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?

An Ode to the Ambitious Traveler

By Neal Moore

The one and only Trips magazine

I picked up my first copy of TRIPS magazine at a “safari & travel” Banana Republic store of yesteryear. I was a kid, it was the late 1980s, and I can say – as oddball as this might sound – that I’ve spun the globe with it ever since. Its mantra of what travel can (and should) look and feel and taste like, open-mindedness-wise, sense-of-curiosity-wise, and being-alive-wise – “to get as deep inside a culture as constraints of language and understanding will allow” – has helped form my take, my very own spin on this world.

There was only ever one issue produced – so the Spring 1988 edition serves as both the debut and finale edition. I lost my original copy a long time back and have since given away many more, so I try to snag one every chance I get (thanks eBay). I like to think of TRIPS as a bible of adventure, a relic of expedition, and an unadulterated view into the “safari & travel” vision of Mel & Patricia Ziegler, founders of the long-abandoned (original) Banana Republic. 

Tara Sendelback of GPF in the Travel Books section of Banana Republic (March, 1988) – Photo by Richard Lee, Detroit Free Press.

The Zieglers, both retired journalists with the San Francisco Chronicle, hired their friends, established ink-slingers to write the magazine’s copy. It was clearly a labor of love.

Flip the pages, and the articles will transport you in search of the soul of Hawaii with National Geographic journalist Marguerite Del Giudice; hurl you into Apartheid-era South Africa with Rolling Stone, The Village Voice, and Esquire writer Mark Jacobson; bike alongside His Majesty, the King of Tonga with screenwriter, actor and novelist Charlie Haas; and Ride to the Back of Beyond (of Australia) with photographs by Hakan Ludwigsson and text by Newsweek’s Tony Clifton.

Mel Ziegler, Banana Republic founder and editor-in-chief of TRIPS magazine on a trip to Burma (in 1988). Photo credit: Patricia Ziegler.

The magazine was likely the first to introduce The Thorn Tree Forum into print, an idea picked up and popularized by Lonely Planet eight years later in 1996.  “…It was, effectively, Kenya’s first postal system,” explains the Zieglers, referring to an old thorn tree in the courtyard of the New Stanley Hotel in Nairobi where travelers used to pin their urgent, cryptic messages. “We borrowed the name for this column. Items will be culled from letters, news clippings, documents, anything concise and interesting that crosses our desk. Travelers’ tales, tips, observations, complaints, and cultural artifacts are welcome.”  

To get the oddball rolling, first-hand travel tips from veteran travelers were offered – from “How to turn a golf ball into a drain plug for overseas bathtub,” to “Create a travel journal as you go: Mail postcards to yourself!”

I love them all – the sketches, the travelogues, the photos, the irony, the off-the-beaten-track discoveries. One of my favorite travel tales, penned by Sports Illustrated/human interest writer Gary Smith, whisks the reader onto a Portugal-bound train chockablock with banana and fish smugglers.

Patricia Ziegler, Banana Republic’s founder, on camelback in the Australian Outback (in 1988). Photo Credit: Mel Ziegler.

I’ve hiked with TRIPS across Tigray, Ethiopia, adventured with it into the dusty dorps of the Klein and Groot Karoo of Southern Africa, listened to the call to prayer through wooden shutters with it in Islamic West Luxor, and gotten lost with it in the back alleys of Bangkok, Hong Kong and Taipei — some of the places I’ve called home. These days, I find myself canoeing with this tried and trusty and true companion across America, most days carefully stowed away in my dry bags, and on days like today, taken out to peruse and inspire.

After all this time, the magazine remains a jolt to the system. It hurls one back to a now-bygone era when travel was fun – to the late 1980s, to be precise, before Banana Republic was taken over by the Gap – when the company had a climate desk “so that no matter which way the wind blows, you’ll arrive becalmed,” along with a travel bookstore, “to attract the ambitious adventurer – with or without armchair.”

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.

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.

Neal Moore Interview: 12,000km by Canoe Across The U.S.

By Martin Walsh

ExplorersWeb

Photo: Neal Moore

As we reported last week, Neal Moore is now over halfway through his 12,000km odyssey across the United States. He plans to paddle 22 rivers, portaging his fully laden canoe on a cart where necessary, and finishing in New York with a celebratory spin round the Statue of Liberty. ExWeb spoke to Moore about his journey.

Back in 2018, you made about 3,000km before stopping. Did you repeat the same route on this expedition? How did it differ this time around?

