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Lunar Exploration

A journey with Missouri writer William Least Heat-Moon deep into America and his mind's interior landscape


The R boys are whispering their secrets to Least Heat-Moon again, and in River-Horse -- his new book about an extraordinary transcontinental river traverse -- he transcribes the conversation for our eavesdropping pleasure.

Missouri writer William Trogdon has been attending to the R boys -- listening raptly to the voices of Osage forebears echoing in the cave of his subconscious -- since the writing of Blue Highways, the 1982 bestseller that recorded his 13,000-mile "journey into America" and self, a trip that began in despair over a lost teaching job and failed marriage but ended in eventual and wholly unexpected triumph: literary fame, popular success, economic freedom, spiritual renewal. The path to his destination, however, was as tortuous as the country backroads he had traveled -- leaving behind a litter of drafts and publisher rejections, "a pile of manuscripts almost as tall as he is," says friend and editor Jack LaZebnik -- until one "cold as hell" mid-Missouri winter night in 1981, while hoisting papers on the loading dock of the Columbia Daily Tribune, the would-be author, already past 40 with an academic career disappearing in the rearview mirror and a potentially rough road curving scarily out of sight ahead, at last found his way.

As with earlier white men lost in the American wilds, Trogdon eventually followed a trail blazed by an Indian scout. Although primarily of Anglo-Irish descent, Trogdon's family claimed a trace of Osage Indian blood, and the author's father had taken the name Heat-Moon in acknowledgment of that lineage, dubbing his elder son Little Heat-Moon and William, as the youngest, Least Heat-Moon. The names were used only in private, kin to kin, but the Native American worldview that his father's tutelage helped inculcate had a profound, "utterly crucial" influence on Trogdon's environmental and spiritual values, providing what he calls "a kind of nub to build my beliefs around. That little drop of Osage really helped me, as I got older, coalesce a lot of my interpretation of this world."

And so in the bitter 2 a.m. cold, as Trogdon labored in all-too-literal fashion with words by hefting newspaper bundles, the Heat Moon suddenly illuminated what was required to fill in the "hollowness" of Blue Highways' manuscript. "It just hit me," he recalls. "I'm writing this book as William Trogdon. I am William Trogdon, but that's not just who I am. When I was a boy, I was much more in tune with this other side of my life; for want of a better term, you could call that other life, that other person, Least Heat-Moon. I thought, "The person telling this story is not just William Trogdon, nor probably is it Least Heat-Moon. It's somebody with a foot in both worlds.' I said, "The obvious (writer of the) book is William Least Heat-Moon.' I flashed, "Yes, that's it!' So I went back, and the next day I started rewriting the book for the last time. I wasn't more than two or three pages into retyping it, and after about an hour or so, I thought, "I'm just a conduit. I don't have to do anything except follow along.'"

The R boys had fully manifested themselves and were finally speaking clearly. To his then-wife, Linda, Heat-Moon identified the source of his inspiration -- the genetic memory of his Indian ancestry -- and put a name to it or, more properly, them: "First it was "the red men,'" he says. "She'd say, "How's the book going today?' And I'd say, "Oh, the red men are really giving me some ideas.' I'm not sure where that came from. And then I got more familiar with them, and they became "the red boys.' Then they became "the R boys,' and that's where they stayed."

Heat-Moon -- the hyphen was added before publication of his second book, PrairyErth, to prevent folks from calling him simply "Moon" -- professes an unshakable belief in the R boys and draws a clear line between his personae as Trogdon and Heat-Moon: "The man who sits there and actually writes the book -- not necessarily the one who does the reporting, but the man who takes the reporting and begins trying to shape it intellectually and then starts trying to do it physically with words on paper -- that person is, I think, to simplify it and give a name to it, Heat-Moon. In ways that I can't explain, and it certainly can never be proven one way or another -- I'll never know myself -- I attribute that to the side of my ancestry that comes from the Osage.

"The most powerful illustration of the difference came when I finished PrairyErth," he continues. The morning after mailing his completed manuscript to the publisher, Heat-Moon was strolling up his long drive after fetching the mail: "I got about a quarter the way up that walk -- I can remember this scene absolutely vividly; I didn't even think about what I was saying -- and I said out loud, "They're gone! I'm Trogdon again. I'm William Trogdon.' I stopped dead in my tracks. I just felt different; I saw different. It was something taken away.

