This week’s episode of Inside Appalachia is all about how we interact with water and our rivers. We’ll hear from people who make their living on the water — like Marvin L. Wooten, a longtime river boat captain. He started working in the riverboat industry in 1979. “I got two job offers the same day, and I took this job,” Wooten said. “My dad always said the river will always be there. So that’s what I’ve chosen to make my living at.”
And we’ll meet Neal Moore, who’s been canoeing for 17 months, on a journey that will cover 7,500 miles coast to coast. Moore hopes to wrap up his 22-month-long trip this December at the Statue of Liberty in New York. Recently, he made his way into Appalachia. “For many days, I’m in the canoe from from first light until last light,” Moore told Inside Appalachia producer Roxy Todd on a recent stop along the Kanawha River in Charleston, West Virginia.
“I sort of have to find my landlubber legs when I when I step onto a dock like this at times. But for the most part, I actually feel pretty strong,” Moore said.
POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. — For the last year and a half, adventurer and canoeist, Neal Moore has turned the lyrics “from sea to shining sea” into a life journey.
Moore set out in February 2020 to explore the United States from Astoria, Oregon to Lady Liberty in New York, crossing 22 states and 22 rivers. The interesting part, he is traveling by canoe.
“The big idea was to connect the rivers from sea to shining sea, from coast to coast, with the Statue of Liberty as the end game,” Moore said.
Moore moved to Africa as a teenager and spent several years in Asia, inspiring his journey to explore his home country more. He is originally from Los Angeles, Calif.
“I’ve been an expatriate for most of my life. The big idea was to come back to my home country and to really see it and really experience it up close and personal,” Moore said
Moore has been stopping in small river-towns across America during his journey. Stopping in Point Pleasant earlier this week, he said there is about 1,200 of the 7,500-mile trip left.
“Most days, I launch out at first light and paddle until last light. So, you have the hour after the sun goes down to make camp,” Moore said. “I’m looking for towns and looking for places to make camp.”
Islands, RV parks, a few host families and the occasional hotel stay has been Moore’s way of life for the last 18 months.
“It’s turned into about 10 nights of camping wild and one night with a host family or a hotel or an Airbnb or a RV park,” Moore said.
Moore said he looks forward to the home-cooked meals often offered by host families as they are “too good for words.”
With no tracking or GPS devices and little phone usage, Moore said part of the plan was to really see America without the interference of constant availability. All his worldly belongings are what fits on the canoe, aside from a few resupply boxes along the way.
“When you push yourself out into nature, it’s really a great thing. Water itself it’s a stabilizing experience, I think,” Moore said. “On a journey like this, when you push yourself out into the water and into the wildness and you have the wildness all around you and it’s just you and nature, it’s an incredible feeling. You’re embraced by the wildness and by being in the wild, you have embraced the wildness inside of ourselves as well, which can be scary but a really great experience.”
While navigation is important, Moore must be constantly aware of the weather and any impending storms.
“A couple of side trips, one was up the Kentucky River to see the capitol, Frankfurt, and this other one was to come up the Kanawha River to see Charleston, which I was able to do,” Moore said. “When I was on my up the Kentucky, they only operate those dams on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I was setup on Friday morning, continued forward. The second dam was about 30 miles in, so I wasn’t going to make that before dark. As I was paddling up, I just have a couple of new apps on my phone and one of them gave me a warning – flash flood warning. And then right at dark came the second warning which was extreme lightning storm.”
Moore said he could see the storm moving in from the Ohio area into Kentucky and knew he needed to get to the highest ground.
“I found a spot that was just ridiculously high after dark. It was sandy. It’s a really muddy river, just beautiful – wild and natural and muddy,” Moore said. “So, I sort of, climbed up to this ledge with the sand up there and it was so high up. I grabbed all my stuff; I could see the storm coming but it was a dry lightning storm to start with.”
After a quick debate on taking his canoe up the hill, Moore decided it was best not to leave it. Carrying all his possessions and the canoe to high ground, he was able to make camp and rest.
