Sailing the Wet Blue Highways

By Conner, William Fox | The Christian Science Monitor, October 21, 1999 | Go to article overview

Sailing the Wet Blue Highways


Conner, William Fox, The Christian Science Monitor


RIVER-HORSE By William Least Heat-Moon Houghton Mifflin 506 pp., $26

William Least Heat-Moon is off on another voyage across America. This time via its river highways. His goal is to sail the waterways of the United States from the Atlantic Ocean at New York Harbor to the Pacific Ocean through the mouth of the Columbia River and to discover "those secret parts hidden from road travelers."

Along the 5,000-mile journey described in "River-Horse," Heat- Moon negotiates his vessels through at least 89 locks, high winds, flood waters, lightning storms, and Federal regulations.

He treats the reader to river history and offers a documentary on the environmental health of America's major waterways. He spices the book, too, with a host of characters as varied as Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims.

We hear of a distraught young man, naked, holding flowers he's stolen from a cemetery, proposing to an equally disconcerted young woman. We hear of two Montana men launching potatoes from a spud gun - "whump!" - with Aqua-Net as a propellant.

Bursting into the Mississippi River at Cairo during a flood and almost out of gas, Heat-Moon and his crew, guided by a cross on a church steeple, find safe harbor in a flooded backyard. A family frying fish invites them to dinner.

Near Rocheport, Mo., he points out a pictograph pecked in stone by Plains Indians "to indicate the seventh lunar month, the Blood Moon, or the Moon of Heat."

Writing about the Missouri, "the most changeable large river in America," Heat-Moon offers his most passionate observations of a river rich in beauty and history, but heavily "channelized" by wing dams and locks for commercial navigation. Along the upper Missouri, pollution and a paucity of wildlife, largely the result of mining operations and the overgrazing of public lands, rouse Heat-Moon to feisty eloquence. …

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