Two years ago, in 2018, I paddled and portaged against a rip-roaring flood on the Columbia and Spokane Rivers. The dozen-plus dams, including the Grand Coulee, were nearly fully spilling. This required a 16 to 32km portage around each one -– harness strapped to my limbs, wheels tied under the canoe and all my gear inside, pulling my craft like a mule on the side of the road. Soon after, I tipped in the St. Regis River in western Montana. After I got my canoe and some gear back, I missed out on paddling up the Clark Fork because of a 100-year flood. I eventually hung up my paddles in Watford City, N.D.

This year, I launched at Astoria, Oregon three weeks earlier, on Feb. 9, 2020.  I was determined to paddle up the Columbia farther than last time, to just above the Canadian border, where I could catch the mouth of the Pend Oreille River and paddle to Lake Pend Oreille. Here, I’d follow the Clark Fork to Garrison, Montana, sticking to a waterway all the way to the Continental Divide.

Leaving Bismarck, North Dakota with a fully laden canoe. Photo: Neal Moore

But COVID-19 hit weeks into my expedition. Although I cleared the state of Oregon the day before it officially shut down, by the time I got to eastern Washington on March 23, the Washington governor issued a statewide stay-at-home order and the U.S.-Canada border closed down. So instead of progressing further into Washington along the Columbia as intended, I went the Snake River [a federal waterway].

I was in Lewiston, Idaho nine days later. From here, I hiked 160km north along the Idaho border, paddled 100km across Lake Coeur d’Alene and portaged an additional 65km north to Lake Pend Oreille. I made my way to Garrison, Montana, where I repeated my portage up and over McDonald Pass and down the Missouri to the Mississippi, where I find myself now.

Which parts have been the most challenging?

The Columbia River Bar at the mouth of the Columbia River is known as the graveyard of the Pacific, the most dangerous stretch of water in the world. You have to come prepared with the right gear, a clear forecast and a lot of luck. Paddling the mouth of this river is an adrenalin rush, but once you make it around Tongue Point and into the “old-man sloughs,” you’re relatively okay.

There’s a stretch of the Columbia River Gorge just above Bonneville Dam that’s problematic when a strong wind gets behind you. New Englanders Pete Macridis, 25, and Timothy Black, 23, vanished on this stretch of river in 1978. Two years ago, I had a rough time here, but conditions got even worse for me farther upriver.

It’d taken a full day to portage the dam, and the next morning, winds were forecast for 17mph. I made a mental note to not paddle that day, but when the day looked pleasant, I made a too-rash decision and launched out. Following the Columbia River up along the jagged shore on the Washington side, I had a refreshing, gentle push of wind behind me at first, but this was soon followed by a gale. The waves pushing upriver chop into you unlike any other place I have paddled, propelling the craft quickly forward as you watch for obstacles –- boulders, submerged trees, anything that can capsize you. I managed to get into a cove an hour later, sitting on the slippery, jagged boulders as I held onto the canoe. The canoe was smashing up and down onto the rocks with each progressively larger wave, and if I didn’t get it out, it would be destroyed.

Moore found himself trapped in a small cove trying to protect his canoe. Photo: Neal Moore

When the wind and the waves picked up even more, I called for assistance in case it got even worse, which it did. The waves soon swamped the canoe, and I lost some gear. The Corp of Engineers sent out a couple of young rangers. The fresh-faced kid, who looked like a teenager, was giving orders to the other kid with a beard. They loaded up my canoe, my gear and myself onto their craft, and halfway across the river, both of their boat’s motors gave out. All other boats had got off the river by this stage, and as the waves propelled us upriver, I thought to myself, Who rescues the rescuers? And if anything happens to these kids, it’ll be my fault.

It was tense, and one ranger was asking the other if we were going to smash on the rocks. A dozen minutes later, the engines started back up and we made it out safely.

A post-rescue selfie. Photo: Neal Moore

Any other major difficulties or close calls?

What stood out this time was both the ruggedness and remoteness of the Snake River. In the nine days I paddled her, I didn’t see any other boats, and not one fisherman. I experienced sleet, snow, a torrent of rain, and wind pushing me forward, backward and side to side.

The tricky part of all this remoteness is that if you tip into the cold water, it’s on you to save yourself. I had a wetsuit, a fire starter kit and a cell phone in a waterproof case (although no reception) on my person at all times. Once I thought I’d have to jump for it, because the wind and rollicking waves pushed me hard against a riverbank filled with obstacles. I pulled alongside a log and was bailing hard, because the waves kept breaking into my open canoe, but this log soon disappeared, and then I was grasping onto willows.

A half hour later, when I felt I couldn’t hold on any longer and was ready to jump in and swim for shore, the wind changed on a dime, and it blew the canoe back out into the river.

