BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — A taste of adventure is making it’s way to Buffalo this week, as Lake Erie gets a visit from a unique traveler. Neal Moore has been dubbed a “Modern Day Huckleberry Finn” for his adventures. Right now, he’s in the middle of a canoe trip from Oregon to New York City, crossing 22 states along the way.
“To explore how rivers, people and communities connect, in search of that which unites us as a nation,” Moore said. “To applaud America, our differences and our commonalities from the West Coast to the Statue of Liberty.”
It all started in February 2020 with the goal of listening, documenting and celebrating America. He is 19 months and 7,000 miles into a 22-month, 7,500-mile journey across America.
When the pandemic hit in 2020 he was already on his way to travel through 22 states. Wherever he is in the country, he wakes up at first light, and gets right on the water.
“It’s a moment of release and a moment of pure freedom,” said Moore.
When night falls, he’ll have a quick meal of freeze dried food and set up camp with his tent.
He’s now 19 months in to this routine. Neal will be in Buffalo for two days and will continue his journey on the Erie Canal.
“So I’ll slowly make my way across New York State to Albany to meet the Hudson, which I’ll have the pleasure of being able to come down to New York City,” said Moore.
Mother nature makes canoeing across country for about two years quite interesting. Moore has come across a bull shark, an alligator, a grizzly bear and more. But possibly the scariest is the water itself.
When he got to Lake Erie, he asked some locals in Westfield at Barcelona Beach for advice.
“What do you think about a canoe onto the open lake to make my way to Buffalo,” asked Moore.
The answer: get ready to swim.
He and a friend had to come to shore after waters in Lake Erie got rough a few days ago—so rough they almost didn’t make it in. The water knocked them down and pushed the canoe on top of them. They had to wait for a wave to set them free.
He’ll finish with a few scrapes here and there, but Moore says it’s all part of the journey.
“Nature is one part of it, but really it’s the people,” said Moore.
He says the real goal of this trip was to learn about this country through the people, collecting signatures along the way.
“Folks who I meet up with, new friends, they sign the boat and wish me good luck on the journey,” said Moore.
He’s met with people of all ages, races and origins and says when you piece it all together, you get the story of America.
“In this country we can all listen to, we can all learn the people around us can be our friends as opposed to our adversaries,” said Moore.
He’ll rest here in the 716 for a few days then embark on the next 500 miles. He estimates he’ll get to the Statue of Liberty around December.
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
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.
Neal Moore’s voyage of discovery has survived a close call with a barge and a pandemic. This year, he should complete his 12,000km canoe journey across America. We caught up with Moore while he waited out some rough weather in a Kentucky cottage on the Ohio River.
You have spent nearly 18 months on this trip. How mentally/physically challenging have you found the journey?
Hanging up my paddles in mid-2018 on the first attempt at this route was rough. [A] friend said, “You do realize, Neal, you’re gonna have to start over now.” That took my breath away. But then I thought, Hell yes, what a pleasure to see the Columbia again, to make my way through Montana, to be granted the chance to truly earn my eventual view of Lady Liberty.
The thing is, my crazy route from coast to coast has the chance to be continuous. That is, if my strength, mental state, bodily health, and the flooding, derechos [windstorms], twisters, and COVID –- all the Acts of God that the natural environment might hurl my way — don’t derail me.
I’m stronger now physically and mentally than I’ve ever been. I truly feel that I am in the moment, positive and determined.
We last spoke in November when you were on the Mississippi. What route have you taken over the last eight months and where are you now?
I hopped off the Mississippi at New Orleans. It was just me and a lone waitress at the Clover Grill for Christmas. The place was empty.
After New Year’s, I paddled the Gulf of Mexico between New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama, skirting the Mississippi-Alabama barrier islands just off the coast. Then I came up the Tensaw, Mobile, Tombigbee, and Tennessee-Tombigbee to the Tennessee. Here, I changed directions and came down the Tennessee, making my way back to Kentucky, to the Ohio River.
