River-Horse: A Voyage Across America

River-Horse: A Voyage Across America

by William Least Heat-Moon

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New York Times bestseller: “A coast-to-coast journey by way of great rivers, conducted by a contemporary master of travel writing” (Kirkus Reviews).
In this memoir brimming with history, humor, and wisdom, the author of Blue Highways and PrairyErth “voyages across the country, from Atlantic to Pacific, almost entirely by its rivers, lakes and canals in a small outboard-powered boat” (San Francisco Chronicle).
Setting off from New York Harbor aboard the boat he named Nikawa (“river horse” in Osage), in hopes of entering the Pacific near Astoria, Oregon, William Least Heat-Moon and his companion, Pilotis, struggle to cover some five thousand watery miles—more than any other cross-country river traveler has ever managed—often following in the wakes of our most famous explorers, from Henry Hudson to Lewis and Clark.
En route, the voyagers confront massive floods, submerged rocks, dangerous weather, and their own doubts about whether they can complete the trip. But the hard days yield incomparable pleasures: strangers generous with help and eccentric tales, landscapes unchanged since Sacagawea saw them, riverscapes flowing with a lively past, and the growing belief that efforts to protect our lands and waters are beginning to pay off.
“Fizzes with intelligence and high spirits.” —Outside
“Propels the reader with historical vignettes, ecological and geological detail, and often hilarious encounters with local eccentrics.” —Time

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780547523682
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: 02/05/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 100,959
File size: 17 MB
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About the Author

Under the name of William Least Heat-Moon, William Trogdon is the author of the bestselling classics Blue Highways, PrairyErth, and River-Horse: AVoyage Across America. He lives in Columbia, Missouri.

Read an Excerpt



Iconogram I

The bulk of the water in New York Harbor is oily, dirty, and germy. Men on the mud suckers, the big harbor dredges, like to say that you could bottle it and sell it for poison. The bottom of the harbor is dirtier than the water. In most places, it is covered with a blanket of sludge that is composed of silt, sewage, industrial wastes, and clotted oil. The sludge is thickest in the slips along the Hudson, in the flats on the Jersey side of the Upper Bay, and in backwaters such as Newtown Creek, Wallabout Bay, and the Gowanus Canal. In such areas, where it isn't exposed to the full sweep of the tides, it accumulates rapidly. In Wallabout Bay, a nook in the East River that is part of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, it accumulates at the rate of a foot and a half a year. The sludge rots in warm weather and from it gas-filled bubbles as big as basketballs continually surge to the surface. Dredgemen call them "sludge bubbles." Occasionally, a bubble upsurges so furiously that it brings a mass of sludge along with it. In midsummer, here and there in the harbor, the rising and breaking of sludge bubbles makes the water seethe and spit. People sometimes stand on the coal and lumber quays that line the Gowanus Canal and stare at the black, bubbly water.

Joseph MitchellThe Bottom of the Harbor, 1951

A Celestial Call to Board

For about half a league after we came out of the little harbor on Newark Bay at Elizabeth, New Jersey — with its strewn alleys and broken buildings, its pervading aura of collapse, where the mayor himself had met us at the dock and stood before a podium his staff fetched up for him to set his speech on, words to launch us on that Earth Day across the continent as he reminded us of history here, of George Washington on nearly the same date being rowed across to New York City on the last leg of his inaugural journey — and for the half league down the Kill Van Kull (there Henry Hudson lost a sailor to an arrow through the neck), we had to lay in behind a rusting Norwegian freighter heading out to sea with so little cargo that her massive props were no more than half in the water and slapping up a thunderous wake and thrashing such a roil it sent our little teakettle of a boat rolling fore and aft. I quickly throttled back, and the following sea picked up our stern and threatened to ride over the low transom into the welldeck. We had no bilge pump to empty it, and the cabin door stood hooked open to the bright blue April morning and the sea air of New York Bay.

