Column: ‘Blue Highways’ author William Least Heat-Moon on the art of traveling in place
A man who knows the road well enough can learn to travel in place. And that can come in handy when the road, or the places along it, are denied him by pandemic or the cussed realities of age.
William Least Heat-Moon is just such a traveler. In 1978, he put a general lust for wandering to emotional, existential and then literary use. Relegating a broken marriage and a lost job to the rear-view mirror, he spent three months exploring the continental United States by way of its back roads and the people he encountered upon them. He lived out of his monastically customized Ford van, ate at a lot of local cafes and kept a journal. Four years later, his book “Blue Highways: A Journey Into America” became a massive bestseller, launching a career and reinventing the notions of both travel writing and memoir.
Since then he has written eight nonfiction books that chronicle journeys of one sort or another. “PrairyErth: A Deep Map,” which followed “Blue Highways,” is an mile-by-mile exploration of Chase County, Kansas; for “River Horse” he traversed the country by water.
When at home, he is William Trogdon (Heat-Moon is his father’s Osage name), and he, like millions of Americans, is always at home, at least for the next few weeks. Although Missouri has a relatively low number of COVID-19 patients, Boone County, where he and his wife, Jan, live, was put under stay-at-home orders on March 25.
He is also 80. Sheltering in place for the foreseeable future may have its worries and irritations, but it does not disrupt Trogdon’s professional obligations or even his lifestyle in the way it would have even a few years ago.
“I lived my life, three-quarters of a century, on the road, loving it,” he says in a phone interview from his home. “Now I don’t want to do it anymore. Take me to Egypt, drop me in the middle of the pyramids, but deal with [air travel]? To hell with that.”
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In recent years, Trogdon has turned to novel writing, also under the pen name Least Heat-Moon. But a traveler is a traveler, fiction or non. His second novel, “O America: Discovery in a New Land,” which came out this month, chronicles the journey of the fictional British Dr. William Trennant, who, in 1848, leaves England to see America’s new democracy in action and gauge its chance of success for himself.
“I like the freedom I have with fiction” he says, “although I’m finding the kind of fiction I write requires almost as much research as my nonfiction did. That’s particularly true of ‘O America.’”
Just a different sort of research. Instead of taking to road or river, Trogdon traveled no further than his own bookshelves. Which, admittedly, are the product of a life’s work in motion — he says he has more than 3,000 books on American exploration and travel alone.
So don’t call “O America” “historical fiction.”
“It’s fiction with history in it,” he says, “but there’s very little that I made up.” Although the main characters and their journey are the products of his imagination, most of what they encounter during their travels across America is not. The people, incidents, attitudes and historic details are largely drawn from his extensive collection of travel accounts, though often modified to fit the narrative. (In tailoring one such event, which I will not spoil here, he drew upon the film “Psycho.”)
These people, incidents, attitudes and details include, indeed highlight, the many manifestations of early democracy’s struggles and often brutal failings.
Written in the form of a journal, “O America” allows Trogdon’s Dr. Trennant to comment boldly on the chasm between the ideals and the reality of American democracy. On the voyage to this New World, for example, those passengers educated and therefore wealthy enough to discuss the Founding Fathers and their philosophies have no thought for the poor souls in steerage — people longing for a new life in a classless society — aside from revulsion at their smell and disease potential.
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But it’s when he lands in Baltimore that Trennant encounters the most heinous and obvious negation of those democratic ideals — slavery, the mundane viciousness of which Trogdon underscores through (factual) notices describing runaway slaves by the various maimings used by owners to mark them.
If the title of the book, or Trogdon’s well documented deep love for this country, implies a patriotic paean to early America, the early chapters immediately make it clear that “O America” is something else. Although his protagonist finds much to admire in the places he moves through and people he meets, he is shocked and frustrated by the indefensible contradiction of a democracy in which all people are far from equal.
“Anti-democratic tendencies have been there since the beginning,” Trogdon says. “There were 19 slaves at Jamestown. But too much of our history has been covered up.”
That is exactly why he wrote the book. Where “Blue Highways” gave voice to rural and small-town Americans, the dismissal of whom many believe led to the election of Donald Trump, “O America” examines the nation’s fractious history with its own founding principles.
“I started writing the book during Trump’s presidential campaign, when it became clear that he was bent on division,” Trogdon says. “And a division that only works if you don’t understand American history or if you have a very distorted version of it, if you’re ignorant of what slaves went through. It’s one thing to think, ‘Oh she had to work hard.’ It’s another to find out that that woman not only worked hard but she had two toes cut off and an eye blinded just to mark her. That’s our history.”
In the book, Trennant quickly meets up with Nicodemus, a former slave the doctor smuggles out of Baltimore, and the two embark on a journey to find not just America, but an America that does not exist as two separate experiences, one white, one black.
Along the way, they encounter the daunting beauty of a sparsely settled American landscape and a wide variety of people, farmers and feminists, soldiers and Native Americans, the cutthroat and the kind.
It is a novel that could be written only by a lifelong, if lately grounded, American traveler, a novel that could only be written by the writer of “Blue Highways.” Though echoing that journey was not what Trogdon had in mind when he began this one.
“My brain thinks in terms of topographical movement, so that was a natural thing,” he says. “I don’t think of my earlier books when I’m writing a new one, but the impulse that lies behind writing ‘O America’ is very much the same impulse that lies behind ‘Blue Highways.’
“I didn’t realize it until I finished ‘O America,’” he adds, “and I thought, ‘Ye gods, I’ve written the same book.’ Not the same book, really. But I was going into the backcountry of America and, instead of interviewing people who are living and breathing, I’m reading about them or what they wrote. They’re dead, but otherwise it’s an interview.”
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Trogdon’s research did not include traveling the route Trennant and Nicodemus take, but, he says, there is no place they visit that he has not.
“If you take a map of the lower 48 and put your finger down, either I’ve been there or within 15 miles,” he says. When, for instance, the pair must navigate the Allegheny Mountains, Trogdon sought out 19th century accounts of similar ventures, but much of the topographic description comes from firsthand experience.
“Travel is as basic to democracy as education,” he says, “because it is education, provided you get out from behind the windshield. People in rural communities do feel ignored, and they’re saddened by it. But those who are clearly terrified that the country is changing, well, it is because that’s how evolution works. There’s no reason to fear it.”
He still remembers how the journey described in “Blue Highways” changed his attitudes.
“I grew up in Kansas City, and I had no idea how segregated it was. Every group I was a part of, I didn’t realize how white we all were,” he says. “During the ‘Blue Highways’ trip, I realized there are a lot of people out there who don’t look like me, who don’t think like me, but they still have things to say.”
If, at 80, sheltering in place isn’t as disruptive personally, he is concerned about the larger issue of isolation.
“If there was one word to describe all of my books,” he says, “it is ‘otherness.’ That’s the thing that frightens so many people, ‘Man, this is something that’s different.’ But differences are the way evolution works. Each of us is the result of uncountable othernesses.”
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