A Conversation With William Least Heat-Moon
IN 1978, HAVING lost his teaching job at the University of Missouri as well as having split up with his wife, William Least Heat-Moon took off on the backroads of America, hoping to make a circle not only around the U.S., but also to go out and return to himself. Luckily for his readers, this experience became a journey of exploration, not one of mere escape, and in 1982 appeared Blue Highways (Atlantic Monthly/Little Brown), Least Heat-Moon’s account of the many Americas — metaphorical as well as physical — still existent beyond the entrances and exits of the interstate highway system. The book — as proclaimed on the front cover of the paperback edition — spent forty-two weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. Even more important, though, has been its ongoing role in speaking to those concerned with the tensions between community and diversity, the continuing struggle not only to preserve the past but to be open to its lessons, and, above all, the importance of bearing witness to what is beside the road.
Soon, Blue Highways will be joined by PrairyErth, William Least Heat-Moon’s second book, published by Houghton Mifflin. This time, however, rather than making a horizontal journey across and around America, Least Heat-Moon makes a vertical journey within a single tract of earth, Chase County, Kansas, exploring a landscape where supposedly nothing has ever happened — where, ironically, an interstate passes through the county, but there are no access ramps. Here, Least Heat-Moon journeys in and out of the landscape of ravine and cattle, stone and grass, men and women living now and in Chase County’s past. And, as in Blue Highways, it is not the traveling that is most significant, but the dwelling upon what one sees. Also, as in Blue Highways, Least Heat-Moon’s eyes and ears are acute, his voice passionate and concerned.
In the following interview, conducted in early April 1991, William Least Heat-Moon’s comments encompass not only the experience behind Blue Highways — and its aftermath for him as a writer — but also the creation of PrairyErth. The issues in this discussion are many-the complexities involved with being alive to diverse cultures, the threats to many fragile communities and heritages within America, the connections between fiction and non-fiction, the problems with American beer. Throughout, the subject of defining America and the individual journeying through it is of paramount concern. As William Least Heat-Moon says, “We’re all the sons and daughters of travelers.” But how do we keep moving, and yet still grasp hold? —Daniel Bourne
Daniel Bourne: A friend of mine, Jim Courter, who also uses your book in his classes, once said you had spent your entire life preparing to write Blue Highways. Do you think this is true?
William Least Heat-Moon: I suppose for any book that’s true. Potentially, writers draw upon everything that’s happened to them, at least the things that they remember. In that general way, what your friend says is true. More specifically, I’m not so sure, but it would be accurate to say that from about 1947 or ’48 on-I was seven or eight — I began riding around the country with my father and began getting a sense of what could happen on American highways: the excitement in those days of finding little cafes, the pleasure of seeing the country, seeing the landscape change, especially in a time when regionalism was more pronounced than now, days of less homogenization — certainly no franchises. Howard Johnson’s was the franchise, and we went to see it because it was a franchise and thus a novelty. Then, in 1962, when I was 23 and in the Navy, I read Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley. There I was, locked up in an aircraft carrier, in a little steel box, and one of my escapes was to read Travels With Charley and think “That’s a hell of an idea. Why don’t I take off in a truck someday and circle the country?” So, while not my whole life, from ’62 to ’78 there were sixteen years that the idea worked on me.
DB: Last night you were talking about how Blue Highways was the first of three ideas. Would you care to elaborate on that?
Least Heat-Moon: If it’s true that a person has three good ideas in a lifetime, I think I’ve had two. I’m still looking for that third. The first two came close together in 1974. One was that I might be able to go from coast to coast and stay on the back roads-the highways marked in blue on the old Rand McNally maps — keep away from federal routes and see what the country really looked like from coast to coast. Originally the tour idea started out with county roads, but I soon realized it wasn’t feasible to cross the country on them. Nevertheless — when I took off on the trip in 1978 that became the book Blue Highways — the general idea came back, and I tried to circle the country using only the back roads. The other idea was that there was a blank spot on the map, in the Rand McNally, in Kansas, and in the center of that blank spot there’s a town called Cottonwood Falls. I fell in love with that name, the idea of it. It was in a region called the Flint Hills, another name I liked. I’ve also been intrigued all my life with the word “Kansas” and the kinds of things that people conjure up when they hear that name. So I felt I’d like to write something about this little blank spot in east central Kansas in tallgrass prairie, centered around Cottonwood Falls. And that became the second book, PrairyErth.
DB: Had you published anything before Blue Highways, ever seen your name in print before then?
Least Heat-Moon: Once when I was eleven or twelve I wrote a letter to the Kansas City Star protesting Ted Williams’ spitting. He went through a period where he was having trouble with the press, and he began, after every home run, spitting toward the press box, and I wrote an outraged letter, and the Star published it. Also, when I was teaching composition to freshmen, I grew desperate at one point and wrote a sample theme for them, saying “this is one way you can approach your topic.” It was a life history of an acorn, and after I used it in class, I thought, “Well, this is something the Missouri Conservationist might take,” and I sent it off. I didn’t hear anything till two years later. The editor had found it in a stack of junk, and decided to publish it.
DB: Was that before or after Blue Highways?
Least Heat-Moon: Before, but not by very much. There was one other piece I wrote, a bit of nostalgia about the University of Missouri in 1957, about attending college in the fifties, the bland and empty life we lived then, which appeared in the Missouri Alumnus. So the answer is I really had not been published until Blue Highways.
DB: Going back to Travels With Charley, I was wondering what sense you have of writing within a tradition of other works about the journey. At one point in Blue Highways you invoked the names of Odysseus and Gulliver, Ishmael and Dorothy, and elsewhere in the book you refer to Whitman and Black Elk. Last night you tipped your hat to Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Maybe even Charles Kurault’s On the Road might have figured in there somewhere. Do you feel that Blue Highways has staked out its own ground amongst this rich literature of the journey?
Least Heat-Moon: It might be too much to say it has staked out its own ground. I’m not sure that it’s all that distinctive. It would be nice to think so, but I’m dubious about pushing its worth too far. When it came out in the early ’80s, then it may have staked some claim, but whether it staked a permanent claim or not, to territory, I don’t know. But I do think it has a chance to hold up with some of the books you’ve mentioned. I think it’s a better travel book than Travels With Charley, a book I like very much, but it’s not really Steinbeck’s great travel work. His great travel work is Grapes of Wrath. When I was first writing Blue Highways, that’s probably the one I should have had more in mind than Travels With Charley. I’m not sure that Blue Highways falls into the category of Grapes of Wrath. It’s perhaps somewhere between Travels With Charley and Grapes of Wrath. But, in any case, writing about travel is for me a natural form in that one of the passions I’ve known in my life is travel. For me to attach writing to this passion, and to draw off of it and use it as a form, as a motif, seems not only perfectly natural for me, but something I think is particularly significant for others. After all, everybody here — red, black, white, yellow — all of us came from the other side, from the other hemisphere. We’re all the sons and daughters of travelers. It’s in us. And more recently of course, Americans have developed the notion that when your life goes wrong, what you do is hit the road. We have songs about it, we have movies about it, we have books about it. It’s inherent in us , it seems. We’re a restless people and the way we solve things is to start moving. So I feel in a sense that I’m deep in the American grain when I use traveling as a motif. In the new book, PrairyErth, the travel is primarily by foot. It’s a leg book, a walking book, but it’s still-even though the whole book is confined to one small county in eastern Kansas — it’s still a journey over that place, day after day after day. Again, it’s still movement.
DB: It’s interesting that you bring out that phrase that we’re all the sons and daughters of travelers. There seems, though, to be a tension between this celebration of the fact that we all are travelers and the need for a connection to place, which you also mention. We’re these wonderfully open and energetic travelers, these sojourners. But at the same time we’re rootless and disconnected from each other.
Least Heat-Moon: I think maybe Thoreau had the answer in his phrase, “I have traveled widely in Concord.” Such a small New England village! To travel extensively there is almost ludicrous when you first hear it. “Well, of course you would have traveled extensively there! How could you not help it?” It’s like being in your bedroom — walk around it twice, you’ve traveled extensively. But I think really what he was talking about was the depth of his penetration into a limited place. Now, I wouldn’t suggest that we all should simply travel in a very small local neighborhood, that as writers we should only mine that one area. I think it’s still important for Americans to roam extensively as we have done-after all, roaming makes coming home that much richer. When you’re away, you realize the connections between there and here, you see the depth in your own land. Of my two books, Blue Highways is a horizontal journey. The goal was to keep moving-lots of places fairly quickly. That was the rootlessness aspect of travel. PrairyErth is a vertical journey. The idea is to take a limited place and travel extensively through time in that single place. In PrairyErth I attempted to go back to the time when that part of Kansas was a marine environment, a sea — and to learn how that sea became stone, and how the stone is continually becoming grass, the grass becoming bovine, the bovine man, and so on. The cycle. There is a moving up and down in the rocks: we watch the water come from the sky, penetrate the rocks, filter out into the streams, into the ponds, evaporate again. All of these cycles, dozens upon dozens of them. So when I say travel in time, in a vertical journey, that’s part of what I mean. But I think the two journeys go hand in glove together. I still like to have the rootlessness to move cross country, and it’s also great to come back and excavate my own corner.
