by Conor Mihell
One year ago, Neal Moore was a month into a 7,500-mile canoe expedition across the United States when the world descended into the chaos and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic. The vagabond journalist launched his Old Town canoe in Astoria, Oregon, early last February, with the goal of paddling to the foot of the Statue of Liberty in New York. He coined the journey “22 Rivers”—for the number of big waterways he would travel and, also, for the number of states he would visit along the way. Traveling alone, Moore hoped to hear and share the story of Americans; CNN describes the 49-year-old Los Angeles native, who had been living in Taiwan, as a “modern-day Huck Finn.”
Moore’s only option was to keep paddling when international flights were grounded last March. “The journey itself—the canoe and my tent and all of my gear—became my home,” he says. “And sheltering in place meant continuing the journey.”
He fought the currents up the Columbia, Snake and Clark Fork rivers to the Continental Divide. Then, he cruised for eight months and 3,249 miles down the Mississippi to New Orleans. He marked the expedition’s one-year anniversary on the Gulf Coast, waiting out fickle winds before beginning a long, sinuous route north to the Great Lakes and the Hudson River.
“In many cases, it’s been hell and high water,” says Moore. “I’m open to nature and the raw environment. I’ve been through a tornado, I’ve come through high winds and freak waves, I’ve really been up against it.”
When we connected, Moore was in downtown Mobile, AL, having “just connected the Barrier Islands off the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Alabama, stringing together Deer, Horn, Petite Bois, and Dauphin islands with intense open Gulf passages in between each.” He’ll soon be heading north through Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee.
Despite all that paddling, it’s his legs that are sore, strained to maintain his upright, seated position in the canoe, between his loaded canoe getting hit by a shark, escorted by dolphins, “and thrown around by the waves every which way—at times like I was atop a mechanical bull.” At this many miles in, his arms and back are well tested and honed. “They know the routine,” he says. “And any muscles that don’t are going to find out. Because I’d say this journey is a perpetual all-body workout.”
The upside of the day-to-day rigors on the journey means growing stronger by the day. “The old adage rings true,” says Moore, “under such conditions, one goes from strength to strength.”
Moore notes that his weight fluctuates by 10 pounds: losing it in on the water, when consuming a lot of water and camping for days on end; then gaining it back during city layovers. Still, he’s confident that when he gets to his New York destination, approaching two years on tour, he’ll be in the best shape of his life.
Besides the physical challenges, Moore has faced solitude. He envisioned a solo journey punctuated by visits from friends for sections along the way. Most of his companions were forced to bail. Meanwhile, lockdown orders meant he often missed the social aspects of stops in small-town diners, forcing Moore to adapt his usual methods of meeting locals and collecting their stories. In other places, Moore witnessed growing dissent for rules meant to curb the pandemic, including an anti-mask rally in Sandpoint, Idaho. “I was warned by friends to stay the hell away, but I couldn’t help myself,” recalls Moore. “I could see it was a spark, that that mentality was going to spread.”
Yet Moore has also benefited from the friendliness of small-town America, even in these strange times—often observed from a curbside, as he dines on takeout. “The kindness, the humanity,” he says. “It’s just awesome.”
That physicality, and that contrast between elongated isolation and interludes of joyful human interaction, have been a tonic for Moore—something he wrestles with when he catches himself dreaming about where his life will go post-trip. Moore admits he came into the expedition battling demons: childhood traumas he’s failed to confront and encounters with skin- and testicular cancer. When he was in pain, wrought with uncertainty and facing multiple surgeries, Moore says, “I’d counter my aggression and self-induced pity by closing my eyes and dreaming of stepping away from it all.”
He once wondered about his strength and stamina and ability to recover. But a year on the river has reaffirmed his capacities. “We have what is called muscle memory. Your body and your muscles remember,” Moore notes. “While they don’t necessarily like the idea of full-on adventure, I am a testament to the fact that they do.”
Sometimes Moore struggles with aloneness, especially when he realizes he’s floating in and out of peoples’ lives, traveling on before relationships can take shape. Yet he’s becoming content with that. “Out there on the water, I laugh every single day,” he says. “It’s a carefree laugh, a laugh of freedom. Am I really alone? Of course I’m not. I’m surrounded by nature personified, all around my craft. I am surrounded and I am enveloped with love. And it feels goddamn wonderful.”