You never know who will show up on Chautauqua’s shores, any time of year! Today we’re excited to profile Athenaeum Hotel guest Neal Moore, who is taking brief respite at Chautauqua as he prepares for the tail end of a 7,500-mile canoe trip from coastal Oregon to New York City. Neal’s Chautauqua stop is part of his trip *from* New Orleans — yes, upstream — via the Mississippi, Ohio, Allegheny, Chadakoin and Chautauqua Lake. Chautauqua Climate Change Initiative Director Mark Wenzler, himself a veteran of long-distance solo trips under one’s own power (see his bike trip from Washington, D.C., to Chautauqua in June) spoke to Neal this afternoon about the purpose and findings of his unique two-year voyage.
You also might notice some similarities between Neal’s story and our upcoming #CHQ2022 week on “The Wild: Reconnecting with Our Natural World.” Join us next summer! Details are here: http://2022.chq.org/
This past weekend a wanderer came through Franklin. A seeker really, a documenter, a man alone but among many; a former missionary on a different kind of mission, a paddler.
Neal Moore set out from Oregon on the Columbia River in a red 16-foot Old Town Penobscot Royalex canoe right around the time the Coronavirus was hitting the states. Being alone in a canoe was taking social distancing seriously, but that wasn’t his motivation. This world traveling ex-patriot author and super curious self-identified middle-aged man was going to explore his country of origin after having been away for so long.
“What I’m trying to do traveling across America is to listen and learn,” Moore said about why he is traveling in what would seem an erratic pattern of 22 rivers across the continental United States from Oregon to the Statue of Liberty where he hopes to land in the middle of December.
His stop in Franklin is 19 months into his journey. Along the way he has chronicled his encounters in dozens of handwritten journals, a blog on his website, and instagram account and countless stories that meander in and out of topic like the rivers he paddles.
In fact, he appears to crave meandering. From the swirls sent behind his paddle that mix and move with the current as they become one with the rhythm of the stream, to the mixture of bird calls intertwined with far off car horn reminders that civilization’s hustle and bustle hasn’t stopped during his journey.
“I think a lot,” Moore said about his average 25 miles a day paddling on the rivers. Each place he visits gives him even more to think about, more people to weave into the fabric of his memories, more conversations about life to ponder the similarities we share despite the differences we hold in our outstretched hand stopping ourselves from getting too close to one another. “Once we put the party politics aside we have so much in common,” he said about his many stops along the way meeting people of all walks of life and political ideologies. “I just try to listen, no judgement.”
When he landed on the shore of the Allegheny near where French Creek comes in this weekend it was the same day an article appeared in The Derrick and Hews-Herald about his stop down river in Emlenton a day or two earlier. Oil City’s Gale Boocks, an avid paddler himself back in the day, saw this article and knew he wanted to meet Moore. The next morning he went to where an old paddler would think to find Moore, but no one was there. He, on a hunch, tried the local B and B appropriately named Peddlers & Paddlers and lo’ and behold there was Moore sitting on the front porch talking with new friends.
Boocks sat and joined the conversation and after chatting awhile it dawned on him that he had something he wanted to pass on to Moore. A paddle he used many times on many rivers that was a gift from a person that could be described as a forefather to the modern paddling world. Moore was very familiar with this legend. Verlen Kruger paddled over 100,000 miles in his lifetime, spoke many times about paddling all over the world and authored books on the subject. Moore said he had read Kruger’s books and admired him greatly. Boocks, a preacher, performed Kruger’s wedding vows.
Boocks invited Moore over to stay with he and his wife and sit out back to talk about life and the spirit that moves people to do what they do.
And that’s what they did.
Boocks presented a treasured paddle he had received from Kruger to Moore as a gift. Moore said he never met Kruger. This was quite an honor for him to receive this and vowed to use the paddle as well as eventually find a younger paddler to pass it along to in order to further pay this gift forward.
Moore departed the next day adding Franklin and his encounters to the list of treasured memories and his scratched notes in his journal.
His goal is to get up north while its still milder temperatures knowing it is best to beat the famed western New York first snows of the year on his way to the Hudson. He is hoping to reach the end of his journey, the Statue of Liberty, by December 14. “I’m approaching her from the American side,” he said, adding that this country is so filled with those whose ancestors approached her from the other side, and that many still are. Adding again to the fabric of who each of us are as Americans.
