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River-Horse: Across America by Boatby William Least Heat-Moon
A Celestial Call to Board
For about half a league after we came out of the little harbor on Newark Bay at Elizabeth, New Jersey — with its strewn alleys and broken buildings, its pervading aura of collapse, where the mayor himself had met us at the dock and stood before a podium his staff fetched up for him to set his speech on, words to launch us on that Earth Day across the continent as he reminded us of history here, of George Washington on nearly the same date being rowed across to New York City on the last leg of his inaugural journey — and for the half league down the Kill Van Kull (there Henry Hudson lost a sailor to an arrow through the neck), we had to lay in behind a rusting Norwegian freighter heading out to sea with so little cargo that her massive props were no more than half in the water and slapping up a thunderous wake and thrashing such a roil it sent our little teakettle of a boat rolling fore and aft. I quickly throttled back, and the following sea picked up our stern and threatened to ride over the low transom into the welldeck. We had no bilge pump to empty it, and the cabin door stood hooked open to the bright blue April morning and the sea air of New York Bay.
My copilot roared, "Don't cut the motors so fast when we're riding a swell! You'll swamp us!" Only ten minutes out, we were nearly on our way to the bottom, sixty feet below. I turned toward the stern to see the bay rear above the transom just before the water raised Nikawa high enough to let the next wave ride under and shove her fast toward the chopping props of the freighter. Then her bow slipped down the other side of the swell, we pulled away from the big screws, and I idled to let the deep-water tramp move ahead until I got an open lane on her port side. We pushed past, cut through the wake of the Staten Island Ferry, and headed on toward the Atlantic.
"And that's how it begins," said my friend, a blue-water sailor, one whom I shall call Pilotis (rhymes with "my lotus"). It wasn't, of course, the beginning, for who can say where a voyage starts — not the actual passage but the dream of a journey and its urge to find a way? For this trip I can speak of a possible inception: I am a reader of maps, not usually nautical charts but road maps. I read them as others do holy writ, the same text again and again in quest of discoveries, and the books I've written each began with my gaze wandering over maps of American terrain. At home I have an old highway atlas, worn and rebound, the pages so soft from a thousand thumbings they whisper as I turn them. Every road I've ever driven I've marked in yellow, the pages densely highlighted, and I can now say I've visited every county in the contiguous states except for a handful in the Deep South, and those I'll get to soon. Put your finger at random anyplace in this United States atlas, and I've either been there or within twenty-five miles of it, but for the deserts of Nevada where the gap can be about twice that. I didn't set out to do this; it just happened over forty years of trying to memorize the face of America. When someone speaks of Pawtucket or Cross Creek or Marfa, I want an image from my travels to appear; when I read a dateline in a news story about Jackson Hole, I want the torn Teton horizon and a remembered scent of pinyon pine in me. "Have you seen the historic tavern at Scenery Hill?" the Pennsylvanian may say, and I want to ask, How goes the ghost, and are the yeast rolls still good? No words have directed my life more than those from venerable Thomas Fuller, that worthy historian of olde England: "Know most of thy native country before thou goest over the threshold thereof."
Twenty years ago I had been down enough miles of American road that I could visualize the impending end of new territory to light out for — as my fellow Missourian, river traveler Huck Finn, has it — and that's when I noticed the web of faint azure lines, a varicose scribing of my atlas. They were rivers. I began tracing a finger over those twistings in search of a way to cross America in a boat. At first I was simply curious whether one could accomplish such a voyage without coming out of the water repeatedly and for many miles, but later I grew interested in the notion of what America would look like from the rivers, and I wanted to see those secret parts hidden from road travelers. Surely a journey like that would open new country and broader notions, but I could find no transcontinental route of rivers that did not require miles and miles of portages and heavy use of border waters — the Gulf of Mexico or the Great Lakes. For my voyage, I wanted only an internal route across the nation.
I'll skip details of how, during those two decades, I discovered inch by inch a theoretical route a small vessel might, at the proper time of the year, pursue westward from the Atlantic an interior course of some five thousand miles, equivalent to a fifth of the way around the world, ideally with no more than seventy-five miles of portage, to reach the Pacific in a single season. Travelers have boated across America before but never to my knowledge under those requirements. One night sixteen months earlier, in a thrill of final discovery, I found what I believed to be the last piece of this river puzzle, and at that moment I understood that I had to make the voyage at whatever cost. If a grail appears, the soul must follow.
In my excitement I phoned my great friend to join me, teach me the bowline and sheepshank, remind me of the rules of the road, to be my copilot, my pelorus of the heart to steer me clear of desolation, that fell enemy of the lone traveler. Pilotis said, "When my father was dying a few months ago, in his last days when he was out of his head, he lay murmuring — I had to lean close to hear him — he said again and again, Can you make the trip? Can you make the trip? Better be ready.' It was his celestial call to board. Now you ask me the same question, and I don't know."
