Our last report in this space on Special Correspondent Bil Gilbert (Nov. 5, 1979) was occasioned by his winning a Penney-Missouri Magazine Award conferred by the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Not coincidentally (for reasons to be explained shortly), the subject of the prizewinning article was a canoe trip. Thereafter, being temporarily barred from the competition because he had won it for three consecutive years, Gilbert accepted an invitation from Missouri to spend a year "masquerading," as he puts it, as a visiting professor of journalism. Among other consequences, SI has received a number of Missouri stories, including one about a disoriented moose that wandered through the state. His account of messing around on the gentle Ozark rivers, which begins on page 64, is the latest of these, but probably not the last, because Gilbert says he also feels obliged to deliver himself of a few observations on Missouri mules.
Gilbert and his wife, Ann, spent most of the past two years on a cattle ranch 6,000 feet up in the Huachuca Mountains, a few miles north of the Arizona- Mexico border. They lived in considerable isolation, seven miles from the nearest neighbor, eight miles from their mailbox and who knows how far from a telephone. As he readily admits, Gilbert has existed mostly, if non-corporeally, in the 19th century since leaving Missouri. The reason is that the couple, who work together as a writer-researcher team on historical projects, have been writing a lengthy biography of Joe Walker, a mountain man-explorer-naturalist who roamed the West for nearly 50 years before the Civil War.
Gilbert became interested in Walker while writing The Trailblazers, a volume in the TIME-LIFE series on the early West. "Obviously I'm biased," he says. "We've been thinking, doing research and writing about Walker for nearly 10 years, but it seems to me his life, better than perhaps that of any other individual, constitutes a remarkable metaphor for the true westering experience of the American people. This experience—our most successful national enterprise—continues to affect our imagination and influence our behavior, but too often our sense of it is based on phony, shoot-'em-up, macho fiction." (Others will be able to contemplate Walker's life next spring when the biography is published by Atheneum.)
This spring, Walker manuscript completed, Gilbert returned to the Ozark rivers for a canoe trip, which was not surprising, for he has been canoeing for nearly 50 years and during the past 20 has contributed a half dozen essays to these pages on the pleasures of this activity. "A canoe moves at a good pace, fast enough to provide diversity, but slow enough to recognize it," says Gilbert. "You don't have to tinker with a canoe and paddle, overhaul, oil, gas or fiddle with their transmissions. You can carry a reasonable amount of gear without much effort and without risking spinal or pedal trauma. If you want excitement you can find a rapids, and if you want peace and quiet you can duck into a back eddy."
As to the Ozark rivers, Gilbert reports they are as pleasant, restful and interesting as they were when he was last in the 20th century and wrote the article that appears this week.