A Peace Of My Mind (Podcast)

APOMM

By John Nolter

A Peace Of My Mind: Building community and bridging divides through portraits and personal stories.

Neal Moore is paddling 7,500 miles across the United States. Photo by John Nolter, taken in Columbus, Mississippi.

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.”

Discussion questions:

-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?

Neal Moore’s Two-Year Canoe Journey Across America and Into the Light

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.” …

You can read Jeff’s entire expedition interview at Adventure Journal here.

Larger than a cover band and smaller than Elvis

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.

Singer-songwriter Paul Thorn sings to an out-of-doors small gathering at “The Barn” in rural eastern Mississippi. Photo by Neal Moore.

Making the news

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.

A proof-copy of The Dispatch, Sunday, April 11, 2021

First Year of the 22 Rivers Expedition

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.

Canoeist Halfway Through Coast-To-Coast River Trip

BY SHELLEY BYRNE

The Waterways Journal

A man canoeing the nation’s rivers from the Pacific to the Atlantic wants to share a story about how interconnected both they and the Americans living and working on them are.

Caption for photo: Neal Moore is traveling 22 rivers over the course of two years on his trip from the West Coast to the East Coast. Along the way he is gathering stories about what unites people together despite deep divisions, including those of American politics. Last week, as the nation went to the polls for the presidential election, he was halfway through his 7,500-mile journey. (Photo by Patrick Tenny)

Neal Moore, 48, expects to be midway through his 7,500-mile journey this week when he reaches Memphis, Tenn. He saved money from a year and a half of teaching English in Taiwan to afford his two-year journey, which he purposely planned for the year before and the year after the election for the American president.

Moore was raised in Los Angeles, Calif., but he has lived much of his adult life overseas. He spent time as a missionary in South Africa, as an aid worker and, among other adventures, trekked across northern Ethiopia with a donkey named Gopher. Eleven years ago, he canoed down the Mississippi River, and it left an impression on him. Now he is expanding upon that voyage by solo canoeing 22 rivers in what he said is believed to be the longest continuous solo canoe trip ever undertaken from coast to coast across the United States.

“The idea is to come back to my home country and see it up close and personal and coast to coast, to see old friends and meet new friends along the way,” Moore said.

Moore left the West Coast, paddling up the Columbia River and past Portland, Ore., on February 9. He is in a red, 16-foot Old Town Penobscot canoe. He hopes to canoe around Ellis Island in New York Harbor to complete his journey by the end of 2021.

Moore picked the year before and after the election as a time to travel in part because of the deep political divisions in the country. At a time others are focusing on differences, he said he hopes to shed light on what brings people together, instead.

“It’s the ties that bind us together,” Moore said. “It’s looking at what we have in common.”

Part of the journey travels the same rivers explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark traveled on their Corps of Discovery expedition, although Moore notes he is doing so in reverse, in part to avoid the onerous task of paddling up the Missouri River.

“The big idea as I’m on, along and in these rivers is to be able to try to document stories and talk to people from all walks of life, different ethnicities, different immigrant tales, the idea being when you string all these rivers, when you string all of these stories together, you’ll have the story of America.”

Moore is recording the stories of many of the people he meets on the trip and compiling them into a book. People may follow his journey and donate at 22rivers.com as well as purchase books on past adventures, which help fund future ones. He is also documenting his trip on Instagram at @riverjournalist.

Moore’s route so far took him from the Columbia River to the Snake River. He then portaged 200 miles due north to Lake Pend Oreille in northern Idaho, where he caught the mouth of the Clark Fork River and went up past Missoula to the town of Garrison in western Montana. From there he portaged 60 miles over the Continental Divide to Helena and the Missouri River. He came down the Missouri to the Mississippi, pausing to paddle upriver 116 miles to Hannibal, Mo., hometown of Mark Twain. He paddled to the confluence of the Ohio River, then took another detour, paddling 50 miles upstream to Paducah, KY.

“I was just really keen to get a taste of the Ohio River and also to see the mouth of the Tennessee since I’ll be on the Ohio and the Tennessee next year,” Moore said.

Moore then paddled back down the Ohio to the Mississippi and is traveling downstream. When he reaches the Gulf of Mexico, he will then skirt it 150 miles to Mobile, Ala., before taking the Mobile and Tombigbee rivers, the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway and the Tennessee River, eventually catching the New River near Knoxville, Tenn., and then the Cumberland River. From there, he said, he will take the Dix River and then the Kentucky River through Frankfort before dumping out into the Ohio River just downriver from Cincinnati, Ohio.

Moore will then paddle up the Ohio River to Pittsburgh, Pa. He plans to take a side tour on the Kanawha River to see West Virginia because he has never been there.

“What I’m really excited about are parts of the country I haven’t been to before,” Moore said.

He will return to Pittsburgh and then catch the Allegheny to upstate New York, and at Chautauqua Lake will portage on a road named Old Portage Road about 10 miles. He plans to skirt the edge of Lake Erie to just above Buffalo. From there the Erie Canal will turn into the Mohawk, which dumps into the Hudson River around Albany, N.Y.

