Road scholar

William Least Heat-Moon talks about traveling the nation's waterways and the nonfiction writer's debt to the truth.

Published December 9, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

With the 1983 publication of "Blue Highways," his folksy travelogue through America's near-forgotten back roads, William Least Heat-Moon instantly established himself as one of the nation's preeminent travel writers. The book exploded: "Blue Highways" clung to the New York Times bestseller list for nearly a year, and critics adored it. Least Heat-Moon's sophomore effort, 1991's "PrairyErth: A Deep Map," an almost microscopically in-depth and exhaustive exploration of a single rural county in Kansas, garnered him similar sales and praise. These were cautionary but ebullient celebrations of America -- of its people and landscape and history -- all penned by a man determined to show, like the proudest of fathers, what idiosyncratic glories this homemade nation contains.

Born William Trogdon, in Kansas City, Mo., Least Heat-Moon found his pen name early on, when his scoutmaster father, of Osage descent, christened himself "Heat Moon," William's brother "Little Heat Moon" and William "Least Heat Moon." (The hyphen, he says, came later, after he'd been addressed as "Mr. Moon" one too many times.) He spent his early adulthood as a knockabout academic, piling up four degrees, which led to a long stretch of teaching at the University of Missouri, until a February day in 1978 when a) he lost his job, and b) he lost his wife of 11 years. "That night," he wrote in "Blue Highways," "as I lay wondering whether I would get sleep or explosion, I got the idea instead. A man who couldn't make things go right could at least go." What followed was the circuitous three-month journey around the country that fostered "Blue Highways"; and in one way or another, Least Heat-Moon has been going ever since.

This interview was conducted just prior to the final event of Least Heat-Moon's 18-city tour for his third book, "River Horse: A Voyage Across America": a book signing at his hometown saloon, the Flat Branch Pub & Brewery in Columbia, Mo. "River Horse," which chronicles Least Heat-Moon's 1995 boat trip across America via its lakes and rivers, from New York Harbor to Astoria, Ore., is as hefty and ambitious a work as his previous books -- an adventure-strewn peek at America through the back door. Readers seeking the languorous, porch-talking passages of those previous books, however, may be disappointed by "River Horse." This is an epic travelogue, propelled not just by river currents but by the objectives of destination, and casts Least Heat-Moon alongside a bevy of copilots whom he merged into a single companion character named Pilotis ("my Pylades, my Pythia, my Pytheas") -- a far cry from the more lyrical solo travels that have thus far defined him.

The type of traveling you do in "River Horse," where you're intent on reaching a specific destination, is by definition different from the meandering you did in "Blue Highways." How did that affect the nature of the voyage?

It dictated so much of what we had to do -- we didn't have a schedule, as such, but we needed to try to make a certain number of miles each day because we had to catch the snow-melt at its peak to be able to get up the Missouri River in Montana. So this is less of a digressive book than the other two books. The reviewers seem to want me to keep writing "Blue Highways" over and over again, but I'll never write "Blue Highways" again -- I did it once, so why would I do it again? Yes, people don't appear as fully as they do in the other books, but that was a necessity because we just didn't have the time.

What some of the reviewers are failing to see is that the real characters of this book are not so much the people living on the river but the rivers themselves -- they're so much what I wanted to encounter on this trip. I wanted to find America's waterways -- or at least 18 of them. With "Blue Highways," I wasn't interested in meeting the highways, of course, but meeting people along those highways. On this trip, I wanted to meet the rivers.

Of the two types of traveling -- the epic and the lyrical -- do you have a personal preference?

I like the digressive kind of traveling, where there's not a particular, set, goal. Sometimes I may set a goal for a trip, not really caring if I get there or not but knowing, as I try, that a lot of good things will happen -- interesting things. Traveling with a destination and a time frame is not the way I prefer to do it. But this one time, to accomplish what we did, it was fine.

On this voyage you were accompanied by a copilot -- and sometimes other friends -- the entire way. Did those extra presences affect the nature of the trip as well?

It did several things, one of which was to keep me from getting too damn lonely, which is what typically happens to me when I'm alone. Beyond that, having somebody along both helps and hinders perceptions. I choose for my copilots people who are articulate, and who could hopefully see things that I might not see -- they served as another pair of eyes. But they were also, at times, distractions. Anybody's a distraction. Charley, in "Travels with Charley," is a distraction for Steinbeck. But for me, on this trip, they were necessary distractions. I simply couldn't make it without a copilot.

Out of your seven different copilots you created one composite character, Pilotis. What inspired that creation, and why?

I didn't think of the difficulty I was going have in taking these people along and then writing about them -- if I wrote the truth about what happened, about some of the key moments of this trip, I was probably going to here and there embarrass someone. One of the copilots has already written a book about the trip -- a children's book -- and said some things about me that I think could have gone unsaid. But he felt them necessary, so all right -- he has that inherent right.