My friend mulled things for some days and then phoned. "I can make the trip. I'll be ready. Find us a boat that can do it." And that's how we came to be, on the twentieth of April, sliding past the Norwegian freighter on our way to the Atlantic Ocean. Pilotis — my Pylades, my Pythia, my Pytheas — writes well, values memorable language, quotes it as I can never do. After I had nearly sunk us within sight of our departure dock, in the ensuing embarrassed quiet played to good effect, Pilotis said as if lecturing, "Nautical charts carry a standard warning addressed to the prudent mariner.' Revere that adjective above all others."
I, whose boating life to that moment consisted of paddling about in a thirteen-foot canoe and standing below-deck watches and chipping paint on a nine-hundred-foot aircraft carrier, realized more than I wished to admit why I wanted Pilotis along, but I only pointed out the worn stone walls of Fort Wadsworth on the north end of Staten Island near the Narrows. Frédéric Bartholdi, sculptor of the Statue of Liberty, considered that passage the Gate of America, an opening through which four centuries of ships have sailed for the Canaries, Calcutta, the southern capes, Cathay, but few for the Pacific via inland waters. Then we crossed under the lofty, six-lane span of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, the great Silver Gate looking improbably thin and fragile hanging above us, and pushed east beyond Coney Island and Gravesend Bay, on into the ocean. We paused at that western edge of the Atlantic so it might set in us a proper watery turn of mind and reset us from lubbers to sailors. Then, in the spindrift, Pilotis leaned over the side to fill a small bottle with brine from the great eastern sea, cork it up and stow it safely in the cabin until, we hoped, I could unstopper it and pour it into the Pacific just beyond the treacherous bar at the mouth of the Columbia River a continent away.
Then I brought Nikawa about, and we headed for New York City and the East River. I said in near disbelief, After twenty years of thinking about this possibility, it's happening! And Pilotis said, "Can you make the trip? Can you make the trip?"
Up Rivers Without Sources
The depth finder lined out a profile of the bay bottom, a place I began to imagine festered and festooned with antique arks and sloops — Dutch, English, Yankee — mired to the cold ooze ten fathoms below, the Hudson currents washing to the sea, working the wreckage and dunnage in the black and perpetual silence, where somehow the whelks learn to drone the sound of the distant surf and imbue it into their shells. Down in the weatherless deep there had to be jetsam from Henry Hudson's Half Moon, drowned ferrymen, bluejackets whose "Yo heave ho!" was forever gone, and concrete-booted malefactors trying to tread over the cinders blown from Fulton's steamboat, and sprawled across the bottom spars and anchors, capstans, soggy oakum, tar buckets, and sundered bare-breasted figureheads staring in wide-eyed disbelief at their ill luck.
Then my old nightmare: I am submerged in some unknown waters where I watch the drowned drag their weary grief across the mud, their long and faded locks rising from their skulls like kelp wafting in the slow current, barefoot sailors stirring the silt come down from the distant mountains, the agony of their end still on their faces, and a skeletal tar rises from the tangled rigging, turns, and motions me toward him, and I must approach closer and closer until I am almost against his moss-hung jawbone, and out from his eye sockets swims an eel, its toothy maw hanging with human viscera. I awake in strangled terror.
Pilotis said, "You're watching the sounder again. Leave the moss-bunkers and tomcod to themselves and try the day up here" I pulled the bow northward and aimed it toward Buttermilk Channel alongside Governors Island, a place the Dutch of New Amsterdam knew as a 170-acre islet but that New Yorkers of 1900 saw as a wave-eaten place of seventy acres. We passed it, now built back to its earlier size with stone and soil from subway excavations and river dredgings.
The massive risings of Manhattan, monstrously fine in the sun and cutting deeply into the blue air, sat atop the skinny island that each year gets further Swiss-cheesed with diggings. Surely the tunnels and cavities under the pavement and foundations, if dragged up and stood on end, would nearly equal the bulk of what rests above them. From a mile down the bay, Manhattan looked fragile, more glass and glitter than stone and durability, the most staggering cityscape on earth, yet still only a grand temporariness before the Empire State Building one day collapses into the F train tunnel. The view gave me a small ascendance, a kind of superiority that water passage can bring: perhaps it was the sound of the eternal river against the hull or our moving freely past the bound and entangled city. I mentioned it to Pilotis who, after the usual consideration, motioned toward the Battery off our port side and gave a paraphrase of Melville (I quote it now exactly): "He spoke of landsmen pent up in lathe and plaster, tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks, how they must get just as nigh the water as they possibly can without falling in. And there they stand.' For us, we've traded safety to hear the Lorelei sing."