Floods and twisters
Has your route changed from your original plan?
My original route would have taken me up the Tennessee. From there, I’d have taken the Emory to the New River and on up to the Dix River to the Kentucky. Eventually, I would meet the Ohio near Louisville.
I had planned on 50 miles of portaging along historic Byway 27 (the original roadway from Florida to Chicago). I was excited to witness, paddle, and portage this stretch of rural Americana. But en route, I holed up in Demopolis, Alabama. There was flooding before I even arrived, and then two twisters passed through. The first one narrowly missed the historic downtown. These storms swept across multiple states and the flooding was intense. Folks were drowning in the floodwaters up in Nashville.
I called a canoe/kayak outfitter in Knoxville and asked about conditions on the New River in the spring. Sure, it would be gnarly, with multiple class rapids in West Virginia, but I was not sure about her passage through Tennessee and Kentucky. I was told that I might be able to paddle just a mile or two in my open canoe. This would stretch my planned portage of 50 miles to 175 miles.
Avoiding drug dealers
I also spoke with long-distance paddler Towhead Steve, who had come down the entire Tennessee in 2020. He reported that the paddle between the confluence of the Tenn-Tom at Pickwick Lake and Knoxville had super high embankments. This meant that one could only camp at boat ramps. Here, kids were dealing drugs throughout the night.
Alternatively, he said that the paddle from Pickwick Lake to Paducah had glorious sandbars and friendly folks. This new diversion would keep me 100 percent on the water to reach the Ohio.
Are you still on track to reach the Hudson in December?
I had been budgeting an average of 10 miles per day to clear the Erie Canal before she closes in mid-November. Unfortunately, this year she will close early, on October 13. Beyond the now-rushed schedule, high water and flooding mean that locks 8 to 19 (of 34 total locks) are closed. So I might ask permission to navigate outside the season.
With a little luck, I’ll be paddling and locking through a portion. Most days on the Ohio, I’m covering between 20 and 25 miles, so I should make it. If I’m delayed, I’ll be portaging or pulling between Upstate New York towns to the Hudson, probably in snow. No matter how it goes down, I’ll complete the journey.
Sold down the river
You said that COVID curtailed the personal storytelling aspect of your journey. Has this changed as the U.S. has lifted restrictions?
Yes, I’m busily meeting characters left, right, and center. The country has opened slowly, and where I am right now, Kentucky, claims to have always been open.
I’m keeping to my mantra of documenting the folks I meet along the way. I’ve dropped the need to walk into a town with a camera to “pull off a story”. Actually, I only have one story in sight. Two river terms we all know, to be sold down the river and to be sent up the river are both negative. In NYC, “the river” is the Hudson, and Sing Sing [Prison] is the destination. I want to try to meet with an ex-offender on their release, to detail and document the gates opening for them to the big wide world, from their perspective, and to see who is there to greet them. To encourage them. To help them fly right.
Has the journey changed your perception of America or Americans? What has surprised you?
Yes, this second attempt was planned to chronicle the year leading into the national elections. I reached Memphis halfway, at 3,750 miles, on November 3 [election day]. The vast majority of the map I’m plying on this journey is solid red. Minus a few blue dots between Portland, Oregon, and NYC.
Funny, I just paddled past my very first Republican flag on a boat on the Ohio River the other day. It featured simply an elephant and the word “Republican”. It is the first Republican banner I’ve seen on this expedition that didn’t scream Trump. Or include a Confederate Flag on the same pole. Or shock with catchy expletives.
A changing America
I think we are coming right as a nation. I took a ride over the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Bridge, the longest continuous bridge over water in the world, as the inauguration played out live. As Amanda Gorman delivered her poem of hope, The Hill We Climb. And what I found on the streets of New Orleans later that day were kids of color in motion, laughing and pulling wheelies on their bikes along lower Bourbon Street. The city, the nation, I myself, could breathe.
