Discussing the book "Blue highways: a journey into America" with William Least Heat Moon
BROADCAST: Feb. 8, 1983 | DURATION: 00:55:57
Discussing the book "Blue highways: a journey into America" with William Least Heat Moon.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel Robert Penn Warren described a book, the book "Blue Highways" by William Least Heat Moon, as a masterpiece, and I finished reading it, and to Robert Penn Warren's conclusion, his observation, I say "Amen." Now how do you describe this book, "Blue Highways" of which you no doubt have read. An excerpt appeared in "Atlantic" recently and it's been receiving rave reviews. But that isn't the point. It's the book itself, and the adventures of its author and its traveler, William Least Heat Moon. It's travels in his van, which he calls ghost dancing across the country in his way and not the superhighways, but the side roads, and it's a book of discovery. Discovery not simply of the land itself, but discovery of the nature of its people, who come in all shapes and sizes. Good, bad, indifferent. It's about America, and it's a beauty. Atlantic Little Brown the publishers, and William Least Heat Moon is my guest, and his reflections on this travel and his book. [pause in recording] William Least -- why perhaps a word about the name itself because you're taken with names of little towns anyway. William Least Heat, when you're Osage.
William Least Heat Moon More white than Osage. I'd be a better man if I had it the other way around, but it didn't work out that way. And yeah the name for white man's purposes is an ancestor of white ancestors named William Trogdon.
William Least Heat Moon Robert Penn Warren described a book, the book "Blue Highways" by William Least Heat Moon, as a masterpiece, and I finished reading it, and to Robert Penn Warren's conclusion, his observation, I say "Amen." Now how do you describe this book, "Blue Highways" of which you no doubt have read. An excerpt appeared in "Atlantic" recently and it's been receiving rave reviews. But that isn't the point. It's the book itself, and the adventures of its author and its traveler, William Least Heat Moon. It's travels in his van, which he calls ghost dancing across the country in his way and not the superhighways, but the side roads, and it's a book of discovery. Discovery not simply of the land itself, but discovery of the nature of its people, who come in all shapes and sizes. Good, bad, indifferent. It's about America, and it's a beauty. Atlantic Little Brown the publishers, and William Least Heat Moon is my guest, and his reflections on this travel and his book. [pause in recording] William Least -- why perhaps a word about the name itself because you're taken with names of little towns anyway. William Least Heat, when you're Osage. Part, part Osage. Part Osage. And a lot of you is white. More white than Osage. I'd be a better man if I had it the other way around, but it didn't work out that way. And yeah the name for white man's purposes is an ancestor of white ancestors named William Trogdon. And William
William Least Heat Moon I think so. It's been a wonderful guide. This is the first time I've ever used the name Least Heat Moon publicly, and there are, I have some close friends who never knew about it, just because, because we never spoke about
Studs Terkel At the very beginning, before I introduce another voice, that of Vine Deloria, and his thoughts about traveling through the country, a conversation at an airport, you, in your travels at last this trip across America. Perhaps a word about describing the trip, how it came to be, and
William Least Heat Moon I was teaching part-time at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri and the declining enrollment in the college pushed my job into a no-time job. I was out of work. My marriage of ten years was in a state of shambles, and I had a Ph.D. in English literature and unable to get a job, so I had no future. Nothing really but a beat-up past, and it seemed like a time to take off, to go look and see what the country had had that I hadn't seen.
William Least Heat Moon An allusion, a little, a little heavy-handed I think, but it is an allusion to the Ghost Dances of the late 19th century, where the Indians danced for the return of the old way of life. It was an attempt in many ways to resurrect the vigor of the life that they once knew in America.
William Least Heat Moon Took the back roads, the roads that in the old gasoline station maps used to be colored in blue, because the main highways were marked in red. I find that on the latest Rand McNally, the superhighways now are marked in blue and the back roads in red. So even, even the maps are changing.
William Least Heat Moon Blue
William Least Heat Moon They do. "On the old highway maps of America, the main routes were red and the back roads blue. Now even the colors are changing. But in those brevities just before dawn and a little after dusk, times neither day nor night, the old roads return to the sky some of its color. Then in truth they carry a mysterious cast of blue, and it's that time when the pull of the blue highway is strongest, when the open road is a-beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself."
Studs Terkel Your trip is divided. I mean, the book is divided in that it was not a set move. Sometimes you'd change directions, did you not? I mean as to where you wanted to go. A certain town's name attracted you.