My copilot roared, "Don't cut the motors so fast when we're riding a swell! You'll swamp us!" Only ten minutes out, we were nearly on our way to the bottom, sixty feet below. I turned toward the stern to see the bay rear above the transom just before the water raised Nikawa high enough to let the next wave ride under and shove her fast toward the chopping props of the freighter. Then her bow slipped down the other side of the swell, we pulled away from the big screws, and I idled to let the deep-water tramp move ahead until I got an open lane on her port side. We pushed past, cut through the wake of the Staten Island Ferry, and headed on toward the Atlantic.

"And that's how it begins," said my friend, a blue-water sailor, one whom I shall call Pilotis (rhymes with "my lotus"). It wasn't, of course, the beginning, for who can say where a voyage starts — not the actual passage but the dream of a journey and its urge to find a way? For this trip I can speak of a possible inception: I am a reader of maps, not usually nautical charts but road maps. I read them as others do holy writ, the same text again and again in quest of discoveries, and the books I've written each began with my gaze wandering over maps of American terrain. At home I have an old highway atlas, worn and rebound, the pages so soft from a thousand thumbings they whisper as I turn them. Every road I've ever driven I've marked in yellow, the pages densely highlighted, and I can now say I've visited every county in the contiguous states except for a handful in the Deep South, and those I'll get to soon. Put your finger at random anyplace in this United States atlas, and I've either been there or within twenty-five miles of it, but for the deserts of Nevada where the gap can be about twice that. I didn't set out to do this; it just happened over forty years of trying to memorize the face of America. When someone speaks of Pawtucket or Cross Creek or Marfa, I want an image from my travels to appear; when I read a dateline in a news story about Jackson Hole, I want the torn Teton horizon and a remembered scent of pinyon pine in me. "Have you seen the historic tavern at Scenery Hill?" the Pennsylvanian may say, and I want to ask, How goes the ghost, and are the yeast rolls still good? No words have directed my life more than those from venerable Thomas Fuller, that worthy historian of olde England: "Know most of thy native country before thou goest over the threshold thereof."

Twenty years ago I had been down enough miles of American road that I could visualize the impending end of new territory to light out for — as my fellow Missourian, river traveler Huck Finn, has it — and that's when I noticed the web of faint azure lines, a varicose scribing of my atlas. They were rivers. I began tracing a finger over those twistings in search of a way to cross America in a boat. At first I was simply curious whether one could accomplish such a voyage without coming out of the water repeatedly and for many miles, but later I grew interested in the notion of what America would look like from the rivers, and I wanted to see those secret parts hidden from road travelers. Surely a journey like that would open new country and broader notions, but I could find no transcontinental route of rivers that did not require miles and miles of portages and heavy use of border waters — the Gulf of Mexico or the Great Lakes. For my voyage, I wanted only an internal route across the nation.

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 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 hang ing 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?"

Up Rivers Without Sources

The depth finder lined out a profile of the bay bottom, a place I began to imagine festered and festooned with antique I arks and sloops — Dutch, English, Yankee — mired to the cold ooze ten fathoms below, the Hudson currents washing to the sea, working the wreckage and dunnage in the black and perpetual silence, where somehow the whelks learn to drone the sound of the distant surf and imbue it into their shells. Down in the weatherless deep there had to be jetsam from Henry Hudson's Half Moon, drowned ferrymen, bluejackets whose "Yo heave ho!" was forever gone, and concrete-booted malefactors trying to tread over the cinders blown from Fulton's steamboat, and sprawled across the bottom spars and anchors, capstans, soggy oakum, tar buckets, and sundered barebreasted figureheads staring in wide-eyed disbelief at their ill luck.

Then my old nightmare: I am submerged in some unknown waters where I watch the drowned drag their weary grief across the mud, their long and faded locks rising from their skulls like kelp wafting in the slow current, barefoot sailors stirring the silt come down from the distant mountains, the agony of their end still on their faces, and a skeletal tar rises from the tangled rigging, turns, and motions me toward him, and I must approach closer and closer until I am almost against his moss-hung jawbone, and out from his eye sockets swims aneel, its toothy maw hanging with human viscera. I awake in strangled terror.

