The river flows, it flows to the sea
Wherever that river flows, that’s where I want to be.
Flow river flow, let your waters wash down
Take me from this road to some other town
— Roger McGuinn, “The Ballad of Easy Rider”
In February 2010, Mickey Brislin was walking along the Columbus Riverwalk when he was approached by two men near the small boat dock.
At first, Brislin was wary.
The two men would have been easy enough to dismiss as bums, vagabonds looking for a handout or, perhaps, something more sinister. But there was something about one of the men, a heavy-set, heavily-bearded 60-year-old, that put Brislin at ease.
“He was just a real friendly guy,” Brislin recalls. “And he wasn’t looking for a handout. He said he had money, so he wasn’t asking for anything. He just said he was new to town and wanted to know where he could get something to eat.”
Brislin gave the men a ride a few blocks to downtown Columbus, showing them around. The bigger man said his name was Dick Conant. About eight months earlier, he said, he had completed a canoe trip down the Mississippi River from its headwaters in Minnesota to New Orleans. From there, he had managed to hitch a ride for himself and his canoe to Mobile. From there, his plan was to canoe up the Tombigbee River to the Tennessee River and finish the trip where the Tennessee River originates near Knoxville.
His companion at the time, a man named Homer Shrum, was not accompanying him on the trip. Conant had met Shrum in Missouri on his trip down the Mississippi, made a note of his home address in Columbus and had looked him up during his journey up the Tombigbee.
Brislin, himself an outdoorsman, had encountered his fair share of adventurers, but no one seemed less likely to fit the mold that Conant, portly and aging, in less than perfect health, and navigating the great rivers of the eastern U.S. in a water craft better suited to a farm pond than the river wild.
As he listened to Conant’s lively tales of travels, Brislin decided to call his friend, Roger Larsen, then the owner/publisher of The Columbus Packet.
“Mickey called me and said, ‘I think there’s somebody here with me you need to meet,'” Larsen said.
“So I came down to the river and (Conant) started telling me his story,” Larsen said. “I took two pages of notes and a few photos of him in his canoe. I had planned to put something in the paper, but I was running wide open and behind deadline and I never did write it up. I sort of forgot about it until I got a phone call from Ben McGrath a while back.”
An encounter of writers
If Brislin’s encounter with Conant was a chance meeting, Ben McGrath’s meeting with Conant was as well.
McGrath, a writer for The New Yorker magazine, lives in New York, on the Hudson River, a dozen miles north of Manhattan. On Labor Day 2014, Conant paddled by his house, two months into what is to be presumed to be Conant’s last epic canoe trip, a journey along rivers, canals and bays from upstate New York to Florida.
A neighbor called McGrath with what was often a familiar suggestion during Conant’s many travels.
“There is somebody here you need to talk to,” McGrath’s neighbor said.
The neighbor was right, of course.
McGrath was fascinated, not simply by the magnitude of what Conant was trying to do, but by the man himself.
“There were two things,” McGrath says. “One was that he had kind of a gift for storytelling. He had the sensibilities of a writer and his stories were just stuffed with details. Later on, when I started trying to verify one of his stories, they checked out when I talked to the people he mentioned. They were astonished at how vivid and accurate he was. He wasn’t a fabulist. A lot of people like to dramatize their own lives in the stories they tell. Dick was almost the first person I ever met who was actually every bit as major a figure as he imagined himself to be.
“I talked to him four times over the next three days because I knew that once he passed the George Washington Bridge, it was going to be almost impossible to find him again.”
Two weeks later, McGrath wrote a brief story for The New Yorker about his encounter with Conant.
Conant continued on his long journey.
He could not have known it at the time, but for McGrath it was the start of an even longer journey.
Flowing water is a paradox.
In one instance, it is one of the most powerful forces on earth. A month ago, at the John C. Stennis Lock & Dam, the waters of the Tenn-Tom were powerful enough to put a crease in a barge as easily as if it were made out of a thin sheet of tin.
In another instance, water flows meekly. A small rock or a tree root can divert its course. It takes the path of least resistance. When it meets an obstacle, it does not challenge it. It just moves on.
Dick Conant is a similar paradox — a man of intelligence, charm, warmth and wit, someone who left a profound and enduring impression on the strangers he met in even the briefest of chance encounters. Here was a Navy veteran with the requisite courage, grit and determination to take on adventures that younger, fitter men would consider far to risky to consider.
“I guarantee you one thing,” Brislin says, “to put everything you own in the world in a canoe and camp out on rivers banks and rely on your own wits for survival, that’s not something a lot of people can do.”
But here is where the paradox emerges, for there is another Dick Conant, a man who always seemed to abandoned his plans almost as soon as the first mild obstacle emerged. Over the course of his adult life, Conant enrolled in numerous universities to pursue numerous fields of studies. It never lasted. Soon, he would drop out of school, returning to a meager life supported by a variety of minimum-wage jobs.
