A storyteller, everyday explorer, and veteran of a solo canoe trip down the length of the Mississippi, Neal's work has appeared in The New Yorker, Der Spiegel and on CNN International. He is the author of "Down the Mississippi" (Mark Twain Museum Press) and is currently on a 22-river, 22-state, 7,500-mile solo transcontinental canoe journey across the United States.
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.” …
Off old Highway 12 in rural eastern Mississippi, I was invited to take in an out-of-doors socially-distanced “barn” concert with Tupelo-based Paul Thorn and the folk duo Ordinary Elephant. My Columbus-based host, the photographer Birney Imes, is old friends with Thorn (he shot his latest album cover) so when Thorn got to telling his trademark stories between songs about trailer parks and old flames and preachers that just might be wrong, he referenced my journey. He explained I’d paddled a canoe 5,000 miles out of 7,500, and then, after a dramatic pause, after all the oohs and aahs from the crowd, he quipped, “Neal must have a downright terrible home life. … Or maybe he just really likes to be in a canoe.” I’ve been looking forward to live music on this journey, and these guys, the whole night was just awesome.
A misbehaving minister and a crazy canoeist share a recent Sunday front page of The Dispatch in Columbus, Miss. Thanks to Slim Smith for the interview, Birney Imes for the photo (and awesome digs above the historic Dispatch offices), along with the ever-talented Tom Hudson for introducing me to the press. They do it old school here in Columbus, Miss., a fourth-generation family newspaper business with a 1950s printing press. She spits out an impressive 200 papers a minute, and once loaded onto trucks, a whopping 14,000+ copies will travel to six counties by morning.
Neal Moore admits he’s going about this all backwards.
Two hundred years ago, Lewis and Clark made their way west across the North American continent on a well-supplied expedition of discovery.
Moore is doing it backwards — from west to east — with only a canoe and the supplies he can fit inside it. The 7,500-mile trek began on Feb. 9,  when Moore, 49, paddled out into the Columbia River in Astoria, Oregon. He expects to complete the journey in December at the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.
Now, on the third and final leg of his journey, Moore stopped to rest and explore in Columbus this week before resuming his journey up the Tennessee-Tombigbee River and on up through the Great Lakes and the Hudson River.
Moore’s journey follows a circuitous route including 22 rivers, which he has chosen as the name of his journey and the book he plans to write about the experience.
He may have started two years ago, but he’s been an adventurer since his teens, when to satisfy his mother’s deathbed wish Moore went on a Mormon mission — a rite of passage for young Mormon males.
Moore arrived in South Africa as a missionary, but while his religious work ended quickly, his love of roaming the world has remained.
“I’m sort of a nomad,” Moore said. “I move back and forth between Taipei and Capetown, but I generally use them as a springboard to other places.”
Yet for all his world-traveling, Moore began to be drawn back to his home country about 12 years ago when he ran across a book called “Mississippi Solo,” by Eddy Harris, just as the Great Recession was beginning.
A freelance journalist, Moore saw how the media was reporting the recession and was convinced it was the wrong approach.
“They were going to the great financial centers, going to expensive restaurants and talking to people and saying, ‘This is what’s happening,’” Moore said. “I said to myself, ‘That’s not the story. The story is in middle America.’”
Inspired by Harris’ book, Moore made his own expedition down the Mississippi River, using the stories of the people he met along the way to frame the story of the recession.
“Part of the idea for the trip I’m on now is that the most incredible adventure of one’s life can be in one’s own backyard,” Moore said. “Having spent nearly a lifetime abroad, looking for adventure and going from culture to culture and continent to continent to find it (inspired me) to come back to my home county and really experience it raw and up close and real. It’s a unique way to reconnect with a part of who I am.”
Planting the seed
It was on that 2009 canoe trip down the Mississippi that Moore encountered someone who would plant the seed for Moore’s current adventure, a man whose life as a river traveler also included a stop in Columbus.
Dick Conant, a colorful canoeist who became an almost mythological figure among river travelers, is believed to have died in 2014 in North Carolina. Conant met New Yorker magazine writer Ben McGrath, who decided to turn Conant’s story into a book, which is set to be published this fall.
“I met Dick at the Brainard Portage on the upper Mississippi,” Moore said. “He was on the greatest adventure of his life. When I asked him what his plans were, he said he was connecting rivers to travel all over the country. My jaw just hit the floor when he told me that. I didn’t know it was possible. All those years, that idea was in my head like a mantra, that you can string these rivers together, that they connect, that it’s absolutely doable.”
COVID-19, which arrived about the time More was beginning his odyssey, has limited his visits with friends along his routes, but he’s been able to tap into a loose network of kindred spirits on his journey, breaking up the isolation of the travel.
“You make connections along the way through what’s called river talk,” he said. “If you’re a jerk upriver, people hear about it downriver. But it works the other way, too. If you’re nice and genuine, people hear about that. So there is a long-distance traveling community that I’m pretty well tied into. People have really opened their arms. But at other times, it’s the stumble-upons, people and stories that you encounter. As a storyteller, I love those.”
As he grows closer to the end of his long journey, Moore said he’s come to realize that it’s as much a story about the past as it is the present.
“You touch base with the immigrant experience, the Chinese in the Northwest, the African American experience in the Delta,” Moore said.
Moore said an encounter with a Native American near the beginning of the journey, gave him a perspective that has traveled with him.