Pilotis said, "You're watching the sounder again. Leave the mossbunkers and tomcod to themselves and try the day up here." I pulled the bow northward and aimed it toward Buttermilk Channel alongside Governors Island, a place the Dutch of New Amsterdam knew as a 170-acre islet but that New Yorkers of 1900 saw as a wave-eaten place of seventy acres. We passed it, now built back to its earlier size with stone and soil from subway excavations and river dredgings.

The massive risings of Manhattan, monstrously fine in the sun and cutting deeply into the blue air, sat atop the skinny island that each year gets further Swiss-cheesed with diggings. Surely the tunnels and cavities under the pavement and foundations, if dragged up and stood on end, would nearly equal the bulk of what rests above them. From a mile down the bay, Manhattan looked fragile, more glass and glitter than stone and durability, the most staggering cityscape on earth, yet still only a grand temporariness before the Empire State Building one day collapses into the F train tunnel. The view gave me a small ascendance, a kind of superiority that water passage can bring: perhaps it was the sound of the eternal river against the hull or our moving freely past the bound and entangled city. I mentioned it to Pilotis who, after the usual consideration, motioned toward the Battery off our port side and gave a paraphrase of Melville (I quote it now exactly): "He spoke of landsmen 'pent up in lathe and plaster, tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks, how they must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand.' For us, we've traded safety to hear the Lorelei sing."

Bounded by water, Manhattan has a river at the end of nearly every through street; it's a place you can never be much more than a mere mile from the Hudson, Harlem, or East rivers, yet those citizens are islanders only because of a topography that rarely seems to inform their notions of where or who they are. If Manhattanites, other than the poor, want a river, they go to Maine, even New Jersey.

We went up past South Street Seaport, once a forest of masts and spars and home to packet ships owned by Captain Preserved Fish, then on we moved toward the high webbing of Roebling's great bridge. Somewhere below, the A train clattered through the dark and grimed tube buried in the sludge to haul the human freightage into Brooklyn, the "broken land" of the Dutch. Beneath us life was actually occurring — words passed, bagels noshed, books read, sleep rattled — under our keel, under the river and fetid muck and cold rock, and no one down there imagining us gliding above. We passed the cul-de-sac of Wallabout Bay where, although the water was cleaner than a generation ago, a few suicides and murdered folk still washed up in that wet potter's field, the cadavers chewed by eels.

The East River, local mariners allege, is one of but two in the world with a pair of mouths but no source. The truth is that it isn't really a river at all, no matter what it looks like; it's a strait only fourteen miles long, a narrow arm of the Atlantic that tidal currents sluice through to twist and torture the passage of small boats. But we were coming up it at its slackening, the flat hull of Nikawa sliding along as if the river were a farm pond, and then we went under the Brooklyn Bridge. Eighteen million people surrounding us, and we had the water almost to ourselves. I pulled the bow about, passed beneath to see the span again, and then turned us north once more. "What was that about?" Pilotis said, and I answered I'd waited a lifetime to see the bridge from underneath, an event I wasn't likely to repeat. "I hope we're not going to do the whole voyage twice," my mate said. "By that route, the Pacific is sixteen thousand miles away."

From the East River, the heaps of buildings of Manhattan seemed to leave little room for humanity, and the city looked strangely still, almost quiescent. Except for the trickling of yellow cabs along the perimeter, the place appeared empty. It didn't manifest power or vibrance but merely bulk, all of it enhanced by a certain worn charm the river lends: its six bridges and its satisfying narrowness, especially at midtown where Roosevelt Island splits the channel to create an intimacy never achievable over on the Hudson. From the city came no stink of combustion engines and almost no sound carried against the soft easterly off the ocean as if early Sunday morning lay over the place. But it was Thursday and the streets, entombed in long spring shadows, seemed to suck in morning light and Atlantic air, and the whole island inhaled that sweetness crossing the water.

