By Gwen Clarke
With the process of aging, time seems to acquire more value. Witness sayings like: “So many books, so little time”. “Life’s too short to … (fill in the blank).” The former is one reason I rarely reread a book, especially since I was gifted with a reader’s journal in 2003 and can record a plot or perfect turn of phrase for future reference.
Hearing that two friends are taking a Columbia River cruise, I thought back to 1999, when I read the newly-published RIVER HORSE by William Least Heat-Moon. I remember loving the vicarious 5,000 mile journey, but lacking any noted recollections, decided to re-read it. This 502-page tome took me along with Heat-Moon from the launching of his 22′ Seattle-built Dory, Nikawa (river horse, in the Osage language) from New York Harbor, across America’s river network, with a necessary portage here and there, to the point some 100 days later, where the Columbia River spitefully spit them out into the Pacific Ocean.
After this second reading, I had a “porcupine book” – thanks to 49 sticky-arrows noting memorable quotes and unfamiliar words I wanted to look up in the dictionary. (Words like brummagem, flumadiddle, objurgations, and fuliginous.) I suspect that, by the time he’d finished writing, the voluble Heat-Moon’s Thesaurus was as well-thumbed as my unabridged dictionary, now that I know he meant showy but worthless, nonsense, rebukes and sooty – respectively.
He’s a writer whose words play in my head – like referring to the waters of the East River as skirmishing, or addressing this daunting adventure as “putting into motion one’s ignorance”.
At appropriate intervals throughout, maps denote the geography covered, bite by bite, beginning with New York Harbor to Troy – 143 river miles. The contrasts and similarities to Heat-Moon’s first book, BLUE HIGHWAYS are inescapable. In it, some twenty years earlier, the reader rides along with him over America’s back roads. No genie, with her electronically generated directions, conjures up the revelations inherent in ignoring the frenetic interstate system and sticking to the vascular blue lines of meandering by-ways.
Commencing aboard the Nikawa through the Erie Canal from Troy to Lake Oneida (133 miles) and on to Buffalo (another 224 miles), Heat-Moon’s companion, one of seven who spelled each other on the arduous encounters with locks, river traffic, high and low water, and numerous floating hazards, observes slyly of his captain: “You’ve always tended to equate caution with cowardice. I never knew a man so afraid of cowardice.”
From Buffalo, through Lake Chautauqua, and the Allegheny, into Pittsburgh, 296 more hard-earned water and portage miles pass, including a stint through a corner of Lake Erie ominously known as the “graveyard of the Great Lakes.” At this point, Mark Twain’s sardonic observation hits home: “Traveling by boat is the best way to travel, unless one can stay at home.”
The next 1,000+ river miles carry the little bark along the Ohio, the Mississippi, to the Missouri River, all the while dealing with aggravations ranging from cramped, mosquito-filled sleeping quarters to misaligned bridges. Lore, handed down from early river men, suggests that pioneering railroaders deliberately angled their bridges so as to discourage their water-bound competition.
The language of its original inhabitants plays a telling role in present-day river life, according to Heat-Moon. He posits that the floods repeatedly plaguing our nation’s midsection result from modern man’s attempts to harness powers that are beyond such constrictions. He bases this assertion, in part, on the fact that the Osage nation had a word for “great flow,” but nowhere in their language is there a word for “flood.” At this juncture, floodwaters dominate and bedevil the progress of the Nikawa, as if to underscore his point.
The longest stretch on the water, that across the northern plains, drives the writer to give his future reader a taste of his enduring tedium. In a suspension of rational prose, Heat-Moon launches into a page-and-a-half of just the word, “river” – repeated some 700 unpunctuated times, occasionally interspersed with: “nothing so endless as a” and, to see if anyone’s paying attention: “Mobius strip,” later down the page, “me and my cockamamie ideas”, and a few others that wouldn’t make it past the censors.
I hope my buds, Pat and John, have as much fun on their real river adventure, as I’ve just had on my armchair one. I’m re-thinking my attitude about re-reading books.