It’s not all choppy water and close calls. Tranquil water in the Warren Slough, just off the Columbia River. Photo: Neal Moore

Another close call came as I paddled six days up the Mississippi from its confluence with the Missouri, just above St. Louis. I would have liked to have made camp on the bigger islands here, but they were inhabited by people who did not want visitors. I was told later that they make meth along here and to stay away from these folks.

On my fourth night on the Mississippi, I was straddling one of these islands as the sun was setting. I was determined to get past these people and set myself up on a sandbar just under the dam at Clarksville, Missouri.

A Mississippi Map Turtle lies disoriented near St. Louis. Photo: Neal Moore

But it was nearly dark as I approached, and I realized that there were a whole lot of pelicans on the spot I’d wanted to call home for the night — over 1,000 of them and more incoming. They were nervous, so I gave them space, but then the wind picked up directly against me. The rain fell sideways and I was pushed out into the channel. I was fighting like hell for at least a half an hour to make the shore.

But as I struggled to get around the pelicans, a spotlight beamed directly through me and the pelicans. And they flew, all in one motion, up they went. A thousand-plus pairs of wings in one frantic motion, all lit up by the spotlight. The beam came from a tow pushing a load of dark barges. It had snuck up on me, and I was far too close to the flashing red light on the lead barge. I paddled for all I was worth to get out of the way, thankfully making another sandbar in time.

You have said you hoped to be able to talk to people and tell their stories. How has COVID changed this mission?

Talking to folks in a story-minded setting has been extensively curtailed this year. Instead, I’m mainly documenting the people I meet by chance along the way. I’m listening, learning, absorbing the ties that bind –- the threads that make us Americans. I’m looking to underscore our common humanity, but especially bringing into focus the immigrant narrative, the Black experience, along with what we can learn from Indigenous American wisdom.

Downtown Tat, a Memphis native, poses with his flag in the run-up to the national elections. Photo: Neal Moore

What challenges do your big portage sections present?

Hiking the Continental Divide was a challenge this second time, as I hit a late-May snow blast. It’d been forecast as rain the day before, but it snowed all day, for the hardest part of that climb. But I had the right gear, and when I got to the top of the pass at 6,312 feet, I was the only camper. There was a foot of snow and soon I had my tent set up. I was out of my wet clothes and into the warm.

Moore portages down after a snowfall. Photo: Gary Marshall, BMGphotos.com

The following day was brilliant sun with no wind, and it was an easy portage down to Helena. The local paper’s photographer came to snap some shots of me portaging my belongings down the mountain. The moment he got his shots and headed back to town, a grizzly showed up. He came over the divider, his back hump prevalent, and ambled across the road 50 feet in front of me. I was harnessed from behind, attached to the canoe and wheels and gear, and by the time I got my gloves off to try to snap a picture, he was out of sight.

Where are you now and what are your plans for the second half of the journey to New York?

I’m in Memphis and will be back on the water in a few days. I’ll continue down the Mississippi to New Orleans, which I hope to reach in mid- to late-December. From there, I’ll skirt the Gulf Coast and along the Intracoastal Waterway, then up the Mobile, Tombigbee and Tennessee rivers, down the New River, the Cumberland, the Dix and the Kentucky rivers. Up the Ohio, up and down the Kanawha, and up the Allegheny River. From Lake Chautauqua, it’ll be uphill and downhill for days over Portage Road to Lake Erie. Then it’s the Erie Canal, the Mohawk, and down the Hudson by December 2021 to see what has always made America great!

You can follow Moore’s journey on Instagram.

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.

A Spartan Life

By Neal Moore

Along the Snake River at Nisqually John Landing, Wash.


Brian Bensen stands astride his makeshift home with pride. Bensen was my neighbor at Nisqually John Landing, Wash. Photo by Neal Moore.

Brian Bensen is a minimalist, a fisherman, a hunter, and a survivor. He lives along the banks of this river, of multiple rivers, out of a 7’ x 12’ motorcycle toy-hauler he lovingly calls his house. Attached are a quartet of solar panels, a trio of car batteries, an AC/DC converter, a drop-down bed, an air conditioner, a TV and DVD player, pots and pans and knives and forks, a bottle of Purell hand sanitizer, a tarp, and a blanket hanging off of his higgledy-piggledy back shower featuring Marilyn Monroe. Bensen has spent the last three years shifting this home, along with a Kawasaki 650 off-road motorcycle that clamps down inside, an aluminum jet boat, and a GMC truck to pull them from camp to camp, Gypsy-style. “If you look, especially in the Northwest, in the twelve Western states,” he says, “there are campgrounds that are beautiful where you can spend 14 days, no money involved.” He laughed at the thought, at all the memories of Lolo Pass in the summers and this very spot on the Snake piled with snow come the winter. “And that’s about as long as I want to be in one place anyway.” Bensen is sixty-two and he’s been on the move for all of them. Civilization calls his elemental lifestyle homeless, but he calls it sweet freedom.