DB: Don’t you think that there was a strong element of that vertical journey in Blue Highways? It seemed that when you pulled into a little burg you would learn almost everything about it, that you were digging deep below the surface of this one particular locale.
Least Heat-Moon: I hope so. It would be nice to think that it was a cross-country journey made up of lots of small verticalities, short excavations.
DB: But a lot of this information came at another time, through research in libraries and so on.
Least Heat-Moon: Yes, there really were two journeys, the one in the van and the other one in the library after I got home. The van journey took three months, the one afterwards took four years. I’m not sure which one was more evocative for me; they were quite different. One would not be the same without the other. I was hardly an expert when I arrived in these towns, but I would draw upon the people there. Almost every town — I really should say village — has a resident authority on the history, normally somebody over seventy-five, and often I would find out who that person was and talk with him or her and then use their memories. When you get into the west, into the villages out there, people are just now celebrating their first hundred years: you run into an eighty-year-old, and three-quarters of the history that he or she will give you is first-hand history. She was there, she saw it, and what she didn’t see her parents told her, so it’s only second-hand. It may come out distorted or inaccurate as a result, but in other ways it’s true, in a way a historian could never make it.
DB: To what extent is Blue Highways a fiction in the sense that in the re-construction of what you experienced, you actually distorted some aspects of what happened? For instance, when you create this impression of spontaneity — “I drive into Dime Box, Texas and I know instantly everything about its past” — would you consider this fiction-writing rather than journalism?
Matthew Cariello: Well, you know, one of the maxims of fiction is that every good story begins with “a stranger arrives in town. . .”
Least Heat-Moon: As I remember it, John Gardner said “There are only two plots, a stranger rides into town and a stranger rides out of town.” Blue Highways is built on both plots. The entire book is fiction, in some sense, in that all of it is symbol. In other senses, I might turn on my tape recorder and record somebody, but later not quote them exactly. Nobody would read a book like that. It’s not just that a non-fiction writer takes out the hems and the haws: he also may take out a vile word that he knows will distort the truth or misrepresent the person. We also have to reorganize, rearrange a speaker’s thoughts — since minds normally don’t work all that orderly. As to your question about coming into Dime Box, Texas, and knowing something about it: in that particular case, I didn’t know anything until I went to the post office and said, “Tell me how the town got its name.” The postmaster, a woman, gave me a tired look and reached underneath the counter and came back up and passed me a mimeographed sheet. It was terribly disheartening, because I had thought I was only the second or third person to come through Dime Box and say, “I’m a stranger in town, how did the town get this name?” That mimeographed sheet encounter is not in the book, but I must say, were I to write the encounter now, I would write her in, handing the sheet over to me, because it’s a better story than giving the impression of omniscience. On the other hand, I trust that the reader knows there was a great deal of research going on. For example, I say in the book that the tidal rise and fall of Lake Superior is three inches. I spent one entire day in the library hunting that down. I knew I wanted that statistic in there, but I didn’t know what it was.
DB: That detail about the woman and the mimeographed sheet does ruin the effect of Dime Box, Texas, as this undiscovered Blue Highways town, but on the other hand it’s a very complex little story, because it shows how Dime Box is changing.
Least Heat-Moon: Yes.
DB: And they are now sprucing up their show, presenting themselves to the tourists in a certain way.
Least Heat-Moon: I’ve come to believe since then that the “first truth” ultimately is more powerful. I have changed — though I don’t mean to say that Blue Highways is lies. It isn’t. My God, I worked so hard to get the facts right and straight. I sent out copies of the profiles to each person who appears in the book to get the person to look it over and say, “No, no, this is not right-but this is.” Nevertheless, there are times where I let the tale take over. By the tale, I mean the element of the traveler-in-search-of-whatever. As that trip went on, I became more of a reporter than when I started out. That indicates to me two things: one is that I was beginning to heal myself a little bit. I wasn’t quite the trashbag I was when I left. My mind was beginning to heal after the separation from my wife and after the failures I was running away from. Secondly, the reporting helped to bring me out of my stupor, and by getting better I was able to report more clearly, and then by reporting I was able to heal further. I was working again and I had something to believe in: I’m writing a book, I’m not just out here on a lark, floating around, which is the way it began. That isn’t to say when I left home I didn’t have in mind coming across material that might become stories or articles or something of that sort. I went prepared to write. But I wasn’t sure I’d be able to write.
DB: Was there a certain point where you suddenly realized that now I’m out here recording for these others, that I’m writing other people’s stories and maybe these are more important than my own?
Least Heat-Moon: The horror — not the horror, the enemy — the entire time on that trip was desolation. If you read Travels With Charley, you can see that’s what Steinbeck feared most too. It was particularly bad whenever I would stop off to visit friends for a weekend, and then have to leave. It was a starting all over. That loneliness again. That enemy continually threatened to destroy the trip. It wanted to head home, get back into known country. Two things saved me: there was nothing at home for me anymore — and I had a tale to complete, a book to tell. People were now depending on me to write it. It’s the height of assumption and egotism to think somebody’s going to read what one is about to write, I suppose, and that’s the way writing works. A writer must be egotistical in that way. The other aspect, though, is that by looking for stories, listening to people and making notes and doing a certain amount of the mental aspect of writing — sketching things in as I went and saying, “I think I know how I’ll approach this person, I know what I want here, the way I want to begin it” — all that gave me a traveling companion. In other words, there was somebody in that other seat, someone listening to what I was “talking.” At times I was actually speaking aloud in the van, driving along, composing some of the bones of the sentences. The companion who kept me going more than anyone else was the reader — the someday reader of Blue Highways. I think without this reader I could not have beaten the desolation; it would have overwhelmed me. If I’d tried to continue three months on the road just as a lark, as only a failing thirty-eight-year-old man running away, I would never have been able to hold out.
DB: So these people that you met along the road were life-savers.
Least Heat-Moon: Oh, very much so. Not only in the practical way I’ve been telling you about; they were also the ones who began to show me what I came to understand as the nature of my illness — the common term for it is egocentrism. I was suffering from turning everything in upon myself, trying to make the world make meaning to me rather than find what meaning I might have in the world. My life was being lived centripetally, in which I was at the bottom of the eddy, of the swirl, trying to pull everything into myself, and I came to believe-on the road-that this was exactly the wrong way to do it, that I needed to be thrown out, I needed to make the circles bigger and bigger. That’s why the Hopi Maze of Emergence became the motif of the book, even embossed on the cover of the hardback. And, as you can see, it’s even engraved on my belt buckle.
DB: You were wearing that belt buckle through the trip?
Least Heat-Moon: No. I found it about five years ago. It’s my reminder. But the people I met, they were showing me all this — not by saying it — I mean, who would talk like this? Most of the people I talked to had little formal education. We never spoke like this, but I think I understood what they were suggesting, the lines of their lives, the gist of the conversation. They were trying to reach out beyond themselves. The three important people in this particular lesson for me were Patrick Duffy, the Trappist monk in Georgia, Kendrick Fritz, the Hopi in Utah, and Alice Middleton, the woman on Smith Island, Maryland, who closes the book, who has the longest profile in the book, I believe. She summed things up so well it looks like a setup: “Oh look, isn’t it convenient that you found this woman who could bring things together so well?” I would understand that charge completely. But, the fact is, it’s true. That’s what she said. The qualifying thing is, though, had I met her at the first of the trip, I couldn’t have reported what she said because I wasn’t ready to understand her. And I probably would have asked different questions then too, and not have elicited the same responses. So — getting back now to your question about fiction — by letting this journey come to work on me, I began shaping the journey, not just in the choice of destination, but in the choice of whom I might talk to, how I would listen. Many people I talked to don’t appear in the book. By selecting the people to appear, by selecting what aspects of the conversation to report on, all of that is shaping. And in that sense, you could call it fiction. The trip did not happen exactly as it appears in the book, although nothing that appears there did not happen to me. Did I say that right?
