William [Trogdon] Least Heat-Moon's first book, Blue Highways, is one of my favorites of all time. And while River-Horse is by all rights a great acWilliam [Trogdon] Least Heat-Moon's first book, Blue Highways, is one of my favorites of all time. And while River-Horse is by all rights a great achievement in travel writing, it is inevitably a bit of a let-down in comparison with Highways.
Part of what made Highways so soulful and charming was that it was written in such a deeply personal manner. Heat-Moon leaves on his original trip after a failed marriage, simultaneously seeking a break with his past and a chance to rediscover himself. He travels in Blue Highways with next to nothing - a homeless man roving the country on a few hundred dollars and sleeping in a van. It's an amazing and spiritually enlightening trip taken in a disarmingly humble manner, and readers respond because they can put themselves in those shoes. It's easier to imagine ourselves sleeping in a van outside Missouri than traveling through Baghdad Without a Map like Tony Horwitz, or taking Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari.
River-Horse, while an excellent book, is a drastically different experience. Humble no more, Heat-Moon's journey from coast to coast on America's rivers is lavishly financed. He scours the country to acquire a lease on just the proper boat, and ends up taking not one, but several. He uses his celebrity, or at least his journalistic credentials, to negotiate a private opening of the Eerie Canal early in the season. And he's followed throughout by a small, but loyal support team, who haul his assorted boats overland, meeting him at various junctures to help him portage or exchange watercraft. The journey is fascinating, but few people can put themselves in his shoes anymore.
It's also worth mentioning that long hours on the water, and the comparatively short length of Heat-Moon's trip (Highways took roughly a full year of traveling), all mean fewer interactions with local denizens of the countryside. The author attempts to balance this absence by supplementing his narrative with remembrances of previous travels - talking about the various things that happened when he last visited a place he's now seeing less of. Far more of the interactions and identifications that occur in the book are with Heat-Moon's entourage of photographer- and writer-friends. Many are humorous or entertaining, but there's an exclusive feel to them that wasn't there in Blue Highways - they occur amongst a club the reader is not part of.
The author tries to alleviate this a bit by disguising the number of people he traveled with. He refers to the plethora of friends who accompanied him at various times on his journey by a single name, 'Pilotis.' Only in the preface material do we find out that this was not one person, but seven. The literary device adds some narrative continuity to the book, and is intended to let the reader get to know the author's friends as the story of a single person, thereby creating a more sympathetic character. It works sometimes, but occasionally it also backfires, as continuing the ruse ultimately makes 'Pilotis' something of a two-dimensional character, thus lessening our sense of identification.
I criticize here, but I'll close by saying that nothing in the book challenges Heat-Moon's status as one of my favorite authors. Even if it's not my favorite of his works, I view River-Horse as a superior achievement. It's most definitely worth reading, and it paints a vivid picture of America's waterways, past and present, along with the vital role they play in our culture and our environment....more