22 RIVERS across 22 STATES in 22 MONTHS

A lone canoeist crosses America in search of what binds us together

By Derek Burnett

Reader’s Digest

Neal Moore is descending New York State’s Mohawk River by canoe, approaching the end of a journey that began 22 months and more than 7,000 miles ago. His paddle has plied 21 bodies of water so far on his way across the continent. Downstream always means easier paddling, yet dangers abound – wedge up against a log or rock, and the current will flip him and sink his earthly goods. All those upstream slogs were worse, of course. His eyes would scan the river for the calm seams of flat water, the points of land that subdued the stream and made the way less difficult. Lest he surrender hard-earned progress, he would dig and dig long past the burning of his shoulders in midmorning and on into the long and stifling – or freezing and windblown afternoon.

“Twenty-two rivers, 22 states, 22 months of journeying” has been his declared objective. “Stringing together rivers” and the people along them to see what still connects us as Americans in divided times.

At evening, sunset often beams upon a chosen spit of sand – the river showing him where to camp. He likes islands for their safety from animals but also from people. An hour before nightfall he unloads his gear, pitches his tent, fixes some supper, maybe cracks a beer. And then he dines in perfect solitude seated upon an overturned plastic bucket, watching the timeless mystery of day becoming night. Music of coyotes, crickets, frogs. The silent coming of fireflies from out across the water, piling into the willows above his head. He turns in early, marveling at the strength in his 49-year-old limbs, which increases by the day. He’ll will himself awake one hour before dawn, and in concert with the first hopeful rays of morning he will push off into the stream, leaving nothing behind but the notch in the coarse sand where his canoe has passed the sacred night.

WHEN MOORE WAS a 13-year-old growing up in Los Angeles, his older brother, Tom, whom he adored, crashed his Mustang and died from his injuries. Devastated, Moore passed his teenage years in a spiraling funk – drugs, attempted suicide – made worse when his beloved mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and began a slow decline. His father was a fifth-generation Mormon whose pioneering ancestor had led a company of handcart-toting emigrants across the prairie to Utah. Now, with her health dwindling and her son hopelessly adrift, his mother stated her dying wish: for Moore to serve a two-year mission to spread the gospel, as is traditional for devout Mormons between high school and college.

Moore was anything but devout. But his mother wanted him to do something transformative. To do something pure. If she died while he was away, he was not to come home for the funeral. Surprising even himself, he went. His assignment was South Africa, 1991 to 1993. During his first month in the field, he got the phone call he’d been dreading – his mother had passed. Honoring her request, he stayed on.

The mission changed his life. In South Africa he learned to live outside his dark thoughts. To serve wholeheartedly. To walk freely among strangers and learn their stories. To shake hands African-style, thumb upward. To smile and mean it.

“When you push yourself out of your comfort zone,” he concluded, “this is when extraordinary things can happen. This is when you learn and grow.”

Over the next decades he lived as an expatriate, teaching English in Taiwan, selling antiques in South Africa, adventuring in Egypt, then heading into Ethiopia’s broiling heat. And back for a visit to his homeland in 2009 for a paddle down the length of the Mississippi River to see how the middle of America was faring during the Great Recession – this despite having never previously spent more than an afternoon in a canoe.

Cancer had taken his mother, and in 2012 it tried to take him too. He needed surgery, which left him unable to walk. Over the course of months, he crawled and then stood and then took a few shuffling paces and then got to where he could once again trek for miles. …


Continue reading Derek’s feature expedition interview in the October 2022 print edition of Reader’s Digest, available (nearly) everywhere magazines are sold.