Bounded by water, Manhattan has a river at the end of nearly every through street; it's a place you can never be much more than a mere mile from the Hudson, Harlem, or East rivers, yet those citizens are islanders only because of a topography that rarely seems to inform their notions of where or who they are. If Manhattanites, other than the poor, want a river, they go to Maine, even New Jersey.
We went up past South Street Seaport, once a forest of masts and spars and home to packet ships owned by Captain Preserved Fish, then on we moved toward the high webbing of Roebling's great bridge. Somewhere below, the A train clattered through the dark and grimed tube buried in the sludge to haul the human freightage into Brooklyn, the "broken land" of the Dutch. Beneath us life was actually occurring — words passed, bagels noshed, books read, sleep rattled — under our keel, under the river and fetid muck and cold rock, and no one down there imagining us gliding above. We passed the cul-de-sac of Wallabout Bay where, although the water was cleaner than a generation ago, a few suicides and murdered folk still washed up in that wet potter's field, the cadavers chewed by eels.
The East River, local mariners allege, is one of but two in the world with a pair of mouths but no source. The truth is that it isn't really a river at all, no matter what it looks like; it's a strait only fourteen miles long, a narrow arm of the Atlantic that tidal currents sluice through to twist and torture the passage of small boats. But we were coming up it at its slackening, the flat hull of Nikawa sliding along as if the river were a farm pond, and then we went under the Brooklyn Bridge. Eighteen million people surrounding us, and we had the water almost to ourselves. I pulled the bow about, passed beneath to see the span again, and then turned us north once more. "What was that about?" Pilotis said, and I answered I'd waited a lifetime to see the bridge from underneath, an event I wasn't likely to repeat. "I hope we're not going to do the whole voyage twice," my mate said. "By that route, the Pacific is sixteen thousand miles away."
From the East River, the heaps of buildings of Manhattan seemed to leave little room for humanity, and the city looked strangely still, almost quiescent. Except for the trickling of yellow cabs along the perimeter, the place appeared empty. It didn't manifest power or vibrance but merely bulk, all of it enhanced by a certain worn charm the river lends: its six bridges and its satisfying narrowness, especially at midtown where Roosevelt Island splits the channel to create an intimacy never achievable over on the Hudson. From the city came no stink of combustion engines and almost no sound carried against the soft easterly off the ocean as if early Sunday morning lay over the place. But it was Thursday and the streets, entombed in long spring shadows, seemed to suck in morning light and Atlantic air, and the whole island inhaled that sweetness crossing the water.
Because I'd long heard of its legendary potential for torment, we detoured a mile northeast just to pass through and experience the pinched bending of Hell Gate, where tidal eddies and standing waves and — once — rocks sent hundreds of ships to grief after the Tyger first came through from Long Island Sound in 1612. For us, the passage was an early test to build our assurance in Nikawa and our own capacity to handle even more difficult water ahead. Trying to ride the flood tide up the Hudson, we happened to reach Hell Gate at its tidal pausing, a near hydrological calm that leaves it comparatively quelled. Even so, the pilothouse of a small trawler ahead of us began to roll, and we stopped to watch it before we moved into the swirlings and heard the turmoil speak through our hull in low thumpings and sharp bangings. Nikawa yawed flatly but didn't roll, and she shimmied forward through Hell Gate, and then we came about to take it the opposite direction before moving on past Astoria where once schoonermen lived under widow's walks. Pilotis put aside the chart and said, "Our first Astoria is fifteen miles upriver from the Atlantic and our last is fifteen miles east of the Pacific, and what's in between is our life for the next four months."
We took the Wards Island channel into the Harlem River, the other one with two mouths and no source. Like the East River, it too is a strait, although partly manmade, but even shorter and narrower with twice as many bridges as nautical miles. (A geographer might insist that Manhattan has no rivers at all; what it does have is an estuary and a pair of straits.)
It may have been Pilotis's comment about the two Astorias so far apart: suddenly I never felt luckier in my life. For the past sixteen months I had searched out and studied charts and maps of a potential transcontinental course. One evening, after poring over them with a magnifying glass and dividers to make a coast-to-coast voyage on paper with Pilotis at my shoulder, I finally went to bed exhausted. The whole night I dreamed of the twisted route with its leagues of unknown threats only to awake at dawn to the conviction we couldn't possibly complete such a trip, surely not in a single season, definitely not without long portages. That afternoon, Pilotis, ever-cautious Pilotis, revealed a similar dream and reaching a similar conclusion and a parallel belief that the voyage looked like a six-month venture over two years. How, I cannot explain, but that twin nightmare canceled mine, and I figured what we'd encountered in the dark was not foreshadowing but merely fear. I realized, while I might lack the nerve to undertake the trip, I was certain I didn't have the courage to tell friends I was backing out: with an audience below, once you're up on the high diving board you must at least jump.