“I slept like a baby,” Moore said. “The next morning when I woke up, I opened the front [tent] and the water was right there. It had come up about 10 feet.”
After speaking with one of the dam operators, Moore learned about more expected flooding and headed back to the Ohio, but not before meeting some locals.
“As I was starting the portage of that last dam before the Ohio these two local guys, they looked like fisherman,” Moore said. “They were whooping and hollering up on the hill, and then high-fiving each other.”
The men thought Moore had found their lost canoe.
“These are local guys who know the area, they had been on the river camping just below where I was, they lost their canoe, they lost all their gear. They had a spot device and they hit SOS, so they were rescued by emergency services.”
This is Moore’s second attempt at the journey. During the first one, his canoe flipped in rapid, frigid waters after turning and being blocked by two large, downed trees.
“The natural environment, she can be beautiful, but she can be wicked at the same time,” Moore said.
Moore has a marine radio to communicate with towboats and said his job is to stay out of their way. He also must stay aware of all obstacles – logs, debris, trash, etc. – that could be in the way.
If completed, Moore will be the first to complete this adventure.
“It’s been done from east coast to west coast, specifically in a canoe, solo and continuous. It has not been done from west coast to east coast,” Moore said.
Moore said his journey along the rivers and river-towns, many the first towns, connects the then and now.
“What I’m trying to do is to see how the rivers and waterways connect across the country, but also to look for and document how we as a people connect… looking for the threads of our common humanity and what it means to be an American,” Moore said. “By the time I get to the beacon hand of the Statue of Liberty I will, in my mind, earned that view from the American side, from the American experience to see where a lot of us had started off back in the day.”
Americans know what divides, Moore said he wanted to highlight what brings them together.
“I think a truism with humanity anywhere in the world you are, when times are tough, this is when we as a people roll up our sleeves and this is when we look out for each other. Families come together and communities can come together as well,” Moore said.
When needed waterways are closed Moore walks, pulling his canoe on wheels. He recently learned he will need to do this for the last 135 miles before reaching Syracuse, New York.
Moore plans to circle Liberty Island in December. He set off from Point Pleasant’s Riverfront Park to continue his journey Tuesday morning with one goal.
“From sea to shining sea to really see and experience and highlight and underscore the positive of where we’ve got ourselves off to and what has come of us as Americans,” Moore said.
HUNTINGTON — A canoeist traveling from Oregon to New York stopped in Huntington on Monday evening on his journey to learn about American culture and history.
Neal Moore began traveling through the country in February 2020 with the goal of reaching the Statue of Liberty by New Year’s Eve 2021. Entering Huntington by stopping at Harris Riverfront Park was the first time he has visited West Virginia, he said.
“I’ve been excited about West Virginia from the very beginning,” Moore said. “A big reason for this journey for me is to try to explore my own backyard, to come back to my home country and see places I haven’t been before, and this is my first time to the Appalachian plateau.”
Moore is at about 6,000 miles so far of the total 7,500 miles, and his trip entails traveling 22 rivers and touching 22 different states. He planned out about 100 towns and cities to visit before beginning his trip, but he has stopped in unplanned areas as well, he said.
Moore said the goal of the trip is to learn more about American history from the people who live here. From rural communities to bustling cities, Moore said he has enjoyed his time learning about people’s lives and has stumbled upon great stories in towns he did not originally plan to visit.
With plans to stay in Huntington for a few days, Moore said he hopes to learn about the culture that surrounds the town. After Huntington, he plans to visit Point Pleasant and Charleston, and he said he is excited to see the state’s capital.
“I’m just looking forward to sampling the local cuisine and learning some of the history and the culture and really the rich heritage,” he said. “What I’ve seen so far coming up this river between Kentucky and Ohio is sort of the Appalachian experience in motion over the years, that migratory nation but also the sense of community and sense of pride as well.”
Having started his journey just weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic escalated in the United States, Moore said he had to consider returning home and what his safest options would be if he continued. Since he had already attempted the trip in 2018, Moore said he was determined to finish it this time, and he believed there were not many safer options than being in a canoe on the river by himself.
