On March 20, 1978 a part-Osage named William Trogdon (a/k/a William Least Heat Moon) stuffed $450 in his wallet, fitted his Econoline van with sleeping bag, cook stove and copies of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks, and began a rambling, 14,000-mile journey through the United States. Heading east from his home in Columbia, Mo., he took back roads (which are represented by blue lines on highway maps) and sought out towns with curious names. By the end of his trip he had visited Othello, N.J.; Subtle, Neon and Mouthcard, Ky.; Scratch Ankle, Ala., and Dime Box, Texas. He consorted with Hopi Indians in New Mexico, Trappist monks in Georgia, whores in Nevada, commercial fishermen in Maine and a host of other less exotic but equally unforgettable Americans. The resulting artifact, Blue Highways (Atlantic-Little, Brown, $17.50), is the season’s most surprising best-seller, celebrated by critics as, among other things, “the most life-affirming American travel memoir” since John Steinbeck took to the road with his dog, Charley. Heat Moon, now 43, explored the heartland externally and internally, and he discussed both journeys with PEOPLE’S William Plummer.
What was the inspiration for the trip?
It wasn’t inspiration but failure, emptiness, desire for renewal. I was running away.
You didn’t set out to write a book?
Emotionally and occupational I was a wreck. I’d been let go from my job teaching English at Stephens College [in Columbia, Mo.], and my marriage of 10 years was ending. I’d met Lezlie, my wife, when she was 18. She’d been my student and I was reluctant, unconsciously, to let her become a person with ideas of her own. I started with the notion of taking a trip, and when I travel I usually keep a log.
Did you have any idea the people you met would be so open and hospitable?
One of the keys for me was to talk to people with the hope they might say something that would be a tonic for my misery, my lack of insight. To be invited into homes so frequently was a surprise, almost a shock. I started taking extensive notes for the book about the time I met Thurmond and Ginny Watts of Nameless, Tenn. They ran a dim little country store lighted by three 50-watt bulbs. It touched me that someone would let me in because I had one question that they wanted to answer: How did their town get its name? Once they started telling me, all the barriers went down. By the end of my visit, Thurmond even showed me his fruit cellar, which for him was like showing me his bank account.
You seemed to achieve instant intimacy everywhere you went.
Everywhere but the Central North: North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin.
Why was that?
I think it’s the heavy Nordic influence. I found the same thing in Sweden and Denmark, where people are polite but extremely reserved. One of the things that makes it so easy to talk to people in the South is that they love language for its own sake. Readers ask me, “How did you get those conversations?” Phrases like “hanging on the drop edge of yonder.” Or Noel Jones in Franklinville, N.C. seeing me going off into the woods at dusk and saying, “Better wait until dawn. You’ll be wiping shadows all the way.” In the South they treat language almost as if it’s music.
What else impressed you?
I suppose what I felt the most was the dignity of the people in the obscure towns along the blue highways. They are a voiceless part of the country. They know they’re considered hicks by urban Americans. But I heard again and again that they would never move to the city.
Many of them seemed to be rooted to places where roots can barely hold.
God, yes. Take Virginia Been in Hachita, N.Mex. Now, if you want to see a grim place to live, it’s Hachita. It’s dusty. It’s hot. It’s desert. The best thing the economy’s got going is a copper smelter, which spends most of its time polluting the air. Hachita has a population of 90 hardy souls. But Virginia Been smiled at the people who lived in cities, hating their work and hating their lives. She ran a bar 14 hours a day and was content.
She reminds me of the woman in Frenchman, Nev. who told you, “Everything here is important because there isn’t much of it—except weather and dust. Once you see that, you’re not lonely.”
I had an academic write me from Madison, Wis. She said, “Isn’t that a little too ‘existential’ for somebody in Nevada?” You know, that kind of comment irritates me, the idea that only the educated can think philosophically. I think if that pompous professor went to Frenchman and saw that dry lake bed, it would become apparent to her why the people there are what she calls “existentialists.”
What struck me was how many elderly people along the blue highways not only still had dreams, but were still acting upon them.
Now, take the Hammonds. They sold a beautiful home on a lake to move to Brooklyn Bridge, Ky.—a mudbank in Appalachia—just so they could pursue their idea of building a 77,000-pound boat in their backyard. Or take Porfirio Sanchez, who starts out from Corpus Christi with just 35 cents in his pocket and his clothes in a grocery sack. At age 68 and limping severely from an old Army injury, he’s hitchhiking across some of the most forbidding parts of the Texas wastes to see his brother—500 miles to Big Spring. He not only isn’t afraid of evil in people, he expects good behavior in them.
Your book is peopled with risk takers.
I think that’s because Americans are descendants of risk takers, “the ones who didn’t want to stay.” After all, red or white, everyone originally came from the Eastern Hemisphere. But I hasten to point out that there are a number of lost souls in the book, too. I felt many Indians and blacks were lost. Even if they aggressively denied it, like James Walker in Selma.
He is the one who said, “I think I can be President of the United States.” Wasn’t he being ironic?
No, he believed it. My first reaction was, that’s wonderful he believes that! My second reaction was sadness that he was so removed from reality. But then I thought: Thank God he does believe it! Some black somewhere along the way is going to believe it, and he is going to be President.
The trip seems to have been a kind of conversion experience for you.
I like that word, “conversion.” You see, I was one of those lost souls. I think there is a belief among Americans that you can solve a problem just by taking off down the highway with the possibility of having an encounter that changes you forever. Renews you.
How long did it take you to put down on paper all your experiences?
Blue Highways went through eight drafts over a period of three years. Then one winter night in 1981 I was working on the loading dock of the Columbia Tribune and had a sort of revelation. Eight publishers had rejected a 25-page sampler, but Pantheon had just said no to the whole manuscript. That’s when I figured it would not be published in my lifetime, but would be found someday in an attic. It was strange out there in the cold—suddenly it popped into my head that what was wrong with the book was that I was trying to write it purely from an Anglo point of view. The book already had all the Indian information, the history, the anger in places. But the narrator was looking from just one side and sounded hollow to me. I was not drawing on the Indian heritage my father, Heat Moon, had taught me. The next morning I couldn’t wait to get started rewriting. The title page no longer said “by William Trogdon.” It said “by William Least Heat Moon.” I excised about 100 pages about Bill Trogdon’s failed marriage and his dissatisfaction with life as an academic. And I added a new chapter explaining that the author was part Osage, a man who stood in two worlds. Years ago I had taken the name Least Heat Moon because my father was Heat Moon and my older brother was Little Heat Moon.
Why hadn’t you used Least Heat Moon in the first place?
Because my family had never used the name publicly. I remember how nervous I was when I told Father I was going to do it. It was at a time when everyone who knew me had come to regard the book as a failure, and nobody ever brought it up for fear of embarrassing me. Anyway, when I told Father, he was quiet for a moment. Then he said, “I think it’s a great idea.” I was hoping he would approve because his rule always was: When you’re doing business, paying taxes, doing Anglo things, use the name Trogdon. But when you’re doing things akin to the spiritual, then use Heat Moon.
Is Blue Highways akin to the spiritual?
I hope so.