NEW CUMBERLAND, W.Va. — The Ohio River can bring some strange guests, even in the 21st century, when nobody travels by flatboat anymore.
Nobody except for a best-selling author and group of fellow travelers heading from Pittsburgh to New Orleans.
Last Wednesday, New Cumberland resident and historian George Hines was planting flowers along North Chester Street early in the morning when a stranger walked up to him and asked where he could find a hardware store.
“Sorry, we don’t have a hardware store. Our last one just closed,” Hines told him.
The man said he needed a fuse for the radio on his flatboat, which was docked at the New Cumberland City Wharf. He invited Hines to come take a look and, sure enough, a homemade flatboat named “Patience” was docked there.
“I was shocked when I came around the bend and saw that,” Hines said. “You never know what the river will bring you.”
Onboard were five men and a 15-year-old boy. “I said, ‘Are you Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn?’ and he said, ‘My name’s Quinn,'” Hines said.
But the next passenger to walk out surprised him the most – Rinker Buck, best-selling author of “Flight of Passage: A Memoir” (1997) and “The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey” (2015).
“Flight of Passage” documented Buck’s cross-country flight, with his brother Kernahan, in their father’s refurbished Piper Cub in the mid-1960s. At ages 15 and 17, they were the youngest aviators to fly coast-to-coast, from Buck’s native New Jersey to San Juan Capistrano, Calif.
“The Oregon Trail” tells the story of Buck and another one of his brothers, Nicholas, riding from St. Joseph, Mo., to Portland, Ore., in a covered wagon pulled by a mule team in 2011.
Was Buck, an award-winning journalist known for his travel memoirs, working on another book about yet another journey? Hines never found out, but he did spend enough time with the men – about 30 minutes – to give them one of his own books and a memento of New Cumberland.
Hines traded Buck a copy of his Images of America history of Hancock County for a signed copy of “The Oregon Trail.” He also left them a sill-sitter depicting the Swaney Memorial Library mural.
The men said they had stopped in New Cumberland Tuesday night while on their way from Pittsburgh to New Orleans. One of them was from Indianapolis, and one was from St. Louis.
Although they had some difficulty getting the boat, powered by an outboard motor, out of the mud and shallow water, they were on their way by about 8 a.m.
“(Buck) was all business,” Hines recalled. “He just kept saying, ‘I’d like to stop and talk, but I’m in a hurry.'”
Hines told them they would be able to find a hardware store downriver, either in Wellsburg or Wheeling.
“People don’t realize what goes up and down this river,” he said.
(Huba can be contacted at [email protected])