Book Review: River-Horse: The Logbook of a Boat Across America by William Least Heat-Moon

I last met William Least Heat-Moon in the memoir Blue Highways, an account of his journey around the continental United States alone in a small camper van. In River-Horse, he undertakes a boat journey along America’s rivers and lakes from New York all the way to the mouth of the Columbia River on the Pacific coast, with only a few brief portages along the way. It’s an ambitious trip that takes many months of planning and four months of execution.

River-Horse has some evocative descriptions and some exciting moments, but it did not grip me as strongly or affect me as deeply as Blue Highways. Thinking about it, I came up with three major reasons why this is so.

First of all, I could not identify with Heat-Moon’s adventures in River-Horse the same way I could with those in Blue Highways. Traveling by camper van is something I have done extensively in the past, although only in Europe, never in the States. At one time, my wife and I and our first three kids lived full time for months in a camper converted from a Mercedes cargo van as we moved from Italy back to Greece and roamed Greece before we set up in Athens. I also still have aspirations of traveling by camper again in the future, if I somehow could come up with the vehicle and the finances to support a nomadic life.

River travel, though, except for brief forays, I have no interest in. The closest I came to taking a long trip by river was decades ago when I was making my way from the Khyber Pass near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border across Pakistan to Lahore. I met a Norwegian traveler about the same age as I was, and together we concocted a crazy plan to explore the Indus River by boat. We decided to head for Multan in central Pakistan, obtain a small boat, and head leisurely downstream. We got as far as Multan, which seemed to us a dirty, sullen, unfriendly place, before we realized the absurdity of our idea. We decided to abandon the water plan and head for Mumbai (which was called Bombay at the time), but it would have been too time-consuming to go all the way back to Lahore overland and enter India there. Instead, we took an overfull train to Karachi, where we had to sit on our packs in the aisle near a stinking toilet for about twenty hours, and then take a cheap flight to Bombay. Those were the days.

Another reason that River-Horse was hard to identify with is because a trip like this is only within the reach of the relatively wealthy. I can imagine buying a van and making my way around on the road on a shoestring budget, but to take a trip along the waterways like Heat-Moon describes, you have to purchase a motorboat, a canoe with motor, and a vehicle and trailer to haul the boats. You also have to have the financial reserves to be able to not work for many months and pay for fuel for the boat and vehicles, hotel rooms, meals, and other expenses along the way. As a best-selling author, I suppose Heat-Moon could afford it, but as someone who barely manages to come up with the rent and bills each month, I can’t see it.

Finally, the strength of Blue Highways is the fascinating interviews that Heat-Moon has with the various eccentric people he meets along the way. However, River-Horse takes place in much more isolated locales. Most of the time, Heat-Moon has only his copilot and a few tag-along friends to converse with, so much of that local color is missing from this book.

Having said all that, I need to add that this book does grow on you. The author makes up for the lack of meetings with locals by supplying interesting tidbits of history of the places that they pass on the way. There are some genuinely exciting moments, and it is a real thrill when Heat-Moon motors out into the Pacific Ocean to culminate his long journey. It’s a well-written travel book telling of a unique and interesting experience. All in all, despite its not being as personally significant as Blue Highways to me, I still recommend it as a compelling read.

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