DB: Yes. Going back to the people you met along the way, did you ever get back in touch with any of them later?
Least Heat-Moon: After I had a manuscript, I sent off copies of the relevant pages to the people who appear in the book. I asked them to critique the passage, which they did. That put me in touch with all of them, except for one whom I couldn’t find, and another man, the barber in Dime Box, who had died. Their responses to seeing themselves presented in my words, I would say, were lukewarm. They all cooperated, they all signed the release agreement I had asked them to sign. Some made a few corrections, but generally not many. But, once the book became a “thing,” when it was no longer a manuscript but a book, and when television and radio interviewers began calling them, they began seeing the excitement.
DB: You mean local TV stations?
Least Heat-Moon: Not only local stations, but also on ABC’s Good Morning America, which did a week-long segment on Blue Highways. Once their fifteen minutes of fame came to them, they began to have fun and enjoy it, and it was pleasurable for me, too, to see them get in on the hoopla.
MC: The “real” thing, TV.
Least Heat-Moon: That’s it. Mrs. Robie, a woman I talked to in Melvin Village, near Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire, came home from the hospital about two weeks before the book appeared. She’d had a serious operation for a cancerous something, and she was recovering all right physically, although she must have been eighty-six then. But her spirits were low, I think, because she was seeing herself as a woman who was near the end. “Who knows me? What use am I?” She was facing the void — depressed. Somebody came up on her porch, knocked on the door and said, “Are you the Mrs. Robie that appears in Blue Highways?” And she replied, “Yes,” and suddenly things were changing. Somebody knew who Marion Robie was. Then the bookstore down in Wolfeboro called her. The owners wanted her to come down and sign copies of Blue Highways. I don’t know whose name she was supposed to sign, mine or hers, but she joined in on an autographing party there. It was a delight to see these people share in what they’d helped me make.
DB: One of the most amazing points in the book is when you’re in that bar in Cajun country, and that fellow Paul Duhon who played the bones came up and said, “Someday I want people to be rememberin’ Duhon. I want Duhon written down.” Did you ever got back in touch with him?
Least Heat-Moon: Oh indeed, yes, when we filmed a brief section of Blue Highways for a lecture series, we got Paul Duhon to come in with his bones and play them, so now I have him on videotape, playing the bones. But I’m still not quite certain he remembered our first meeting. I don’t think he did, although he said so. But he was immensely happy to be brought in suddenly, all these lights going, the TV cameras running. I guess we filmed him performing for fifteen or twenty minutes. We also took him to the most famous Cajun restaurant with live music, Mulatt’s, where he got to perform with one of the well-known Cajun bands.
DB: Whatever happened to Arthur O. Bakke?
Least Heat-Moon: I still get letters from Arthur. He’s the one who stays in touch-usually hitting me up for a contribution to his evangelical campaigns. I’m not a believer in what he advocates.
DB: Did he ever make it to Central America?
Least Heat-Moon: No, but he brought to the U.S. the woman whom I realize now he was heading off to see. He married her. I admired Arthur, as you see from the book, because he had compressed his living down to that little aluminum suitcase and a briefcase — I mean that was everything. I was taking pride that I was living out of a truck, and he had taken it down to something he could carry in two hands. But afterwards, not long after I met him and he had married this woman, he bought a motor home — not a trailer, a motor home — and was living in it; he’d become fairly worldly. His attraction to me faded somewhat. But his own interpretation of his role in the book was interesting: he saw himself in the middle of my journey, in the middle of the book. He said, with all humility, that just as Jesus was placed in the middle of all of these thieves, so he was placed in the middle of this book.
DB: Well, and what about Barbara Pierre?
Least Heat-Moon: I guess it’s been three years since I’ve talked with her, but Barbara Pierre is still in St. Martinville. She’s not been able to get back and complete her formal college education. She’s still fighting the battles of racism in that little town, still suffering from it, still, quite apparently, scarred by these fights and battles, but still not giving in.
DB: When you met her the first time, did you have a sense that she was somehow further along her road than you were yours? That she had gone out and come back and made her peace with other people.
Least Heat-Moon: Yes, she had. She was another instructor for me on the trip, even though she was slightly younger than I was. She had been to where I was headed. She had gone out and come back. She’d been up north, to Norristown, Pennsylvania, suffered there, and then she came back home and decided to fight it out. I understand it even more now than I did then — after working on PrairyErth and really getting to know people in a small town, how difficult it is, day after day, to fight those battles. It’s one thing to fight with strangers, it’s another thing to fight with your neighbors. By fighting, I’m not talking about physically fighting, I’m talking about, “We don’t see eye to eye on this, so we’re going to have to live with these tensions, our separate views.”
DB: What about you after the book? Do you feel that you created a legend that you have to live up to? Do people poke fun at you if you happen to drive on the interstate to get somewhere?
Least Heat-Moon: I’m not sure whether I’ve seen many signs of people expecting a legend. The word “legend” is too much. The best place to judge this would be in Chase County, Kansas, where everyone found out fairly quickly that I’d written a book. Most of them hadn’t read it, but they knew the title. In any case, it didn’t count for much. Writing is just a line of work, and that’s the way it should be understood.
DB: You were just a book-writer.
Least Heat-Moon: I was just “that book-writer.”
DB: So you don’t feel that there has been a change, that since you have had one book out by a major publisher, and you’ve been published in The Atlantic, and you have a second book coming, that you don’t think that you’ve become an “interstate” writer in the sense that you’re a part of the mainstream culture now?
Least Heat-Moon: Oh I suppose-if that’s the way you want to say it — I guess I am mainstream. I mean, there are a quarter of a million hardback copies of Blue Highways out there. There are well over a million paperbacks. Those numbers push one into the mainstream, I guess. But I’ve never thought about it in those terms. I don’t think that is what the change in me has been about.
DB: Are you tired of talking about Blue Highways?
Least Heat-Moon: I’ve been tired now for four or five years, yes. Especially now. It just doesn’t interest me anymore. I don’t mind listening to other people talk about it, but I would really rather not say much about it myself. I don’t have any passion for it. The book is eight, coming up on nine years old. It’s got a life of its own now. Let it speak for itself. Writers weary with explaining. The book is its explanation. There are times I almost wish people forgot I wrote it.
DB: In order to talk about the new book?
Least Heat-Moon: I don’t mind talking about PrairyErth now that it’s almost finished, but there will come a time for it, too, when I’ll almost wish people forgot I wrote it.
DB: Any pressures involving the fear that you’re a one-book wonder? Not necessarily now, because you are getting the second book off to press, but five years ago?
Least Heat-Moon: Oh, yes. I thought, maybe that’s the only book I can do. Not until I was well past the halfway point in this new book did I begin to feel different. Indeed, one of the battles in the second book was to forget Blue Highways. I think that’s one of the reasons the second book has taken so long. Blue Highways was so much a part of my life in the sense that it was autobiographical, as first books tend to be. It took so much away from me that there wasn’t anything left there to draw upon for a while. On top of that, it set up patterns that I didn’t want to repeat the second time around. I didn’t want to write a sequel to the book. I wanted this new work to be something quite different. If I wrote a sequel, people would say, “Well, he should have done something different,” while if I did something different, people would say, “He should have stuck with what he knows.” I was going to catch it either way. So I thought, “That’s great. You’re free then to make your own decision, and that decision was, ‘I want this book to be as different as I can make it.'” Indeed, in the second book, the parts that interested me most were the parts that diverged from Blue Highways. But, halfway through PrairyErth, I realized I was continuing to explore many of the same questions. And so now I see the book as a continuation of the journey. It’s not Blue Highways II, but you could call it The Journey Continued — This Time on Foot. I’m not sure I’m entirely happy I couldn’t escape the first book totally, but I’m not sure that as writers we can escape from our real concerns. Look at almost any writer’s work, and the core ideas come down to something fairly small. Even the strongest of writers keep branching off their central ideas. All the books that Faulkner wrote, you can bring them down to the core ideas of the agony between black and white, the disruption of the wilderness by Europeans. As a writer, you find your core and then you work through permutations of that. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t mind being a one-book writer. I have a feeling that a lot of talented American writers should write fewer books and take a longer time with them. I’m thinking about people like John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, immensely talented people. I wonder what writers like that might do, were they to take their time and not produce a book a year, but produce one book every five or six years. Put all that energy into fewer books. I really think writers suffer from what our entire country suffers from: produce, produce, produce. If I write three capable books in my lifetime, I think I’m going to die content. Maybe it will be only two.
DB: Let’s talk about the new book now. How did the idea for it come?
