Excerpt from River Horse by William Least Heat-Moon, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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River Horse

A Journey Across America

by William Least Heat-Moon

River Horse
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  • First Published:
    Oct 1999, 528 pages
    Apr 2001, 528 pages

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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 day 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. Frédéric 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?"

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Copyright © 1999 William Least-Heat Moon

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