A low-key family adventure finds mystery and meaning on the mighty Mississippi. In August 1995, Spurr (Steered by the Falling Stars, 1992) set out to retrace the voyage of French explorer Robert de La Salle, the first European to traverse the Mississippi River from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Like La Salle's 17th-century journey, Spurr's is beset by missteps. One wonders how the editor of Practical Sailor magazine could be such a bumbler: He buys Pearl (""without a doubt the homeliest boat I'd ever seen,"" Spurt recalls) only a week before his planned departure, leaving little time for much needed repairs--or for pinpointing how far he can go on a tank of gas (a critical calculation on the service-starved lower Mississippi). From his Rhode Island home, he drives to Chicago with 7-year-old son Steve, towing the 20-foot boat on a jerry-rigged trailer, burying its propeller in a truck's radiator while backing into a McDonalds. Despite the slapstick start, Spurr salvages meaning from the trip. He's searching for ""pre-America,"" looking for a glimpse of the virgin wilderness that greeted La Salle. He gets a steady dose in the awesome power of the river itself, and, more fleetingly, in the rare stretches of wilderness on the banks unmarred by settlement or industry. He forges a rather predictable bond with Steve and daughter Adria (who boards in St. Louis), and satisfies, anticlimactically, his ""two decades' quest for tangible proof of La Salle's presence in North America, for an artifact of any sort that I could actually get my hands on . . ."" with a side trip to visit Lee Politsch, keeper of the Ellington stone, a tablet believed to have been carved by La Salle in 1671. A curious flatness robs Spurr's account of the grand adventurousness his trip seems to promise, leaving instead a sense of melancholy at the mess America has become.