There was a heaviness – a weight that I knew came from loss – from seeing so many great old friends as of late and then saying goodbye and driving up the California and Oregon coast with the canoe strapped up atop the rented X-Trail.
I’d looked at the tides on the NOAA site and made the call the day before to launch out at 9:30am.
And I was ready. Awoke at 6:30am, drew a hot bath – my last for some time to come — packed the remaining bags, taped up the resupply boxes for Portland and the Gorge, and went to wake Peter Marsh, friend, resident historian and nautical writer.
Peter woke quick and together we drove to the Marine Supply Store for some last-minute supplies – 3 dry bags, emergency ropes, carabiners, etc. – and then came back.
I was packed up in no time – my lucky landlubber duffle fitting right into the new dry duffel and I wheeled the first load of gear to the dock.
There’d been an old couple who’d smiled and asked, “How far you going?” when they saw me hauling the canoe. I’d answered, “New York City” with a pride, with a confidence, in a rhyming carefree-wheeling fashion, and they said, “Good lord.”
I descended the steps onto the dock and then I slipped hard with my muck boots, flying up into the air before landing flat on my back, my wetsuit and right hand and elbow absorbing part of the fall. I knew I was lucky not to have broken my arm, I thought at first I had.
I am still bleeding into the wetsuit. Buck it up, sop it up, bandage it all up in the next town.
There were other people watching and they greeted me without a word as I walked past with a nod of the head. A grunged-out looking young dude, an employee at Rogue Brewery, when I walked past for more gear, laughed hard, too hard. He yelled “OUCH!” as an insult and then he looked away.
Floyd found me and together with Peter, we went down to launch. Floyd asked how I was and I just repeated to myself: Breathe – remember to breathe.
Then I was in. We’d loaded the canoe and pushed it into the water, and away I went – first with a false start for the camera, and again for real.
The joy, the sheer giddy joy of launching and paddling into adventure. It was overwhelming, and I struggled to describe it as I spoke into my camera.
The tankers were blowing their fog horns, a thick layer of fog had rolled in and blocked out all visibility. But I knew the fog would lift, and as it did, I found myself enveloped by brilliant bright sun.
I rounded Tongue Point and progressed onward and in time, in time arriving to the Washington shore I spotted my first bald eagle on this trip, and then a tree full/thick with them.
I saw two crosses this day. One was made of tools, of wrenches and it said “Sonny.” The cross of wrenches lorded over the water, keeping Sonny’s memory alive. As the river ebbed and flooded, first one way, and then the other, I snapped a picture of Sonny’s memorial.
The second cross was made of sticks, and the austere, sticky, thorny trees all around it, all gnarled with no life to them at all, it highlighted/underscored the finality, the death, of the un-named.
Up to Pillar Rock and the old cannery, and there was Leon Gollersrud, an older gent with white hair and a shaky mouth.
“I proclaim you welcome to Pillar Rock!” he bellowed in friendship, and brought me up to his shack, a man cave, where he’d already got a fire to keep us warm.
On to a tour of the old cannery, and we made our way back. He bade me good night, for he was tired.
A Glimpse of America’s Soul. Dubbed “a modern-day Huck Finn” by CNN, adventurer/storyteller Neal Moore’s work from North America, Africa, and the Far East has appeared in The New Yorker, Der Spiegel, and on CNN International.
You can read some of Boyce Upholt’s writing here: http://www.boyceupholt.com “exploring the wild at the end of the world & exploring the world at the end of the wild”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
GRAND TOWER — In the early 1800s Meriwether Lewis and William Clark traveled the Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri and Columbia rivers on their Voyage of Discovery. Their task was to discover the extent of the North American continent.
Two hundred years later, Neal Moore embarked on a journey re-tracing their steps in reverse, trying to discover what that country has become. While Lewis and Clark traveled from east to west, Moore left Portland, Oregon and will traverse 22 rivers in a 16-foot Old Town canoe before his journey ends at Ellis Island in New York City.