“Then I’ll ride the Hudson right on down to New York City,” he said. “The end game will be the Statue of Liberty. You can’t land there, but you can paddle around there.”

Moore said unlike 11 years ago, he is equipped with a marine radio, which should help with communicating with towing vessels and other boats. He promises to do all he can to stay out of the way of passing tows and doesn’t normally canoe at night, spending most nights in his tent, usually on a nearby island or sand bar.

Although he is on a very different trip than that taken by others up and down the country’s rivers, Moore said once again there is something that connects him to many of the others who choose to spend their time on them.

“Coming from Los Angeles and then based in a place like Taipei, it just really feels liberating,” he said. “It feels great to be out in the wild, whether it’s the extreme highlands or lowlands of Ethiopia or whether it’s in and along these major rivers, which by and large are extremely rural. It’s an exciting feeling to be out there surrounded by nature.”

Neal Moore retraces the steps of Lewis and Clark, part 2

By Les Winkeler

THE SOUTHERN ILLINOISAN

Neal Moore uses detailed charts of the Mississippi River to plot stopping points and possible campsites while canoeing across the country. He is in the middle of a 22-month, 7,500 mile journey that will take him from Oregon to Ellis Island. Photo by Les Winkeler, THE SOUTHERN ILLINOISAN

GRAND TOWER — Neal Moore has packed a lot of adventure into his 49 years, beginning with a Mormon mission trip to South Africa as that country was emerging from apartheid. Moore has spent most of his adult life in Africa and Asia, but has longed to return to his American roots.

The California native is currently in the middle of a 7,500-mile trip in which he hopes to reconnect to his native country in an incredibly personal way. He is essentially retracing the steps of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark’s epic Voyage of Discovery.

He will travel 22 rivers over 22 months while making his way from the Columbia River in Oregon to Ellis Island in New York. Moore recently spent the night in Grand Tower where he provisioned himself, just in time, for colder weather.

An author and freelance journalist, Moore’s goal is to gain insight into the soul of America, to dissect what Lewis and Clark have wrought, there is another side to the trip that Moore had to take into consideration while planning. Twenty-two months in a canoe, making your way through some of the biggest, as well as most treacherous water in the United States takes a toll – mentally and physically.

The reality of paddling nearly 7,500 miles is one of the reasons Moore is doing the trip from west to east … he’ll spend a lot more time traveling downstream.

“I’ve been planning and planning this for quite some time,” Moore said. “I was looking at initially going from east-to-west, naturally to tell of the progression. I was given a contact of Norm Miller, he runs the Missouri Paddlers page. He paddled a canoe in 2004 from St. Louis, up the Missouri River and over the divide. Talking to him what he said was it’s not the physical part, the struggle.

“I looked at the map, I knew there’d be 200 miles from Cairo to St. Louis, to come up the Mississippi, then up the Missouri, but what he said was psychologically, for hundreds and hundreds of miles on the Missouri to paddle up, it’s wild up to Yankton, knowing you could walk faster … So, looking at the map I got excited thinking, ‘What if I could do the whole thing in reverse?’”

That’s not a small consideration when you begin a 7,500-mile journey will some back issues. To compensate he outfitted the canoe with a back rest and steeled his mind.

“You’re forced to be strong,” he said. “Your body becomes strong, but also, mentally, you have to see that goal. It goes back to being an Eagle Scout where I wanted to give up and dad said, ‘You can’t give up. You started something, you have to finish it.’”

He began a similar trip a couple years ago, but flooding forced him off the water.

“Two years ago, I was against a 20-year flood on the Columbia River,” Moore said. “It’s really heave ho, I really like the idea of the open canoe. You’re experiencing the same hardships they (Lewis and Clark) would have encountered as well. You’re opening yourself up to hell or high water quite literally.

“But, you’re also open to all of the good. You are going to meet people who aren’t so nice. You’re going to meet people who might wish you ill. You’re going to meet a lot of people who are there to support you and encourage you that you can learn from as well. That also goes hand-in-hand with their experience as well.”

That’s where the psychology kicks in. For 22 months, Moore will basically be isolated on the river, except for the people he meets along the way. There is no room for a support group in his [16-foot canoe].

During the course of the journey, he will spend most of the time with his own thoughts.

“You have to will yourself forward,” Moore said. “You fight and you fight. This is a part of life as well. You have to have a goal and you have to sort of struggle. And, part of the beauty is the struggle. There are days where you just whistle and you just laugh at the beauty, the beauty of this river. You also have the other days where you are fighting for your life.”

He said his early life featured frequent moves, forcing him to make new friends on a regular basis. That experience is coming in handy on the trip, although there are still some difficult times.

“The psychological part, I don’t like big crowds too much,” Moore said. “I really like the idea of being out there. At the same time, I’ve moved for the majority of my life. When I was a kid we lived in eight different houses in Los Angeles.

“Especially doing these stories, you have these intense kinds of friendships that are short, then you have to get back on the water. That, for me, I think is the hardest part. As my mom tried to teach me, by leaving you’re opening yourself up to the possibility of the realization of more friends and stories down the road.”