“He said, ‘You’re going the wrong way, but doing it this way will allow you to document the destruction caused by the white man, sort of in reverse. Two hundred years ago, Lewis and Clark came right through here and my people helped them. There is a first people on every single one of these waterways you will travel.’”
Moore said that conversation convinced him the journey isn’t just west to east, but across the American eras.
“Part of this for me is that you sort of see where we’ve come from, how far we’ve come and who we have become,” he said.
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.”
Neal Moore has now been canoeing his way across America for an entire year. The 49-year-old freelance journalist first dipped his paddle into the Columbia River in Oregon on February 9, 2020, to begin the long journey to New York. The 12,000km route encompasses 22 rivers and 22 states.
His initial idea was to make this an exercise in slow journalism: For two years, he wanted to “come face to face with America’s soul” throughout the national election and find “positive stories of what unites us”.
Unfortunately, COVID-19 put a swift end to that and other aspects of the trip that he had envisaged. Various friends were to join him for sections of the route. That has fallen through, making it a much more solitary trip and a chance to document a unique moment in history.
As the pandemic spread, he continued to make his simple way up and down America’s rivers. “The journey itself—the canoe and my tent and all of my gear—became my home,” he said in a recent interview.
He has completed the first two parts of his three-part journey. The first section, which he called To the Great Divide, ran 1,800km up the Columbia, Snake, and Fork Rivers to the Continental Divide.
For the second section, dubbed To the Big Easy, he canoed 5,200km along the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers to New Orleans. He has now begun the final 5,000km section, To Lady Liberty.
He hit the one-year mark while on the Gulf Coast waiting for the winds to die down so he could continue making his way north.
Among the many challenges since he set out: becoming trapped in a cove during a gale on the Columbia River, where mounting waves smashed his canoe against the rocks; on the Snake River, a powerful wind pushed him against the riverbank and sloshed water over the gunwale. More water poured into his open canoe as quickly as he could bail it out. Luckily, the winds changed.
The canoeing has been unexpectedly hard on his legs. Though his arms and back were “well-tested and honed” even back when he began, his legs were not accustomed to such long trips. For over a year, they have strained to keep him properly seated against the waves, winds, and current. “This journey is a perpetual all-body workout,” he said. He says that by the time he hits New York, he will be in the best shape of his life.
You can follow the remainder of his journey on Instagram.
A Glimpse of America’s Soul. Dubbed “a modern-day Huck Finn” by CNN, adventurer/storyteller Neal Moore’s work from North America, Africa, and the Far East has appeared in The New Yorker, Der Spiegel, and on CNN International.
You can read some of Boyce Upholt’s writing here: http://www.boyceupholt.com “exploring the wild at the end of the world & exploring the world at the end of the wild”
When the Down the Mississippi author and adventurer Neal Moore set out for the second great expedition of his lifetime in February of 2020, he had no idea that his two-year, 7,500-mile documentarian trek by canoe would wind up navigating a nation mid-pandemic.
The original plan was to exercise slow journalism while covering the distance of twenty-two rivers and twenty-two states—from Astoria, Oregon to New York City—all in order to “come face to face with America’s soul.” “The idea was to go, from coast to coast, within two years—leading into the national elections and the aftermath thereof,” said Moore. “What I’m trying to do is to look for positive stories of what unites us as a country.”
And while the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated some logistical matters of Moore’s trip—and in many ways made it more solitary—he admits to the value of being in a position to document this particular America, this particular moment in history. “If anything, this has enhanced the storytelling,” he said. “It’s during hard times when people and families and communities really step up, and I’ve been able to witness a lot of that.”
After completing the first of three “Acts” mapping his path—a 1,111 mile upstream and uphill journey up the Columbia, Snake, and Fork rivers to MacDonald Pass in Montana, completed in ninety-seven days—Moore headed 3,249 miles down the Missouri and the Mississippi, pointing straight towards our own Big Easy. And in mid-December, so close to the end, he made a stop in the Red Stick. Over the course of five days, he made the obligatory stops: beers in a Spanish Town backyard, three meals at Poor Boy Lloyds, breakfast at Louie’s. And from his Hilton room downtown, he spent most evenings looking out at the river, which he’s come to know quite well. And as an outsider, he observed that Baton Rougeans know her too: “The residents of Baton Rouge have relationships, with this river and with nature, and with each other—neighbors in Spanish Town who are friends and actually know each other—you just don’t see that in lots of larger cities.”
Just before our press date, Moore told me this on his cell phone, windblown on an island in Old Man River and shooting for New Orleans, where he would complete Act II and spend the holidays, mostly alone. “But I’m very excited about it, this solitary experience of New Orleans,” he said. “I’ve learned that traveling solo, you’re open. You’re more open to observations, to potential new friendships, to stepping out of your comfort zone, seeing things from a unique perspective.”
One year on the water and I find myself in New Orleans, the end of the second leg of my “22 Rivers Expedition” across these United States. It’s been a wild year for one and all, and for me, there’s been no exception. Weeks into my cross country paddle the Covid-19 pandemic hit. After discussing with trusted friends and colleagues, I determined that with the canoe as my only home, sheltering in place meant continuing the journey. New Orleans represents 4,400 river and portage miles behind me, leaving another 3,100 to go next year to make NYC. Cheers for everybody’s encouragement, friendship, and support. It absolutely means the world.