worthy
historian of olde England: "Know most of thy
native country before thou goest over the threshold

Twenty years ago I had been down enough miles
of American road that I could visualize the impending
end of new territory to light out for - as my fellow
Missourian, river traveler Huck Finn, has it - and
that's when I noticed the web of faint azure lines, a
varicose scribing of my atlas. They were rivers. I
began tracing a finger over those twistings in search
of a way to cross America in a boat. At first I was
simply curious whether one could accomplish such a
voyage without coming out of the water repeatedly and
for many miles, but later I grew interested in the
notion of what America would look like from the
rivers, and I wanted to see those secret parts hidden
from road travelers. Surely a journey like that would
open new country and broader notions, but I could find
no transcontinental route of rivers that did not
require miles and miles of portages and heavy use of
border waters - the Gulf of Mexico or the Great Lakes.
For my voyage, I wanted only an internal route across
the nation.

I'll skip details of how, during those two
decades, I discovered inch by inch a theoretical route
a small vessel might, at the proper time of the year,
pursue westward from the Atlantic an interior course
of some five thousand miles, equivalent to a fifth of
the way around the world, ideally with no more than
seventy-five miles of portage, to reach the Pacific
in a single season. Travelers have boated across
America before but never to my knowledge under those
requirements. One night sixteen months earlier, in a
thrill of final discovery, I found what I believed to
be the last piece of this river puzzle, and at that
moment I understood that I had to make the voyage at
whatever cost. If a grail appears, the soul must
follow. In my excitement I phoned my great friend to
join me, teach me the bowline and sheepshank, remind
me of the rules of the road, to be my copilot, my
pelorus of the heart to steer me clear of desolation,
that fell enemy of the lone traveler. Pilotis said,
"When my father was dying a few months ago, in his
last days when he was out of his head, he lay
murmuring - I had to lean close to hear him - he said
again and again, `Can you make the trip? Can you make
the trip? Better be ready.' It was his celestial call
to board. Now you ask me the same question,
and I don't know."

My friend mulled things for some days and then
phoned. "I can make the trip. I'll be ready. Find us a
boat that can do it." And that's how we came to be, on
the twentieth of April, sliding past the Norwegian
freighter on our way to the Atlantic Ocean. Pilotis -
my Pylades, my Pythia, my Pytheas - writes well,
values memorable language, quotes it as I can never
do. After I had nearly sunk us within sight of our
departure dock, in the ensuing embarrassed quiet
played to good effect, Pilotis said as if lecturing,
"Nautical charts carry a standard warning addressed to
`the prudent mariner.' Revere that adjective above
all others."

I, whose boating life to that moment consisted
of paddling about in a thirteen-foot canoe and
standing below-deck watches and chipping paint on a
nine-hundred-foot aircraft carrier, realized more than
I wished to admit why I wanted Pilotis along, but I
only pointed out the worn stone walls of Fort
Wadsworth on the north end of Staten Island near
the Narrows. Frdric Bartholdi, sculptor of the
Statue of Liberty, considered that passage the Gate of
America, an opening through which four centuries of
ships have sailed for the Canaries, Calcutta, the
southern capes, Cathay, but few for the Pacific
via inland waters. Then we crossed under the lofty,
six-lane span of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the
great Silver Gate looking improbably thin and fragile
hanging above us, and pushed east beyond Coney Island
and Gravesend Bay, on into the ocean. We paused at
that western edge of the Atlantic so it might set
in us a proper watery turn of mind and reset us from
lubbers to sailors. Then, in the spindrift, Pilotis
leaned over the side to fill a small bottle with brine
from the great eastern sea, cork it up and stow it
safely in the cabin until, we hoped, I could
unstopper it and pour it into the Pacific just beyond
the treacherous bar at the mouth of the Columbia River
a continent away.

Then I brought Nikawa about, and we headed for
New York City and the East River. I said in near
disbelief, After twenty years of thinking about this
possibility, it's happening! And Pilotis said, "Can
you make the trip? Can you make the trip?"

Copyright (c) 1999 by William Least Heat-Moon.
Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.

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