Fourteen months ago in Astoria, Oregon, Neal Moore shoved off in his 16-foot Old Town canoe, bound for the Statue of Liberty, some two years and 7,500 miles ahead. The 49-year-old had come home after nearly 30 years abroad to rediscover America and share the stories of its people in a style of journalism all his own, “slow and low down from the view of a canoe.”
He’d charted a two-year journey on 22 major waterways through 22 states, but almost didn’t make it out of Oregon. He slipped across the state line in late March last year, just ahead of a shelter-in-place order that would have derailed his 22 Rivers project for a second time. (His first attempt in 2018 fell victim to historic high water and a nasty Cottonwood snag after 1,700 mostly upstream miles.)
Moore decided to keep going despite the pandemic, though it’s fair to say he didn’t have much choice. He’s lived most of the last three decades between Taipei and Capetown, which he’s used as springboards for other adventures. With international borders closed, going “home” (he still gets his mail in Taipei) was no longer an option.
So he stuck with the plan, battling upstream on the Columbia, Snake and Clark Fork rivers to the Continental Divide, then 3,249 miles down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers to winter in the Gulf of Mexico. He timed his journey with the seasons, careful to stay ahead of the northern freeze and behind the Gulf Coast hurricane season.
He’s lost his canoe, been through a tornado and was nearly run down by a Mississippi barge as a flock of 1,000 white pelicans swirled in the night. Still, the most memorable part of the journey has been the intense friendships he’s forged along the way, the depth of each connection accentuated by its brevity. “It’s like a fling,” he says. “You’ve got this brief romance with the town, with the people, with humanity. And then they’re saying their goodbyes and they literally push you out into the river.”
Moore plans to share their stories in a book. He already got a first chapter and a working title, “Shelter in Motion: From Darkness to Light Across America by Canoe.”
Adventure Journal spoke to him in Columbus, a “great little Mississippi town” that he’ll soon leave behind, heading north to the Ohio River system. He needs to make the Great Lakes and Erie Canal ahead of the ice if he wants to reach Lady Liberty on schedule. Besides, it’s not in his nature to stop moving when the rivers ahead hold the promise of new people to meet, and new stories to tell.
Adventure Journal: When we last spoke a year ago it looked as if Covid could stop your trip at any time.
Neal Moore: I had just got permission from the Nez Perce people and from the Army Corps of Engineers to paddle the Snake River. That was a nine-day journey and the first five days I didn’t see a living soul. I wasn’t really prepared for that. I had enough food and water and know-how, but I wasn’t prepared in my mind for the wildness where you could tip in and there’s nobody there to help.
Later on the Clark Fork River in Montana I made camp on the top of an island, and the river more than doubled in size overnight. The first dam was just above me, and they went from releasing 5,000 cfs to 30,000 cfs in the middle of the night. I woke up at first light and my canoe was gone and most of my gear was gone.
That’s quite a pickle. How did you get out of it?
Part of going ahead despite the pandemic was making a commitment not to call on others if I got into trouble—not to put them at risk or pull resources away from others. I told you that in our first interview and I really meant it. But I also know the drill, which is when anybody sees an upturned canoe or kayak they call emergency services. They’ll put a helicopter in the air and you’re using those resources.
So the first thing I did is get on the horn to the police department and told them if anyone sees a red canoe, don’t worry. I’m fine. And they were like, ‘We can rescue you! We’ll send a boat.’ I said no, I’m 100 percent okay. I’ll get out of this on my own.
I called ahead just to let the ranger know that that I wouldn’t be making it to Cabinet Gorge that day as planned. I didn’t ask for it, but he responded by putting a jet boat in the water. They found my canoe hung up on a snag at the bottom of my island, and came back with everything except my water bottles, so for a while I had to fill one of my bear vaults with water.
You probably get this one all the time, but what made you decide to spend two years canoeing across the United States?
Having been an expatriate for most of my life, I wanted to come back to my home country and really experience it up close and personal by connecting America’s first thoroughfares via its first mode of transport. Is a really unique way to see the country. As John Ruskey likes to say, when you’re in a canoe at water level, you get to experience the nature of it from a different vantage point than you would from a bass boat or a bicycle on the side of the river.
It’s a different pace too. You’re 14 months into this journey now. In all your travels, have you ever been out this long?
