I’ve been a fan of William Least Heat-Moon since reading Blue Highways (1982) and PrairyErth (1991) many years ago. I thought I had read River-Horse (1999) as well, but when a friend recommended it and gave me a copy, I realized it was new to me or that maybe my memory of reading it was faulty. That’s the nice side of aging: reliving things again as if for the first time!

Born William Lewis Trogdon of Osage and English-Irish heritage in Kansas City, he writes under his Osage name. He’s the son of Heat-Moon and the younger brother of Little Heat-Moon, so to the Osage, he’s naturally Least Heat-Moon. (I once thought least-heat moon meant he was born in winter.) He holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Missouri and has taught there as well.

River-Horse tells the first-person tale of Least Heat-Moon and a companion identified only as Pilotus taking a boat named Nikawa (Osage for River-Horse) across the United States from New York harbor to Astoria, Oregon. The amazing thing is that such an Atlantic-to-Pacific trip is even possible, as long as you also carry an aluminum canoe to slip over shallows, several helpers with a van and trailer to carry your boat around dams and over portages, and a Bureau of Land Management officer to rescue you on the upper Missouri. Written in the 1990s, the trip was made without cellphones or reliable GPS; the shore party would raise a signal flag to mark rendezvous points or overnight stops.

The route took them from Elizabeth, N.J., opposite Manhattan, up the Hudson River to Albany, then via the 36 locks of the Erie Canal to Lake Erie near Buffalo. After a short portage from Lake Erie to Lake Chautauqua in western New York and another from the other end of that lake to the headwaters of the Allegheny in northwestern Pennsylvania, Nikawa has nothing but water under her into the heart of the continent.

At Pittsburgh, the Allegheny joins the Monongahela to form the Ohio River and after traveling the length of the Ohio, it’s north up the Mississippi to just beyond St. Louis. Then the journey continues into the Missouri and across the prairies to the Rocky Mountain streams that feed the Big Muddy near Three Forks, Montana. With trailered portages over the crest of the Rockies and a chartered raft (and guide) through the westward-flowing Salmon River’s whitewater gorge, Least Heat-Moon re-floats Nikawa on the Snake River and continues to the Columbia and the Pacific Ocean. Lewis and Clark traversed much of this country in 1804-06.

Besides realizing the daring feat of boating across the vast North American landmass, Least Heat-Moon witnesses what has really happened to America’s waterways as he repeatedly deals with the alterations that have been made to our once free-flowing rivers. Locks, dams, flooded copses, and tangled vegetation, silted and shifting sandbars, and endless floating debris are recurring impediments. By channeling, straightening, and damming, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has “improved” the waters in an attempt to tame Mother Nature and provide a consistent medium for barges to move bulk commodities from the hinterlands to inland and Gulf ports.

But at what cost? A channelized river carries the same amount of water but in a more confined space, so it flows faster, carries more silt, and consequently is unable to flood that rich silt into adjacent fields. The result is the fields are no longer renewed periodically with fresh topsoil and now must be artificially fertilized to grow crops. And the levees and berms necessary to keep all that water in a constricted new channel tend to send even worse flooding downstream. After years of construction and billions of dollars, rivers still flood, sometimes catastrophically into towns and cities. Water eventually finds a way to go where it wants to go.

Least Heat-Moon’s writing has carved out a unique place among American travel writers, evincing both whimsical reportage and transcendental musings. His writing shows flashes of the literary and his expressive, rambling descriptions break often for banter with his companion, helpers, and folks they meet along the way. This is a fascinating well-told tale, filled with history and humor, self-reflection and personal analysis, the occasional uncertainty about how the whole thing will end, and all laced with offbeat discussions of luck, coincidence, and the vagaries of good beer in riverfront towns.

River-Horse may be over 20 years old, but it stands up well.

Ed Guest lives and reads in East Burke. Happy New Year everyone!