Moore might realize the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but straight lines are boring and zigzagging is more fun and allows more time for reflection and encounters. Making connections is exactly what this journey is all about for him. How we are connected by water, how we are connected by similarities and sometimes even differences, how we connect to strangers and friends alike. That is what hours alone with one’s thoughts can do, find those connections and add them to ones personal spirit that has grown from the experiences.
Moore embraces serendipitous moments, like meeting Boocks and adding him to his tribe. And he added several other Franklinites as well in his short time. Some, like Chamber director Jodi Baker Lewis also want to meet him again along the journey and join for a few miles of paddling and help him celebrate his arrival and end of this part of his journey.
Given his objective, his journey won’t end at Lady Liberty. He is on a journey to seek beyond his own tribe and try to better understand the tribe of humankind.
Understanding America’s heart and soul
Understanding who we are as a people with each stop along the way, Moore examines further the complexities and simplicities that makes Americans, Americans. Sitting on a patio in the back of Gale Boocks‘s house on a Sunday night, waiting for roasted corn and a couple of slabs of meat off the grill, Moore and Boocks shared an experience that can only happen when someone is accepting of a wayward stranger on a long journey. These encounters become beautiful to witness and experience. The many encounters we have in life we take for granted, family, friends, neighbors…. sometimes it takes a stranger to remind us of that we have so much more to learn about each other. And sometimes, how little we know about ourselves.
Moore is getting to know people and by doing so, he is understanding the culture of a place and how each place is different while being the same.
Carrying people with him and how to follow his journey
Moore has been collecting signatures on the canoe. Some have faded or washed off in the journey, but many remain. All who signed are with him in his strength to go on. He has written also a quote from Richard Bock, the famed auther of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, “Bad things are not the worst thing that can happen to us, nothing is the worst thing that can happen to us.“
Moore tells a story like following a map of rivers with tangents and off-shoots. He has a penchant for describing adventurers of the highest caliber as “badass.” At 49 he is in the best shape of his life and his body and mind have allowed hime to stay focussed for thousands of miles of hard paddling. He is earning the badass title.Follow his journey on his website at https://22rivers.com/storytelling/ or on instagram at https://www.instagram.com/riverjournalist/?hl=en
Some of us dream about packing up and hitting the road.
Maybe it’s a fantasy about buying a camper and driving the blue highways.
Maybe it’s quitting a job and moving West, dropping everything.
Few of us get to do it. Neal Moore, 49, did.
In some ways, the Los Angeles-born expatriate has been doing it his entire adult life — mostly living abroad in South Africa and Taiwan since age 19. All that time abroad contributed in part to a desire to reconnect with his home country and explore it from coast to coast.
“I’ve always been a fan of the road books,” Moore said, describing some of his inspiration during a phone interview from somewhere between Pittsburgh and East Brady.
You could say he’s doing it backward, going from West to East. You could say he’s doing it in an unconventional way. But he might argue he’s doing it in the most traditional way possible, by canoe.
“I like the idea of the canoe being the first mode of transport,” he said. “The rivers are the country’s first thoroughfare. I thought, what if I did it the wrong way and approached the Statue of Liberty?”
When he’s finished, Moore, will have paddled roughly 7,500 miles from Astoria, Ore., up the Columbia River, down to New Orleans on the Mississippi and up to New York City, including the Ohio and Allegheny rivers and the Erie Canal.
From start to finish, he will have navigated 22 rivers through 22 states. He’s already covered about 6,600 miles.
He hopes to complete his journey in December.
Started in 2020
He started on the Columbia River in February 2020, just prior to the onset of the pandemic in the United States.
“I left Oregon the day it shut down,” he recalls of crossing into Idaho, describing his shelter-in-place as “sheltering-in-canoe.”
The Eagle first caught up with Moore on Aug. 31, as he set out from the boat launch under the Roberto Clemente Bridge in Pittsburgh. A car pulled up to PNC Park with his canoe in tow. Trish Howison, his Pittsburgh host or “river angel,” helped him unload and launch. Then she joined him in her kayak for a portion as he headed up the Allegheny toward the fringes of Butler County.
