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Why a lone canoeist travelled across America

Why a lone canoeist travelled across America

Lone canoeist Neal Moore descended New York State’s Mohawk River, at the end of a journey that began 22 months and 7,456 miles ago, meeting people across 22 states and 22 rivers

His paddle has plied 21 bodies of water so far on his way across the continent. Downstream always means easier paddling, yet he knows that dangers abound—wedge up against a log or rock and the current will flip him and sink his earthly goods.

All the upstream slogs were worse, of course. His eyes would scan the river for the calm seams of flat water, and the points of land that subdued the stream and made the way less difficult. Lest he surrender hard-earned progress, he would dig and dig long past the burning of his shoulders in mid-morning and on into the long and stiflingly hot—or freezing and windblown—afternoon.

The lone canoeist’s objective

Neal Moore keeping his journalMoore kept a journal detailing everywhere he went and everyone he encountered. Credit: Neal Moore

His declared objective was to journey along 22 rivers, across 22 American states, in 22 months. He would “string together rivers” and those living along them to see what still connected the people in that divided country.

At evening, sunset often beams upon a chosen spit of sand—the river showing him where to camp. He likes islands for their safety from animals but also from people. An hour before nightfall he unloads his gear, pitches his tent, fixes some supper, maybe cracks a beer. And then he dines in perfect solitude seated upon an overturned plastic bucket, watching the timeless mystery of day becoming night. Music of coyotes, crickets, frogs. The silent coming of fireflies from across the water, piling into the willows above his head.

He turns in early, marvelling at the strength in his 49-year-old limbs, which increases by the day. He’ll wake up one hour before dawn, and in concert with the first hopeful rays of morning he will push off into the stream, leaving nothing behind but the humble notch in the coarse sand where his canoe has passed the sacred night.

The lone canoeist’s life struggles 

When Moore was a 13-year-old growing up in Los Angeles, his older brother, Tom, whom he adored, crashed his car and died from his injuries. Devastated, Moore passed his teenage years in a spiralling funk—drugs, attempted suicide—made worse when his beloved mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and began a slow decline.

His father was a fifth-generation Mormon, and it was traditional for devout Mormons to go on a two-year mission between secondary school and college to spread the gospel. His mother, her health dwindling, stated her dying wish: it was time for her son to serve that mission.

Moore was anything but devout. But his mother wanted him to do something transformative. To do something pure. If she died while he was away, she said, he was not to come home for the funeral.

Surprising even himself, he went. His assignment was South Africa, from 1991 to 1993. During his first month in the field, he got the phone call he’d been dreading—his mother had passed away. Honouring her request, he stayed on.

The mission changed his life. In South Africa he learned to live outside his dark thoughts. To serve wholeheartedly. To walk freely among strangers and learn their stories. To shake hands African-style, thumb upward. To smile and mean it.

“When you push yourself out of your comfort zone,” he concluded, “this is when extraordinary things can happen. This is when you learn and grow.”

Travel and life experiences

taking it easy near syracuseTaking it easy near Syracuse, New York. Credit: Neal Moore

Over the next decades he lived as an expatriate, teaching English in Taiwan, selling antiques in South Africa, adventuring in Egypt, then heading into Ethiopia’s broiling heat. He went back for a visit to the United States in 2009 for a paddle down the length of the Mississippi River. He wanted to see how the middle of America was faring during the Great Recession—this despite having never previously spent more than an afternoon in a canoe.

Cancer had taken his mother, and in 2012 it tried to take him, too. He needed surgery, which left him unable to walk. Over the course of months, he crawled and then stood and then took a few shuffling paces. Finally, he was able to once again go on long treks.

Divided States of America

Neal Moore canoeing near Helena, MontanaMoore makes his way through the Gates of the Mountains near Helena, Montana. Credit: Norman Miller

From overseas, after the 2016 election of Donald Trump, he watched division and rancour infect his beloved country. He needed to rediscover America, to see what still held it together. His 50th birthday was only a few years off. Cancer would be back for him, he knew it. He’d love to plan an amazing excursion. Without a wife or children who’d miss him, he had the luxury of time. And he knew exactly how to use it—he’d traverse the continent by canoe.