Least Heat-Moon: As I’ve said, it had to do with my love of names and with looking at a road atlas and seeing a blank spot in eastern Kansas. The names were these: Flint Hills, Cottonwood Falls, Kansas. Those names evoked an image in my mind. I thought they had a certain power. The word “Kansas” especially has a resonance in American imaginations — largely a dark resonance-which I wanted to play on. The other point was that this blankness that I saw on the road map centered around the town of Cottonwood Falls. The roads suddenly fell away there. I was interested in looking at a land that was minimal in what you could see if you passed through it quickly; I wanted a land that was lean, where there didn’t seem to be much material for a writer to take up. The population of Chase County, where Cottonwood Falls is located, is 3,000. Its square miles are 774. That’s about four people per square mile. I like that kind of sparseness. What could I find in a land that seemed to be too thin for a reporter? What kind of stories could I find there? What kind of richness? That’s what drew me in.
DB: What aspects of the writing of PrairyErth posed different problems from the writing of Blue Highways?
Least Heat-Moon: I felt in doing PrairyErth that I had all the agonies and problems of the novelist as well as all the agonies and problems of the writer of nonfiction. I had continually to be truthful and accurate, the fundamental problem of the nonfiction writer, but I also had to create characters who had a dimension-who had three dimensions to them — the problem of the novelist. I also had to find issues that would carry a “plot” in a book in which there is no plot other than perhaps the motif of the continuing journey. I had to keep the reader moving in a plotless land. I had to create setting. Like a novelist — I had to create setting, introduce people, make them alive, and pull the reader into it all. I also felt I had the problems of a poet: to compress and evoke. All those challenges nearly did me in. Whether I met them or not, I’m not the one to say, but I tried to meet them all. That’s another reason this book has taken seven years. There was also this: I went into a land where I was a stranger, an outsider, knew nothing about it, and I had to become something of an authority on each topic I faced. What did I know about breeding herefords? I had to learn. What did I know about the root system of big bluestem, a prairie grass? I had to find out. What did I know about the father of the county, Sam Wood? Every topic I took, I had to become the master of, I thought, before I could write it. At least I tried to become the master of it.
MC: Were you able to learn most of these things through interacting with the people there?
Least Heat-Moon: I would say — I’ll make it a guess-they taught me about a third of it. The other two thirds of what I learned I had to take from books. There was a tremendous amount of reading and research, which at times nearly did me in. I don’t want to take on another book like PrairyErth, maybe ever, but certainly not for a long time.
DB: Could you talk a little bit about your interactions with the people? How did they cotton to being observed by “that book-writer?”
Least Heat-Moon: Two incidents may capsulize the answer. One night I was in Darla’s Bar with my notebook, listening to conversations and taking notes. As a cover for what I was doing, I had a Kansas Agricultural Report, a bulletin put out annually by the Board of Agriculture. I had it there, open to columns of figures. I thought I was covering my note-taking by occasionally copying figures out of this bulletin into my notebook, while — in between the figures — writing down phrases and topics that I heard people talking about. After 45 minutes or so of doing this, the bartender came up and said, “I just called the boss, and he says he doesn’t mind if you take notes on what we say in here.” I wasn’t fooling anybody. I didn’t need the cover at all. When they realized what I was doing, they had no interest in it. The other incident: one night, three in the morning, I was hiking along a desolate county road. A car came up behind me. It was the deputy sheriff. I thought, how do I explain walking along a county road at three in the morning? Why am I out here? What am I doing? The first thing he said, “Are you that book writer?” I thought, my God, how does he know that? Then he said, “Is that your vehicle back there?” “Yes.” “Is that your license plate?” So he had read my Missouri license plate. He knew who I was because of my car. He didn’t ask any more questions. Being a book writer was all he needed to know. That explained why I was out on the road at three in the morning. From that point on, I quit worrying about whether countians knew or cared about what I was doing, quit thinking about how this might influence me, because I realized they didn’t care. They knew I had a line of work which they probably couldn’t completely respect, but they would tolerate it. Anything I did, any behavior that might fall under their category of being a half-bubble off plumb, being a book-writer explained it. Egocentrism freed me. Countians accepted my difference, and from that point on, it never came up, really. I knew what they thought of me.
MC: Last night you mentioned something about having at one point realized that one person you met there was a real son-of-a-bitch. I’m wondering if, now that the book is about to come out, people there will still think you’re just a half-bubble off plumb, or will they think you’re a dangerous man? I mean, you are telling their dirty secrets.
Least Heat-Moon: I don’t think I’m telling their dirty secrets. I do think, though, that I am taking sides on issues which a number of them do not agree with. Disagreement anytime in village life is a dangerous thing, as they know. They understand that the seeds of destruction of small community life are differing opinions. Recognition of the threat also helps hold them together. That one cannot go too far and still belong is a cement and a threat. Some people in Chase County will see me as a man who espouses views that are radical, that are left-wing, that are “commie,” as they would say. Two of the powerful words to use in that county, to this day, I’m sorry to say, are “commie” and “nigger.” So I’m going to be seen by a few of them as a “nigger-lover.” I may be seen as a “commie bastard.” But I want to emphasize that I think it will be a small percentage of the people. These are not stupid people. They may be a little provincial, but no less so than many New Yorkers; the difference is city people may not know they’re provincial. But what response countians will have to the book on more subtle terms I really can’t guess. All I can say now is some people on the right wing of things are going to despise this book. They’ll never finish reading it.
DB: Going back to that plot of “the stranger comes to town,” it’s as if you are the corrupter of Cottonwood Falls, as in the Mark Twain story “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg.” Or maybe someone will put a six million-dollar bounty on your head as they did with Salman Rushdie. The Chase County Verses. I guess that one rich lady landowner who refused to talk to you will probably put out a bounty.
Least Heat-Moon: There are questions. The publisher is still talking about whether I need releases. As I mentioned, I did have them for Blue Highways, and the publisher wants them again, but I don’t want to do them. No newspaper writer has to go out and get releases. This is an editorial matter, and I will resist, although I realize they’re protecting me also. I’ve taken considerable effort in the book to present the people accurately, honestly, and I’m always aware of how easy it is for a writer to embarrass somebody, to make him look like a fool. I don’t want to do that. That will not serve to elucidate who they are, what they’re doing, and it certainly does not set well with the reader to see someone made a fool of. But, clearly, the reader will see there are people whose views I admire and respect and others whose views I find small, narrow, and perhaps dangerous.
DB: How do you think the audience for PrairyErth will differ from Blue Highways?
Least Heat-Moon: I think it will be smaller. PrairyErth is a more challenging book. It lacks some of the things that made Blue Highways popular, nostalgia for instance. PrairyErth gives considerable space to the need for a new land ethic. I’m not sure how many Americans really want to hear about that.
DB: Do you feel that one reason Blue Highways was so successful was because it fit in with this wave of nostalgia that came about in the early 1980s around the time of the start of Ronald Reagan’s “feel good about America” syndrome?
Least Heat-Moon: I suppose it did. I dislike that aspect of Blue Highways. Were I to write it again I would make sure that the seeds of nostalgia in there were more stringently controlled. I just didn’t foresee that development. If Blue Highways in any way contributed to Reaganizing the 1980s, then I apologize for it. But I do think the book helped to make Americans think differently about who we are. I suppose there is a good side to nostalgia in that it does alert us to a need to pay attention to the places we’ve come from. That’s how we find out who we are and where we may be heading. Of course, nothing new in that. But nostalgia, to my mind, is the sentimentalizing of the past rather than the rigorous examination of it, and what I’m trying to do in this new book is to keep the examination hard — keep a hard edge to it.
DB: Could you just go into some of the aspects of Blue Highways that you think were conveniently ignored?
Least Heat-Moon: When I came off the trip, I wasn’t entirely optimistic about what I’d seen in the country. Two things overwhelmed me. One was the continuing prevalence of bigotry. It was stronger than I realized before I left on the trip. Over the last ten or twelve years, I think it’s become more apparent. But it wasn’t quite so apparent, it seems to me, in ’78. We still had the lingering facade that the ’60s placed over things. We were still pretending to “make love and not war.” We pretended brotherhood. All this hadn’t been exposed yet as hypocrisy. I was shocked to go into places on the road and see so much racial bigotry. I was also disturbed by the smaller kinds of bias that people in a village have: animosities towards one another because of a slightly different religious view. It seems ludicrous to me that a Methodist can get upset with a Presbyterian because of some small doctrinal point. The difference to me between Presbyterianism and Methodism is the difference between two grains of salt. Or the issue between them might be politics. Sadly, the difference between Republicans and Democrats is hardly that great. To get upset with each other over those things, in a village where you have to live so close, was disturbing. The other distressing thing I saw was the continual degradation of our land, something that’s continued apace since then. I came away almost despairing for our threatened land. The theme of my second book PrairyErth, to borrow a word from Moby Dick, is “loomings.” There’s not one single day that I’m not aware of these loomings: how we’re cutting it close, how we’re getting near the end of our chance to correct things. One of the predominant things I write about is loss. But I hope this is not a sentimental sense of loss, because then we’re slipping back toward nostalgia. I hope, instead, that it’s an awareness that we’ve had something good, but we have destroyed it. That’s the hard edge I want, the anger at the loss of those things, rather than “Oh, wasn’t it wonderful in those days!”