“I think to have a chance to travel from coast to coast and to not only see the country up close and personal during this time, the year before the election and the year after the election with all the negativity, but to string all these rivers together,” Moore said. “But, to try to delve deeper and meet the people along these waterways, these storied waterways and sort of listen. To be able to learn from people and to try to document the innate goodness of people and what are the ties that bind us together from coast to coast.
Specifically, I’m looking at immigrant stories, at diversity, and how diversity is a strength as well. But, really, all sorts of stories, and now with COVID thrown in, before I launched out the story was the election, before and after. With COVID thrown in the storytelling has been enhanced, you find the recession we are going through as well. When times are tough, that’s when people step up, families step up, communities step up and people help each other. That’s what I’m sort of doing.”
When Moore stopped in Grand Tower last week to resupply, he was approaching the halfway point of his 7,500 mile journey. Through all the miles on the water, the small towns like Grand Tower, the major cities like St. Louis, a major stopping off point for Lewis and Clark, Moore finds himself not only absorbing history and making new friends, but also learning about himself.
“I think I’ve learned that I’m more anti-social than I probably thought I was,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m in it over 3,500 miles now, I’m going to hit the halfway mark at Memphis. I’m definitely not good at a lot of things, but I’ve learned I’m not too bad of a storyteller, and also I can paddle long distance. I think mentally it takes somebody who is twisted in that way. I’ve stepped back from friends all my life. You have to be able to live with yourself. Some people can’t do it.”
At the same time, Moore talks about the brief, albeit intense friendships, he makes along the way, telling the stories of average Americans who inhabit river towns, the waitresses, grocery clerks and campground hosts. He talks of the melancholy attached to leaving these new friends behind as he paddles downstream in search of the next friendship.
The force that keeps this trip, this story alive, is the river. Moore developed an affinity for rivers as a 12-year-old Boy Scout on a canoe trip near Los Angeles. It was reinforced while visiting the Tagus River near Toledo, Spain as an exchange student.
“The human body is 70 percent water and they say the surface of the earth is plus-minus 70 percent,” he said. “I think there may be some sort of correlation. The water is also soothing. It has a soothing effect on people.”
In the present, Moore, who is currently a resident of Taiwan, draws his strength from the Mississippi.
“It’s really the water itself,” he said. “I have this tent. It’s screened off where you have this 180-degree view. I pitch the tent most nights and I’m open to the water. I’m sort of connected to the water. It might sound silly, but even in my sleep, I can hear the sounds, I can hear the tows going by, the barges, the trains, the whole deal.
“I feel connected. I think that feeling of being on the water and about the water and in the water and beside the water, it’s sort of strengthens my soul. It makes me feel really quite alive, as opposed to being in the clock-in, clock-out in a major city.”
An author, Moore previously published “Homelands” the story of his Mormon mission to South Africa. He said there may or may not be a book resulting from his current journey.
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.
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.
Up against the current of the Columbia, Snake, and Clark Fork Rivers, I’ve slowly but surely fought my way uphill. This past week, I’ve portaged my canoe and gear up and over U.S. Route 12 of the Continental Divide to an elevation of 6,312 feet – encountering an all-day, mid-May snow blast and up top, a migratory grizzly bear – who waltzed on past and paid me no heed.
Today is day 104 of the expedition, I’m safely down the mountain, and as I sit and sip an ice-cold Blackfoot IPA (courtesy of local vets Matt and Mike – cheers, gents!) at “Lakeside on Hauser” bar and restaurant, I’ve at long last got the Missouri River in sight. Lake Hauser is an intensely beautiful place in the world, and come tomorrow, I’ll put into the Missouri River, to experience the pleasure of paddling with the current.
In Helena, friend Norm Miller, founder of the Missouri River Paddlers’ group, shot a two-part, thirty-minute expedition interview which you can see here:
And so, I paddle forth. Onto the Missouri and later this year, on down to the Mississippi, where I hope to make a turn for Hannibal, before heading downriver to the Gulf and the promise of adventures, characters extraordinaire, and La Nouvelle-Orléans.
Along the Snake River at Nisqually John Landing, Wash.
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.”
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.”
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.”