RIVER-HORSE

The Logbook of a Boat Across America

By William Least Heat-Moon

Houghton Mifflin. 506 pp. $26

Reviewed by John G. Mitchell

William Least Heat-Moon describes himself as a man who "reads maps as others do holy writ." He is a journeyman in love with the face of America, yet he confesses he has "never been as interested in where I am as in what it was like to get there" -- an admission that may help explain why his first book, the footloose Blue Highways, was such a huge critical and popular success while the deeply rooted PrairyErth, his second, was not.

Over the years, Heat-Moon (a k a William Lewis Trogdon) moseyed across so many wrinkles on America's face that he began to fear the impending end of new territory to light out for. That's when he noticed this other tracery of azure lines on the map, the nation's waterways. He then proceeded to plot a route that a small boat might pursue westward, with no more than 75 miles of portage (carrying the boat and supplies overland), from the Atlantic to the Pacific in a single season.

River-Horse is the log of that remarkable journey, and "Nikawa" (from the Osage Indian words ni, which means river, and kawa, which means horse) is the name the author bestowed on the boat selected for the crossing: a 22-foot fisherman's dory driven by twin 45-horsepower outboards. Also equipped with an aluminum canoe for the shallow waters and a trailer for portaging Nikawa around lockless dams and across the Continental Divide, Heat-Moon and his crew contrived to cover 5,222 miles from New York Harbor to the Columbia River's treacherous tidal bar, with many a chancy slip and scrape along the way.

The route west draws Nikawa up the Hudson River to the Erie Canal, across the canal to Lake Erie, out of the lake (by portage) and, one after another, into the rivers Allegheny, Ohio, Mississippi, Missouri, Jefferson, Beaverhead, Lehmi, Salmon, Snake and Columbia -- most of it west of Pittsburgh in the wake of those captains of discovery Lewis & Clark. As for the crew, it is a motley bunch that Heat-Moon maneuvers on- and off-board as needed to enliven the monotony of sustained river travel, colleagues hiding behind such pseudonyms as the Photographer (who drives the trailer's tow vehicle from portage to portage), the Piper (with bagpipe), and the Professor (with wit and wisdom).

And then there's Pilotis, the co-pilot, a composite role played by seven different persons who apparently took turns in the pilothouse over the long haul westward but who speak with one voice -- at times too cleverly -- as Heat-Moon's foil. I found myself yearning for someone to push Pilotis overboard. He would not have been missed, for Heat-Moon has a serendipitous knack of encountering engaging characters, people like Billy Joe, the mixed-blood Santee Sioux who guides the Nikawa up an especially tricky stretch of the Missouri with his back to the bow, even as he lectures the skipper: "You better remember to look ahead."

Whatever Heat-Moon's passion for maps and the lands they conceal, one will always catch him here courting the language, rolling the evocative place names into musical lists, teasing the reader with rare and endangered words such as ugsome and chthonic. I admire this in a popular writer: the courage to defy conventional wisdom, which increasingly holds nowadays that wordsmiths should spare the dictionary and spoil the reader.

Heat-Moon is at his descriptive best when he is peering neither fore nor aft but over the gunwales into the water that draws him toward the setting sun. Right off the bat, crossing New York Harbor, he imagines that "Down in the weatherless deep there had to be jetsam from Henry Hudson's Half Moon, drowned ferrymen, bluejackets whose `Yo heave ho!' was forever gone, and concrete-booted malefactors trying to tread over the cinders blown from Fulton's steamboat, and sprawled across the bottom . . . sundered bare-breasted figureheads staring in wide-eyed disbelief at their ill luck." And in the still pools of the Upper Missouri, he spies just beneath the surface "a dim realm warming from the long Dakota winter" and "picks out creatures moving aside to escape our passage . . . ready to be shot full of the spurt and squirt of milt, the bottom alive and everlastingly crawling about and wanting nothing more than food, safety, and a little sex, as if the creatures were the dullest of desk-bound scriveners with no urge to find the mountains, to cross them down to the sea."

The Nikawa's urge to find the mountains puts her gallant crew at risk time and again: rough swells on Lake Erie, tornadic winds whipping the Ohio into an ugly froth, busted propellers and spring floods on the Missouri, an Aeolian blast "to blow the lights out of heaven and threaten a swamping in the mighty Columbia." But such is the nature of water travel that for every moment of excitement "there can be three or four of humdrum repetition that makes staying alert a mental tussle."

With Heat-Moon at the helm of this journey, staying alert is hardly a problem. In fact, there were stretches of water east of the Mississippi where I wished the skipper had slowed down and spent more shore time exploring funky or historic places, instead of rushing on to tick off the next town or landmark with a passing phrase. But that is both the occupational hazard and the obligatory challenge of writing "road" books, for as Heat-Moon himself would have it, the story isn't about where you are but what it was like to get there. Still, once the Nikawa gets beyond the 100th meridian -- out in Sitting Bull territory, out where one can see the country "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" -- there the writer warms quickly to the legends and the lay of the land.

Even before this little-boat-that-could begins to taste snowmelt off the shining mountains, her skipper and crew understand that their journey is but a reenactment of the nation's journey; their experience, a reexamination of how the United States "built itself and many of its cherished myths around westering . . . the source of the greatest theme in our history." The American fate, Heat-Moon writes, "was to drive on to the sea where the sun sets." So we all of us are in splendid good luck. All aboard! The skipper is going our way.

John Mitchell is an editor at National Geographic magazine.