Because I'd long heard of its legendary potential for torment, we detoured a mile northeast just to pass through and experience the pinched bending of Hell Gate, where tidal eddies and standing waves and — once — rocks sent hundreds of ships to grief after the Tyger first came through from Long Island Sound in 1612. For us, the passage was an early test to build our assurance in Nikawa and our own capacity to handle even more difficult water ahead. Trying to ride the flood tide up the Hudson, we happened to reach Hell Gate at its tidal pausing, a near hydrological calm that leaves it comparatively quelled. Even so, the pilothouse of a small trawler ahead of us began to roll, and we stopped to watch it before we moved into the swirlings and heard the turmoil speak through our hull in low thumpings and sharp bangings. Nikawa yawed flatly but didn't roll, and she shimmied forward through Hell Gate, and then we came about to take it the opposite direction before moving on past Astoria where once schoonermen lived under widow's walks. Pilotis put aside the chart and said, "Our first Astoria is fifteen miles upriver from the Atlantic and our last is fifteen miles east of the Pacific, and what's in between is our life for the next four months."


Excerpted from "River-Horse"
by .
Copyright © 1999 William Least Heat-Moon.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Table of Contents,
The Boat,
Iconogram I,
A Celestial Call to Board,
Up Rivers Without Sources,
There Lurk the Skid Demon,
A Drowned River,
Where Mohicans Would Not Sleep,
Snowmelt and a Nameless Creek,
Iconogram II,
The Pull of a Continent,
Released from the Necessity of Mundane Toil,
Like Jonah, We Enter a Leviathan,
Knoticals and Hangman's Rope,
We Sleep with a Bad-Tempered Woman Tossed by Fever,
Iconogram III,
Hoisting the Blue Peter,
How the Sun Rose in the West to Set Me Straight,
Iconogram IV,
An Ammonia Cocktail and a Sharp Onion-Knife,
A Flight of Eagles, an Iron Bed, and So Forth,
Unlimited Sprawl Area,
Zing, Boom, Tararel!,
Iconogram V,
Proving the White Man a Liar,
The Day Begins with a Goonieburger,
Enamel Speaks,
Along the Track of the Glaciers,
From Humdrummery on down toward Tedium,
A History of the Ohio in Three Words: Mastodons to Condoms,
A River Coughed Up from Hell,
A Necessity of Topography and Heart,
Nekked and Without No Posies,
Eyeless Fish with Eight Tails,
The Great Omphalos in Little Egypt,
Iconogram VI,
A Night Without Light on a River Without Exits,
The Ghost of the Mississippi,
Of Swampsuckers and Samaritans,
To the Tune of "Garry Owen" We Get Ready,
Iconogram VII,
We Start up the Great Missouri,
I Attach My Life to the Roots of a Cottonwood,
A Language with No Word for Flood,
Looking the River in the Eye,
Clustered Coincidences and Peach Pie,
Gone with the Windings,
Pilotis's Cosmic View Gets Bad News,
The Dream Lines of Thomas Jefferson,
A Water Snake across the Bow,
Sacred Hoops and a Wheel of Cheddar,
Iconogram VIII,
We Find the Fourth Missouri,
The Phantom Ship of the Missouri Reeds,
How to Steal Indian Land,
A Conscientious Woman,
Flux, Fixes, and Flumdiddle,
Sitting Bull and the Broom of Heaven,
How to Be a Hell of a Riverman,
Yondering up the Broomsticks,
Chances of Aught to Naught,
We Walk under the Great River,
Why Odysseus Didn't Discover America,
Pilotis Concocts an Indian Name for God,
Trickles, Dribbles, and Gurglets,
My Life Becomes a Preposition,
Little Gods and Small Catechisms,
Eating Lightning,
Imprecating the Wind,
Into the Quincunx,
Planning for Anything Less than Everything,
Over the Ebullition,
Ex Aqua Lux et Vis,
Weaknesses in Mountains and Men,
A Nightmare Alley,
No Huzzahs in the Heart,
Iconogram IX,
We Meet Mister Eleven,
Eating the Force that Drives Your Life,
An Ark from God or a Miracle of Shoshones,
A Shameless Festal Board,
Iconogram X,
Bungholes and Bodacious Bounces,
Iconogram XI,
My Hermaphroditic Quest,
Kissing a Triding Keepsake,
Messing About in Boats,
Iconogram XII,
The Far Side of the River Cocytus,
Place of the Dead,
Theater of the Graveyard,
A Badger Called Plan A,
Robot of the River,
A Taproom Fit for Raggedy Ann,
Salt to Salt, Tide to Tide,
An Afterword of Appreciation,
If You Want to Help,
About the Author,

