Sailing the wet blue highways

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. He questions the credibility of the 1872 law that still governs mining: "As with the out-of-date grazing laws, Congress, stumbling along under its usual opiate of venality, still listens to mining moguls rather than the citizenry."

His expertise gained from years of reading and travel along these rivers shines through. Readers may find themselves searching maps for scenic and historic points. They will surely seek dictionaries, too, for navigating language that even Heat-Moon makes light of: "The author, infatuated with arcane vocabulary, drags words from the underbrush as a retriever does a dead duck."

Heat-Moon determines to travel by water wherever possible, but his purism seems strained when, unable to ascend the last 21 miles of the upper Missouri because of high water, he portages and then descends the distance by canoe. Unable to traverse a hundred-mile stretch of river because of government restrictions, he arranges for a Bureau of Land Management official to transport him in a jet boat, which runs out of gas, twice.

After so many man-made impediments, Heat-Moon's journey seems at times unnecessarily difficult, even artificial, like a journey along blue highways under construction.

"River-Horse" is an adventure, a unique, colorful, and provocative river voyage, but Heat-Moon might have been more up-front in his overall purpose: He aimed to write a book. What honesty might have been his had he stated at the outset that he proposed to bring his readers along to experience some of the perils, costs, and rigors a dedicated writer might put himself through for his art.

*William Fox Conner teaches English at Principia College in Elsah, Ill.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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