DB: A passage in Blue Highways has always troubled me. You’re driving down the road, I think it’s in Kentucky or Tennessee, and you remark on how well-built this antebellum stone fence is. It’s built by slaves. At least in this one point in the book, weren’t you tending to glorify the past?
Least Heat-Moon: No, the past wasn’t always better than today. It was worse in many ways. But those stone fences were a hell of a lot better than what’s there today. That particular fence, the attempt to rebuild it, was pitiful. It was incompetent. It was not even stonework. It was a heaping of stones, rather than a stacking and laying. That same style of fence, incidentally, exists widely in Chase County, and the same thing has happened there. Cars — during my time in the county — have veered off and knocked down stone fences, and there isn’t anybody capable of rebuilding them.
DB: At the risk of wearing out your patience by continuing to talk about Blue Highways, I’d like to explore that central metaphor of the Blue Highways versus the interstate, a distinction that might go to the heart of a lot of America’s major problems right now, the tension between the need for some sort of community as a country and the need for the preservation of diversity. Are standardization and the interstate way of life ever good? Should America be many Americas, little communities with little to do with one another?
Least Heat-Moon: Little communities with little to do with one another? No. I think we should be little communities with much to do with one another. I would like to see this a land of confederated communities. I don’t mean we can’t continue many of our present larger towns, but we should encourage our independence, our diversity. The interstate is a symbol of many of the things that threaten us. Its purpose is to get you someplace quickly, without really entering the land as you go. Clearly, if you’re hauling goats in a truck, then the goal is not to look at land, but to get to where you’re going. If we understand the interstates as concrete railroads — that their real use was not built for travelers but for interstate commerce, then that’s fine. Even so, I think we should have stayed with the real railroads. They’re far more energy efficient at hauling goods than rubber tires on concrete. Steel on steel is a more efficient form of moving things, plus the railroad was already there. We didn’t have to disrupt the landscape further. As for traveling, covering distance is not travel. Travel is finding yourself in whatever spot you are and exploring that particular place. Once again, it’s the notion that real travel is a vertical trip, not a horizontal one. Blue Highways fails most, I suppose, in what I wanted to do when I started covering miles and stopped exploring place. I started moving too much horizontally, not enough vertically.
DB: Going back to your wish that we were a land of small confederated communities. That’s very interesting, but what about Selma, Alabama, as you depicted it in Blue Highways, what happens when one of these little communities has problems, it doesn’t take care of its own people? Should the great monolithic America step in and say, “Wait a minute here, you gotta change.”
Least Heat-Moon: Given that example, yes, I think that it should. Inhumanity should not be allowed to exist. But that’s where the role of travel can come in, and here I’m using “travel” in its broadest sense, in that people leave their community and see what’s going on elsewhere. What’s more, reading books-all of the media really-are forms of travel when they’re done properly. So that we, say, by watching Sixty Minutes do an exposé on some abuse of people somewhere, we put pressure on that community — on that little confederation — to change, because they belong, we belong, to the greater good. If we’re confederated, then we still have to work with one another, and the rest of us have a right to insist that an evil-doer stop what he’s doing. If we’re confederated, under what principles are we confederated? I would assume a primary one is that there’s a certain amount of equality among us. To violate that is to violate one of the rules of confederation. The rest of us all have to come to bear. But if the differences are harmless, then — even though we may not like some of those differences — we still have to let them exist.
MC: These antagonistic tendencies, the community versus the solitary separate being, are within myself I know, and you’ve also expressed them yourself, wanting to see people live together in clusters so as not to despoil the land, yet feeling the bodily need to withdraw, to pull away, to be isolated. This conflict seems to be a constant contradictory theme in both American literature and American psyches. We’re a democratic people that pride ourselves on unity, and yet at the same time there’s this desire for separation.
Least Heat-Moon: E Pluribus Unum. It’s not “one among many,” or “one with many.” It’s “one out of many.” We’ve got to fight that battle between the two sides continually, not just from generation to generation, but every day. In the friction between those two views there’s a great deal of potential for generating art.
MC: The poet David Ignatow’s last book of prose was called The One in the Many. He has this idea of the one in the many and the many in the one. His basic concept — I’m oversimplifying it — is that in individualism there is still a collective unity, so that a collection of individuals acting and moving in their own ways is still a community. It’s a paradox in some ways.
Least Heat-Moon: People who are a community because they all are the same would be a community worth not a damn thing. If that’s the goal, to have everyone the same, then skip it, that’s the brave new world. But if community means individuals freely cooperating, then it means something, because then community is a challenge. “Damn, I’ve got to work to get along with you. I’ve got to work to tolerate your views. But I also, within that, have the potential to learn from you, because you think differently. You have something I’ve never heard before.”
DB: The image of America being a melting pot has come under fire recently. Do you feel it’s a viable metaphor? Do you feel “melted?”
Least Heat-Moon: “Melting pot” to me is the most disastrous. . . When I look at the history of American Indians — for them to be melted as so many of them were and are still being today — I see how it destroyed their culture. Take a look at the Kansa (or Kaw) people. The greatest force of destruction of that tribe — declining from about 1,500 people in the early 19th century to only six fullbloods today — I think the greatest force wasn’t smallpox, it wasn’t Winchesters, it wasn’t Christianity. The biggest single force was the melting pot itself. The Kansa began intermarrying. By introducing mixed blood into their tribe, they were introducing — I have to say it — insidious white values which ate away at tribal structures, tribal traditions, and especially at that very important Native American notion of communal values, communal aid, communal action. The mixed bloods were far more aggressive individually, were pursuers of European goals in a way the fullbloods never were. As a result, mixed bloods became the white men’s tools for acquiring reservation land. The Kansa Indians signed away 20 million acres of Kansas, down to the last reservation, which was about 100,000 acres. All that is gone now. They have no acreage left, except 1,100 acres they’ve acquired since the 1970s. The true Kansa are “taken care of.” They will be extinct in a few years as a fullblood tribe. All over the rest of America, Indians have got to face this melting pot. I’m not saying it’s entirely bad, because it may be that in amalgamation we’ll be a little less contentious with one another if we look a little more alike. But I’m dubious about that, and it’s culturally depriving.
DB: When you said that mixed bloods seemed to exhibit the worst traits of the fullbloods, do you mean white as well as red?
Least Heat-Moon: Yes. That’s not an uncommon comment of the 19th century: mixed bloods picking up the worst of both. They were reviled by white and red people for acquiring bad traits.
DB: I remember in Blue Highways you brought up that matter of the “perfidiousness” of the half-breed. It seems you buy into that mythos yourself, that you think it accurate.
Least Heat-Moon: The one tribe whose history I’ve followed from beginning to end is the Kansa Indians. That history convinced me more than ever of the perfidy of mixed bloods. I admit I’m laying somebody else’s values on them. I don’t think they would see what they’re doing as perfidious. They’re following the union of their bloods. But it’s clear when you study the history of the Kansa there was a very real reason for the medicine men, the shamans, and the women who knew the herbal lores and so on to protect that arcane knowledge from the Caucasians, because anything the Caucasian learned eventually became a seed of destruction for the culture and integrity of the Kansa.
DB: During your stay in Selma, at no time did you ever mention to any of the blacks you met that you were part Native American. Did you consciously choose to be white at the time, to hear their story as the outsider, the Northerner, rather than to stake a mutual claim to victimization?