The open canoe would not only honour the continent’s first inhabitants, it would put as little as possible between himself and the world. His plan was to travel west to east, Pacific to Atlantic. The trip would need a flourish at the end, and he knew just the thing—a victory lap around the Statue of Liberty, symbol of the American people, who were what this trip was about.

The lone canoeist’s journey begins

Making friends on the Missouri RiverMaking friends on the Missouri River. Credit: Neal Moore

On February 9, 2020, Moore sets out from Astoria, Oregon, at the mouth of the Columbia River. He packs a tent, a sleeping bag, jugs of water and freeze-dried meals, then points his bright red five-metre canoe upstream. He starts paddling—1,078 uphill miles to the Continental Divide in Montana (rivers: Columbia, Snake, St Joe, Clark Fork).

He portages over the Divide, then does an eight-month, 3,600-mile downhill run to New Orleans (rivers: Missouri, Mississippi). The final leg, 2,890 miles over several months, takes Moore east along the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, then up through Alabama, Tennessee and Kentucky, and eventually to New York City (rivers and waterways: Gulf of Mexico, Mobile, Tombigbee, Tenn-Tom, Tennessee, Ohio, Kentucky, Kanawha, Allegheny, Chadakoin, Lake Erie, Erie Canal, Seneca, Oneida, Mohawk, Hudson).

Along the way, he dodges barges and container ships, startles grizzlies, is bumped hard by a bull shark and is escorted by dolphins. He capsizes twice and is hit by all kinds of conditions: heavy winds, sleet, downpours and floods. And there is spectacular scenery. Every day he experiences the involuntary laugh of a free man revelling in his element.

Meeting America

When the pandemic hits shortly after the start of his journey, things shut down. Moore changes his plans, but pushes on. He dines with the homeless and with mayors and with multimillionaires. Strangers shelter him for the night, buy him meals, show him the town, explain their histories. An Umatilla Indian in Oregon acknowledges with approval that he’s “going the wrong way,” west to east, reversing the direction of 19th-century settlers.

"The pandemic hit, things shut down, plans changed, but Moore pushed on"

In the Columbia River Gorge, a Klickitat chief shares his enduring love of the Columbia River and its salmon. Recreational fishermen insist on giving him all their food and beer. At dinner after a treacherous lake crossing in Montana, a cattle auctioneer tells him that he and his family were watching, ready to jump in their boat and come to his rescue. He attends concerts, pokes around museums, visits old friends, makes new ones. He goes out of his way to meet America.

Curious locals and unforgettable experiences

In Bismarck, North Dakota, a farmer-turned-entrepreneur convinces him to get a tattoo. He chooses one in honour of his brother, Tom, and listens to the life story of the artist, 42-year-old Lance Steven Paulk, who has spent more of his life in prison than out, including time in solitary confinement next to Charles Manson. That night when Moore opens his journal, he sees that it is July 13—Tom’s birthday.

The beauty of a river is that it bears you along through seeming wilderness until it opens suddenly upon a town. This balance between nature and civilisation appeals to Moore, who is at least as interested in people as he is in the land. At river towns as old as the country itself, he hauls his canoe ashore. He’s often swarmed by curious locals: where did he come from? And he’s going all the way to where?

In St Joseph, Missouri, he is hailed by an extended family partying along the river. He cautiously comes ashore and within minutes is part of the group. They thrust a drink into one of his hands and a grilled bratwurst into the other. Half an hour later, still holding his drink, he finds himself in a dune buggy careening over the edge of the banks of the Missouri River, a giant grin on his face.

A special gift

Gale Boocks gifts Neal Moore a paddleGale Boocks gifts Neal Moore a very special paddle. Credit: Richard Sayer

In Oil City, Pennsylvania, an 82-year-old former pastor named Gale Boocks greets him on the banks of the Allegheny River. Boocks had known Verlen Kruger, considered by many to be the greatest American canoeist in history, and owns a paddle that had belonged to the legend. Boocks has read about Moore in the paper, and has come out looking for him so he could bequeath the paddle. Stunned, Moore accepts the gift on the understanding that he will merely be its temporary custodian until someday passing it on to another enthusiast.