 

“I consider myself the king of campin’ because I’m off the grid,” he says. “I’ve been at it three years, perfected a lot of things. Literally, if I have to, I can survive. With nothin’. No help from nobody.” Although there are contradictions to being labeled a minimalist when you have a Kawasaki 650, he might be forgiven because he wants to trade it in for an electric scooter. But either way, he is still a minimalist. And that’s part and parcel of Spartan.

When folks less fortunate come around, Bensen is happy to share. “Just heat up the coffee if you want,” he told his neighbors, a homeless couple from the neighboring trailer at Nisqually John Landing here in Whitman County. “The heater is right there. The creamer and honey, it’s on the shelf.”


Detail of Bensen’s collapsible kitchen. Push comes to shove, Bensen’s going to provide for himself, and he’s going to give to others. “I figure if things get really, really bad – especially after what I seen at Walmart a couple weeks ago, I can always feed myself. Feed as many weary travelers as I can.” Photo by Neal Moore.

 


Detail of Bensen’s solar panels attached to the side of his toy-hauler-cum-home. Photo by Neal Moore.

The world around Bensen, around us all, finds itself in a gut punch of a downward spiral and we don’t yet know what bottom will look like. When asked what advice he might have for others, for people that will soon find themselves, not by choice, but by necessity, out of doors, he thought and then raised his head and his voice like a preacher. “My advice to you if you find yourself in that situation, first off, it’s one day at a time. Think of nothin’ but base survival. And then modify it. That’s what I did. I started out with one panel and one battery – so I could afford about two hundred bucks. And then once I got to know the system, I continued to learn, to graduate farther and farther.”

Bensen bought most of his hardware at Home Depot in the 75% off rack. The solar panels, each twenty-five watts, came from Harbor Freight. The solar system is capable of 14.4 volts. The whole setup with the control module and lights, because he’s a preferred member and he had a coupon, was $149. On top of the trailer are coils that go back and forth in plastic garden tubing which Bensen reckons can handle between eleven and thirteen gallons of water. It’s mounted on a 30-gauge galvanized steel sheeting roof. It gets hot in the summer. So hot, he had to add a cold-water line to mix it. “So, the whole setup you’re looking at – I probably don’t have 2 grand into it, including the power and the trailer – the whole nine yards.”


Brian Bensen shows a passerby the inside of his trailer at Nisqually John Landing, Wash. He calls breaking camp “riggin’ down”. He can rig this trailer down to move on to the next camp in forty minutes. Photo by Neal Moore.

It’s easy to glorify, but difficult to understand a truly Spartan lifestyle. The Spartans of ancient Greece lived with their armaments. They were warriors. They lived with physical emphasis. The emphasis was on combat. Bensen, who was born into the Home of Truth satanic cult in Moab, Utah, was raised up with the group’s, and later his family’s strict and simple ways. He is missing his left eye, and he told me his step-father, who he says he could never please, once yelled at him: “An eye for an eye? No! Somebody takes one eye, you gotta take both.” Bensen has been fighting for as long as he can remember, he’s been scrapping his way to happiness and freedom since he left home, his family and the commune at age thirteen. He admits to an “illustrious life,” including stints on the oil rigs, cowboying like a vaquero, raising his family as a single parent rough and on the road with a child in one arm and a “Will Work for Food” sign in the other, along with stretches in multiple county jails.

The road forward for Bensen and his menagerie of vehicles is fraught with Covid-19-related closures. His favorite camping spot, Heller Bar, surrounded by semi-arid mountain peaks and an entry point for power boats into Hells Canyon, recently denied him entry. Soon after we met, all free camps in Idaho closed their swinging gates. While I was here at Nisqually John Landing, state park rangers came by to cordon off the bathroom, and there are rumors of this camp, of all free camps in Washington following suit.

“I never go hungry because I’ve always got food around. Once the snow melts, and it gets warm, I get up into the mountains. If they block off the roads, I’ll take my Kawasaki – they can’t stop me. Man, there’s wild berries and wild lettuce. It’s a paradise. I eat a lot of fish because I am ‘the master of disaster spin-caster’.”

Bensen’s got itchy feet by nature, and you never know what’s coming next. When his wheels and his boat and his trailer are not in motion, his mind is. “I can literally go wherever I want, whenever I want, for however long I want,” he told me. “My goal for this winter is – I’m headin’ down to Yuma. And wanderin’ around the desert lookin’ for the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine. For somethin’ to do. To entertain myself.”