Least Heat-Moon: I really don’t think it crossed my mind. From the time I can begin having clear memories as a child to about 15, I was aware of the importance of the Indian part of my ancestry, my belief in Native American values. But from that time on, fifteen or sixteen, it all began fading away, and by the time I got into college I wasn’t paying attention to that anymore at all. It wasn’t part of my awareness, and it didn’t return until I started writing Blue Highways. Certainly part of what helped awaken me was traveling in the west and talking to people like Kendrick Fritz and some of the other Indians I met out there. But even more so, it was the process of writing the book and making the circle. When I was actually still on the trip it probably never came to my mind. But if it had, I wouldn’t have brought it up in Selma, anyway, because I’m not “an Indian.” I also have ancestors who were Irish and English and even one German in there. That doesn’t make me English or Irish or German. For want of a better word, I’m an American. I try never to present myself that way, as “an Indian.” That’s why I wonder whether I should have ever used Least Heat-Moon as a pen name. I questioned it when I chose to do it, and I question it to this day. But this is my defense for it: I do think the name represents the orientation that my writing has. But it suggests a territory I cannot entirely claim.
DB: It’s almost like William Least Heat-Moon, then, in some ways is a persona. We’re back here on the terrain of fiction.
Least Heat-Moon: That understanding of myself has helped release certain things in me that I’ve either forgotten about or that I’d never known were there. Once I remembered my various antecedents, my writing changed. The way that I looked at things changed, and since then it’s continued to get stronger. For example, some peculiar things happened during the writing of Blue Highways which continued into PrairyErth. At times I would come up against a blank wall. I didn’t know where to go. At these points, I’ve had things happen that are embarrassing to talk about, because they start getting in the realm of psychic phenomena. I’d ask, where do I go now? And right when I needed an answer, why was it the solution came on a day a big red-tailed hawk had flown into the sycamore tree outside my office? I’d never seen a hawk that close to the house before I got into deep trouble this summer with my new book. I thought it was all over. That hawk showed up, and within 24 hours I’d made the breakthrough. The book was moving again. Coincidence? Maybe it is, but I choose to believe it isn’t coincidence, and by choosing to believe it isn’t, maybe that’s what allowed me to get beyond the problems I was having. Similar things happened other times, too. In writing Blue Highways, the first name on the title page was William Trogdon. It’s still there, but now Least Heat-Moon is there also. There was something missing in those early drafts of the book which I couldn’t identify, the man who is my text editor, Jack LaZebnik, couldn’t identify either. Something hollow in there. One night, working on the loading dock-that’s how I supported myself the last three years of working on the book-it struck me. About two in the morning on the loading dock, I was kicking newspapers around, and it dawned on me. “You’re not drawing upon who you are — you’re drawing upon only part of who you are. The man writing this book is not simply William Trogdon, he’s William Least Heat-Moon.” The minute I realized that, I knew what was wrong with the book. The next day I went in and retyped the title page. The first change was to add William Least Heat-Moon to it, then to go through the book and say, all right, now Heat-Moon can speak too. The changes, in terms of quantity, were not huge, but they were significant, and they came at key points where an idea no longer quite looked the same way, because the speaker here is not entirely Caucasian. He now shows another connection with the American land. I’m not sure I can articulate too much better than that. But from that point on I was convinced the book would be published. I had got seven rejections up to that point. I sent it out three times after that. One of them was an acceptance. All of this may be a fictionalizing of my notion of who I am. But it let me proceed with the books in a way that allowed me to finish. William Trogdon, English-Irish, could not have written those two books. He might have written another book, but it wouldn’t have been those. And I’m not sure they would’ve had any vitality to them. I really think my core as a writer comes from the Osage.
DB: You’re doubling back on the issue again of the half-breed, but you’re looking at the positive aspect of it, rather than the negative.
Least Heat-Moon: I know of only one major published American Indian writer who has no white blood. That may be one place where mixing the blood can produce something good, assuming that books are good things.
MC: Might this have something to do with the difference between a primarily oral culture and a primarily written one?
Least Heat-Moon: That’s my notion, that we have so many thousands of years of people who express themselves orally and visually. Indians take very readily to the visual arts. I’ve talked about this with Scott Momaday, who is also a fine painter as well as writer, and other people in the Southwest who have taught Indians. Getting them to write, I gather, has had limited success. Getting them to take up the visual arts is a far easier thing. I happen to believe that our blood does carry certain “memories,” for want of a better word. I have a feeling that whatever capacity in language I have probably comes from the Irish side of things. My mother has the Irish, and she’s the one in my family who gave me a sense of language. She didn’t teach me to speak; she taught me to be sensitive to words. My father, on the Osage side, has no sensitivity to language whatsoever, except for what he’s learned from my mother. But he’s the one who has other things that I’ve picked up.
DB: In one state at least, Alabama, according to recent census studies there has been a jump in individuals claiming Native American ancestry. Do you think this is indicative of a growing pride, that people are saying, “I am Indian, I am Native American,” or do you think it’s an anomaly?
Least Heat-Moon: Pride might be the word, but I fear it’s a fad. Once again, I want to emphasize that having an Indian ancestry doesn’t make a person an Indian. I’m not even sure that-I am only speaking for myself-that I am willing to call half-breeds Indians, although I know that most of the ones I know do think of themselves as Indian. They know they’re half-breeds — they never call themselves white. I think they will usually call themselves Indians.
DB: Have you read Michael Dorris’ A Yellow Raft in Blue Water?
Least Heat-Moon: No, but he and his wife Louise Erdrich are two more illustrations of Native American writers who are partly Caucasian.
DB: One of the major characters in that novel is Rayona, a teenager who is half black and half Indian. Dorris very much is picking through this issue of what it’s like to be from two different cultures. I don’t know if there is an answer, if it’s beneficial or damaging to have this split heritage, but I do know know that a lot of recent statistics have pointed out that just about all Americans have racial mixture — if you go back through enough generations. The number of the “racially pure” among us is actually quite small.
Least Heat-Moon: And if we use the term “ethnically pure” then the whole argument becomes absurd, because nobody is that. Sometimes Indians themselves today become too concerned with tribal purity. Before the coming of the Caucasians, intermarriage between tribes — stealing of peoples and the conscious interbreeding of tribes — was not uncommon. There is no such thing as a pure Osage or a pure Cherokee. These people were all mixed long before Caucasians got here.
DB: What’s your reaction to Dances With Wolves? Is it Hollywood ploughing an interstate down the middle of Lakota Sioux history?
Least Heat-Moon: It took the stereotypes and turned them 180 degrees. While I like the movie, and was pleased to see Indians playing the roles of Indians, and was even more delighted to hear so much Lakota spoken, nevertheless, I’m not sure it really furthered things very far, because suddenly the Indians become the pure of heart. They’re no longer human beings either. The cavalry, the soldiers, become the swine, who now get shot and die face-down in a creek instead of the “savage” Indian going down. It doesn’t help to turn stereotypes around.We still need the truth, and the truth is that Native American culture before the arrival of the Caucasians was in many, many tribes heavily based upon warfare. There was a great deal of bloodthirstiness among them. Let’s not remove that complexity. There were also soldiers who were decent people. The only decent soldier in Dances With Wolves was the producer and director himself. He gives himself this plum of a role. What ego! He’s the only white man sensitive enough! But still, I like the cinematography, I like the portrayals. I like the showing of the Indian peoples’ faces. That was fine. I was moved by the movie. But 180 degrees is not the direction we need to go. We still need the truth.
DB: I noticed though that they did have a place for the traditional “bad Injun” with the Pawnees. Suddenly the Pawnees characterized everything bad about what Indians were.
Least Heat-Moon: Right. The Pawnees were made the rats now.
DB: Going back to Michael Dorris, in a recent New York Times review, he wrote that it’s easy for white audiences to cry over the banished good Indian, but to ignore the problems of the current Native Americans. Do you think that’s a good charge?
Least Heat-Moon: Yes. It’s a continuation of our romanticizing of the Indian, which is not going to serve to help the people at all. I don’t see how romanticizing anything is going to benefit. Once again, we need the truth.
DB: Have you seen Pow-Wow Highway?
Least Heat-Moon: No.
DB: Two young Native Americans head off on a road trip to bring money to a sister of one of them. She has been put in jail on a trumped up charge because of her brother’s activism and needs bail money. This brother, the political activist, believes that all the old tribal wisdom and customs are all bunk, but we have to stick together as a people to find power within white America. The other fellow is politically naive, but is very much attuned to the spirituality. Do you think this sort of dichotomy is there within the Indian community?