McGrath says his inability to complete his education was probably a function of a mental disability.
“When you consider his story, and based on what I’ve heard from his siblings, he was probably a paranoid schizophrenic,” McGrath said. “He was a good student and I think he was passionate about studying medicine. But it always seemed that somewhere along the way, he would become convinced that his teacher didn’t like him and was plotting against him.
“Clearly, he was an intelligent man and he had had some success early in his life,” McGrath said. “But, for some reason, he wasn’t able to be successful in a conventional way. He wanted to be his own boss — he was not good dealing with authority figures. That meant finding a way to be successful in a different way, through his travels and what he wrote about them. Those were things he could deal with on his own terms.”
The myth and the man
Throughout his journeys, Conant took copious notes and wrote diligently, often sending hundreds of pages of his writings to family members and to other people he met during his travels. While the connections he made were brief, they were meaningful to Conant, McGrath said.
“It’s kind of sad, in a way,” McGrath said. “These people were important to him. They were his friends. When he was feeling good and happy, he was a very social person. He would go into town and befriend people and all kinds of people were attracted to him, from professional people to street people. It didn’t seem to matter. But then, he would kind of retreat from that. Days would pass when he wasn’t talking to people. Being out of the river allowed him to escape from that. That’s part of the mystery, too.”
McGrath would soon learn there were other mysteries, as well.
A journey ends, another begins
In the Dec. 14, 2015, edition of The New Yorker, under the title, “The Wayfarer: A solitary canoeist meets his fate,” McGrath took up Conant’s story again. A photo Larsen took when Conant was passing through Columbus accompanies the story, which begins:
“On November 29, 2014, I received a phone call from an officer of The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission named John Beardsley. He was investigating a missing boater , he said, and explained that some duck hunters had found a canoe and that my phone number had turned up among the gear in the boat.”
The New Yorker story is the result of almost a year of research by McGrath, and tells Conant’s story, focusing especially on Conant’s ill-fated trip from New York to where it abruptly ended in North Carolina.
Conant remains missing. He is presumed dead.
In doing his research, McGrath benefited from Conant’s own meticulous note-keeping, which provided dozens of names, phone numbers and addresses, recovered from the site where the boat was found in North Carolina and from a couple of storage lockers he kept.
“I’ve read a couple of thousand pages of his writings,” McGrath says. “It’s pretty easy to get when you are reading his stuff when he’s being factual and when he’s interpreting things that might exist only in his own mind. His writing is very accurate in some places. But every 10 pages or so, he begins to interpret the intentions of this act or that act and it’s pretty obvious they are recurring delusions, one of those involving Tracy.”
During his travels, Tracy was someone that Conant often discussed, describing her in almost mystic terms. Some believe her to be real; others think she was simply a lover Conant conjured up to fight his loneliness.
Larsen remembers Conant speaking of her.
“He said he had a sweetheart that had caught up with him in a couple of towns when he was going down the Mississippi,” Larsen says. “But I sort of got the impression it was a fabrication.”
Although he has yet to find her, McGrath believes that there is a Tracy, although it is likely that the nature of her relationship with Conant may not be as he so often described it.
“My personal belief is that she is a real person,” he said. “But somewhere along the line, I think she may have became something else in his mind.”
There are other mysteries, too, although the one suggested by some people isn’t the one McGrath shares.
“Some people have written and said they don’t believe Dick is dead,” McGrath said. “They think Dick saw the story in The New Yorker, got freaked out about it and went off the grid. They think he’s still out there somewhere doing his own thing. For some people, he’s become sort of a mythological figure.
“His family believes he is dead, though,” McGrath added, “and I am inclined to agree.”
The final chapter
McGrath’s story did not end with the long piece in the Dec. 14 edition of The New Yorker.
“I’ve got so much more material,” he said, “far more than I could put even in a long magazine piece.”
McGrath is now working on a book that will tell Conant’s full story — or at least as much as can be known.
He figures he should need about a year to finish the book and get it to his editor at Knopf. The book should come out sometime in 2017, if all goes well.
For McGrath, the book project goes much deeper than the story itself.
There were two things that drew McGrath to Conant when they first met. The first was his natural ability a story-teller.
“After he began telling me about his travels and his writing, it was obvious that he really wanted people to read them,” Conant said. “He told me he hoped my story might help get him noticed. Now, well, he can’t tell his story, but that’s something I can help him do.”
McGrath reflects on the day he met Conant.
“I went back three times to talk to him,” he says. “Normally, one interview is enough, especially if it’s just going to be a 800-word story. But I kept going back because there was something about him. Some part of me must have know that I wanted to do more. I couldn’t help it.”
Dick Conant, that troubled, talented traveler, had that sort of effect on people.
All he wanted was to be free
And that’s way it turned out to be
Flow river flow, let your waters wash down
Take me from this road to some other town
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]