William Least Heat Moon I'm -- was taken by the poetry of the American landscape. Towns like Nameless, Tennessee and Dime Box, Texas and Liberty Bond, Washington and sometimes I would backtrack simply to see what a town looked like, what they'd do in a town like Nameless, Tennessee. That was forty miles back the other way. In bad weather.
Studs Terkel So you'd do that. Somewhere you would -- the idea occurred to you -- what would it be like? I'm sure everybody thinks this who lives in a big city and passes through very rapidly and unfortunately sometimes quickly, what would it be like to live in that town? What's your day like? What's it like? Isn't that what was on your mind, too?
Studs Terkel But what perhaps what is to me most exhilarating about your book is not simply the towns, the roads, the flora, the fauna, but the actual people you met, the characters of all, all variety and what, isn't there a phrase, the une-- something of the unexpected?
Studs Terkel Almost
William Least Heat Moon The richness the richness of these lives that we would assume at first glance to be poor lives; maybe economically they are, but to look into the lives themselves, into the details of these people's lives reveals a richness that not even a traveler for two or three weeks could touch.
Studs Terkel So the only way you could do it is the way you did it. I mean, you couldn't possibly take one of those huge super expressways across. You see nothing. Except an occasional Holiday Inn out there off the road. So you took the side roads.
William Least Heat Moon It's against the law for any kind of life to happen along the interstates, and most people obey that law and keep their life on the inside of the windshield and wait 'til they get to the Holiday Inn to start living again.
Studs Terkel They are originals in their own way. Vine Deloria. You know Vine? He wrote "Custer Died for Your Sins". Well, Vine met me at O'Hare Airport here. Had to see about something and he stopped off, and we were having a cup of coffee at the airport lunchroom, so the sound you hear in the background, sound of planes landing and dishes clattering, and Vine is telling -- we won't hear this on tape, that he took this plane, came from Colorado where he was teaching, and two hours he's seeing me at O'Hare and Chicago, and he saw nothing, absolutely nothing of America, of United States between Colorado and Chicago, Illinois and then he picks up. He's something about history. He had just finished reading Bernard DeVoto's "1846" [sic - "The Year of Decision 1846"] about the Donner party who got stuck in the Sierras, you know, the travelers and then in desperation they practiced cannibalism. So, well let's pick up with Vine's voice. It's about travel and not seeing and not remembering.
William Least Heat Moon The interstate highway if you go up from Denver to Cheyenne, then cut over. The interstate highway follows their route in a lot of places, and I remember going by in my Olds 98 on the salt flats, and I covered those salt flats in something like 45 minutes. Well, in the pioneer days you had to cross those salt flats in 36 hours straight, because if you waste any more time than that, going through the Humboldt Sink was so difficult, that's you'd arrive at the Sierra Nevadas at a dangerous time of year and you couldn't cross. Well, it took the Donners six days. And you imagine, having just read and DeVoto's a great writer, having just read that, and being able to go past those salt flats 70, 75 miles an hour, it's a [snap?]. And then knowing that all kinds of people died there, see, and you begin to raise questions to me of how you probe deeper into the white/Indian conflict. And part of that realization that I think I had was that you know none of those tribes saw enough whites at any one time to ever regard them as dangerous. If you have a tribe of five or six hundred sitting on a hillside, and a wagon train of 200 people goes by, that's no threat to you. And you hear a lot of a lot of stories that very traditional people passed down, and mostly Indians were afraid of the whites because they thought they were crazy. And you read DeVoto and you see the tremendous sacrifices the pioneers made to get across the great plains, you think your own people who sat on the hillside and knew every creek for a thousand miles around, every rock and everything, and they're looking down at these people who are terrified because they're in tall grass, see, and neither side understanding each other, and you have to take a whole new look you know at what you thought America was before you can figure out where it's going.
William Least Heat Moon In so many ways, I didn't realize that Vine had said that, but that's, it is in a in a nutshell a description of much that happens in the book. The impetus for the journey. Although I must say I can see that more clearly now than I could when I began the trip.
Studs Terkel So you headed east, and then here we are. Let's say Shelbyville, you're at a town called Shelbyville, Kentucky and immediately you see something, right there. A guy. A guy by the name of Bob Andriot is doing something. What is it?
William Least Heat Moon He was taking the 1950 siding off of an old building and underneath he found a log cabin made out of two foot by two foot ties, railroad ties, or things that looked like ties, I should say. And it was it was a discovery of how the past lingers into the present. It was something visible right before my eyes, and I don't think any of us at the time as we talked about his log cabin, I don't think we realized that it was something that I came to realize later in in working on the book. But it was in a way a kind of metaphor for what the trip itself was to show me, and that's what Vine was just saying, how the past lingers into the present.
