“Riverman” is an account of McGrath’s investigation into what happened to Conant. But more than that, it’s an investigation into who Conant was and how he had such a huge impact on the lives of so many people. The information McGrath gleans from spending time in the river towns Conant visited, meeting the people he met on his travels, and reading his journals and manuscripts add up to a compelling portrait of a man complex who has gone to great lengths to find a way to live. in a world that is not made for him.
On paper, Conant was an adventurer, a painter, a writer. He had been a medical student and quartermaster for the Navy. He was an incorrigible romantic. If you asked him, he said he was a “canoeist who writes books”. He had written three manuscripts detailing his travels, totaling over 2,000 pages.
But part of McGrath’s challenge in capturing Conant’s character on the page is the fact that he was different for different people.
For Conant’s brothers, who hadn’t seen him since 2008, he was a storyteller, full of hot air and grandiose delusions. To the librarians of Bozeman, Montana, where he lived in a tent in the woods when not on the water, he was a sad case, a lost cause, and a nuisance. To faculty members at Montana State, where he worked briefly as a “weather watcher,” he was feared and a possible “lone shooter” type. To the medical staff, he needed medication to temper his paranoia.
But the people Conant met on his travels were filled with admiration for him, like McGrath’s neighbor who invited him to his birthday party. Or the lawyer he met in Slidell, Louisiana, who bought him a plane ticket from Virginia. Or the NASA programmer who transported it with his canoe to the mountains of Tennessee. Or the college professor from Brainerd, Minnesota, who was so taken with him that she made him the subject of a case study for her community journalism class. “How can a stranger have such an effect on me? she asked McGrath with tears in her eyes.
The point is, Conant’s disheveled appearance belied a scholarly mind. He excelled at school, and meticulously kept journals of his travels included references to paintings by Mary Cassatt, visits to the Paul Robeson Museum and Ben Franklin’s grave, a lecture he attended on justice during the American Revolution. Despite his solitary nature, he was sociable and gregarious. He could talk about any subject. People were drawn to him.
Reading McGrath’s account of Conant, it becomes apparent that many of the people he met projected their own fears or fantasies onto him. To some he was a homeless wanderer, a security threat, someone to be avoided. For others, he was a modern-day folk hero, an inspiration, the epitome of the rugged individualist who casts off the shackles of society and depends on his own wits to survive.
In some ways, I, too, identify with Dick Conant. Reading “Riverman”, I discovered that we share two basic philosophies in life. One is to “see as much geography as possible”. The other is to place more value on the creation of memories than on the accumulation of material things. Am I ready to give up the good life and live an itinerant existence dependent solely on my intelligence? Uh no. But I admire his commitment, while at the same time, my heart breaks for him. I feel like his lifestyle wasn’t necessarily a choice, but the only way he could exist in the world.
Despite his challenges and hardships, Conant had moments of joy and kept faith in the future, which is something each of us can truly hope for in the end.
“The peace of mind I found, largely alone, on this whitewater Mecca convinced me that life was capable of exquisite pleasure and undefined meaning in the depths of failure. “, he wrote. “The experience itself is the reward.”
Suzanne Van Atten is a literary critic and editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Contact her at [email protected]and follow her on Twitter at @svanatten.