Books: “Riverman” by Ben McGrath
In 2014, Ben McGrath, a writer for the New Yorker, was attending a get-together in Piermont, New York when he made the acquaintance of a man named Dickie Conant. DC was not the kind of fellow you’d greet and quickly forget: he was a hulking sixty-something bear of a man as well as a lively conversationalist. DC entertained the guests with stories of what he’d been up to over the past decade: canoeing the waterways of America.
At one point in the proceedings, DC also mentioned that his next stop was North Carolina. Some months later, McGrath learned that DC’s canoe had washed up on shore in NC. No sign of DC. No sign of a body either, said police.
McGrath was not content to let matters lie. In a subsequent New Yorker article and in his new book Riverman, he writes of his yearlong quest to locate the whereabouts of DC—an eccentric, Walter-Mitty type who was born in suburban New York, dropped out of college, served in the Navy, settled in Montana, and eventually stumbled onto the idea of canoeing across America.
In his search, McGrath interviews dozens of people in small river towns—people on whom DC and his canoe had left an indelible impression. He visits towns with populations of 11. Libraries where DC’s unkempt appearance pegged him as a homeless person.
McGrath learned that Conant wasn’t homeless, however. He ate, drank, slept, read, traveled, and lived his best life 24/7–all in his canoe. Not only did he keep meticulous diaries of the people he met, what’s more, but he also navigated his travels by paper maps. (NB: Most of these travels took place before Google Maps. Yes, there was such a time.)
Books about river travel aren’t a new phenomenon—authors from Mark Twain to Jonathan Raban have written a few. But what gives McGrath’s book its charm is his storytelling ability—it reads more like a combo mystery novel and travelogue on small-town America. So if you’re suddenly feeling the need to travel again, particularly on water, this lovely book might be just the thing to get you out there. No paddle required.