PITTSBURGH – If you could choose any mode of transportation to travel across America, would you pick a canoe?
Neal Moore chose exactly that, opting for a two-mile-an-hour, paddle-powered vessel on the riverways, instead of the comforts of a cozy RV coasting the major highways. His trip will have taken nearly two years once he reaches his finish line.
Moore began his journey in Portland, Oregon, in February 2020, and he plans to take a victory lap around the Statue of Liberty in New York City by the end of this year.
Once he finishes his journey, Moore will have paddled more than 7,500 miles across the United States. Along his route, Moore crossed through many locks and dams on the riverways operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In late August 2021, Moore stopped in Pittsburgh for a weekend, before continuing north on the Allegheny River. We caught up to him under the Robert Clemente Bridge for an interview to ask about his journey.
The interview below has been edited for brevity and clarity.
PITTSBURGH DISTRICT: What have you discovered about yourself during the past 18 months you have spent on the water, so far?
NEAL MOORE: Part of the journey is pushing yourself out into nature, and the other part is that you, yourself are enveloped by nature. You have to embrace the wildness within yourself as well. This journey – it's just been an awesome experience. It's the perfect blend between town and country. I'm dreaming about these rivers. The islands that I'm going to sleep on. I feel stronger. My body is moving from strength to strength. Mentally, I'm clearer. I'm happy every single day. I find myself laughing on the river, just at the ridiculousness of how beautiful it is, and how free I feel.
PD: You’re turning 50 somewhere along this journey, right?
NM: I'll turn 50 just before I hit New York City.
PD: How does that hit you as part of the journey, turning 50 during the journey?
NM: Some people might look at a crazy journey like this, like a midlife crisis. But I see it as a celebration. Every single day is a gift. I'm a cancer survivor. I've gone through two bouts of cancer, and I realized that this stage in my life right now – I'm healthy. I'm free and clear, cancer-wise. I just feel really, really privileged to be able to have this time, and every single day, every single moment to highlight and underscore the importance of that, and to truly make the most of it.
PD: What have you discovered about our nation, or the American people, during the journey?
NM: Part of the journey is exploring how the waterways of this land connect from West Coast to East Coast. The end game is the beacon hand of the Statue of Liberty. I'm also looking to explore how we, as Americans, connect. I'm looking for the positive ingredients of what it takes to be an American, from people from all walks of life, backgrounds, ethnicities, and to really highlight those positive stories. When times are tough – like we've seen this past year with COVID – this is when people roll up their sleeves. This is when people look out for the people around them. I love the word empathy, because when times are tough, the community has a chance to become family.
PD: What has been your favorite region or body of water you have navigated so far?
NM: The easy answer is my favorite bodies of water are all the places I haven't seen yet. I am so excited about the Allegheny River. I'm excited about the Chadakoin. I'm excited about Lake Chautauqua, Lake Erie, the Erie Canal, and of course to have the privilege of coming down the Hudson.
But looking back I really have been touched by the places that have surprised me with the wildness and the ruggedness.
The Clark Fork River in western Montana is ridiculously beautiful. It is wild and rugged, and you're surrounded by nature. The stretches of the Missouri are wild and scenic. It just blows you away. In the North Dakota and South Dakota region – the Missouri River – this is where “Dances with Wolves” was filmed. You have these sunrises and sunsets that are awesome. One more surprise for me was the Gulf of Mexico. I decided to make my way out to the barrier islands, off the coast of Mississippi and Alabama. Stringing those islands together out there, I was escorted by a pod of dolphins. This canoe was hit by a bull shark. You just have nature everywhere, and it’s a phenomenal experience.
PD: How has the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers helped you with navigation access, and how has the organization been involved in your journey?
NM: The Army Corps, from my experience, especially on the Ohio River, I've just been bowled over by the professionalism, by their service to country. A lot of folks are ex-military with the Corps, and they show just a life of service. They're interested in the journey. They have lots of questions. The first thing they say is, ‘Do you need anything? Feel free to call back with your marine radio if you have any problems whatsoever.’ Just some practical advice I find with river travel, you should listen to locals. It could be a kid fishing on the side of the river. It could be an old timer. For me, it is absolutely the Army Corps of Engineers.
One of the lock masters (on the Ohio who knew I was coming) raises chickens and goats, and he wanted to make sure he had breakfast ready for me when I got there. At another lock, I had to charge my marine radio, and they had me come up. The folks are friendly and professional. Navigation has been so much easier thanks to them. It’s been a privilege to be able to lock through.
PD: What do you think connects the American people the same way these rivers connect our land?
NM: By the time I reach the Statue of Liberty, the big idea is that thread by thread, story by story, when you add them all up, the indigenous American culture, the African American experience, the Latino experience, the immigrant experience, each story is unique and special, but when you bring them together: this is America. We are the microcosm of the world. We are the melting pot. It underscores and celebrates our humanity. New York is the most diverse place on the planet. My journey started with stories of diversity in Oregon, and I'll finish off with stories of diversity in New York City.
PD: Once you complete this journey, who will you be? What will this journey make you? And what will you remember?
NM: That's a great question. I think – I know I'm going to be in the best shape of my life. I'm going to be just newly-minted at 50 years old. I'm going to be in a unique position to not just speak about the American experience, but to really have an understanding. That understanding comes from listening, from really dropping my preconceived ideas about people and places and cultures and whatnot, and really listening and documenting my way across the land. By the time I get to New York City, I think I'm going to be and feel strong, both in body and spirit.
I'm hoping to be an example as well. If an average, middle-aged guy can make this ridiculous, epic journey from coast to coast, then no matter what struggles other people are going through – be it illness, be it hard time with the economy, be it COVID, be it anything life tends to hurl at you – we can overcome. We have the strength, and the strength is not ‘me.’ The strength is the people around me. The strength is the nature of these waterways and the nation as a whole. To push yourself out there, out of your comfort zone, you have the opportunity to learn and to grow. It takes a community.
To learn more about Neal Moore and his journey across America, visit his website: www.22rivers.com.