I did the Mississippi River in 2009 from the source to New Orleans. That was four months and 22 days, and I pulled out 50 stories as a CNN citizen journalist. What I really like about a journey like this is you have your physical journey, which in itself is awesome. That’s what most people who do this sort of thing do. It’s man against nature. It’s woman against nature. It’s how many miles you put in, how many days were you out.
Then you’ve got the other part of the adventure, which for me is the storytelling. You stash your stuff on the riverbank somewhere and walk into a town, and you’re trying to pull off a story of international consequence again and again and again. You have to build these intense relationships, because especially for me at that time as a citizen journalist with no credentials, people have to trust you.
On that trip I sort of attached myself to the Mark Twain people, and they attached themselves to me. They heralded me as the modern-day Huck, and I was invited to spend the night in the boyhood home. It was only the second time anyone had done that in 97 years.
At first light I put myself on camera to try to explain how I was feeling. And what I said was that as awesome as that experience was, it’s the exact same feeling as every morning waking up on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River. If you had to put a price on that experience to sleep in the boyhood bedroom of Mark Twain, you couldn’t. It’s priceless. But the punchline is that when you’re on these expeditions and you push out into nature, it’s that same feeling.
That moment at first light when I’m pushing off into the current, it’s bliss. The moment where you push from terra firma onto the water with, in my case, all of my worldly possessions in my canoe—that instant is complete perfection.
Where does that bliss come from? Is it the possibility of the day ahead? Simply being in that moment?
The easy answer is that it represents all the possibilities of the day. I like to work with paper navigational charts, so it starts with an idea. Am I shooting for that last island before New Orleans? Am I shooting for the bridge, or the boat ramp, or that next town?
Sometimes you don’t know until the sun’s coming down, and then if the conditions are right and you have a good moon you can stay out and shoot for that one last sandbar on the map. It’s all the possibilities. It’s putting yourself in the present. That’s the easy answer.
The hard answer is embedded in this memory that’s always been there, but I’ve been too embarrassed to talk about it—I mean, to ever, ever write about it or vocalize it to friends or confidants or anybody. I only realized the symbolism of it when I got to St. Louis on this journey, 3,307 miles to the confluence of the Missouri and the Mississippi. And when I got there, I was able to just sort of squint and look back at the memory and understand.
I lived in Los Alamitos, California and we would have scout camp up in the San Gabriel Mountains. So I would have been 11 or 12. And there’s a requirement for this one badge where you have to go out on your own and find or possibly make your own camping spot of natural materials. So no tent, no sleeping bag.
When I found it I was so proud of myself. It was this fallen log, hollowed out by time and storms and critters, and it was filled with pine needles. I got inside of it and I put the pine needles over me and I thought, this is my blanket.
And then somebody came in the night that I didn’t know. Somebody came who was older, an adult, and they interfered. They took my clothes and said that they were going to watch out for me and not to worry, that they’re going to check in on me. And then I was exposed. I was with no clothes. I was completely exposed for the whole night, and I was there with the blanket of pine needles and the ceiling of stars and this dread that they’re coming back. My whole life, all these years, this dread. And what I realized when I got to St. Louis was that’s why I’ve been on the move. Ever since then, I can’t stay in one place.
But what’s interesting is, that hollowed out log resembles a dugout canoe. And there’s a reason at night I camp on islands, because nobody can get to me. No one’s going to interfere with me. Then comes first light, and now I’m open to new experiences.
We talk about healing waters, and I think rivers especially have that quality.
With my journalism and my storytelling, I like to spin positive. Instead of identifying myself as the victim, I’ve taken on the role and title of adventurer. That event, along with the death of my older brother when I was a kid, has propelled me into a kaleidoscope of different experiences because I perpetually have to push myself out there to get away. I have to be on onto the next horizon, over the next dune.
You’ve got plenty more ahead. You’ve been on the river more than a year now and just passed the halfway mark.
Midway miles-wise was Memphis, Tennessee. On this specific journey, I wanted to really see the country and document the country during the year leading into national elections and then the aftermath, however it was going to go—not the day after or the week after, but the year after. And as it so happened, November 3 was Memphis, Tennessee. I was staying in the Peabody Hotel and spending a lot of time on Beale Street, juxtaposing what the workers on the streets and in the blues clubs were talking about, and what the genteel folks were saying back in the lounge of the Peabody.