I’ve found that folks from all political persuasions appreciate the idea to look for what binds us together as Americans as opposed to what tears us apart. And this is what I’m truly on the lookout for. To highlight, to underscore, to celebrate.
I’d been paddling for several hours when I stopped to check in with Neal. He was in Rising Sun, Indiana, at a hamburger stand called the Patty Wagon eating an ice cream cone.
Readers may remember Neal Moore, who appeared on the front page of this newspaper back in April. Slim Smith interviewed Neal during a stopover in Columbus on his 7,500-mile coast-to-coast canoe trip across America.
From Columbus Neal would continue up the Tenn-Tom to the Tennessee and then on to the Ohio River.
Before leaving Neal invited me to join him at any point in his journey.
Maybe on the Ohio, I said. There is a lovely stretch of river between Cincinnati and Madison, Indiana, I’ve wanted to paddle.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1785: ”The Ohio is the most beautiful river on earth. Its current gentle, waters clear, and bosom smooth and unbroken by rocks and rapids, a single instance only excepted.“
Jefferson was writing before the age of power plants, casinos and barge terminals, which now clutter the banks of a stream that gets its name from the Seneca meaning “good river.” While stretches of the Ohio are heavily industrialized, the river retains much of its pastoral beauty. Grassy pastures, thick forests and quaint river towns, storybook reminders of another time, slope to the water’s edge.
And so it was on Tuesday under an unrelenting sun and in 90-degree temperatures, I was paddling downstream on the Ohio to meet Neal who, when he was not eating ice cream, was slowly and steadily working his way upstream.
Neal is over 6,000 miles into the journey he started in February, 2020. Our plan was to meet on a small island where we would camp for the night.
A friend had dropped me about six miles downstream from Cincinnati on the Kentucky side of the river at Anderson Ferry, a car and pedestrian ferry that has been in operation since 1817.
Our rendezvous point was 24 miles downstream.
Finally, around 5 p.m., the rain showers I’d been hoping for all day materialized. Only, these were accompanied by wind and lightning. I took refuge at a landing at Petersburg on the Kentucky side of the river.
I was exhausted, the weather had turned bad and I still had six miles more to paddle. Maybe with a few energy bars, some rest and clearing skies, I could make it. Prudence suggested otherwise.
I walked up the steep, unpaved landing and found at the top several blocks of houses and a historical marker commemorating a long defunct distillery from the early 1800s.
I knocked on the front door of the first house I came to and stepped back. A wide-eyed young woman accompanied by a young girl, opened the door. I asked if there was an inn, campground or a B&B nearby. She said her fiancé would know; he was in the backyard.
There I met Shawn Munday, who was washing and waxing a large maroon pickup and a Jeep. We talked for awhile and though he was friendly, he had no ideas about lodging. I thanked him and made a loop around the small settlement before heading back to the landing and my boat.
Shawn in his giant pickup met me at the landing. “Can I give you a ride somewhere?” he said.
I asked if he could take me to nearby Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, a couple miles downstream from our island meeting place.
On the way to Rabbit Hash, Shawn said he was spurred to action when his fiancé’s daughter asked him, “Are you going to help that man?”
Camping opportunities at Rabbit Hash (a movie set of a town arrayed around a 19th century general store; the town has a dog for its mayor) turned out to be non-existent.
I phoned Neal. He said there was a small hotel on the riverfront at Rising Sun across the river. He would call. I apologized to Shawn, who, by now, was committed to seeing us settled for the night.
In anticipation of my having to paddle across the river to Rising Sun, Shawn took me to the landing for the ferry that serves that town’s riverboat casino.
Turns out the hotel was full, but the woman who owned the Patty Wagon said we could camp on a slab of concrete next to her sister’s dock below the hamburger stand. Neal’s ice cream stop turned out to be more fortuitous than either of us could have imagined.
Shawn helped me get my kayak to the river’s edge. By now the wind and rain had subsided. Across the way the lights from the riverboat casino twinkled in the dark. The village of Rising Sun lay several hundred yards downstream.
