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Taking Stock 

Nathaniel Stone captures his trek from New York to Louisiana in the travelogue On the Water: Discovering America in a Rowboat.

River people take care of their own. It's the decorum of the waterway that steers a person to offer aid to complete strangers who have just rowed their way into the other's dock or marina.

"It's a term commonly used on the river -- it's a way of saying you're welcome," explains Nathaniel Stone, author On the Water: Discovering America in a Rowboat (Broadway Books). "So if I gave you a beer or something and you said thanks, I would say, 'On the water, buddy. On the water.'"

Without such good manners from these good mariners, Stone wouldn't have made it very far. In the spring of 1999, he started rowing a scull from the Brooklyn Bridge to the Gulf of Mexico, via the Mississippi and other rivers, and back up the coast to New York and eventually to West Quoddy Head, the northernmost point on the Atlantic coast of the United States. From his first night spent on the journey, where he bunked in a house of strangers, serendipity played as much a part as the boat itself. He never capsized, was never swamped by a freighter, never went hungry, and always had a place to stay. It's not that Stone thinks he was singularly blessed during the trip any more than he is in his everyday life -- but his time on the water gave him the perspective to appreciate both.

"I think that (with) all of the routines of bill paying and house living that ... the serendipity sometimes get lost," Stone says. "I think it's there all of the time. Every so often I stop, see something, and I think, if this had happened to me on the trip this would have been a great bit of luck."

Of course, most people wouldn't take a year off to contemplate such matters unless there was something more tangible at stake -- like a book deal. But in Stone's case, that wasn't even a consideration until the final two weeks of his journey, when an editor from Broadway Books in New York City read an article about Stone and proposed a book. Stone had envisioned his journey since childhood when, with the aid of an atlas, he began thinking of the eastern United States -- with its boundaries of rivers and canals, the Great Lakes, the Gulf, and the Atlantic Ocean -- as an island.

"It was something that always made sense to me, and once I had it in mind, I knew it was a logical extension of myself, whether I did or not," he says. "There was nothing I had to explain to myself. It was the first time that I truly did what I wanted to do."

That's what makes this book a refreshing departure from similar books with long physical journeys at their center. Stone isn't extolling a grand philosophy such as Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenace, nor is he a journalist reporting the experience like John Krakauer's Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster. This former teacher, with a last-resort credit card, was merely a curious traveler depending on the kindness of strangers.

With no hidden agenda or need to heighten the reader's emotions, Stone recounts his voyage to us much like a friend might over a cup of coffee. Days are spent in a simple, almost meditative state, where Stone notes, "the world above is disturbed only by the wake of my boat, which pulses with each stroke of the oars, and by the swirling pools left in pairs as the blades release the silent river."

Each evening he meets what he calls a "stockholder" -- people interested in his endeavor or those who provide their own stories and thereby become part owners of his situation. Among them: Freddy Fisher, a World War II veteran and fellow oarsman, who tells Stone over a meal, "You're doing the right thing"; Marcino, a South African grandmother living along the Hudson River, who sings for Stone; and Ed Taylor, who takes Stone to his favorite fishing hole on the Ohio River, where he catches his favorite fish, a red-eye bass.

One of his largest "stockholders" is Albert "Scoober" Williams, a night watchman for a town launching ramp on the Atchafalaya Basin who lets Stone warm up in his pickup on a cold winter night. Williams, a former tow-boat operator in his late 70s, recalls growing up in the Louisiana swamps with details such as a painted yellow schoolboat and hog killings, where the meat was precooked in grease and buried to preserve it. For the thirtysomething Stone and his readers, this conversation is another form of preservation.

The book has its share of cliches, but transcends them with Stone's simple observations, and the wisdom of knowing that this isn't just his story, but others, as well. So there is still time for perspective stockholders; the book is only part of Stone's trek, or as he writes, "There is no end to the shares, any more than there is an end to the trip."

click to enlarge 'It was the first time that I truly did what I wanted to do,' Nathaniel Stone says of the rowboat trip he chronicles in On the Water.
  • 'It was the first time that I truly did what I wanted to do,' Nathaniel Stone says of the rowboat trip he chronicles in On the Water.
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