That’s how it’s worked for Moore. He’s camped, he’s stayed with friends and people he’s met along the way. Sometimes it’s just people who have followed his story and offered to help. Sometimes it includes a cold beer.
Book in works
Finishing at the Statue of Liberty ties into his larger narrative. Moore plans to write a book about his experiences, not just his own, but also those of whom he meets along the way.
He undertook a similar adventure in 2009: canoeing the Mississippi during the financial crisis. A boater that he crossed paths with on that trip sparked the idea to tie in multiple rivers on a larger tour.
Moore said he thinks doing the cross-country trip by water also is a good way to interact with more people along the way.
Watching American news coverage from abroad during the Trump administration inspired him to take on this more-ambitious expedition.
“As a journalist, I was looking at it from the outside,” he said. “I could see the bitterness and that it was getting worse.”
His first attempt at the cross-country paddle was cut short in 2018. Flooding in much of the Northwest — along with a life-threatening capsizing in frigid water in Montana — slowed his travels, so much so that he would not have made his target had he continued.
Rather than pick up where he left off, Moore decided to start over, this time in an election year and, as he would quickly discover, a growing pandemic.
‘What unites us’
“I wanted to drop my preconceived notions about people and party, and listen,” Moore said. “We all know what divides us. I wanted to look at what unites us.”
For the most part, he said he has found that the country is greater than the headlines.
“You find good, honest people who are trying to make things better,” he said of the majority of his interactions. “I found incredible people.”
And the pandemic has only added to his story telling.
“In hard times is when we look out for our neighbors. Friends and community become family.”
But he’s also seen a slice of the nation’s ugliness. Since his 2009 trip down the Mississippi and even his first cross-country attempt in 2018, he said he’s seen the drug culture in homeless camps and other areas increase significantly.
A different person
Camped near a church in Idaho, he heard two addicts threatening to kill each other and the local minister. One demanded Moore exit his tent. The next morning he saw one of the men in a diner and he was a different person, even offering use of his home.
He also has been shouted at.
“I’ve been yelled at. It’s rare,” he said. “People get so worked up over their political identity that they see opposing views as un-American.”
But he said the majority of his experiences have been extremely positive.
“By and large, people are good-natured,” Moore said. “The reality is people have a love of family, community and they absolutely have a love of country. My hope is that those can supersede our division with politics.”
After delays from Tropical Storm Ida, Moore reached East Brady on Monday evening, Sept. 6. He plans to continue up the Allegheny toward Franklin and Oil City this week.
PITTSBURGH – If you could choose any mode of transportation to travel across America, would you pick a canoe?
Neal Moore chose exactly that, opting for a two-mile-an-hour, paddle-powered vessel on the riverways, instead of the comforts of a cozy RV coasting the major highways. His trip will have taken nearly two years once he reaches his finish line.
Moore began his journey in Portland, Oregon, in February 2020, and he plans to take a victory lap around the Statue of Liberty in New York City by the end of this year.
Once he finishes his journey, Moore will have paddled more than 7,500 miles across the United States. Along his route, Moore crossed through many locks and dams on the riverways operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In late August 2021, Moore stopped in Pittsburgh for a weekend, before continuing north on the Allegheny River. We caught up to him under the Robert Clemente Bridge for an interview to ask about his journey.
The interview below has been edited for brevity and clarity.
PITTSBURGH DISTRICT: What have you discovered about yourself during the past 18 months you have spent on the water, so far?
NEAL MOORE: Part of the journey is pushing yourself out into nature, and the other part is that you, yourself are enveloped by nature. You have to embrace the wildness within yourself as well. This journey – it’s just been an awesome experience. It’s the perfect blend between town and country. I’m dreaming about these rivers. The islands that I’m going to sleep on. I feel stronger. My body is moving from strength to strength. Mentally, I’m clearer. I’m happy every single day. I find myself laughing on the river, just at the ridiculousness of how beautiful it is, and how free I feel.
PD: You’re turning 50 somewhere along this journey, right?
NM: I’ll turn 50 just before I hit New York City.
PD: How does that hit you as part of the journey, turning 50 during the journey?