So there we were, the four of us, river, Nikawa, Pilotis, and I, my friend wearing a strange smile and looking back toward the skirmishing waters of the East River; that smile of a small conquest was about to become known as the Hell Gate Grin. To a workman sipping from his Thermos under the Third Avenue Bridge I called through the window, We're bound for Oregon! His surprise was but a moment, then he yelled back with delight, "You're headed the right direction!"
Beyond the decay of Harlem and the South Bronx, Yankee Stadium and the football field of Columbia University, the riverside began to seem less fallen, not lovely but pleasant as if all had not yet been abandoned or destroyed, and the water appeared clean enough that, were Pilotis to go overboard mishandling a line, there'd be no cry to be put out of a poisoned agony. The shores there looked benign perhaps because the cold water, like a moat, lay between us and littered alleys and dilapidating warehouses. A friend, a woman forced into boating by her former husband, told me the evening before I hauled Nikawa east from my home in Missouri, "Follow two rules: Stay between the banks, and try not to ditch."
Ahead lay the wide Hudson. I cut the engines and we bobbed in the Harlem to wait for the railroad bridge, so low that waves sometimes lap at the tracks, to open. It was river engineers cutting through here years ago that turned Spuyten Duyvil Creek into a canal and the Harlem into a little strait.
The bridge soon pivoted to let us pass, and we entered the Hudson and turned north again, happy to have a river with a navigable portion that is naturally regular, an almost symmetrical shaft except for its run through the outreaches of the Appalachian Mountains called the Highlands. For two hundred miles upstream where it makes its grand turn out of the Adirondacks, the lower Hudson never shows an oxbow or even a truly twisted bend, in part because it is actually a fjord, the only one in the contiguous states, with a tidal reach of 140 miles north, as far as we would take it. At Yonkers, we moved below the statue of Henry Hudson high atop his column from which he looks downriver and not up, the direction he was interested in, the one he hoped would take him to the far western sea. Pilotis said, "In a way, we're attempting what he failed in." And, after a moment, "I hope we make it beyond where he did." Yes, I said, we didn't come this far just to reach Albany.
To the west, across from Yonkers, rose the sheer basalt walls of the New Jersey Palisades, once the home of the movie business: from those cliffs hung Pearl White, her perils as Pauline playing in picture-show houses for a third of a century. One of the surprises of the Hudson, partly because the river sits deeply in its narrow valley, is the way New York City quickly disappears to leave a boat traveler suddenly in a world almost sylvan with more leafage and rocks and river than anything from human hands. It was hard to believe we had so easily passed through the length of a city with six thousand miles of streets by sailing right through its watery heart.
To starboard, separated from the river only by railway tracks, stood Washington Irving's home, Sunnyside. We could nearly have thrown out a line to tie up to the great wisteria he planted in the 1840s. It was he who wrote, "I thank God I was born on the banks of the Hudson! I think it an invaluable advantage to be born and brought up in the neighborhood of some grand and noble object in nature: a river, a lake, or a mountain. We make a friendship with it; we in a manner ally ourselves with it for life." As we approached Tarrytown, the western sky began to smear over, and we turned in to dock at the eastern foot of the huge Tappan Zee Bridge. Pilotis, whose daughter and a friend had come down to greet us, went forward to snub in our bow. The dock was high and strung with a web of crossed mooring lines of other boats. In an instant, a tangle of stretched cordage went taut and wrapped and lifted Pilotis off the deck into near strangulation. I jerked back on the throttles to keep the boat beneath the struggling feet, the lines slackened; my mate wriggled free and dropped back to Nikawa. In bemused calmness, pointing to Pilotis, the daughter said to her friend, "That's the experienced one who's supposed to know how to do things." Pilotis said, quoting our old mantra from Anthony Trollope's Small House at Allington, "Umph!' ejaculated the squire."
With Nikawa secured, I whispered, The prudent mariner will not become entangled in docking lines. Pilotis said only, "We're thirty miles upriver." That's all it was, but the morning in New Jersey already seemed another existence away, as did the whole continent lying before us. Our feet securely on land, I put my arm on Mate's shoulder and said, We're well begun, my sailor. And we went up the hill to have a nice glass of stout.
-Reprinted from River-Horse by William Least Heat-Moon by Permission of Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 2001 William Least Heat-Moon. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.
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