“Let me know when you get settled,” Shawn called as I paddled out onto the dark river.
I crossed the river, paddled past the riverboat casino and at the public landing and pulled the kayak on the shore.
As I waited for Neal to emerge from the darkness, a family with young children brandishing fishing gear chattered happily as they clambered over the riprap at the water’s edge. Out in the channel a towboat festooned with colored lights pushed its tow soundlessly upstream. The rain-scrubbed air felt cool and clean.
A long, hot day with its measure of uncertainty seemed headed toward an agreeable conclusion.
Birney Imes III is the immediate past publisher of The Dispatch.
A Peace Of My Mind: Building community and bridging divides through portraits and personal stories.
Neal Moore is a journalist, an adventurer and an expatriate. He is in the midst of a two-year journey, paddling 7,500 miles across the United States. I met him in a coffee shop—by chance—in Columbus, Mississippi and we found time the next day to do an interview.
“So the big idea is to travel from sea to shining sea, connecting the waterways. I’m looking at 22 rivers. The idea is to touch 22 States and make my way across 7,500 miles from the Pacific Coast, to the Continental Divide, to the Gulf of Mexico, to the Great Lakes, to the very feet of the Statue of Liberty. It’s a two year journey.
I’m attempting to connect waterways, but also to connect the stories of everyday Americans, to listen to folks and try to understand what the commonality is, the thread between us that can spin positive and speak to our mutual experience.
I’ve been an expatriate on and off—mainly on—for 30 years. I’ve been living between Africa and East Asia for this time and this is a chance to come back to my own backyard, and to experience it up close and personal. This is a unique way to see the country.
The canoe is the first form of transport and these rivers and waterways are the first thoroughfares in this land and they absolutely connect. And so, to unfurl the map in your mind and then to try to plot out your course, it took a year just to plot the course.
When I look at rivers, when I look at water, I’ve always found that this is sort of a stabilizing substance. Our bodies are +/- 70% water. The surface of the earth is +/- 70% water. And I think there might be a correlation there. When I was younger, I went to school in Hawaii. Then when I transferred to the university of Utah, I would take off every winter quarter and go back to Capetown. And for the three months I was there—which is their summer—I would just be surfing in the water every single day.
I had all this stress. I had lost my brother as a boy. I had lost my mom. And when I came home, my dad had moved on. It was just me, and I found, when you submerge yourself, and even when you’re near a waterway, that stress washes off.
So, the idea was to paddle the year leading into national elections, and then the full year after, no matter how it would have turned out. What would we look like as a nation the year after national elections?
I identify as liberal. I sort of identify as very much as flawed, as well. So I understand that I don’t have all the answers. And the moment that I think that I do, that’s when everything sort of goes topsy-turvy and my personal life sort of gets messed up. And so for me, when you you do unfurl that map of America, and you look at my route, this route that I’ve selected, these 22 rivers and waterways, it’s by and large, all red. The country is very red in these rural locations that I’m finding myself paddling through and stopping off to, to meet folks.
So my thinking going into it is sort of like George Orwell and his masterpiece, Homage to Catalonia where he’s a journalist based in London. This was before his fame, of course, with Animal Farm, with 1984. Well before that, and he puts himself onto a boat and he disembarks in Barcelona and he attaches himself to the losing side of the Spanish Civil War and to an anti-fascist faction known as the POUM. At the end of chapter one, he finds himself on the front, taking a shot at another human being for the first time in his life.
What he says is, “understand that I am biased, but also understand that I am here.” And this is the age before the green screen. But what he’s saying is we have New York journalists, the big name ones, and we have London journalists, the big name ones who say that they’re there during the Spanish Civil War in Spain, and they’re not. They aren’t there and they’re still biased. But as he says, I’m biased, but I’m here.
And so my thinking, looking at the map in that vein and with that exclamation point is to see the country and to learn, and really try to take off the mask of these monikers that we sort of throw on to ourselves. The things that if we let them, can separate us, be it identity politics, be it race, be it religion.
