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AuthorI'm a vagabond, author and "modern-day Huck Finn" who solo canoed the Mississippi River -- AMA!

Feb 21st 2018 by moderndayhuck • 9 Questions • 22 Points

​Hi, my name is Neal, I'm a long-distance paddler, storyteller, and author who crossed the nation Huckleberry Finn-style by canoeing the length of the Mississippi River, camping on islands, meeting up with characters of all stripes, and sharing their stories - which CNN was kind enough to broadcast - and the folks at the Mark Twain Museum were generous enough to publish

My proof: https://imgur.com/a/b1lpE

I'm about to launch out onto a new cross-country canoe adventure - to include traversing 22 rivers, 22 states, 100 towns and 7,500 miles across America (by canoe). And this time around - from the Pacific to the Continental Divide to the Big Easy to the Great Lakes to the Statue of Liberty - I'd love to invite you along for the ride @ http://www.alittlewake.com

Ask me anything!

Edit: Cheers for your comments. I'm gonna take a break here and come back in a few hours. If you've got any other questions feel free to post!

Q:

I've followed your trips in America and Africa and enjoyed the pictures and stories. I admire people like you that have the drive to get out and see the world. I am in love with other cultures and how they interact with the world but have largely stuck to the scripted version of life ie school, marriage/family, work, etc.

What gives you the drive to keep exploring and telling stories? How do you see yourself differently compared to the 'on track's lifestyle.

Keep exploring! I love watching the results of your trips.

A:

Thanks for following along.

I've been in love with the idea of travelling and storytelling for as long as I can remember -- and the thing is, the more you do it, it's like an addiction, you just have to keep going. And plot and plan what might be next.

I’m in awe of friends and family who settle down and start a family.

I think the ideal life is that of Huckleberry Finn, and I love the fact we have no idea what happened to Tom Blankenship.


Q:

Who called you a "modern day Huck Finn"?

A:

That's a funny story.

I was coming down the Mississippi turning my camera on the towns and characters I met along the way, and when I pulled into Hannibal (Mark Twain/Sam Clemens' hometown), and had finished off a couple of stories there, I was invited by the Museum to spend the night in Sam Clemens' boyhood bedroom. It was the second time in 97 years that anybody had been invited to spend the night, and the first in about 50.

So the way it worked out, the Twain Museum branded me "A Modern-day Huck Finn" and the local paper The Hannibal Courier-Post (that Twain had worked for as a boy), the local affiliates, and CNN all picked up on it.

It's funny cause I didn't see myself that way.

But the name sort of stuck - and I've embraced it.


Q:

How do you have enough money to support your canoe adventures? Seems awesome.

A:

That's a great question...

Once you start out it doesn't take a lot to get along. Cooking your own food by and large and tenting out. The majority of the money is up front in gearing up and getting to the the spot to launch.

For the Mississippi trip I saved for a year and friends also pitched in to help. Which was really nice.

For this new upcoming 2-year adventure, I've also saved, ran a successful Kickstarter, and have just started up a Patreon campaign to help me go the distance. I'm also hoping to sell my stories as a freelance journalist as I progress across the country.

Having said all that, there are other writers who have got by with less.

Jonathan Raban who wrote "Old Glory : A Voyage Down the Mississippi" famously relied wholly on Southern hospitality.


Q:

That's awesome and inspiring, thanks for the response. Did you have a normal day job before starting these canoe adventures?

Good luck out there!!

A:

Thanks - yes, I've taught English out in Taiwan for a number of years, which has worked well as a launching off spot for adventures into East Asia and also Africa over the years.

In regards to paddling the Mississippi, putting myself “out there” was a new concept in my life that, in the end, had to come from within. To put myself purposefully in a situation where there would be no promises no certainty of survival, no assurance of shelter, no one to prop me up save for myself drove home the knowledge that my trust would be placed in a river, a river with which I would have to become intimate in order to succeed.


Q:

What do you think of Chris McCandless?

A:

That's a good question -- because as Jon Krakauer points out, the question cuts both ways with folks rather dramatically.

I'm on the side that loves what he did with his life, to hurl himself out there onto the road and into the wild.

I've had friends who have died on the road, like fellow paddler Dick Conant - whose story will be told by The New Yorker writer Ben McGrath.

The way I see it is we're all going to go, there are no guarantees, so why not live a little and plunge into what you love. And if that's the open road, then more power!


Q:

What was the most frightening experience along the way?

A:

The first question that I normally get is - tell me about the time you almost died!

The river comes at you in stages so when you get to the scary parts it's a bit easier to digest.

There were a couple of times that I felt it might be curtains.

Once, paddling up the Ohio from where it meets the Mississippi to get to the hole in the levee wall at Cairo - in the dark and thick fog and raging current against me (for hours).

And the next when an island I was sleeping on just downriver from Hickman, Kentucky (Moore Island) disappeared in the middle of the night after the river rose about 10 feet. So I got evicted. It was 3:30am and I was forced to launch out into the raging waves full of tree trunks and other debris. The wind and rain were sideways and I had to paddle until daylight when I see a way to get out.


Q:

You've probably seen way more small "one-horse" towns than the average American. Do you have a favorite that comes to mind?

A:

Yes, I fell in love with a ton of towns.

The thing is I don't cook so as I paddle along I ask the old-timer fisherman I meet along the way where the nearest greasy spoon - if there's one they'd recommend.

And the tiny town of Palisade, Minnesota had a great one. I actually paddled 17 1/2 hours, well into the dark and up to midnight to get to it.

Walking into town the next morning farmers up on tractors tipped their John Deere hats and the place was just magic.

I think the population is something like 109 people (now 167?) - but they have a wonderful cafe and the folks there are ever so kind.


Q:

What's your favourite type of cheese?

A:

I'm a cheddar guy - Tillamook over brown bread, or with anything really.


Q:

Any tips on becoming a 'vagabond', and going on adventures? My biggest concern is usually money...

A:

While money is definitely an important consideration, I think the #1 ingredient for the would-be vagabond is drive. The absolute need to get out there into the wild. To see and experience and take yourself out of your comfort zone and explore.

The last adventure I had was hiking across Northern Ethiopia with a donkey. It was wild and rugged and ever so dangerous (at times) but a wonderful push "out there" into the wilds.

I'd argue that part of taking yourself out of your comfort zone is money - or the lack thereof. I generally have very little money when I roll into a new city, a new country, or step foot onto a new adventure. Which is part of the fun. Part of the wildness. How are you going to make it?

You have to meet new people, take the odd job, push yourself into full on survival mode and experience. That's the difference between camping wild and a five star hotel. On the open road, you meet people -- usually the most interesting of characters. In a fancy hotel you'll never see your neighbor.

Mississippi paddler and writer Eddy L. Harris said the hardest part of paddling the Mississippi is placing the canoe into the headwaters, getting in, and starting to paddle.

And from my experience, this is absolutely correct. I was full of nerves up until that point at Lake Itasca, full of a nervous energy, but once into that lake, I knew that I'd absolutely make New Orleans. Even though people all along the way will second guess you and berate you and in some cases straight out say you're a fool and you're going to die.

You spin the word "vagabond" positive, because in its purest sense, it's a noble title.