I didn't want that same thing to happen to the people who traveled with me. The only way I could tell the truth about what happened between Pilotis and me -- between the copilots and me, between the two of us and the river -- was to give them the cover of anonymity. But this isn't a composite character in the usual sense. In the first page of the book it says who the copilots were. What the reader doesn't know is when those particular copilots were with me. But, no, I didn't take words that copilot No. 3 said on the Ohio River, say, then put them in the mouth of copilot No. 1, perhaps on the Hudson River. So each report was accurate for the copilot who was there at the time.

And, too, I decided not to give any gender to Pilotis, since one of the seven was a female. One of the reasons for that was that I thought it might be interesting to the readers -- especially, perhaps, to the women readers -- to see if they could identify when the female comes aboard and when she leaves. No one has done it yet, but then it's still a new book.

Did that create certain difficulties in the writing?

It's difficult to write a book where a character is on virtually every page of the book but you cannot refer to his or her gender. It gets rid of every his, her, she and he. You can tell I'm writing around it, but I trust the reader knows why I'm doing it.

On that note, perhaps peripherally, is there any room for fudging with the facts, whether chronological or otherwise, in travel writing?

Are we going to call it nonfiction?


Then, according to my ethics, no -- unless the reader knows what you're doing. I contend that in the kind of nonfiction I write, and that other people also pursue, anything is permissible provided the reader knows what you're taking liberties with. In "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," for instance, the reader arrives at the last page of the book to discover that some of the characters were invented by the author. I think it's all right to do that, but you have to put it on the first page of the book -- not the last.

But if you admit to nothing, like Bruce Chatwin with "In Patagonia"?

I have a real problem with that. When I learned what Chatwin had done in his books, I moved them off my nonfiction shelves into a section with other novels. It's not that they aren't fine books -- I like Chatwin's books very much -- but I don't consider them nonfiction. I think we've gotten really very loose about that. It was one of my problems, in fact, in doing what I did with Pilotis -- I knew the reader had to know, but I couldn't figure out how to set it up without a long explanation. I finally decided to give the copilots' names, and to put those names in the front of the book, and if that wasn't enough then I wouldn't worry about it.

If we're drawing a line, then, between fiction and nonfiction, does travel writing fall solely into the nonfiction category or does a book like "Lolita," say, or "On the Road," qualify as travel writing as well?

I don't think "On the Road" is travel writing, nor do I think "On the Road" is a travel book. It's a novel that has travel in it, true, but so do a lot of other novels. "Robinson Crusoe" is not a travel book. Homer's "Odyssey" is not a travel book. We could go right down the line. No, if we're talking about travel writing, then we're talking about truth and reporting.

When you're asked what you do, is your answer "travel writer," or do you say "writer"? Is travel part of your identification as a writer?

It has been. I answer "writer," usually, though sometimes I say "reporter." But since I may next go into fiction, I find I'm using "travel writer" less and less.

Does traveling for a living ever feel indulgent to you?

I don't think indulgent would be the word, but sometimes it feels damn fine. I do have a hard time telling my avocation from my vocation. And I think it's one of the gifts that people who work in the arts often receive -- you don't always make a lot of money, but you often do get to have a life that's pretty whole.

Graham Greene once remarked that a novelist has a shard of ice in his heart that makes it impossible for him to even attend a friend's funeral without considering the scene for later fiction. Is that applicable to travel writing? Can William Least Heat-Moon take a vacation?

Without taking notes? No. But then there is very little I can do without taking notes. My friends here will tell you that I'm always getting my pen out and writing down something that someone said. Look. [He fishes a diminutive, almost spy-like silver pen from his wallet.] This was the greatest discovery for me as a writer -- you can always find something to write on, and as long as I've got a billfold, I've got a pen. I'll hear something -- tonight, probably -- and it'll go down. I've got a whole lot of things written on the back of drink coasters. Those are things I'm saving to use in my fiction, and they're one reason I want to write a novel next.

Has the ambition toward fiction always been there, or is it an outgrowth of your nonfiction work?

I don't think I ever distinguished, in the early days, whether I would write fiction or nonfiction. In many ways I don't think it's going to be that large of a shift for me. In "River Horse," "Blue Highways" and "PrairyErth," I have characters, I have settings, I use dialogue and, additionally, there's something of a plot in two of those three books. So I don't think it's going to feel that radically different. I'm looking forward to being able to invent a situation rather than find a fact to make that situation accurate.

How much research did "River Horse" take?

The trip itself I researched for about 17 months before we left.

And that included driving?

