Neal Moore admits he’s going about this all backwards.
Two hundred years ago, Lewis and Clark made their way west across the North American continent on a well-supplied expedition of discovery.
Moore is doing it backwards — from west to east — with only a canoe and the supplies he can fit inside it. The 7,500-mile trek began on Feb. 9, when Moore, 49, paddled out into the Columbia River in Astoria, Oregon. He expects to complete the journey in December at the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor.
Now, on the third and final leg of his journey, Moore stopped to rest and explore in Columbus this week before resuming his journey up the Tennessee-Tombigbee River and on up through the Great Lakes and the Hudson River.
Moore’s journey follows a circuitous route including 22 rivers, which he has chosen as the name of his journey and the book he plans to write about the experience.
He may have started two years ago, but he’s been an adventurer since his teens, when to satisfy his mother’s deathbed wish Moore went on a Mormon mission — a rite of passage for young Mormon males.
Moore arrived in South Africa as a missionary, but while his religious work ended quickly, his love of roaming the world has remained.
“I’m sort of a nomad,” Moore said. “I move back and forth between Taipei and Capetown, but I generally use them as a springboard to other places.”
Yet for all his world-traveling, Moore began to be drawn back to his home country about 12 years ago when he ran across a book called “Mississippi Solo,” by Eddy Harris, just as the Great Recession was beginning.
A freelance journalist, Moore saw how the media was reporting the recession and was convinced it was the wrong approach.
“They were going to the great financial centers, going to expensive restaurants and talking to people and saying, ‘This is what’s happening,’” Moore said. “I said to myself, ‘That’s not the story. The story is in middle America.’”
Inspired by Harris’ book, Moore made his own expedition down the Mississippi River, using the stories of the people he met along the way to frame the story of the recession.
“Part of the idea for the trip I’m on now is that the most incredible adventure of one’s life can be in one’s own backyard,” Moore said. “Having spent nearly a lifetime abroad, looking for adventure and going from culture to culture and continent to continent to find it (inspired me) to come back to my home county and really experience it raw and up close and real. It’s a unique way to reconnect with a part of who I am.”
Planting the seed
It was on that 2009 canoe trip down the Mississippi that Moore encountered someone who would plant the seed for Moore’s current adventure, a man whose life as a river traveler also included a stop in Columbus.
Dick Conant, a colorful canoeist who became an almost mythological figure among river travelers, is believed to have died in 2014 in North Carolina. Conant met New Yorker magazine writer Ben McGrath, who decided to turn Conant’s story into a book, which is set to be published this fall.
“I met Dick at the Brainard Portage on the upper Mississippi,” Moore said. “He was on the greatest adventure of his life. When I asked him what his plans were, he said he was connecting rivers to travel all over the country. My jaw just hit the floor when he told me that. I didn’t know it was possible. All those years, that idea was in my head like a mantra, that you can string these rivers together, that they connect, that it’s absolutely doable.”
COVID-19, which arrived about the time More was beginning his odyssey, has limited his visits with friends along his routes, but he’s been able to tap into a loose network of kindred spirits on his journey, breaking up the isolation of the travel.
“You make connections along the way through what’s called river talk,” he said. “If you’re a jerk upriver, people hear about it downriver. But it works the other way, too. If you’re nice and genuine, people hear about that. So there is a long-distance traveling community that I’m pretty well tied into. People have really opened their arms. But at other times, it’s the stumble-upons, people and stories that you encounter. As a storyteller, I love those.”
As he grows closer to the end of his long journey, Moore said he’s come to realize that it’s as much a story about the past as it is the present.
“You touch base with the immigrant experience, the Chinese in the Northwest, the African American experience in the Delta,” Moore said.
Moore said an encounter with a Native American near the beginning of the journey, gave him a perspective that has traveled with him.
“He said, ‘You’re going the wrong way, but doing it this way will allow you to document the destruction caused by the white man, sort of in reverse. Two hundred years ago, Lewis and Clark came right through here and my people helped them. There is a first people on every single one of these waterways you will travel.’”
Moore said that conversation convinced him the journey isn’t just west to east, but across the American eras.
“Part of this for me is that you sort of see where we’ve come from, how far we’ve come and who we have become,” he said.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]