Least Heat-Moon: Oh, definitely. Two weeks ago I was talking to the last one-third of the fullblood Kaw tribe — two men. One had had a serious alcohol problem. He’d gotten down to being the proverbial drunken Indian on the street. The police would come and pick him up and haul him off to the cell to let him sober up. Panhandling, and so on. That was eight years ago. Now he recognizes the disease and is a recovering alcoholic. He attends AA meetings, and he’s also the substance abuse counselor for the tribe. He’s resurrected his life. One of the things that’s helped him do that is that he has taken up his traditional dancing and singing again. The other man I talked to is a former chieftain, the man who helped resurrect the Kaw tribe from the depredations of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the federal government at the turn of the century, when they took the Kaws’ land from them. He is a Mormon. Both men had worked on the pipeline — in Oklahoma, where the tribe is now — but he is by far a more acculturated man. To talk with him was to talk with a fullblood who was now one of Thomas Jefferson’s “Christian farmers.” But the other man was someone who had literally gotten up out of the gutter, rebuilt his life, and was trying to find his own center in traditional culture. When I met the man who was rebuilding his life, we were sitting in his office and talked about 15 minutes. Suddenly he leaped to the window with Venetian blinds over it and said, “Eagles!” How he saw those eagles through that Venetian blind amazed me. Sure enough, there were two eagles, then there were two more. And I said, “Four.” The number four, as you know, is important, especially to Plains Indians, the Four Directions. I said, “I’m going to take that as a good omen.” And he looked up at me and smiled but didn’t say a word. From then on, we were sharing something that we otherwise wouldn’t have shared. Nothing like that could happen with the Christian farmer. We never reached that point of understanding. I went on the dance ground with the recovering alcoholic and he sang-he doesn’t know any Kaw songs-but he knew two Ponca songs (a distantly related people), and he sang them for me. The other man talked to me about Indian tribes being descendants of one of the lost tribes of Israel, the Lamanites. If you’re a Latter-day Saint, you buy into this concoction of Joseph Smith — that Native Americans came from a lost tribe of Israel. Both men fullbloods, but only one man to my mind is still truly a Native American. They’re both wearing Anglo dress, working office jobs, driving automobiles-all the superficialities of the late 20th century. But from that point on, one continued into the 20th century of the white man, and the other one took his divergence, took his exit. Part of him was still somewhere back in the 15th century.
DB: It’s interesting that you don’t claim, really, to be an Indian, but you do to some extent seem to speak for the Indian experience. Do you feel like you have become a sort of spokesman?
Least Heat-Moon: I’m not sure I’m entitled to be a spokesman.
DB: Or at least a witness?
Least Heat-Moon: Maybe a witness. If I’m speaking only from my own notions of what my perception of my ancestry is, then I feel qualified, of course. Who knows better than I do? But to take it beyond that, I probably really shouldn’t do as much speaking out as I do. As I say, I really doubt my own qualifications. But in lieu of someone else doing the speaking at times, all right, then I’ll speak. Let the watered-down speak. It’s still a message we need to hear.
DB: What about the current sensitivity over naming? I noticed last night you used the words “Indian” and “aboriginal peoples” in your talk, but never “Native American.” Is this just newspeak to you?
Least Heat-Moon: A little bit. I do use the term “Native American” when I’m writing, usually to get out of a repetition of the word “Indian” in the same sentence, but this is simply a matter of sound, getting rid of an annoying repetition. But the term bothers me in that all of us who are born here are native Americans. That is, our natal land is America. I am also bothered by the term in that Indians are not Americans. The word “America” comes from Amerigo Vespucci. It’s an Italian name. So either way the term really doesn’t work. Also, I see on occasion the word “Amerind.” Well, that’s the same problem. You’re just turning the word around the other way. It doesn’t solve anything. Unfortunately, in recent years, the word “aborigine” has come to be almost exclusively applied to the Australian native peoples. We should reclaim it, I think. Also, I use the phrases “tribal Americans,” “tribal peoples.” We don’t have a good word from the people themselves, since they spoke so many different languages.
DB: Since there were so many different peoples.
Least Heat-Moon: So many peoples, yes. And to lump them all together into one term is quite misleading. “Red” is not good either, really a distortion.
DB: Well, Bill, consider yourself on trial. I’m going to quote a phrase from the beginning of Blue Highways: “. . . I took to the open road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected.” The criticism I’ve heard from my students about this one line in chapter three — the chapter you give to yourself — is about your usage of “men.” What about the current concern about gender inclusive language? Do you feel that this is empty semantic posturing, to worry about things like that, or do you feel that if you’d written Blue Highways today you would have written this passage differently?
Least Heat-Moon: I think I’d use the word “people” instead of “men” if I were writing the book today. Nevertheless, whenever I get to a situation where “people” or some other neutral term will not work, then it’s a question of am I going to say “his” or “everyone…they” and commit a grammatical error? I won’t do it. I’ll use “his.” Or try to find another way to express it. I think this particular concern has probably been pressed as far as we can take it. We use the word “person,” and yet “son” is the ending of the word. If we use the word “women,” “men” is the ending. Yet we can’t say “chairmen.” Well, let’s get rid of “women” then too. We’re not consistent.
DB: I’d like to launch back into something we talked about this morning.
Least Heat-Moon: I thought you were really going to nail me on something. I got off easy.
DB: Well, it’s interesting. In the same course that I teach Blue Highways I also use Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She uses “man” all the way through. I can’t imagine anyone getting onto Annie Dillard’s case about knuckling under to this or that individual. But then again, I wonder if she would’ve used “man” and “mankind” if she had written the book today.
Least Heat-Moon: She’s a strong, tough woman, and I have the feeling that she would’ve used whatever she damn well pleased.
DB: Isn’t Blue Highways, though, a man’s book? Isn’t the central image of a driver heading off down the road and into the sunset evocative of a male ritual?
Least Heat-Moon: I don’t think so, if I’m to judge by the number of letters I get from my readers. Most of my letters, by a margin of three to one — maybe higher — come from women. So, judging from those responses and from what women say when I speak publicly, I don’t think women see it that way at all. I certainly didn’t have “a man’s book” in mind.
DB: This morning, though, you were talking about that entire wall of travel books, and you said that there was a gap there. You want to go into that?
Least Heat-Moon: The thing is that we haven’t had, in a number of years, a good book written by an American woman about traveling in America. That’s a huge gap in the extremely large number of books written about travel in the United States. Women are not anywhere close to being equally represented. In recent times, certainly, American women are not taking to the American road. They may go to Europe and write a book about that. They may go to Australia and write about crossing the Outback on a camel, but they’re not writing about crossing America on a camel. I keep suggesting to young women and middle-aged women, women of all ages, one of you needs to go out there and hit the road and report: “I’m a woman. What do I encounter? What kind of America do I find?” You don’t even have to make your point of view “I’m a woman.” Just go out and pursue your own inclinations. I’ve been crying that argument now for seven years. Nothing has happened yet. But maybe it will. I mean, somebody may be out on the road right now.
DB: I’m not going to ask you about the gigantic banana slug in the Oregon Blues passage in Blue Highways that disappears and never is found, but I am interested in the phrase you use about your fear that so far you’ve come up only with “epistemological small change” in your journey. I guess you’ve answered this elsewhere, but could you talk further about whether you ever did reach out beyond your reflection? Do you feel that you ever did transcend your own problems while you were still on the road?
Least Heat-Moon: The phrase you mention comes before the turning point in the book, which also happens to be the halfway point in the journey. That, incidentally, was coincidental.
DB: Not a conscious plot decision?
Least Heat-Moon: Because the turning point in the book is also the halfway point of the journey, it does looks like a setup. But that’s the way it happened. In any case, soon after the “epistemological small change” passage, I spent a night near the fake Stonehenge near Maryhill in Washington state. At that point I remembered the old notion that among tribal Americans the real struggle is not to reach deeper within, but to reach farther out. That, to me, is not epistemological small change. That’s a fundamental realization. The narrator’s sickness in Blue Highways, his illness, lies in turning too long inward. Again I get back to the centripetal force, where his life spins him inward upon himself almost until disintegration. What he needs is to be turned outward, turned towards things larger than himself. Reaching outward. Outward versus inward.
DB: I remember that in the book you quote something that Kendrick Fritz said: “Look to the land. It too is medicine.” You’re saying, then, that soon after the depths of depression you went through at the mid-point, that very soon afterwards you were already feeling better.
Least Heat-Moon: That was the darkest point, yes. I know a man who told me a story that he was lying in bed one night, thinking whether this woman was worth committing suicide over. He decided no, she is not worth it. That realization was his turning point. It’s the same thing. You have a realization, and suddenly you go from the edge of self-destruction into “Aha, now I have the first rung of the ladder. I don’t have them all, but I’ve got the first one to start.”
DB: It’s interesting that you use the image of a ladder. Going back, I guess, to Thoreau and the experience of American transcendentalism, do you feel you do write within that context of the transcendental, this idea of using the grit and the gravel and the concrete to apprehend the truth in our common experience? Can you find God through grabbing hold of the mud and dirt?