Studs Terkel You know what "pentimento" is, the phrase "pentimento" is a painter's phrase about something that lay beneath what the picture, sometimes a guy's painted over what a picture, an old picture in there, say a sailing boat, and as you look through it, you know, you cut -- took some of the paint off, then fresh paint, you saw the outlines of what was before.
William Least Heat Moon Indeed, it's I suppose part of the reason for the, naming the truck "Ghost Dancing," it's this notion that runs throughout the book of how the ghosts of our past remain into the present.
Studs Terkel But also, you be free to talk at, you know, freely associate if you wanted to, it needn't be just question/answer. I was thinking, the good talk. You discover a good -- the conversation. Bob Androit and his friends are talking and he says, "I'm doing something, I've done something to last. People need to see this old lady, referring to the old cabin, to be reminded. And you say, "Old lady? That's not what you were calling her yesterday." "That was yesterday. She gets better she gets older." And he was shaping something too, with his hands, wasn't
William Least Heat Moon He was, he was not only giving himself a building to conduct his picture-framing business from, but he was also peeling off the layers of paint, the layers of, of the present and finding something that he didn't know was underneath. It came as a surprise to him to find how the past still obtains in the present.
William Least Heat Moon No, I was driving up the highway and I saw this magnificent 77-foot steel ship being built along the side of the Kentucky River, and I thought at the time anybody down here in landlocked Kentucky that can build a boat that big, I need to talk to, so I turned around and went back and hunted him, hunted him down.
Studs Terkel What I like, and this again reminds me of something, you come across a guy and you -- near a trailer and you say, "I'm looking for the shipwright." And he says, "You're looking at him." And that's precisely my experience with a guy in this ghost town of Blackey, Kentucky. I was looking for a man named Joe Begley. I've heard about this man who runs a general store, and along comes this Lincolnesque figure down the road, a gaunt guy, dusty road. I says, "Pardon me, I'm looking for Joe Begley," he says, "You're talking to him." And so here's the guy with his dream, building this boat. Hammond.
William Least Heat Moon Yes, a boat that, by the way, let's see, five years later now he still hasn't finished, but it's getting closer. He's getting closer. He's a man who built a life in his words out of building a dream, with the dream of course his boat.
Studs Terkel But what's what is a common denominator here is how they open up to you, a stranger. This was almost par for the course. Oh, you found some host-- or suspicion here and there, we'll come to close shaves now and then, but generally speaking, it was opening up to the stranger, wasn't it?
William Least Heat Moon It was. It surprised me I must say, because I think there's a notion in America now that people in small towns are if not hostile, at least suspicious of strangers who come in, and one who comes in driving a van and with a beard on his face, you can expect perhaps some suspicions. But I found where you could get people to take long enough to exchange a few of the banalities and cliches, the time of day, the kind of work that the man's doing, very soon then you had a basis to talk about something of more depth. But you had to start with those cliches and those banalities.
William Least Heat Moon I'd -- to ask a man or woman to speak about his work is, is almost like talking to him about what he loves most, especially in smaller communities where the people I think are a little more close to work that they enjoy and they love than some of us in the cities.
Studs Terkel As we're going along in your trip, also your comment about signs you've seen, signs and bumper stickers that are very revealing, too, now and then, but the signs, this is a town called Ida, Kentucky and there's a church and now it's an Easter sermon. "Welcome All God's Children: Thieves, Liars, Gossips, Bigots, Adulterers, Children." And you said, "I felt welcome."
William Least Heat Moon That was a place where I, where could have gone into, I think. It was also in Ida, Kentucky where I saw one of those little black little iron hitching posts, the old livery stable boys that traditionally were painted black, painted like Negroes. This one had been painted white, and his eyes were blue, the color of yours. And this is a town in Ida where we hear in the Appalachians that progress doesn't come, but yet there was a social progress it seemed judging from one church sign and one hitching post.
William Least Heat Moon Yes.
Studs Terkel Isn't this a crazy thought occurs to me. Talk about pentimento. In other words, you were describing Bob Andrea tearing off a layer of something new and inferior and seeing something old and very good beneath it. The cabin. Now, here you have something painted over in a good sense over something not so hot, part of the past. Painting over Jim Crow.
Studs Terkel So we're coming to a theory you have, discoveries, and several critics have pointed this out, too. Restaurants, because you've eaten in all sorts of restaurants, greasy spoons and food, good, bad, indifferent, and you have a theory about wall calendars in a restaurant.
