Monday Memories: River-Horse - Across America by Boat by William Least Heat-Moon


With this post I'm starting a new category - Monday Memories. I'll pull a book off my shelf, somewhat randomly, and tell you a bit about it. It's not a review of the book so much as a memory of the book, a bit about what might have been going on in my life when I read it, and my thoughts on who might like this book. 

This is kind of an experiment - I have no idea how well this idea of writing about books will work out, so we'll see how long I keep this up. I would appreciate any feedback you have on it too.

The Book

River-Horse by William Least Heat-Moon. Trade Paperback edition published by Penguin. Copyright 1999.

Why This Book?

For some reason this week, every time I walk by my bookshelves the orange spine of William Least Heat-Moon's River-Horse keeps catching my eye. It's been shelved in the same spot for quite a while so I'm not quite sure why it's jumping out at me now. But I think it has to do with the fact that the springtime rising sun has moved northward across the sky far enough so that it falls on this bookshelf as I pass by and makes the orange spine stand out more than it has in the passing winter months. 

So I decided that this book will have the honor of starting this series of posts.

What's This Book About?

From memory:
This book is about a trip that the author takes from east to west across the United States. What makes the trip unique is that he attempts to do it all by boat. He starts out with a good sized boat, an outboard if I remember, but has to switch to canoe part of the way. He's not able to make the whole journey by boat but is able to do more by boat than you think is possible. Do you remember the commercials where they cut a boat in half and rather than sinking both halves float? I think it was that kind of boat.

From perusing the book after I pulled it off the shelf:
The boat was a "C-Dory" and looks kind of like a miniature tugboat. The author names it Nikawa, from the Osage words ni for river and kawa for horse. It's powered by twin outboard engines and is able to be hauled over the road on a boat trailer. They put a kayak, not a canoe, on top of the boat to allow them to travel through the shallower waters of the western US (while they haul the C-Dory to where they can use it next). They also employ a river raft to go through the rapids of the Salmon River. 

"They" are the author and his companion, who apparently preferred to remain anonymous. So in the book he is dubbed "Pilotus". There are maps in almost every chapter that help you follow along as the journey progresses.  

Their journey started on the Atlantic Ocean outside of New York City and progressed mostly by water until they reach the Pacific Ocean near Astoria, Oregon. Along the way they saw a lot of the country most of us will never see, met a lot of people, and overcame a bunch of challenges.

What Was Going On In My Life When I Read This?

I have a distinct memory of an afternoon during a summer semester at college, sitting on a blanket on the lawn under the shade of a tree reading a William Least Heat-Moon book and dreaming about traveling. And when I pulled this book off the shelf, that memory came back to me. But it's NOT this book that I would have been reading. Given the timing of publication, it has to have been his earlier book Blue Highways, which I don't seem to still have my copy of.

I likely read this book in 2000 or 2001. At that time I was living in Evanston, IL and working in IT. So I would have just been through some big projects at work - Y2K (which many IT folks went through), and overseeing the IT infrastructure and systems for a manufacturing plant start-up which involved a bunch of travel that I remember with fondness. In fact, I'm pretty sure this book went with me on a work trip to keep me company in my off-hours.

Why Would Someone Like This Book?

I love books about exploring, hiking, traveling. Not travelogues per se. Some examples of what I'm talking about are On Trails by Robert Moor, Steinbeck's Travels With Charley, or Rinker Buck's The Oregon Trail, or any book by Tim Cahill. This also includes a couple of books that I've reviewed recently, including two by Robert MacFarlane and Joe Bennett's A Land of Two Halves. If you want a phrase to sum up these books I'd call them "Slow Travel" books. If any of those examples appeal to you, you'd like River-Horse.

So there you go - my first "Monday Memories" book post. Have you read River-Horse or any of the books I mentioned in this post? Do you have questions I didn't answer about this book? Do you like this type of post? Leave a comment below.