Moore’s journey started out in Astoria, Oregon, and he traveled upstream through Washington, Idaho and Montana in just 97 days. He then traveled down the Missouri and Mississippi rivers to reach New Orleans, Louisiana.
After finishing out his current stretch on the Ohio River, Moore will continue on into the Kanawha and Allegheny rivers, through the Chadakoin River eventually leading to Lake Erie. He will then head east and south to eventually end up at the Hudson River.
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.
CINCINNATI (WXIX) -One man is canoeing 7,500 miles across the country and made his way to the Queen City Saturday.
Neal Moore says that he is canoeing on this 2-year expedition to “explore how rivers, people, and communities connect.”
“The big idea is to go coast to coast, sea to shining sea to explore and celebrate this great land,” Moore said.
Officials with Moore say that he is more than 6,000 miles and 16 months into the journey.
Moore says that he has about 1500 miles and six more months to go until he reaches New York City.
As he paddles up the Ohio River, he plans on spending the Fourth of July weekend in Cincinnati.
“I’ll be taking in a reds game on the fourth. Just to see the reds stadium right here and the skyline, it’s just remarkable. The history that’s here, the people, the character, the grit. What I’m trying to do is explore how the rivers of this land connect but also as a storyteller how us as people connect,” Moore said.
Moore’s canoe is filled with signatures from people across the country wishing him well as he takes on this expedition.
“I think it is a unique way to experience this great land, the canoe is the first mode of transport these rivers were the thoroughfare to have the chance to come coast to coast to really see the country up close and personal is just a great experience,” Moore said.
CINCINNATI, Ohio (WCPO) — A modern-day Huckleberry Finn on a cross-country canoe journey spent Saturday night in Cincinnati, reflecting on the 16 months he’s spent traversing the United States by water and the six still in front of him before he finishes.
Writer Neal Moore started paddling his canoe in Oregon’s Columbia River and plans to end at Lady Liberty in New York Harbor. It’s a trip, he said, that connects him with the country’s past and helps him understand the journeys undertaken by earlier Americans.
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.
Bircus Brewing Co. & Circus Mojo will sponsor a reception for the intrepid adventurer, Neal Moore, who is on a 7,500-mile journey paddling across the US from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Neal is currently paddling up the Ohio River and will arrive in Ludlow Friday evening, July 2.
“Neal’s mission of celebrating resilience resonates with me. Over the past 11 years we’ve hosted circus artists from 42 countries for events here in Ludlow and across the USA. Come kick off Independence weekend celebrating Neal Moore’s American adventure,” said Paul Miller, Founder Circus Mojo & Chief Goof-Officer of Bircus Brewing Co.
Neal began his cross-country journey February 9th, 2020, and will end December 2021 in New York harbor, at the Statue of Liberty.
Neal Moore’s adventure across America is “To showcase, highlight and celebrate how our identity, ethnicity and freedom play out across this entire land… What makes Americans tick… Falling down and scraping our shins and getting up drying and our tears and putting our best foot forward.”
Join us Friday evening at the Historic Ludlow Theatre, Home of Bircus Brewing Co. & Circus Mojo for a chance to meet Neal Moore and support his Grandiose Mission. $1 from each Bircus Beer will help fund Neal’s journey with an additional $1 benefiting the local city youth outdoor adventure organization, Adventure Crew, whose mission is to “Open the doors of nature for city teens to strengthen their connection with self and others and create the next generation of healthy outdoor enthusiasts and environmental stewards.” Live Music, Circus entertainment, craft beer and wood fired pizza kick off at 6 p.m..
Neal Moore, dubbed “a modern day Huck Finn” by CNN, is the author of Down the Mississippi and, most recently, Homelands: A Memoir. A nomad, adventurer and storyteller, Neal’s reporting has taken him from Night-market meetings with Chinese cyber-dissidents to mountaintop encounters with approaching super typhoons. His work from North America, Africa and the Far East has appeared in Der Spiegel, The New Yorker and on CNN International.
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?