William Least Heat Moon I noticed after several weeks on the road in these, these small towns that the quality of the food and the justness of the prices had a pretty direct correlation to how many wall calendars were hanging in the café or the catfish part of the grill, whatever happened to be, and I started counting and I noticed if a place had three or four and once in a while five calendars, you were assured of a good meal. On the other hand, if you found a place with no calendars, then you had an interstate pit stop. I think it comes about because of the community -- it indicates the community of, the level of involvement in the community I should say. That is, these calendars are traditionally given away by the funeral parlor and the auto body shop and the insurance agency, so a restauranteur, a cafe owner who hangs these calendars up is trying to attract townspeople, and he must he must keep them coming back based on quality, not up on some national advertising campaign.
William Least Heat Moon No.
Studs Terkel Because you didn't follow the specific one, but there's directions, there's a humorous part about directions, you're asked for directions. And here's [something?] of Arkansas traveler. Why don't we do it? I'll be the native, and you be yourself. You want to get to Nameless.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Studs Terkel "It's possible." And then Nameless, if there is such a place, and someone says, "Well, it's still there all right, but I might not vouch for you tomorrow." That'd be that way tomorrow. This is right out of Arkansas traveler jokes, but it's true today.
William Least Heat Moon The Watts family. They lived just down the road from Madison Wheeler. They were at the age where it was time to sell the store and retire, and they were hoping for someone to buy the store. And I don't think they ever did find a buyer. They finally had to leave Nameless and retire into Cookeville, but he had run that general merchandise for 35 years, and I would say his experiences in running that store were in capsule form a history of the community.
William Least Heat Moon Yeah, I noticed along the roads that the people who live on, on the least, are the ones most likely to ask you to come in and share their meal, and the people who have more, maybe they have more to fear in the way of loss. I don't know.
Studs Terkel You know, this is, Woody Guthrie made that discovery in "Bound for Glory". He was -- there was a trip, too. It's funny, another traveling on the freight. Woody's discovery of parts of America during the Depression.
William Least Heat Moon Yes.
William Least Heat Moon By accident found myself driving into Oak Ridge. It was a place I'd heard of for 30 years, and suddenly there it was before me. I stopped briefly to look at the Museum of Atomic Energy and was surprised to find in the bookstore next to the museum that they were, they were selling a book, actually a couple books, the title of one was the, what "The Complete Book of Heating with Wood" and another one was "Build Your Own Low-Cost Log Home". This is the Museum of Atomic Energy.
William Least Heat Moon Yes.
Studs Terkel You found this, by the way, and since we're jumping about, you were also in Utah and in Idaho and a number of bombing sites, missile sites in various places, and everywhere you found these bumper stickers about something so and so bad for your health. Each bumper carried a message: "Split Wood, Not Atoms." "Save the Whale, Extinct is Forever." "Viva La Bicicleta."
William Least Heat Moon Yes. That was in Maine, where each of the people seemed interested in proclaiming his own message. We probably don't pay enough attention to bumper stickers, to what they may suggest about the drivers of the cars. I guess my special favorite, though, were the little road signs you see on the back roads. The -- in Tennessee I remember "Hot Sandwiches" where "sandwich" was spelled S-A-N-D-W-I-T-C-H-E-S. "No Drinking Allowed," "allowed spelled A-L-O-U-D.
William Least Heat Moon I carried Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass" and Black Elk's book written by John Neihardt, one of my former professors at the University of Missouri, called "Black Elk Speaks". One was I suppose that is the Whitman was a representative of my Anglo background, and the Black Elk was a more spiritual book in some ways and represented the Osage heritage.
Studs Terkel And the two books you were carrying, and the fact that you took this kind of trip. You know, the fact that you did take roads that were there and dusty ones, too, and fairly good ones that were there and used long before the expressways. You know, those huge long ribbons of cement came into being.
William Least Heat Moon Yes. The two books in a way came to shape the perceptions and the journey that I can see now. I couldn't see it at the time. Maybe it's best expressed by a friend of mine who said that William Trogdon, my Anglo name, William Trogdon left on the trip and Least Heat Moon came back, which is another way of saying that early in the in the book and early in the trip I paid more attention to Walt Whitman, but as a journey developed after the halfway point, I found myself looking more into Black Elk, the Sioux medicine man from the Oglala tribe.
Studs Terkel Talking to William Least Heat Moon and this quite beautiful book, "Blue Highways", subtitled "A Journey into America" that Robert Penn Warren has called and obviously it is so, in reading it you will discover a masterpiece. Atlantic Little Brown publishers. You might say it's a variation on a theme of De Tocqueville.
