Admittedly, the first problem with Bill Trogdon’s latest book River Horse: The Logbook of a Boat Across America may have more to do with my reading habits than anything else. As is often my bad habit, I was simultaneously reading another book which ended up blowing Trogdon’s (a.k.a Least Heat Moon’s) hippopotamus right out of the potamos. Coincidentally, this other book called The Snow Leopard is also a travelogue undertaken amidst a mid-life crisis following the dissolution of a marriage. Its author, Peter Mathissen, begins by telling us that he is going on a walking trip with a biologist in Tibet who is studying blue sheep. This originally interested me much less than River Horse by the same author of Blue Highways, who was motoring 5,288 water miles from New York to Oregon and portaging fewer than 179 of those. In fact, I feared he had stolen my own idea of recreating Lewis and Clark’s voyage, a provocative mix of 20th century technology and 18th century sensibilities, but I am assuredly safe from that, as are the residents of the lower Missouri.
Vacillating between the books, I found myself increasingly drawn to The Snow Leopard as its author walked deeper into the mountains. It turns out that a couple of months after Mathissen and his wife were divorced, she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. They reunited for the last several months and he had this amazing experience of watching someone he loves, and had recently given up on trying to live with, die. Because he is something of a Buddhist, his faith was strengthened and he gained a provisional understanding of what it means to accept. On a three month hiatus from the 20th century, he relentlessly scrutinized the kinds of issues and problems that anyone delving deep into one’s own mind is bound to come across.
Least Heat-Moon’s whole anxiety-ridden trip, by contrast, is driven by several imperatives having to do with snowmelt runoff, regulations about river running and various groups of people who are meeting him along the way. The complexity of the journey, its can-it-be-done quality, hooks any reader familiar with the great paths of migration across America. And so for a while, as we wonder if this trip can be accomplished and against what odds, we read along as he recites anecdotes and local history.
But the problem with the dramatic pretense of “Will He Make It?” is that all along we know that he does—the objective drives the book, and the possibility of a book drives the trip. In an understandable attempt to create drama during the dullest stretches, he says things like: “Above all else, what kept me from dwelling on the very real possibility of failure was my belief—with no rational basis—that the Nikawa was destined to reach the Pacific if—if—I did not fail in resolve, for I could probably overcome my ignorance, but never could I surmount irresoluteness.”
Leaving the egregious insult to destiny aside, the main problem with Least Heat-Moon’s approach is here exhibited: He seeks to know the river teleologically by going to its source, by traveling every inch possible whether it is downstream in a canoe, or upstream in a jet boat, and his fixation upon the result leaves him blind to what is at hand—the ontology of the river escapes him leaving the book bereft of any discernible truth.
To readers familiar with his other books, you can rest assured that Least Heat-Moon has yet again done all his homework, and there is no place along the river lacking in a witty historical anecdote, but like his destiny this is a fixation that leaves no room for real reflection. Perhaps his greatest talent from the Blue Highways days is his ability to meet and converse with strangers wherever he goes. In the small town cafes and bars along the river, we get good stories and dialogue right out of the heartlanders’ mouths. He has a knack for getting people to talk. Like the Montana samaritan who helps get Moon’s trailer out of the mud and then tells him that “ranchers…think the Missouri is theirs. Oh, by the way, welcome to Montana, the place where they say, ‘If it ain’t yours, it’s mine, so get the hell out.’ It ought to be our new state motto.” Or, this historical gem about Culbertson, Mont.: “Just when or how the town came into existence is not known, but the theory that there was a town gained currency between 1888 and 1892.”
Once the finish line is in sight, Least Heat-Moon allows himself a couple of sentences where he anxiously reveals that, before he left, his wife had asked him to choose between this trip and her; now all that is left for him to do is to go home to his empty house. And I began to realize how important it was for him to reach the end, and I hoped that for him it wasn’t the Pyrrhic victory as I thought it was. Call me a minimalist, but by staying home and watching the Missouri from his house in Missouri for three months he might not have been able to write a book about it, but he might have been able to accomplish a whole lot more and lose a whole lot less.