NM: Some people might look at a crazy journey like this, like a midlife crisis. But I see it as a celebration. Every single day is a gift. I’m a cancer survivor. I’ve gone through two bouts of cancer, and I realized that this stage in my life right now – I’m healthy. I’m free and clear, cancer-wise. I just feel really, really privileged to be able to have this time, and every single day, every single moment to highlight and underscore the importance of that, and to truly make the most of it.
PD: What have you discovered about our nation, or the American people, during the journey?
NM: Part of the journey is exploring how the waterways of this land connect from West Coast to East Coast. The end game is the beacon hand of the Statue of Liberty. I’m also looking to explore how we, as Americans, connect. I’m looking for the positive ingredients of what it takes to be an American, from people from all walks of life, backgrounds, ethnicities, and to really highlight those positive stories. When times are tough – like we’ve seen this past year with COVID – this is when people roll up their sleeves. This is when people look out for the people around them. I love the word empathy, because when times are tough, the community has a chance to become family.
PD: What has been your favorite region or body of water you have navigated so far?
NM: The easy answer is my favorite bodies of water are all the places I haven’t seen yet. I am so excited about the Allegheny River. I’m excited about the Chadakoin. I’m excited about Lake Chautauqua, Lake Erie, the Erie Canal, and of course to have the privilege of coming down the Hudson.
But looking back I really have been touched by the places that have surprised me with the wildness and the ruggedness. The Clark Fork River in western Montana is ridiculously beautiful. It is wild and rugged, and you’re surrounded by nature. The stretches of the Missouri are wild and scenic. It just blows you away. In the North Dakota and South Dakota region – the Missouri River – this is where “Dances with Wolves” was filmed. You have these sunrises and sunsets that are awesome. One more surprise for me was the Gulf of Mexico. I decided to make my way out to the barrier islands, off the coast of Mississippi and Alabama. Stringing those islands together out there, I was escorted by a pod of dolphins. This canoe was hit by a bull shark. You just have nature everywhere, and it’s a phenomenal experience.
PD: How has the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers helped you with navigation access, and how has the organization been involved in your journey?
NM: The Army Corps, from my experience, especially on the Ohio River, I’ve just been bowled over by the professionalism, by their service to country. A lot of folks are ex-military with the corps, and they show just a life of service. They’re interested in the journey. They have lots of questions. The first thing they say is, ‘Do you need anything? Feel free to call back with your marine radio if you have any problems whatsoever.’ Just some practical advice I find with river travel, you should listen to locals. It could be a kid fishing on the side of the river. It could be an old timer. For me, it is absolutely the Army Corps of Engineers.
One of the lock masters (on the Ohio who knew I was coming) raises chickens and goats, and he wanted to make sure he had breakfast ready for me when I got there. At another lock, I had to charge my marine radio, and they had me come up. The folks are friendly and professional. Navigation has been so much easier thanks to them. It’s been a privilege to be able to lock through.
PD: What do you think connects the American people the same way these rivers connect our land?
NM: By the time I reach the Statue of Liberty, the big idea is that thread by thread, story by story, when you add them all up, the indigenous American culture, the African American experience, the Latino experience, the immigrant experience, each story is unique and special, but when you bring them together: this is America. We are the microcosm of the world. We are the melting pot. It underscores and celebrates our humanity. New York is the most diverse place on the planet. My journey started with stories of diversity in Oregon, and I’ll finish off with stories of diversity in New York City.
PD: Once you complete this journey, who will you be? What will this journey make you? And what will you remember?
NM: That’s a great question. I think – I know I’m going to be in the best shape of my life. I’m going to be just newly-minted at 50 years old. I’m going to be in a unique position to not just speak about the American experience, but to really have an understanding. That understanding comes from listening, from really dropping my preconceived ideas about people and places and cultures and whatnot, and really listening and documenting my way across the land. By the time I get to New York City, I think I’m going to be and feel strong, both in body and spirit.
I’m hoping to be an example as well. If an average, middle-aged guy can make this ridiculous, epic journey from coast to coast, then no matter what struggles other people are going through – be it illness, be it hard time with the economy, be it COVID, be it anything life tends to hurl at you – we can overcome. We have the strength, and the strength is not ‘me.’ The strength is the people around me. The strength is the nature of these waterways and the nation as a whole. To push yourself out there, out of your comfort zone, you have the opportunity to learn and to grow. It takes a community.