Studs Terkel He, the young Frenchman visited a certain part of America, most of what America then, and now a couple of centuries later a rediscovery of little-known anonymous people, but little-known places and revelations to us, too. [pause in recording] Siler City. Where is Siler City?
William Least Heat Moon Siler City is in North Carolina. At least there's one Sider City there, near the spot where the first William Trogdon, my first white ancestor to come to the United States had built a gristmill in oh, the early 1700s. William Trogdon was shot when he was in his 60s for giving flour to the North Carolina militia. The Tories under the direction of David Fanning caught him and shot him way up in the creeks.
William Least Heat Moon Yes.
Studs Terkel So it goes back to revolutionary days, but and you're -- the other party of family goes back pre-revolution. But as a grocery store there that sells and I like this, 22 kinds of chewing tobacco.
William Least Heat Moon I didn't know there were 22 kinds of chewing tobacco until I stepped into that store. And have wonderful names. They tend to go by colors and animals. Let's see, there was "Bloodhound" and "Brown's Mule," "Red Coon," "Red Horse," "Red Fox," "Red Juice," "Black Maria," "Big Man," "Cannonball," "Bull's Eye." The motto of "Bull's Eye" chewing tobacco was "Hits the Spot," and it showed a large target.
William Least Heat Moon I learned that when I was down along the Atlantic coast in the Carolinas. I was amazed at that figure, I would have assumed it would have been much lower, and I'm afraid in some ways that all that private ownership doesn't bode well for the survival of the coast as in its present form. I'm afraid it's going to be more high-rises. More condominiums. More degradation of the land.
Studs Terkel Which you're still seeing some of those old, old, old settlers, still there telling her what was and what is, and of course the restaurants. We haven't talked about the restaurants you went into, all you can eat, and the different waitresses. You saw a variety, didn't you there?
William Least Heat Moon When the traveler gets into the small towns, well I guess even on the interstates, you, one of the, commonly people you meet is the waitress. And so much of a traveler's information and the shape of his day comes from the waitress and what she has to say. If you have a good waitress, you may learn something about the community. To get another one, you're no better off than you were when you came in.
Studs Terkel You wanted to cover Cajun country, and so you find yourself in Louisiana. Evangeline, the name itself figures aside from Longfellow's poem, it does figure in the communities, doesn't it? The name is used in a number of communities, isn't it?
William Least Heat Moon Yes. The big bread in Cajun country is Evangeline bread and there's the Evangeline throughway and the Evangeline speed track and the Evangeline whorehouse, I heard, too. If it's Evangeline, if somebody needs a name, then Evangeline is the one that they so commonly look to in Cajun country.
Studs Terkel You know what we haven't talked about, the Black/white discoveries you've made. You -- what led you -- you found yourself in Alabama, in Selma. Did you go to Selma deliberately to see what may have happened since the March?
William Least Heat Moon I did. I was in Alexander City on the east side of the state and was simply sitting there passing time one warm spring evening, and a man came up and we began talking, and I told him I was on a tour staying out of the cities. And he said, "I wouldn't know what the South was like if I didn't see something of a larger city than Alexander City." And he said, "You go over to Selma, see how things have changed." It was a kind of a gauntlet that he laid down. So I thought I should. And the next morning I headed for Selma and talked to Blacks and whites there and I'm afraid the news that I that I came away with is not new to us, it's much the same old story. The Blacks believed that, well to put it in their words, one Black man said, "Ain't nothing changed." A white man told me that everything had changed and had ruined Selma. And I think in a way, if you can imagine this, that both were right: that is, the changes weren't enough for the Black to speak about, and the changes were too much for the white to forget.
William Least Heat Moon Yes.
William Least Heat Moon Yes.
William Least Heat Moon I think the thing that made me stand out was that my truck had had Northern plates, and the assumption as I learned over the course of two days in Selma was that if you if you do have a van and you do have a beard, and the van license plates are from the North, an assumption that the police frequently make, the deputy sheriffs is that you're down there selling drugs. I'd noticed police cars while I was in Selma checking me out. In fact, during one night about two o'clock in the morning, the police came up and checked over the front seat of the van, and I got out to ask what was going on, and they drove off. So they clearly were watching me, taking a look into things.
Studs Terkel Now what's interesting here is see, the original reaction in, before reading the book is they thought you were a political ad-- that is, the first, the reflexive thought would be a political agitator, beard, van, Northern. That's not at all what they were thinking of, the [Black guy's car?], they're thinking you were peddling dope.
