Thoreau he is not.
The book is about two guys who try to cross America by river. They get a boat capable of navigating strong currents, deep and shallow rivers, and keeping the crew comfortable.
I'm going to miss some of their itinerary exactly, but they start from NYC, go up the Hudson, across the Erie Canal, down the Ohio, I think, the Mississippi, the Missouri, the Yellow Stone, the Salmon, and then the Columbia. They do allow for the big boat to be carried by truck around dams and shallows, but try to then canoe instead.
For the most part, this was a pretty boring book. The author wasn't trying to be Thoreau, and he stayed away from trite introspection. I stayed with it until the end because I wanted to see what they would encounter and how they would make it across the Rockies. It wasn't easy. They had to time their trip so they could catch the snow melt off the Rockies, but couldn't get too far ahead because the Salmon river isn't one that anyone can chuck a canoe into and do. They needed an experienced guide because it is so dangerous. I think H-M said that Lewis and Clark carried their canoes for 90 miles of it so they wouldn't get killed.
I found three parts of the narrative exciting. First, I really liked the little stories Heat-Moon told about Lewis and Clark, a guy named Ballantine, and some German prince who all made their way across the West before it was colonized.
The second was how H-M describes the effect of civilization on the river. This was especially interesting to me after reading Earth Abides. First many of the dams are coming to the end of thier lifespans. The dams are an outmoded method of producing energy, according to H-M, and not worth the money they need to keep going. He says they are about to die because many of them, the shallower ones and the older ones, are being silted in. To get all of the silt out will take billions.
The third is also about man's effect on the rivers. So many riverfront communities have built levees and protective walls against floods that the river can't flood where it wants to, where it is supposed to, and where it has for billions of years. As a result, the floods downstream are worse. The Missouri is basically one giant canal, the stream bed is still natural, but the banks of the river are concrete walls, and somethign called "wing-dikes." No idea what they are, but I'm going to find out. Anyway. The other consequence of not letting the river flood where it is supposed to is that it doesn't leave silt for the farmers. Consequently they need more agrobusiness supplies like fertilizer and pesticides to keep their crops going. Consequently the river gets F'ed because the runoff kills fish and vegetation. And so on, and so on. Humans are seriously mismanaging the rivers.
I'm glad there was very little introspection, but reading the logbook of the trip was kind of boring. Whereas reading Thoreau can be boring, at least he is teaching you, questioning you, and provoking you. Heat-Moon complains about not knowing how Lewis and Clark felt at certain junctures, but other than being tired or hungry, I have no idea how either of the people on this boat felt either.