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William Least Heat-Moon is best known for the now modern classic Blue Highways, a book I wrote about earlier here.

Since then, I read about another of his journeys that he chronicled in River Horse. This time he starts out from New York Harbor aboard a boat he named Nikawa which means “river horse” in Osage. 

His plan is to reach the Pacific Ocean near Astoria, Oregon. He has a companion this time, a First Mate he calls Pilotis, as he attempts a 5000 mile water journey. 

This trip would be more miles than any other cross-country river traveler. He follows the path of some other famous inland explorers, such as Henry Hudson and Lewis and Clark. 

In some ways, this voyage is similar to his truck trip around the country. He runs into more real battles with nature (floods, submerged rocks, dangerous weather) but he also meets interesting and helpful people with tales of their own.

The landscapes of Blue Highways become riverscapes as they take the small motorized boat down rivers, lakes and canals from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The book also carries more of an ecological story about our lands and waters.

I still have a few other Heat-Moon books to read. I think my next one will be PrairyErth: A Deep Map. In that book, he sets off on foot. It is a big book (624 pages) and from reviews I have seen, it is quite different from Blue Highways and River Horse

PrairyErth is a term that Heat-Moon found in an old taxonomy to describe prairie soils. In this book, he does not attempt to walk across the country, but instead he picks a specific area of prairie. In the same way that Thoreau “traveled a good deal in Concord” and how Annie Dillard became a Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in Virginia, Heat-Moon attempts to explore every bit of the 774 square miles of Chase County, Kansas in the geographical center of our country.

If this big book seems too much to take on right now, consider William Least Heat-Moon’s collection of short-form travel writing. Here, There, Elsewhere has short pieces on trips to Japan, England, Italy, and Mexico and also to Long Island, Oregon and Arizona. He visits and writes about small towns, big cities, the shorelines of our country and places hidden inland.

I met pi in school. You probably met pi that way too. It is that number used to calculate the circumference of a circle. Pi is shown symbolically as:


Pi is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. It is an “irrational number” which means its exact value is inherently unknowable.

Using computers, we have calculated billions of digits of pi, starting with 3.14159265358979323…   –  but no recognizable pattern emerges. So strange. The digits of pi continue to infinity. Does anyone really understand infinity?

Ancient mathematicians did not like irrationality because it didn’t work with the concept of an omniscient God.

Recently I read about another pi connection which is also strange. In 1996, the UK earth scientist Hans-Henrik Stølum published a paper announcing that pi explains the seemingly chaotic paths of rivers in a mathematically predictable pattern.

This is called a river’s sinuosity. By dividing the river’s actual meandering length by the length of the direct line drawn from source to sea.

Of course, some rivers flow pretty straight from source to mouth , so they have small meandering ratios. Some rivers wander all over the place and have high meandering ratios.

But the average meandering ratio of rivers seems to be pi. Good old 3.14.

Albert Einstein used fluid dynamics and chaos theory to show that rivers tend to bend into loops.

If a river has a curve that will generate faster currents on the outer side of the curve. Those currents will cause erosion and so a sharper bend. That will eventually make the loop tighten. I have read that then chaos will eventually cause the river to double back on itself and form a loop in the other direction.

I did some more research on this river connection and found that this claim may not be accurate.

Someone put up a website at one point to crowdsource river data. The site at seems to be dead now. People could put in the coordinates of the mouth and the source of a river, and the length of the river (from Google Maps and Wikipedia probably) to calculate the sinuosity of a river. That study looked at 258 rivers and found an average sinuosity of an un-Pi-like 1.94.

Hmmm. Maybe it is another mathematical constant, like the golden ratio (phi) which we often find in nature. That value is 1.618. Nope.

What about if you look at pi/phi? You get 1.94. Okay, that’s a strange “coincidence.”  Or something more than coincidence?

I need to be careful with all this, because I saw the film titled Pi. I saw this science fiction film when it was released in 1998. It is a difficult film to label. It is surrealist, psychological, thriller, that delves into religion, mysticism, the relationship of the universe to mathematics and number theory. It was written and directed by Darren Aronofsky in his directorial debut.

I read it as a cautionary tale. It is about a genius oddball mathematician, Max, who has been working for a decade trying to decode the numerical pattern beneath ordered chaos. The ordered chaos he studies is the stock market.

Max’s belief that there is some mathematical “code” underlying everything compares in my mind with Einstein trying to find that theory that explains it all. That quest frustrated Einstein through the end of his life.

Beware of that quest.

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