William Least Heat Moon I thought that if they were suspicious of me it would be because they assumed I was an agitator. I was completely surprised by the meaning, being accused of being the dope man.
Studs Terkel But you know, one of to me -- we're doing the, or we're just touching in a very peripheral way the book of William Least Heat Moon, his travels. To me, one of the funniest and most telling moments is somewhere a town in Texas you stop and you see a woman performing her active nature, part of her, in the woods a huge white woman and there's a Black girl puffing a cigarette. I got to read this, and that we can't read the exact words, but the idea. It's a mound, it's an old Indian mound, isn't it?
Studs Terkel And of course you're reading "Black Elk", and you're up on the Indian legacy, the religion, the culture, the stories told, and here you've got these two women. And so the heavy woman has just finished, and the Black girl is sitting beside a window van, hands between her knees, a cigarette between her lips. I ask how she liked the Indian mound. She looked at her hands, both of them to pull the cigarette away, she was handcuffed. "What mound?" And the woman from the bushes came back, says, "Get in, Karen," and you say "I got to go, too." And then
Studs Terkel Oh, the girl says, "I got" -- the girl, the Black girl says, "I got to go, too." Says "How you gonna wipe in cuffs?" The Black girl looked at me: "Hit the dyke on the head and take me with you." And the woman, the matron, the guard says, "Don't mess, Charlie, or you'll be sorry." And I'm thinking, well let you read, you read this. You read this last sentence.
William Least Heat Moon "They drove off. I left and went through North Zulch on the way to College Station. I had witnessed an hour in the history of the Cadouin Mound. Black Elk, looking down on the whole hoop of the world from Harney Peak, understood more than he saw. For me it was the other way."
Studs Terkel But to me this may maybe the most telling anecdote, incident in the whole book. So here's this Indian culture. There's the mound and all the history goes along with it, of a people of a tribe, of religion, of the sun, of everything, here you got these two women --progress.
William Least Heat Moon No.
Studs Terkel So how did you hit the restaurants when you go into certain towns? There was a Anglo cafe and there's a Hispanic cafe, and you go -- so now and then you encounter a little touch of intimidation, wouldn't you?
William Least Heat Moon I would. It happened numerous times. Usually where there was a racial issue involved. Nevertheless, it did occur. You're referring now to the incident in Deming, New Mexico where there were two fine bars, both of them very nice bars. One was the Anglo place and one was a Chicano place. And while I knew what goes on in Anglo bars, I've spent enough time in them, but I didn't know much about Chicano bars, so I made that my selection, and went in and I found out that since I was not Chicano and didn't look Chicano, that immediately I was treated as an outsider, but permitted to stay as long as I kept betting on the pool games that were going on. When I ran out of money, I felt it was time to go. I lost everything I bet, by the way.
William Least Heat Moon Porfirio Sanchez is a man, half Mexican and half Apache, his mother was an Apache, and at the age of 68 he started off from Corpus Christi down on the Gulf with 35 cents in his pocket and his clothes in a paper shopping bag and was hitchhiking to Big Bend, Texas. A good, a good hard day's drive, going right across the desert.
William Least Heat Moon In the Chiricahua mountains of Arizona, he was a man I'm afraid a little embittered, a bank clerk from Tucson. He was up for a day or two to camp in the Chiricahuas in his trailer, and he wanted his family to travel with him, his wife and his daughters. But they wouldn't come, and his complaint was, or his analysis of why they wouldn't come was that their lives stretched only as far as far as they could stretch their hairdryer cords. It was that kind of limitation that had tied him in.
Studs Terkel And he was thinking, is "I could write a book about my life, I'd call it 10,000 mistakes. I made them all, a wife, kids, job, educ-- I can't even remember the first 6,000." Now here again we come to someone who was telling you the story of his life, what he knows, and he's talking about the place where you're passing through. "In 1885 the government of the United States took measures," he read Apaches [unintelligible] made for centuries. He sounds a little like W.C. Fields.
William Least Heat Moon Kendrick Fritz is a Hopi, at that time a pre-medical student who was decent and kind enough to take the better part of a morning to tell me about the ancient Hopi Way in the path of emergence. The essence I would say in a nutshell is that men have gone through four stages, each one successively darker than the one before it, and the reason that man progresses into these darker worlds is that he forgets where he has come from. He forgets the basic things in life, and he moves farther and farther away from what is immediate in his experience, and thereby he's moving farther and farther away from that which is most important spiritually.
William Least Heat Moon Yes.
William Least Heat Moon He -- it, I can see that now. At the time I wasn't sure how these pieces fit together, but he did. Over the course of that morning explained much of what I was looking for. He was he was talking about a path of emergence, and emergence from the narrowness of self. A search for a oneness with the land, if you will.