I drove a good bit of it -- where you can, that is, since many of the rivers go through territory where you can't get to the river. I read as much as I could before we left, and I did even more reading when I got back. It took about two years to write the book, and a hefty portion of that was just trying to get the facts straight -- checking on stories I'd heard, or things I'd read, to make sure the facts had a reasonable chance of holding up under scrutiny.

I think it was Philip Marsden who explained his attraction to travel writing by noting that travel is so chaotic and raw and the writing of it so orderly and structured -- that there's a salutary balance there.

I've not heard that, but it makes sense. The "River Horse" trip was four months of never knowing what was going to happen. We had no idea what was going to happen not just each day but each moment. When you're on moving water, you simply never know -- and then to come home to sit there at my desk, day after day after day, putting this text together with the only unknown being whether I'll be able to execute it or not...

You once remarked in an interview: "I work so damn intently when I'm writing my books, that I'm not a good human being."

I seem to be trying to reach another consciousness when I'm writing, and that consciousness is different from the one I typically operate with. It's not the one that directs my life, and it tends to be fairly intolerant of interruptions -- it tends to be fairly intolerant of anything that endangers the book. At the time I was married [for the second time], when I was writing the first two books, I have to confess it wasn't easy on my wife. I've tried to make my amends for that now, but still ... a whole lot of people in the creative act need to be put in cells. It's not entirely coincidental, is it, that so many great books have been written while writers were incarcerated. "Paradise Lost," "Don Quixote" -- to name two of the big ones. And Solzhenitsyn -- who knows what his work would be like if he hadn't been incarcerated?

I'm not sure any writer in America is currently more associated with geography and maps than you are -- except perhaps William Faulkner, with his famous map of his fictional Yoknapatawpha County. Where did that interest of yours start?

In terms of translating maps into literature, you've mentioned a key source. When I saw Faulkner's map of Yoknapatawpha County, when I was in school here in the late '50s, I was entranced by it -- that a man would invent a fictional world so closely parallel to the world he lived in, and draw a map of the place. I had a copy of it hanging in my dormitory room when I was in college. When I graduated, I went straight to Oxford, Miss., [Faulkner's hometown] to try to match up that map with the reality.

Of course I was utterly innocent -- thinking I could waltz in and meet Faulkner. I did meet many of his family members, however, including his stepson, who took me on a wonderful tour of Lafayette County, pointing out places that appear in the novels. I just stood there agog that I was seeing the places -- and meeting some of the major characters -- in American literature.

Connecting his imaginary world with reality in some way, I'm sure, broadened the map of my own life. But as to why I've been fascinated with maps themselves -- it goes back to way before that. It's a little bit like the question: Why do I like chocolate? I don't know, and I don't think I'll ever know. Chocolate tastes good, and maps look good. But then, yes, it is true that all three of my books have emerged from staring at road maps.

Was the "River Horse" journey always, in your mind, an east-to-west journey, due to its symbolism?

No, I considered west to east. There were two things I didn't like. Our history -- at least in white America -- is a movement from east to west, and I wanted to follow that. But on a more practical level, you cannot get up the Salmon River in Idaho without a jet-boat, and I wasn't going to use a jet-boat for that many miles. We had to use a jet-boat once, on the Missouri River, because the government forced us. Otherwise, I wasn't going to go 10 days in a jet-boat -- purely for environmental reasons.

Two years ago I took a trip down the Mississippi River in a jonboat, and one of the things I was heartened by was how much less visible pollution was there than what I'd expected. And, too, how much wildness the river still had, despite all that's been done to it. Did you end your voyage optimistic about the fate of rivers, or pessimistic, or perhaps both?

For the most part, I feel better about the state of our waters than I thought I would. Visual pollution, meaning litter, is far less present than it used to be -- that's true. When I was a boy, Americans pretty much thought rivers did one thing: they carried away sewage. That just isn't the case anymore. Some people are still thinking that, to be sure, but treatment plants are far more sophisticated than they once were.

On the other hand, the kind of pollutants you can't see with the naked eye -- the toxins -- are as bad if not worse than ever, and are going to be a far more difficult thing to clean up. The Clean Water Act of the '70s has done some great things -- it was one of the most effective pieces of legislation that Congress ever enacted. And yet, the year of our trip, the Clean Water Act was really endangered by the 104th Congress, with right-wing extremists trying to undo it. There's probably going to be that pressure on it now, year after year.

One of the things I want "River Horse" to do is awaken people to the necessity of protecting our waters, and I think the first step is to have some kind of link with rivers -- if nothing more than understanding a bit of their history, and their role in the community. That's a giant first step. Beyond that, I wish people would get out on their rivers from time to time. Not that I think anyone is going to retake this trip, but it would be wonderful if people in some of those same areas we visited traveled parts of their rivers, even small sections -- they'll never think about rivers the same way again.

By Jonathan Miles

Jonathan Miles, a contributing editor at Men's Journal, writes regularly for Salon Books.

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