People in hardship

It isn’t all rosy. At a bar in Montana, Moore slips up and accidentally reveals his politics, something he’d promised himself he wouldn’t do. The crowd turns on him and calls him an enemy of the United States. The next morning the family that has been hosting him shows him the door.

But that is the only real stain on the trip. Any other time he expects danger or hatred, he finds their opposites. He tries to avoid places that attract drug addicts, so at a campsite on the Snake River that looks a little sketchy, he is apprehensive when approached by a fellow camper. But despite missing an eye and being what society deems “homeless,” the man, Brian Bensen, turns out to be anything but a threat. He has equipped himself with a two-by-four-metre trailer with solar-­powered air conditioning and a TV, and is eager to share whatever he can with anyone who needs it.

“I feed as many weary travellers as I can,” he tells Moore.

"At one bar, when Moore reveals his politics the crowd turns on him"

Another night in Idaho, camped behind a church, Moore hears two men outside his tent raving in a drug-­addled fury. They menacingly approach his flimsy shelter, commanding him to reveal himself.

Shaking, he laces up his running shoes and grabs his bear spray and a knife. Eventually they leave him alone. Then, strangely, in the morning one of the men returns—and invites him to coffee. Moore sits and hears the man’s story of hardship and addiction, and they part as friends.

Connect and be cool!

Downtown Tat in Memphis on election dayA new friend, Downtown Tat, in Memphis on election night, 2020. Credit: Neal Moore

In Memphis, on the day of the 2020 presidential election, the political tension is palpable. Private security details patrol the streets. Moore takes a seat at a bar to see how things will go. He hears a commotion—not trouble, but laughter. Outside, a man is running with a flag in his hand, on which is printed “Be kool Memphis”. He is posing for pictures with tourists, lightening the mood. Moore gets up from his lunch to introduce himself to the man, who calls himself Downtown Tat.

“What’s the flag about?” Moore asks, inquisitively.

“It’s not just Memphis,” Tat says. “It’s the whole country. We just have to be cool. Be cool, baby!”.

"The vast majority are happy to help, to share, to swap stories and to form intense, brief connections"

Americans, Moore decides, still don’t know how to reconcile their politics, but they’re quite capable of ignoring them. And when they do, the vast majority are happy to help, to share, to swap stories and to form intense—however brief—connections. Whatever you might see on the news, Moore learns that people are still generous and curious, brave and resilient, still connected by neighbourly values.

Final approach

Neal Moore at his final destination in New YorkAfter paddling 7,456 miles, Moore arrives in his final destination: New York City. Credit: James R Peipert

Because of the pandemic, the authorities closed part of the waterway he’d planned to paddle through much of New York State on. Instead, Moore walks over 170 miles to the Hudson River, wheeling his loaded boat along the road. The second December of his expedition is coming on, and he wants to make it to New York City before conditions on the Hudson become too difficult. He is right on schedule.

On December 14, 2021, shortly after this 50th birthday, Moore makes his final approach along the Hudson River to New York City. The press comes out to observe the eccentric in his moment of triumph, and a contingent of kayakers and canoeists joins his victory lap around the Statue of Liberty. But then the winds come up so strong that he ends up with his bow pointed in the wrong direction, and he can’t safely turn it around. This whole trip has been about going the wrong way—so he paddles his canoe stern-first the rest of the way.

Hard to believe it is coming to an end. Tears well up, and not from the wind. Immense above his puny craft looms Lady Liberty, and crowding the harbour are bobbing boats filled with friends and journalists and gawkers marvelling at the magnitude of his accomplishment: 7,456 miles. Twenty-two rivers, 22 states, 22 months, just as he’d said he would do.

His mother would be proud—he had done something truly transformative, something “pure.” Though it’s all over now, he wishes he could just keep paddling.

Banner photo credit: john noLtner; tmb studio/k. synold (water droplets); Steve Wisbauer/Getty Images (paddle)

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