William Least Heat Moon Many people in small communities would speak first. I would be walking down the street, and somebody would stop and say, the best of the old Western movies, you know, "What are you doing here, stranger? What brings you to town?" I think that that happens commonly in the smaller communities because they saw a fresh pair of ears, somebody who didn't know the story of their lives, somebody who might be willing to listen.
William Least Heat Moon Yes.
Studs Terkel I
William Least Heat Moon And they -- it's, it's interesting. People will trust things to a stranger that they might not trust with somebody who lives in town because they know you're going to be passing on, and they will say things and open up in a way that's more immediate and perhaps more honest than what you and their own husbands or wives might hear.
William Least Heat Moon Photographs in the book of most of these people, yes. Arthur Bakke had a long white beard that the stiff Idaho wind was pulling off at a right angle, he looks so much like John Brown in John Steuart Curry's famous painting, where Brown stands before the Kansas tornado. I admired Arthur and he got my attention because he had everything that he owned in a, oh, it was about a 15-inch by 20-inch aluminum case. His possessions, everything was right there, and he was another man who had not lost in his case at the age of 60 he had not lost his fear of the road, he was willing to stand and take his chances. He too had had very little money. Sometimes it's almost I think a rule of the blue highways that the travelers you meet there who have who have so little money are also the ones who have the most nerve, maybe because they don't have much money. Maybe nerve is all that you're left with after
Studs Terkel They're more hospitable, too, strangely enough as you point out where the Watts [come?], but Arthur Bakke is very funny, too. He's talking about Jesus and about God finding him, but he also has a touch of Kit is a William Saroyan, "Time of Your Life", do you know that?
William Least Heat Moon Yes.
Studs Terkel Kit Carson, the tall storyteller. Not that Arthur Bakke is, "Where are you going now?" I said. "To El Salvador." I thought, "Do you understand we're a couple of hundred miles from the Canadian border? We're heading due north." And he says, "Most certainly. I'm stopping off along the way." "You're stopping off in British Columbia on the way to El Salvador?" "No, I'm stopping at Couer D'Alene and I, on my way to Missoula, Montana, but I have to go to Virginia 'afore I leave the country." And then he builds it up. There's a woman he knows in El Salvador he's gonna marry, and it's right out of Saroyan, out of Kit Carson.
William Least Heat Moon Arthur's way was to go into a community and since he was a Seventh-day Adventist to go to the local church and find someone who would take him in and put him up for the night. And I had my own sleeping room with me, of course in the back of the truck, but I did, it was a chance to get a hot bath.
William Least Heat Moon I don't think I encountered too many hitchhikers along the back roads. The ones I did had had the right kind of earmarks for a hitchhiker. They seemed to have a purpose. The luggage was there. They inevitably were clean and tidy in their appearance. I didn't have any fear about picking up ones. I probably did pass up three or four that didn't have the right look to me, but I'm very grateful for the ones that I did pick up, because I learned as much in 25 minutes or two hours or in the case of Arthur Bakke two days with the hitchhiker as I would have in a county library.
Studs Terkel I'm also thinking about, we haven't talked about your descriptions of the scenery of the places, of the rivers running through, of the flowers, of the trees, of the land itself. Throughout you've got that and come back again to the individuals and the towns you were, the bars. We haven't talked about the bars you entered, a whole variety of them. There's one bar, where was that, with a slinky woman and the conventioneers sort of, tourist couples coming in.
William Least Heat Moon That was in Harbor Beach, Michigan. It's somewhat of a resort town up on the thumb of Michigan on Lake Huron. The traveler oftentimes finds himself forced into bars if he wants to have a conversation simply because in small communities that's one of the few places where you can meet people. Once the cafes close, then it's down to the bars.
Studs Terkel And you find yourself toward the end, latter part of the book though this is not latter part of your trips, is it, in New England. Now you're in the fisherman's country, the lobster and the shrimp, fishermen.
William Least Heat Moon A fisherman by the name of Tom West gave me the opportunity to go out on his trawler and drag for flounder. It was an experience quite fascinating to see how a flounder gets from 20 fathoms down up into the nets and into the Safeway ultimately. He was, he was, he was a man that lived with risk daily. In his words, "Commercial fishing is the second most dangerous occupation, second only to a bomb squad." I don't know whether that's true or not, but he believed that, and he did certainly live with great risk. Yet at the end of his day, end of his fishing day, he would go home and watch TV, as one of his favorite programs was "The Price is Right."