You’ve spent most of your life as an expatriate, and now you’re coming home to see this country in a way that few people ever will. What have you learned?
I wanted to earn a rarefied view of Lady Liberty, and to do it properly I felt I had to come in reverse. I wanted to see who we are. I wanted to see what we’ve become.
One of the very first stories on the Columbia and the Columbia River Gorge at Celilo Falls, which is the longest inhabited location on the North American continent, stretching back 15,000 years. I was able to meet the Klickitat chief whose grandfather was the final signatory on the treaty that handed over that land to the federal government, and learn from his wisdom.
On the Snake, I ran into this one-eyed, hard-living survivalist who was raised in a cult in Utah, the Home of Truth, who lived a hardscrabble life and understands how to survive. And he’s sharing with the homeless people in the camp around him. He’s sharing his knowledge.
I got my first tattoo from this guy in Bismarck, North Dakota on the banks of the Missouri who has spent more than half his life incarcerated. He was neighbors with Charles Manson in solitary and he was a prison gladiator—the guards bet on them in the yard—and he’s an ink slinger. I got his story while he was giving me my first tattoo, a memorial tattoo for my brother.
And then the Mississippi Delta, there’s a story from Marks Mississippi, which was meant to be the starting point for Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign but he was called away for the sanitary strike in Memphis, where he was assassinated. But here are black farmers and black self-identified healthy food entrepreneurs who are spinning the Poor People’s Campaign into what they call a wealth campaign of bringing back healthy foods in the Delta.
When you string all these stories together from sea to shining sea, it really is that poem at the base of the statue. It’s the tempest-tossed, it’s the downtrodden, it’s all of us. No one story represents everybody. But when you add them all up, this is our story. This is America.
Were you able to make those connections across the spectrum, even with people you may not agree with politically or have a different view of the world?
When you look at the map of the journey, it’s almost all red. And my thinking going in was I really like George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia. He was a journalist in London, and he put himself on a boat to Barcelona and joined up on the losing side [in the Spanish Civil War] with this faction of antifascists called the POUM. And what he said is, “Understand that I am biased, but I am here.”
And so I am absolutely biased. But going into this, I knew the only way to do it is to put that completely to the side and just listen. I try to come into people’s lives and I’m able to connect with people of all stripes, and not just for a story but for life. These people become friends.
I’m looking for the commonality underneath the layers of identity politics, race, sexual orientation—all these monikers we throw on to ourselves. I’m looking for the thread from coast to coast that brings us together as Americans.
Did you find it?
I think it’s the roll-up-your-sleeves mentality. It’s helping your brother and sister.
Early in the trip, on the Columbia River right as Covid was hitting, I walked into town and found this Mexican food truck. It was right at the switch where we all understood that because of the pandemic this food truck, this restaurant, could be out of business very soon.
A couple in a big work truck next to me had left way too much money. And there were two Latina young ladies, maybe sisters, inside the food truck, and one calls out, ‘Excuse me, excuse me, you left your change.’ They had given a 50. It was way above and beyond a tip, and these were not rich people. They were working class, and they were white. And the lady turned and she said, ‘No, that’s for you. Thank you so much.’
The rhythm of your trip is spending some time on the river and then stopping for a few days in a town to get to know people and learn their stories. Clearly the people have enriched your journey, but what have you gained from your time alone on the rivers?
It makes for a really beautiful juxtaposition. When I’m out there on the river I laugh every single day. It’s that connection with nature. Our bodies are 70 percent water, plus or minus, and the surface of the earth is 70 percent water. And when we put ourselves into the water you’re able to let go a little bit. The nature is awesome and on some stretches, I’ll go for a week or two, and then I’m ready for the next town.
I met a guy in Cape Girardeau, Missouri who taught 50 years at the local university. They call him Mister History, and he became my best friend there. He showed me the main street, the first settlement, the history of the place. And then he pushed me off into the current.
That’s the beauty of a journey like this but also the tragedy. As intense and wonderful as those relationships are, they’re short-lived. It’s like a fling. It’s like a one-night stand. You’ve got this brief romance with the town, with the people, with humanity. And then they’re saying their goodbyes and they literally push you out into the river.
You’ll probably never see them again. But now you’re opening yourself up to nature, the in-between, and the next relationship right around the bend.