By Sebastian Foltz
Some of us dream about packing up and hitting the road.
Maybe it’s a fantasy about buying a camper and driving the blue highways.
Maybe it’s quitting a job and moving West, dropping everything.
Few of us get to do it. Neal Moore, 49, did.
In some ways, the Los Angeles-born expatriate has been doing it his entire adult life — mostly living abroad in South Africa and Taiwan since age 19. All that time abroad contributed in part to a desire to reconnect with his home country and explore it from coast to coast.
“I’ve always been a fan of the road books,” Moore said, describing some of his inspiration during a phone interview from somewhere between Pittsburgh and East Brady.
You could say he’s doing it backward, going from West to East. You could say he’s doing it in an unconventional way. But he might argue he’s doing it in the most traditional way possible, by canoe.
“I like the idea of the canoe being the first mode of transport,” he said. “The rivers are the country’s first thoroughfare. I thought, what if I did it the wrong way and approached the Statue of Liberty?”
When he’s finished, Moore, will have paddled roughly 7,500 miles from Astoria, Ore., up the Columbia River, down to New Orleans on the Mississippi and up to New York City, including the Ohio and Allegheny rivers and the Erie Canal.
From start to finish, he will have navigated 22 rivers through 22 states. He’s already covered about 6,600 miles.
He hopes to complete his journey in December.
Started in 2020
He started on the Columbia River in February 2020, just prior to the onset of the pandemic in the United States.
“I left Oregon the day it shut down,” he recalls of crossing into Idaho, describing his shelter-in-place as “sheltering-in-canoe.”
The Eagle first caught up with Moore on Aug. 31, as he set out from the boat launch under the Roberto Clemente Bridge in Pittsburgh. A car pulled up to PNC Park with his canoe in tow. Trish Howison, his Pittsburgh host or “river angel,” helped him unload and launch. Then she joined him in her kayak for a portion as he headed up the Allegheny toward the fringes of Butler County.
That’s how it’s worked for Moore. He’s camped, he’s stayed with friends and people he’s met along the way. Sometimes it’s just people who have followed his story and offered to help. Sometimes it includes a cold beer.
Book in works
Finishing at the Statue of Liberty ties into his larger narrative. Moore plans to write a book about his experiences, not just his own, but also those of whom he meets along the way.
He undertook a similar adventure in 2009: canoeing the Mississippi during the financial crisis. A boater that he crossed paths with on that trip sparked the idea to tie in multiple rivers on a larger tour.
Moore said he thinks doing the cross-country trip by water also is a good way to interact with more people along the way.
Watching American news coverage from abroad during the Trump administration inspired him to take on this more-ambitious expedition.
“As a journalist, I was looking at it from the outside,” he said. “I could see the bitterness and that it was getting worse.”
His first attempt at the cross-country paddle was cut short in 2018. Flooding in much of the Northwest — along with a life-threatening capsizing in frigid water in Montana — slowed his travels, so much so that he would not have made his target had he continued.
Rather than pick up where he left off, Moore decided to start over, this time in an election year and, as he would quickly discover, a growing pandemic.
‘What unites us’
“I wanted to drop my preconceived notions about people and party, and listen,” Moore said. “We all know what divides us. I wanted to look at what unites us.”
For the most part, he said he has found that the country is greater than the headlines.
“You find good, honest people who are trying to make things better,” he said of the majority of his interactions. “I found incredible people.”
And the pandemic has only added to his story telling.
“In hard times is when we look out for our neighbors. Friends and community become family.”
But he’s also seen a slice of the nation’s ugliness. Since his 2009 trip down the Mississippi and even his first cross-country attempt in 2018, he said he’s seen the drug culture in homeless camps and other areas increase significantly.
A different person
Camped near a church in Idaho, he heard two addicts threatening to kill each other and the local minister. One demanded Moore exit his tent. The next morning he saw one of the men in a diner and he was a different person, even offering use of his home.
He also has been shouted at.
“I’ve been yelled at. It’s rare,” he said. “People get so worked up over their political identity that they see opposing views as un-American.”
But he said the majority of his experiences have been extremely positive.
“By and large, people are good-natured,” Moore said. “The reality is people have a love of family, community and they absolutely have a love of country. My hope is that those can supersede our division with politics.”
After delays from Tropical Storm Ida, Moore reached East Brady on Monday evening, Sept. 6. He plans to continue up the Allegheny toward Franklin and Oil City this week.