Customer Reviews

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River Horse: A Voyage Across America 4.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Ive come to help you look for Dreamlily, *she said before bounding over to help Moosetail look with a worried expression in her eyes.*
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This one took me a while to start reading. I picked it up several times since I bought it two years ago and had set it aside, waiting for the right frame of mind. I am so glad I got into 'that' frame of mind. This chronicle was captivating, for many reasons. First, the objective of the trip, to go from ocean to ocean by water. For those of us with wanderlust, the thought of such a trip is irresistable. Second, the suspense and quiet introspection of the journey itself. Reading about the pollution in our nation's waterways and the rape of federally owned lands by the cattle industry, enabled by monied interests with political clout made me sick and confirmed my belief that we are losing our most precious resources on so many levels in the name of 'capitalism,' which in my view is another name for unbridled greed. Third, the sheer wonder of reading about Heat Moon finding and straddling the source of the Missouri River -- which, frankly, I had never thought much about until reading this book. Fourth, the excitement of following the trip over the Rockies in a raft. Then, just when you think it is smooth sailing, facing the Columbia and navigating to its mouth. The photo at the end of the book of little Nikawa in the Pacific Ocean brought tears to my eyes. One of the most engrossing non-fiction books I have read in a while.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you are one who has adventure in your spirit- then read this book. If you are in need of a little faith in humanity and our nation during these strange times then read this book. I love adventure, chance and the mundane details of average folk's lives. Evenso, I am a realist and this book has all the realism and all the hard bad negative stuff that goes along with an endeavour of this magnitude. And still he and his partner keep joking even at the worst moment. We're lucky to have a writer of this talent and dedication writing in and around America today. Get it and read it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a great adventure, not only of the quest but of the people we meet as well.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Unlike Europe, which has experienced more than a thousand years of living along waterways, America's cities and towns had turned their backs on the rivers after only little more than a hundred years. After extensive planning and preparation Heat-Moon attempts to relive the river journeys from coast to coast. It turns out to be much more difficult and probably a lot less rewarding than what he had imagined. His determination, and frankly, his luck, and his story telling place him up there with Bill Bryson.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The 'almost not going to make it' keeps you reading on. Everytime the boaters have to shorten their water rides, you feel a lump in your throat. The people they meet along the way and the places they stay remind me of people I have known.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Too often books in the 'travel' section give you the tourist info that guides give you, or evolve into a diatribe about the superiority of the author. William Least Heat-Moon stays in the channel between the two, and does exactly what a good travel narrative should do...he makes you want to take the trip yourself. Anyone who has ever wanted to undertake a lengthy trip across America, whether by car,boat,train,bike, or rollerskates will enjoy this book, written by a decent man who apparently notices only the decent people around him, and the country he loves.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Is this the original horse clan?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Good. At camp
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Padded i
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Im there already
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Cloudripple ran in, glanced around, then sprinted to another result.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
He frowned, stepping foreward and pressing his muzzle to her cheek. He backed away, turning and padding off. V
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Next resoult i meant!~SANDSLASH