Travel: From Sea to Shining Sea ; Louise Harrison Reads a Tale of the American Riverbank in Our Latest Round-Up of Travel Books
Harrison, Louise, The Independent (London, England)
River-Horse: A Voyage Across America
William Least Heat-Moon
(Secker & Warburg, pounds 17.99)
William Least Heat-Moon - the pre-eminent chronicler of American by-ways and author of Blue Highways and PrairyErth - reverts to a more traditional mode of travel for his latest exploration. River- Horse describes a 5,000- mile journey across America using only interior waterways (a greater distance than any other cross-country river traveller), following in the wake of river explorers Henry Hudson, and Lewis and Clark.
What did America look like from its backwaters? Keen to find out, Heat- Moon spent years calculating a route by which a small vessel could cross from the Atlantic at New York to the Pacific in Oregon over inland waterways. Together with his co-pilot, who goes under the nick-name Pilotis, Heat- Moon navigates the rivers, lakes and canals of America in a 22-ft fibreglass powerboat called Nikawa, which means "river-horse" in the language of the Osage Indians. The boat was small enough to hitch on to the back of a trailer, yet large enough to carry bare essentials.
The design of Nikawa made her look like an illustration from a children's book - often causing people to describe her as "cute", much to the chagrin of the courageous explorers.
Early on, after a bruising six hours on Lake Erie, with the Nikawa constantly crashing and plunging through 7ft waves, Heat- Moon contacts the boatbuilder to check if his vessel can withstand such a beating, only to receive the dour response: "The boat can take it. The question is whether a crew can..."
The author idealistically observes how "river travel makes this country appear as it ought to be: a sensible number of people blending their homes, barns and businesses with a natural landscape free of those intrusive abuses junked up alongside our highways". Heat-Moon does not shy away from describing the effects of America's appalling environmental legacy, regularly reminding us of the detritus on the river banks - old sofas, human sewage, tampon applicators.
But despite the hard times, the quest yields incomparable pleasures. Strangers are generous with help and are the source of countless anecdotes. The ancient aboriginal mounds, shaped into serpents, bears and birds, stand like sentinels all along the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri. Heat- Moon's flowing prose is generously inflected with allusions to literature and history.
Peopled with interesting characters and bursting with amusing travel trivia, the account combines insight and high adventure. The result is a humorous, intelligent and above all compassionate guide to the real America. As the writer says, "when there is a holy grail to pursue then the soul must follow".
Fresh-Air Fiend: Travel Writings 1985-2000
(Hamish Hamilton, pounds 20)
Paul Theroux has enjoyed a distinguished career as a novelist (Picture Palace, The Mosquito Coast) and travel writer (The Great Railway Bazaar), while as an academic he manages to bring erudition and accuracy to his work. …