What I’m looking for is that common thread, from coast to coast. What I’m really looking for is the common humanity, and I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it with individuals. I’ve seen it with families. I’ve seen it with communities. And when you see it, and when you’re able to document it, it just blows you away. It’s so profound.
When you add up all of these stories, everybody has a story. My thinking is by the time I get to the Statue of Liberty, and approaching her from a rarefied view, coming the wrong way, from the West Coast to the East Coast, I feel like I earned these towns, that I earned the chance for these stories. I want to earn that view. And to really properly understand it, I need to first understand who we are, and what we’re about and how far we’ve come.
I think the big surprise for me has been the wildness. A journey like this by and large, you’re pushing yourself out into the wild. And then in so doing, you get to embrace the wildness within. As Max finds out with Where the Wild Things Are, the monster is inside of us. And so to be able to understand that, embrace that and try to deal with that on a personal basis, in concert with nature. When you’re in your canoe, you’re down low in the water, and you see it, you experience nature from a wholly different vantage point.
Every day that I’m out there in nature, every single day, I find myself laughing. It’s this care-free laugh of, I really should be clocking in or clocking out somewhere with a proper job. And I’m not. I’m out here in nature and I’m free. I’m positively free. And there’s something beautiful about that.
I’m generally up an hour before first light. I’m deflating my air pad and rolling up my sleeping bag. I’m packing up inside the tent and taking the tent down. It takes about an hour to an hour and a half. And then I put all of my worldly belongings into my canoe. And I push off. And in that exact moment, it’s just pure perfection.
There’s something so beautiful about that moment where you step off from Terra Firma into the water. Whether I’m headed downstream with the current or whether I’m fighting like hell going upstream, you’re in the moment. I don’t travel with with earbuds in my ears, listening to books on tape or listening to music. Nature herself is my orchestra.
And when you’re paddling, you’re looking out for obstacles at all times. So you’re listening to the water. You’re watching out for boulders. You’re watching for hanging tree limbs.
Whether it be the pandemic or whether it be the headwinds and the tornadoes and the two derechos. There are hard times, but you understand that it’s temporary. You understand that around the bend, that we’re going to be okay.
In many cases on this journey, I’m risking my life. I’m putting myself completely out there. And there’s a strange thing that happens. There’s this strange phenomenon that takes place, when it’s touch and go, when you realize that you’re in a situation that can absolutely end your life, it’s when you feel like you really live. You have to focus. You cannot freak out and you have to see your way through.
And so whenever you have tribulation, you have to have to experience that. Be it the loss of loved ones, be it nature’s temporary fury. You have to soldier through. And by making your way through the hard times, on the flip side of that, when you make the safe harbor, when the sun comes out nice and bright and beautiful, then it’s all the sweeter. It’s all the sweeter because you’ve earned it.
I think our greatest strength is empathy. When you stop and you take away these labels that we like to identify ourselves by. When you strip all of that away, what we’re left with is something beautiful. And it’s something I think that we can all connect to. We can all relate to. And if we let ourselves, we can all love in a positive way. That is our common humanity. That is the natural desire to help, to have empathy for our brothers and sisters. And I think from coast to coast, what I’m finding doesn’t always work out that way, but when you’re looking for it, you see It. You see it.
And when you do see it, it strengthens your belief in mankind. And I think it makes you—the would be traveler in this life—a very happy person.”
-What is the boldest adventure you have ever embarked on?
-Have you ever placed yourself in harm’s way?
-When have you pushed your physical and psychological limits?
-Have you experienced water in a healing way?
-Do you agree with Neal that empathy is our greatest strength?
-When have you offered empathy? When have you received it?
-When have you had a clear sense of our common humanity?
-When have you experienced wilderness?
-What does Neal mean by the phrase “the wilderness within?”
-If you could set off on a journey, what would you hope to find?
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.