You can follow Moore’s progress and chart his new friendships at www.22rivers.com.

ACROSS THE CONTINENT IN A CANOE

In 1890, “a plucky young Texan” paddled his canoe from New York City to Astoria, Oregon. A staff correspondent for New York’s Mail and Express, R. Elbert Rappleye’s odyssey spanned 6,280 miles and was undoubtedly a first. What’s crazy to consider is that 130 years on, there isn’t a West Coast to East solo, continuous canoe expedition on record. It feels awe-inspiring to traverse the nation by canoe, to span the country with a journalistic eye, and with a bit of luck and success, to pull off a reverse record.

Having paddled and portaged up the Columbia, Snake, and Clark Fork Rivers, I’m currently in North Dakota at Tobacco Gardens Resort & Marina on Lake Sakakawea (on my second cross-country shot). I spent months to plot and plan out the unique cross-country route. It’s amazing, but without knowing about Mr. Rappleye until now, from the rivers and lakes of Idaho and Montana to Lake Chautauqua, Lake Erie, the Erie Canal, the Hudson, and even my final destination of New York City, I’ll be casting my eyes and scribbling in my notebook, from water level, along and upon a number of similar vistas and waterways.

Mr. Rappleye’s cross-country canoe route, from East Coast to West, 1890.

Mr. Moore’s cross-country canoe route, from West Coast to East, 2020-2021.

If you’d like to follow my journey, you can check out my Instagram feed here.

Thanks to Norman Miller for the information on R. Elbert Rappleye, and for chronicling all long-distance paddlers to touch the Missouri – and beyond.

Here is the original article about Rappleye’s voyage from 1891:

R. ELBERT RAPPLEYE, a plucky young Texan educated in New York, has just won the glory of making one of the longest trips on record in a small boat. He crossed the continent from New York to Astoria, Oregon, on the Pacific, a distance, over the necessarily circuitous route of more than 6,200 miles. The canoeist had necessarily to carry his light, but tough, paper craft, Only twelve miles during his protracted voyage. The length of the land voyage was, however, increased by the unnecessary transfer of his boat to Lake Chautauqua and by encountering ice in the Rocky mountains. He paddled down 150 miles of the Missoula river, in Montana, that, the settlers said, never had been successfully navigated before.

The canoeist launched his little boat from the Jersey City Yacht Club on April 10, 1890, and started up the Hudson river. He paddled from the Hudson through the Erie canal and into Lake Erie. It was his intention originally to go from Lake Erie by way of the Miami canal, which connects the lake with the Ohio River; but the citizens of Jamestown, N.Y., prevailed upon him to leave Lake Erie at the nearest point to Chautauqua lake, and transported him to Mayville, whence he was escorted to Jamestown by the Chadaukoin Canoe Club.

Everywhere he touched he was welcomed with enthusiasm and entertained and feasted. Word of his coming was flashed over the wires from town to town, and there were always many to meet him at the landing place. He passed through North and South Dakota, and, on August 30th, visited the camp of Sitting Bull. He reached the divide in the Rocky Mountains in October. Here he was the first necessary portage of the voyage. The battered canoe on which were written the names of hundreds who had helped to welcome the voyager at points along his course, was slid into the Hell Gate river at Missoula, in the presence of a thousand citizens, who cheered its departure for the western coast. The canoeist took a passenger at Missoula, the first in his long course, who was invaluable to him as a guide. He was Frank Whittaker, an old Leadville miner, who left him at Paradise, Montana, where he joined a survey party. He had the company of David W. Low, a young man and enthusiastic canoeist of Missoula, from the time he parted company with his first passenger until he reached Astoria.

A longer carry over the divide than would have been necessary in summer had to be made because of the ice in the mountain streams. To make a short portage he would have had to remain all winter in the mountains and start down the Hell Gate when nature broke the ice barriers in the spring. The voyager was not any too soon in reaching Missoula, as the water froze in his wake. When he came out of his tent in the morning to make breakfast, the coffee and water in his tin bucket was solid. Much of the rest of the journey was through snow storms, for the winter had set in earnest. From the Missoula Mr. Rappleye paddled into the Clark fork of the Columbia, and cruised thence into the Pend d’Oreille lake, in northern Idaho. Sliding down the outlet of the lake, the Pend d’Oreille river, the paddler floated into the Columbia river and down to Astoria, where he was joyously greeted by the expectant citizens, who had been reading about his journey for months. He mingled some of the Atlantic that he had taken with him with the Pacific.

Other canoeists who have made celebrated voyages in paper boats are Bishop and McGregor. The former went from Pittsburgh to New Orleans, a distance of 2,600 miles, in 1875; wrote a book about the trip, and had his canoe, the Maria Therese, exhibited at the Centennial Exposition in 1876. McGregor won fame by his cruises on the Baltic, the Jordan, the Nile and the lakes and rivers of Europe.

Mr. Rappleye has called attention, by his trip, to a geographical fact not popularly known – that, barring a few miles, there is an all water route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. He has probably seen more of the United States, and paid less for the privilege, than any man who has ever crossed the continent.