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River-Horse (2001)

River-Horse (2001)

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3.85 of 5 Votes: 1
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0140298606 (ISBN13: 9780140298604)
penguin books

About book River-Horse (2001)

There is no hiding in writing. You can run the River Of No Return in central Idaho, you can float the Xingu in central Brazil, raft the Grand Canyon of the wild Colorado, drive the Pacific Coast Highway, travel to faraway lands and cultures, or ride the rails and watch for fires in desolate, lookout towers in the middle of nowhere – you can ride and ride and ride, and run and run and run, but if you choose to write about your journey, you cannot hide who you are. William Least Heat-Moon, author of River Horse: A Voyage Across America is a curmudgeon—a second-order curmudgeon. (See below.) And on top of that, his writing suffers from way, way, way too many metaphors, similes, and analogies. Heat-Moon is in love with himself, his writing style, and his worldview; and is bitter and angry that others don’t fully appreciate his talents. That’s what I get from reading this book. That said, there are some things I like about this story. It is informative and authoritative. I did get a sense of the land and I liked the historical references to the Lewis and Clark expedition and also the local folklores and color. This is travel writing, a book about Heat-Moon’s 100+ day journey of 5,288 miles across America in 1995, mostly by major waterways, in a 22 foot motorboat, named Nikawa, which in the Osage language means, river horse. And, as one of the author’s travel companion’s notes spelled backward is “Awakin.” Wishful thinking, methinks. If by awakening one means insight into self. Not much of that going on here. The writing style is NPRish. Contrived. Overdone. Too clever. Metaphors and whatnots are for the purpose of expanding understanding — Making sense of the unknown by the knower of, to the unknower of—the unknown. Not to show off but to simplify. For example: The Snake River. Or, The River Of No Return. Which then Heat-Moon dresses up as in his chapter heading: “Bungholes and Bodacious Bounces.” But then, and this is part of what I like about the book, Heat-Moon gives a good declarative, simple opening paragraph that describes the physical characteristics of the canyon, followed by excerpts from L & C Expedition’s Journal and tops that with this local lore descriptor: ‘“Creation chopped it [the Canyon] out with a hatchet.’” (circa 1900) One can imagine a huge god-like man, say Paul Bunyan, standing over the rocky mountains with an axe and chopping away, and then what that would look like – the canyon that the Salmon River carved out in central Idaho. But then one of his (=Heat-Moon’s) pal’s (like attracts like) chimes in with this, ‘“This isn’t a river – it’s a wet elevator.’” (pg. 430 – both) Huh? This kind of muddling metaphor is a constant. Here’s another one: “Things unacknowledged were about to claw into the light like moles desperate in a flooding field.” (pg. 489) Which is a re-statement of what he mused 16 pages earlier, “… – my life off the river caught up that morning …I’d given that other existence time to find me and bring with it much I’d recently failed to do well or even adequately – marriage preeminently – so that when I fully woke, even before I thought I heard the wind, I wanted nothing to do with anything, and lay wishing I could evaporate like a creek when feeder streams dwindle in summer heat until one day the water is gone, leaving behind only an imprint in its bed.” Sh__t. Heat-Moon was 56 when he took this trip, and I know some readers do like this kind of self-wallowing, but it’s not uplifting nor inspiring … makes me glad I haven’t encountered Heat-Moon on any of my travels! It’s NPRish, yes? His worldview is tree-hugging liberal (Nothing wrong with that. I lean that way myself.); and he seems to look down his nose at most of the people he encounters along his journey. This is where the “second-order curmudgeon” comes from. I’ve taken that from David Wallace’s account in his novel The Broom of the System, where Wallace speaks (via a character) about “a second-order vain person.” Which is – pretending not to be vain when you are – which can also be applied to Heat-Moon. So curmudgeon: bad tempered, disapproving, disagreeing person, which is how I find Heat-Moon. And yes, I have some of that in me. Most writers do. But he pretends he’s not, folksin’ up to the folks he encounters on his journey, and then secretly belittling them when he has no further use for them. Anyway, that’s my impression. I like this kind of book – a travel-log, but not this one. I much preferred Road Angels: Searching for Home on America’s Coast of Dreams (2001) by Kent Nerburn.