Studs Terkel So here's the work, the guy and the sea, again we romanticize, and the work is hard and it is tough and it is rough, at the same time it's part of our literature and history, and he's doing -- we think of "Captains Courageous", and you know, and "The Old Man and the Sea", and he ends home and he watching "The Price Is Right."
Studs Terkel Although the effect of TV is universal because I remember when I was in Italy, my friend Carlo Baldi said, "Let's go to Sardinia." I didn't get to go with him. "You're going to see something happening. Television has just come to this Sardinian town," and in the past the guys were fishing and there were feuds and there were arguments and there was the row boat, now there's the motor boat and each one trying to have a more fashionable one than the other, the fishermen. But in the center of the town, this was the early days of TV in this Sardinian town, is a TV set, and their eyes are all trained on that. Feuds forgotten, so it made for a kind of pacifism, although a euphemism for apathy. And there it was. And so this reminded me of it, in [seeing?] that. But again there's one near the end there's this octogenarian, this woman Miss Alice.
William Least Heat Moon Miss Alice Middleton of Smith Island, Maryland, lived on a four by -- four mile by six mile island in the middle of Chesapeake. She had been the teacher there for, the grammar school teacher for years and years. And she was another unofficial historian. Along the small, small towns of America, along the routes, you can find almost anywhere I think somebody who becomes the unofficial historian, who knows the lives that have happened there, and knows how they fit together.
Studs Terkel Alice Venable Middleton. You're afraid it was one of those octogenarians who make age look like something you don't wanna miss, and there's a great photograph you have of that face that has centuries in it, a tough, strong face. Smith Island, Maryland and most of the chapter consists of her comments.
Studs Terkel You asked her. You say, you asked Miss Alice, "A Methodist island, I hear." "To the last inch!" I can hear her saying that. "In 1938 a fire took the church." She goes on in the -- "We live in dependence, yet not independently." Yeah, she's pretty good here, isn't, there insights here, "But as I hope to fly, a man's deeds count. Everything counts. We live in, we live in dependence, not independently. But don't tell an islander that, or he'll knock your talk into a cocked hat. Don't tell us no man is an island. Let's not get too worked up. If people could say only what they bet their lives on, the price would go mute. No telling then what we'd hear." And then she talks about oysters being the source of much of the incumbent, mostly her knowledge of the people around Smiths Island which almost could be the people of the country as well.
Studs Terkel Three children. This is you, Bill, observing: "Three children raised under the oaks out over the grass to reenact the battle with guttural gunshots from their boyish throats." And so as you come to the end, the book and we have left out scores and scores of people and places, your thoughts now. It's been, when did you when did you finish the trip?
William Least Heat Moon I left on the first day of spring 1978 and came back on almost the first day of summer of the same year. And it took, took about four years to write the book, and I would say if I had to put the book now into a, into a capsule the thing that I'm most aware of and maybe most concerned about is how the egotism and the privatism of the '70s and the '80s still is so much in our lives, so much a part of our lives and our perceptions of other people. It concerns me. I think whatever threats there are to democracy, the greatest one is not from outside the shores of the United States, it's right here with within our own our own nation, our concern with our own lives above and beyond those of other people. And I must say that de Tocqueville, when he made his tour of the United States what, 200 years ago nearly? He felt that the upshot of democracy was inevitably to turn a man's attentions in upon himself. And now having the advantage of nearly 200 years to check his conclusion now, I'm afraid he's right. And I suppose if "Blue Highways" could do one thing, if it could do nothing more than simply make us all a little more aware of the importance, the beauty, the fascination, the potency of other people's lives, it would be a contribution I would be very happy to, to make in some small way.
Studs Terkel I think you've made it. And also the possibilities. Your book is also to be a book of possibilities, because invariably you found people though leading private lives, [trend?] on privatism, at the same time the openness toward that stranger yourself, in telling their most private of thoughts.
William Least Heat Moon Yes, it's a peculiar position we may find ourselves slipping into privatism, but it's a situation I'm not sure that Americans are comfortable with. I think I think we're looking for ways out of it. We're looking for someone to share our lives with.
Studs Terkel The very last, very last sentence, the pump attendant so the book ends looking at my license plate when he had filled the tank asked, "Where you coming from? Show me, or show me what?" What town is that? Where is that?
Studs Terkel "Where you coming from? Show me?" And you say, "Where I've been." And then the pump attendant says, "Where else?" William Least Heat Moon my guest, and "Blue Highways" the book and it's a beauty. Atlantic Little Brown the publishers and thank you very much.