Look up the word “peripatetic” in a thesaurus and take your pick: nomadic, traveling, wandering, roving, roaming. You can’t describe Neal Moore without using one of them.
Moore, 49, grew up in Southern California; attended college in Hawaii and Utah; fulfilled his mother’s dying wish by becoming a Mormon missionary in South Africa; joined a childhood friend in Taiwan where he taught English; worked on a presidential campaign in Iowa with his half-brother and canoed the Mississippi River from its source at Lake Itasca in Minnesota to New Orleans.
He’s now 5,194 miles into a 7,500-mile canoe trip that might be his biggest adventure yet. Moore launched 14 months ago on the Columbia River in Oregon. He hopes to complete his coast-to-coast odyssey in December at the Statue of Liberty. Along the way he will touch 22 states and paddle an equal number of rivers and waterways.
Almost two weeks ago Moore secured his red 16-foot Old Town Royalex canoe at the dock at Riverside Park. His previous stopover was a three-week sojourn in Demopolis where he waited on a flooding river to recede and two tornadoes to pass.
His host in Demopolis was the owner of the local Best Western, who rather than rent him a room at his motel, hosted the 6-foot, two-inch paddler in his home. If that was not hospitality enough, the innkeeper loaned Moore his spare car and encouraged him to explore the area. The houseguest needed little prodding. Moore made day trips to Greensboro, Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery and Meridian. While in Demopolis, he was even able to get his COVID vaccine.
Moore credits Dick Conant, an enigmatic hobo canoeist/diarist (perhaps the only member of this subset of paddlers) he met on a portage in Minnesota with the idea of this trip. “He was stringing rivers together,” Moore said of Conant’s multi-river aspirations. Conant is the subject of Dec. 14, 2015, profile in The New Yorker by Ben McGrath, who has written a book on him.
In early 2010, Conant showed up in Columbus in a 14-foot plastic canoe. His arrival was brought to the attention of Roger Larsen, then publisher of The Columbus Packet. Larsen interviewed and photographed Conant, but didn’t use the material.
I was tired; it was Wednesday and we were going to press, Larsen told me recently. One of Larsen’s photographs of Conant was used to illustrate The New Yorker piece.
Moore paddled with Conant for two and a half days on the upper Mississippi. Along the way Conant offered what Moore considers sage advice. Advice he has followed with the devotion of an acolyte.
“He told me, ‘Slow down; this is not a race. You are passing by significant historical sites. You need to take the time to get off the river to understand and appreciate this history.’”
Moore says his journey is “slow and down low.” The paddling and long visits in port go hand in hand, he says.
Conant disappeared in 2014. His upturned canoe was found by two duck hunters on Albemarle Sound in North Carolina, according to The New Yorker. Conant’s journals were recovered.
As for his current host city, Moore is enthusiastic (He plans to shove off Sunday). “Columbus is just great.” His activities here have included an outing on the Buttahatchee, a Paul Thorn concert at Steve and Kay Ellis’ barn, a fried chicken dinner with local kayakers and a book signing at Friendly City Books.
He is staying in a downtown apartment. “I like that the downtown has a heartbeat and is alive.”
His first weekend here Moore enjoyed the fare at Memphis Town Barbecue. “Memphis Town has a heartbeat and is alive, as well,” he said.
“Race relations (are good),” he said. “I can see it in the coffee shop; I can see it at the Waffle House. People get on with each other. People are happy to see each other.”
I asked Moore if he ever considers quitting — in 2018 he had to abandon a similar expedition at 1,800 miles after a life-threatening capsize.
“On this journey I am adamant,” he said. “Hell or high water, I’m going to finish.”
When that finish does come, he expects the moment to be bittersweet.
“I am dreading that last day. Paddling around Lady Liberty,” he said.
Birney Imes ([email protected]) is the former publisher of The Dispatch.