Least Heat-Moon: I don’t think I would use the term “find God.” I would say, through the grit and the gravel, I find the land, which is real grit and gravel — as well as many, many other things. In that grit and gravel is the Great Mysterious, the Great Unknown, the Creating Force. It’s not entirely within it, but an expression of it. You reach toward the primal when you pick up a hand of gravel. Maybe I’m sounding a little more like Blake now than Thoreau. But whether I belong in that tradition is for others to say. I would not be uncomfortable with it. In fact, I’d be proud to be a part of that. I find the older I get, the more I respect Emerson. I found him immensely dull when I was an undergraduate. Not so anymore. It’s changed. And on the other hand, Thoreau, whom I almost worshiped in younger years, well, I now find Walden at times too pompous. It’s a great book, but it does pontificate. It’s great pontificating, though, wonderful. I like Walt Whitman for a similar reason: he’s great because he overflows. Thank God he overflows But he’s also terrible because he overflows. His strengths arise from his weaknesses. They’re connected. So now I think I’ve lowered Thoreau just a little bit, at least Walden, and elevated Emerson. But this doesn’t include Thoreau’s journals. I didn’t know Thoreau’s journals when I was an undergraduate. Now I have a real fascination with them. So between those two, they haven’t reversed, but they’ve leveled.
DB: One of the most fascinating things I’ve ever held in my hand was a packet of pencils produced by Thoreau’s pencil company. Actually it was his father who owned the business, but Henry David worked there for a bit. The pencils were at this rare book library, The Lilly Library, where I was working for many years. I used to have these fantasies of writing a long poem about someone like me who, working alone in the library, would decide to sharpen one of these pencils and start writing and writing with it — which, in the real world of course, would have knocked off several thousand dollars in value. I never did tell this desire to write such a poem to any of my colleagues there. They probably would’ve fired me. In any case, back to you. Do you think that like Thoreau you’re anti-city, or do you feel the Blue Highways diversity metaphor can include New York and Chicago, St. Louis, Seattle?
Least Heat-Moon: If you understand that I’m talking about the need to penetrate place — that every place is a deep map — then country or city makes no difference. It’s the land itself, and the cities sit on the land. The parts of cities that I love most, however, are the cores. If I’m going to New York, then I want Manhattan, I want Brooklyn. I don’t want the fringes. If I’m going to Cincinnati, I want down along the waterfront. The thing that I fear is suburbia, and even more, what we now call exurbia.
DB: Do you feel there are too many people clogging up the Blue Highways now, trying to imitate you?
Least Heat-Moon: No, not at all. They’re still largely empty of traffic, but the thing that disturbs me about them is the sprawling out of America everywhere along them. I fear our notion that we can build wherever we want. I really wish that, as we move into the countryside, we would consider clustering much more than we do. Let’s not string out along the roads. Let’s cluster in pockets.
DB: That does run counter, though, to the very American feeling of, as Daniel Boone said, “I want to move where I don’t see the smoke from my neighbor’s chimney.”
Least Heat-Moon: I am a living contradiction in terms. My values will not meet there. I’m a hypocrite in that what I want for others is not what I want for myself. But just face it, that’s the way it is. I want everybody else to cluster, but I want to be free to take off by myself. Nasty man.
DB: There’s another question here, too, in the sense of writers trying to do what you did, and thus exhausting the Blue Highways in that way. Do you feel that you have been canonized in some way, that you are now a part of American travel literature, American literature, that you’re part of the establishment?
Least Heat-Moon: I have trouble with that term “canonized,” not only because it’s a Christian term but also because it puts the role of the sacred on something I’m not sure deserves it. I would not say that I have become part of the canon of American travel literature. I have not. My book might be, but I am not my book. Nor vice-versa. But yes, I think Blue Highways has become a significant part of American travel literature.
DB: What do you think of the idea of a literary or cultural canon, in general? This is a real hot topic in academia right now. Should everybody know certain things?
Least Heat-Moon: That word “should” bothers me. It sounds just a little bit too right-wing for my tastes, a little too imperialistic, a little too fascist. But it is certainly immensely useful if we share (I don’t want to use the word “canon”) if we have a shared body of literature so that we can talk with each other. We need to make references. If we’ve read some of the same books, share some of the same culture, then we can get on with the conversation a lot faster, can get on to the main topics. If I have to explain to you what Moby Dick is about, we slow the conversation down. But if we can assume the other person has read this or that, we can get on to the real issues. A shared body of work is a convenience as well as a connecting and linking device.
DB: At some level, then, isn’t this shared work a necessity?
Least Heat-Moon: I suppose it is because we must share a certain number of values in order to live together. You cannot live peaceably together without them. When the arts are functioning at their highest, they bring us into sharing. Art becomes, in many ways, our highest form of communion. We’re sharing, here at the same time, coming together.
DB: Some people believe that America, even the art, even the writing, is flying apart like woodchips from a saw. If you do feel there is a need for more continuity, for more connection, for more people reading the same things, what would these same things be?
Least Heat-Moon: I’ll pass on that. I don’t know. I could make arguments for diversity, and I think I could make arguments for sharing too. I think I’m getting out of my territory here. I would like to go back to that fellow in Chase Country whom Matt asked about, the man whom I realized was a son-of-a-bitch. He said what kids today don’t know, they’ll never miss. I thought that was one of the most evil statements I had ever heard. You simply don’t take someone else’s future and shitcan it. No one has that right, and that’s what he was doing.
DB: When you teach writing, what do you try to get across?
Least Heat-Moon: Two things. My students need to read the great works. They need the classics badly, all the way from Homer to Saul Bellow. The second thing I try to get across and emphasize is revise, revise, revise.
DB: Any comments about teaching as a profession? Do you think it’s undervalued because it’s thought of as “female,” or is it because of Americans’ fabled anti-intellectualism?
Least Heat-Moon: Our anti-intellectualism harms education in all ways. Let’s face it, we won’t pay for a good education in this country. We’ve had 11 years of administrations continually undermining good education. So that’s a very real part of it. On the inside of academia, I think especially at the college level, too many teachers do not respect their own work in the classroom. They’re interested in publication rather than the real work of teaching students. They have a contempt for the classroom. Any teacher who doesn’t have this contempt is a remarkable person. I hold college teachers responsible themselves for lacking passion in the real job-opening minds. I wish we could take the passion and commitment of elementary and high school teachers and introduce that into our college teachers. I have much more respect, as a group, for those two first groups of teachers than I do for professors.
DB: In some ways, they’re doing most of the work anyway.
MC: But, on the college level, teaching is very often not what gets you tenure; it’s not what will enable you to keep your job.
Least Heat-Moon: Administrations are culpable in this too, by putting that kind of pressure on teachers. We start from the president of a college on down, and we find pressures pushing college teachers away from the real job at hand.
DB: There’s also this thing in many departments where it’s the instructors who have four courses a semester that have the lowest pay, that don’t have tenure, whereas you have the “real” professors who have a couple of courses a year, maybe even one a year, and they have both money and job stability. It’s a very classist system.
Least Heat-Moon: If the material they produce for publication were anything but 99 percent drivel, it might be justifiable. But to produce a monograph on John Keats’ toenail hardly compares with taking one college student and getting him to read Keats with interest and passion.
DB: Onto an equally emotional subject. How has the state of beer in America changed since you wrote the article in The Atlantic about micro-breweries versus Big Beer?
Least Heat-Moon: Well, at the risk of generalization, the thing that bothers me most is that many of the micro-brewers began by making a truly fine product-honest, hearty, authentic-by taking the pains, by asking the people to pay the money for quality. They found a piece of the market that industrial brewers weren’t touching. But greed, the almighty dollar, touched some of these micro-brewers, and they decided, “Well, maybe we can chip off a little bit of the share of the industrial brewers, so let’s start moving some of our beers toward the middle.” And the next thing you knew, they had moved the whole damn line toward the middle. And now there are micro-brewers and brewpubs that are nothing but one half-step better than the industrial brewers. They have become hypocrites. They may be making more money, but they’re no longer making an honest product. They’ve found since they’ve established a name, they can now hustle what was once authentic.
DB: They’re resting, then, on their own laurels.
Least Heat-Moon: For a writer to do this, it would be, “I’ll write one honest book and then I can rip off my own name for the next six.”
DB: So, are there any questions we didn’t ask?
Least Heat-Moon: I want to turn the question, Dan. What did you want to ask me that you thought might be out-of-line? I always have questions I skip over. I never have enough guts to ask them.
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