Neal Moore is a journalist, an adventurer and an expatriate. He is in the midst of a two-year journey, paddling 7,500 miles across the United States. I met him in a coffee shop—by chance—in Columbus, Mississippi and we found time the next day to do an interview.
You can follow Neal’s journey at https://22rivers.com/.
“There’s this strange phenomenon that takes place, when you realize that you’re in a situation that can absolutely end your life. That’s when you feel like you really live.”
“So the big idea is to travel from sea to shining sea, connecting the waterways. I’m looking at 22 rivers. The idea is to touch 22 States and make my way across 7,500 miles from the Pacific Coast, to the Continental Divide, to the Gulf of Mexico, to the Great Lakes, to the very feet of the Statue of Liberty. It’s a two year journey.
I’m attempting to connect waterways, but also to connect the stories of everyday Americans, to listen to folks and try to understand what the commonality is, the thread between us that can spin positive and speak to our mutual experience.
I’ve been an expatriate on and off—mainly on—for 30 years. I’ve been living between Africa and East Asia for this time and this is a chance to come back to my own backyard, and to experience it up close and personal. This is a unique way to see the country.
The canoe is the first form of transport and these rivers and waterways are the first thoroughfares in this land and they absolutely connect. And so, to unfurl the map in your mind and then to try to plot out your course, it took a year just to plot the course.
When I look at rivers, when I look at water, I’ve always found that this is sort of a stabilizing substance. Our bodies are +/- 70% water. The surface of the earth is +/- 70% water. And I think there might be a correlation there. When I was younger, I went to school in Hawaii. Then when I transferred to the university of Utah, I would take off every winter quarter and go back to Capetown. And for the three months I was there—which is their summer—I would just be surfing in the water every single day.
I had all this stress. I had lost my brother as a boy. I had lost my mom. And when I came home, my dad had moved on. It was just me, and I found, when you submerge yourself, and even when you’re near a waterway, that stress washes off.
So, the idea was to paddle the year leading into national elections, and then the full year after, no matter how it would have turned out. What would we look like as a nation the year after national elections?
I identify as liberal. I sort of identify as very much as flawed, as well. So I understand that I don’t have all the answers. And the moment that I think that I do, that’s when everything sort of goes topsy-turvy and my personal life sort of gets messed up. And so for me, when you you do unfurl that map of America, and you look at my route, this route that I’ve selected, these 22 rivers and waterways, it’s by and large, all red. The country is very red in these rural locations that I’m finding myself paddling through and stopping off to, to meet folks.
So my thinking going into it is sort of like George Orwell and his masterpiece, Homage to Catalonia where he’s a journalist based in London. This was before his fame, of course, with Animal Farm, with 1984. Well before that, and he puts himself onto a boat and he disembarks in Barcelona and he attaches himself to the losing side of the Spanish Civil War and to an anti-fascist faction known as the POUM. At the end of chapter one, he finds himself on the front, taking a shot at another human being for the first time in his life.
What he says is, “understand that I am biased, but also understand that I am here.” And this is the age before the green screen. But what he’s saying is we have New York journalists, the big name ones, and we have London journalists, the big name ones who say that they’re there during the Spanish Civil War in Spain, and they’re not. They aren’t there and they’re still biased. But as he says, I’m biased, but I’m here.
And so my thinking, looking at the map in that vein and with that exclamation point is to see the country and to learn, and really try to take off the mask of these monikers that we sort of throw on to ourselves. The things that if we let them, can separate us, be it identity politics, be it race, be it religion.
What I’m looking for is that common thread, from coast to coast. What I’m really looking for is the common humanity, and I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it with individuals. I’ve seen it with families. I’ve seen it with communities. And when you see it, and when you’re able to document it, it just blows you away. It’s so profound.
When you add up all of these stories, everybody has a story. My thinking is by the time I get to the Statue of Liberty, and approaching her from a rarefied view, coming the wrong way, from the West Coast to the East Coast, I feel like I earned these towns, that I earned the chance for these stories. I want to earn that view. And to really properly understand it, I need to first understand who we are, and what we’re about and how far we’ve come.
I think the big surprise for me has been the wildness. A journey like this by and large, you’re pushing yourself out into the wild. And then in so doing, you get to embrace the wildness within. As Max finds out with Where the Wild Things Are, the monster is inside of us. And so to be able to understand that, embrace that and try to deal with that on a personal basis, in concert with nature. When you’re in your canoe, you’re down low in the water, and you see it, you experience nature from a wholly different vantage point.
Every day that I’m out there in nature, every single day, I find myself laughing. It’s this care-free laugh of, I really should be clocking in or clocking out somewhere with a proper job. And I’m not. I’m out here in nature and I’m free. I’m positively free. And there’s something beautiful about that.
I’m generally up an hour before first light. I’m deflating my air pad and rolling up my sleeping bag. I’m packing up inside the tent and taking the tent down. It takes about an hour to an hour and a half. And then I put all of my worldly belongings into my canoe. And I push off. And in that exact moment, it’s just pure perfection.
There’s something so beautiful about that moment where you step off from Terra Firma into the water. Whether I’m headed downstream with the current or whether I’m fighting like hell going upstream, you’re in the moment. I don’t travel with with earbuds in my ears, listening to books on tape or listening to music. Nature herself is my orchestra.
And when you’re paddling, you’re looking out for obstacles at all times. So you’re listening to the water. You’re watching out for boulders. You’re watching for hanging tree limbs.
Whether it be the pandemic or whether it be the headwinds and the tornadoes and the two derechos. There are hard times, but you understand that it’s temporary. You understand that around the bend, that we’re going to be okay.
In many cases on this journey, I’m risking my life. I’m putting myself completely out there. And there’s a strange thing that happens. There’s this strange phenomenon that takes place, when it’s touch and go, when you realize that you’re in a situation that can absolutely end your life, it’s when you feel like you really live. You have to focus. You cannot freak out and you have to see your way through.
And so whenever you have tribulation, you have to have to experience that. Be it the loss of loved ones, be it nature’s temporary fury. You have to soldier through. And by making your way through the hard times, on the flip side of that, when you make the safe harbor, when the sun comes out nice and bright and beautiful, then it’s all the sweeter. It’s all the sweeter because you’ve earned it.
I think our greatest strength is empathy. When you stop and you take away these labels that we like to identify ourselves by. When you strip all of that away, what we’re left with is something beautiful. And it’s something I think that we can all connect to. We can all relate to. And if we let ourselves, we can all love in a positive way. That is our common humanity. That is the natural desire to help, to have empathy for our brothers and sisters. And I think from coast to coast, what I’m finding doesn’t always work out that way, but when you’re looking for it, you see It. You see it.
And when you do see it, it strengthens your belief in mankind. And I think it makes you—the would be traveler in this life—a very happy person.”
-What is the boldest adventure you have ever embarked on?
-Have you ever placed yourself in harm’s way?
-When have you pushed your physical and psychological limits?
-Have you experienced water in a healing way?
-Do you agree with Neal that empathy is our greatest strength?
-When have you offered empathy? When have you received it?
-When have you had a clear sense of our common humanity?
-When have you experienced wilderness?
-What does Neal mean by the phrase “the wilderness within?”
-If you could set off on a journey, what would you hope to find?