William Least Heat-Moon. Our author slips in his anglo name at one point in this narrative, but only in the most sly way, as if it were a secret he uttered by mistake. He also reveals the meaning of Heat-Moon--an Indian (Osage) name for a midsummer moon. Least? I still don’t know. River Horse is that kind of book. Full of signs and portents and knowledge and suspense, always slipping around in currents or running aground in the shallows or stalled at the locks. The goals are definite, but distant, and fulfillment unsure even if the goal is reached. The road is shadowy, liquid, its source unknown and direction unpredictable. Underneath the few visible surface inches is another world altogether, sometimes benign, sometimes dynamic, sometimes friendly, sometimes hostile. Always unknown. River Horse is on one level the non-fiction tale of a man and his boat, intent on journeying across North America by water in one season--the space between May and August when navigability is maximum. For reasons he explains and re-explains and never quite fully justifies, he wants to move east to west, to more or less duplicate a major portion of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804. It means that the upstream portion of the trip will be about twice as long as if he traveled in the opposite direction, but it HAS to be east to west anyhow. He gathers a crew, finds a boat that he thinks will fill the bill (flat bottom for the shallows, big enough to take two motors to fight the current, narrow enough to fit between close banks and rocks), fits out a motorized canoe to fit where the Nikawa won’t go so he can absolutely maximize water miles and minimize portages, gathers a crew, and takes off from New Jersey. Despite extensive preparation--research, advance contact with lock and dam operators, spotting fueling stations, etc.--the trip is fraught with complications and difficulties. As we travel, Heat-Moon, fills us in with scholarly and entertaining (hard combination to achieve)--often poetic-- accounts and descriptions of the history, geography, geology, zoology, and sociology of the lands and cities and towns we pass through. He also delivers a healthy political/environmental commentary on the governmental neglect and commercial exploitation of our resources. Both the journey and the commentary are fascinating and suspenseful. It’s not the kind of suspense where you wonder whether they’re going to make it. It’s the kind of suspense where you wonder how, as in how are they going to extricate themselves from this one? As if that weren’t enough, there are sub-currents of a non-riverine kind in the relationships among the crew and the inner life of the narrator. People are taking the journey for their own reasons, which don’t always match his, and the levels of commitment vary. So folks come aboard, then debark in mid-journey, leaving ghosts of guilt, regret, resentment. So, too, the marriage that Heat-Moon is leaving behind. We don’t glimpse too much of it, just enough to know that every mile of the odyssey is intertwined with thoughts of what worked, what didn’t, and why. All of this leaves a shadowed frame around a mostly bright and colorful painting. It sounds a bit novelistic for a piece of travel writing, but that's how substantive this journal is, how much dimension it has. And I should mention the vocabulary enhancements he provided yours truly. Words such “atrabilious,” “esurient,” “jactitation,” and “cliquant.” Delicious. I don’t know a better journey book in contemporary American literature. I call it a classic, and an inspiring one at that. A good start to 2009.

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Each night I have been curling up in bed with William Least Heat Moon's Water Horse: The Logbook of a Boat Across America (New York: Mifflin, 1999). The book as the subtitle outlines is a travelogue of Heat Moon and a friend (Pilotus) and their attempt to cross America by water. Each night I look forward to opening up the book and my handy Road Atlas of North America to follow their journey up and down the waterways of the United States. I have always tracing the journey I am reading about, there is something enthralling in reading well-written travelogues, a chance to travel alongside those who have the trips in the past. I have always found the idea of exploring unused manners of travel exciting. The idea of traveling down rivers and especially canals, glimpsing worlds that usually remain hidden is a fun way of forcing each of us to see the world in a different light.

Oh man! I've been working on this book for a while. Once I'm finished with it I'm sure I'll give it four stars. I mean, I do like it. But like Blue Highways, Heat-Moon doesn't miss a detail or a bit of trivia and he doesn't miss an opportunity to share those things with you. The journey here is a SLOW one, it seems, because he offers so much so often. Bogs you down such that sometimes you just want to put your fingers in your ears and say, "Just open up the throttles and shut up for a minute, will ya?" But soon you start to miss his commentary. Until you have to put your fingers in your ears again.When this is over, I'll be glad I was along for the ride. Three stars while I work my way through it, four stars when I'm done.Interesting note - he claims in this book (I think this book) that one can point to any place on a map of America and he will have been within 25 miles of it at some point in his travels. How freaking awesome is that?!?Totally unrelated and irrelevant comment, as this thought just randomly crossed my mind: I'm SICK of hot weather now and ready for duck season to arrive. Quack quack.Another unrelated comment: I've got skinny wrists. Makes me mad.Finally, I like love Krispy Kreme Chocolate Glazed Doughnuts.

First William Least Heat-Moon wrote about his circular journey from coast to coast and back on 'Blue Highways', then he wrote about his journey by water from coast to coast.I was hooked from the time he motored under the Brooklyn Bridge up the Hudson to the Erie Canal. I read every word as he crossed Lake Erie, went down the Allegheny to the Ohio.Enjoyed the journey on the Ohio and Missouri til the later ended in Montana. Loved how the story followed the steps of Lewis and Clark over the continental divide, then floated along the Salmon, Snake and Columbia rivers. You'll learn about how the rivers are different today due to the damming. You'll get a feel for how to take a boat into a lock, or past shoals, or deal with windy conditions and you'll almost feel like you are river worthy. Will he make it across the 'graveyard of the pacific' at the mouth of the Columbia from sea to sea, salt to salt and tide to tide?If you liked his book Blue Highways, you are going to love this book.
—Pat Monahan

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