"I went on to the house, and I don't know that I thought too much more about it until I started reading PrairyErth in printed form. I read chapter after chapter, checking it, and hardly any of those chapters sounded as if I had written it, the man who was sitting there now. I thought, "This doesn't sound like me. Where is this coming from?' When the writing is going well for me today and I read it later, that's still what I feel: "This doesn't sound the way I talk. This isn't the way that I approach things. This isn't me.'"

Heat-Moon recognizes that these notions border on the lunatic to the more closed-minded and logic-bound among us. "There's nothing in the objective, rational world that we can use to explain this very far," he freely admits, perhaps sensing my own wide-eyed skepticism. "But I'll tell you this: If I don't feel that Heat-Moon has control, I really start losing my nerve. You can say, "Well, this is a delusion that he has.' If it's a delusion, thank God for the delusion, because I couldn't proceed without it. I carry this in other ways, too. I never balance my checkbook at my writing desk. I never do my taxes at my writing desk. I never write anything except creative writing from my writing desk, because I don't want to mix the secular world with this. It's probably safe to do that, but why do it? I think the more sacred I make the space where I work, the better chance I have of touching something within myself and maybe -- maybe -- without. I can't say for sure."

LaZebnik, who has known Heat-Moon since the '70s and helped edit all three of his books, refuses to embrace fully his friend's views -- he claims the shift from Trogdon to Heat-Moon isn't "a change of character so much as it is a matter of concentration and depth of thought" -- and seems slightly amused by the writer's acceptance of otherwordly influences: "He's not religious at all," LaZebnik says, "but he believes in spirits and sprites. He has a water sprite in his house, for example, that he insists comes and does mischief."

"Jack is such a rationalist," Heat-Moon chuckles. "He's heard me talk about this many times. He can raise one eyebrow really beautifully, and the expression is, "Here we go again.' He makes mock of me. He says -- this is his phrase -- "I don't want to believe in this.' But then he says it is true that the other writers he admires all had certain forms of madness that he doesn't have. He's said oftentimes, "Maybe that's what I lack: I don't have that madness, that irrationality.'"

Sitting contentedly in a discreet corner of Flat Branch Pub & Brewing in his adopted hometown of Columbia, Mo., discussing his third and latest book, River-Horse, and sipping "a glass of handmade" -- the title of a celebratory essay on microbrews that he wrote for the Atlantic Monthly in 1987 -- Heat-Moon appears anything but mad. "You're talking to Trogdon now," he explains. The hard labor on River-Horse now complete with its mid-October publication, Heat-Moon has returned to a quiescent state, hibernating in the recesses of Trogdon's mind.

Heat-Moon seems relieved that his more orderly, accommodating everyday self is once more in control. "I've said in other places that Heat-Moon is not the most pleasant person in the world," he says with a dark laugh. "I wouldn't want him around all the time; it's difficult to live with it. It's hard on me, too, even though after a while I'm not aware of it anymore. I just know that I'm getting tired of this: "I'm sick of this, I want out, I want to escape.' Or somebody will say to me: "You're not very nice.' And I'll realize, "Yeah, I know what's going on. That's the pressure to finish the book.'" LaZebnik agrees: "When he's writing, he gets so immersed -- he's like a hermit in his house. Sometimes he'd call me up and he could hardly speak because he hadn't spoken in so long. We formed a group we call the Lost Patrol because Bill needed to emerge from his cocoon once in a while and just talk."

"Once I start," Heat-Moon confirms, "I work seven days a week, sometimes 12 hours a day, depending on what stage of writing I'm in. It took me four years of that to write PrairyErth. It took about two years of that for River-Horse. Blue Highways was a bit different, because I had to work during some of that just to have enough money to keep going, so it was broken up, but the writing took four years. I can remember going in and lying down on the bed next to Linda at 10 at night and saying again and again, "I can't take this anymore. I'll never do this again. I'm never writing another book.' It was just hell."

Those fires, however, have tempered him well: Although Heat-Moon celebrated his 60th year in 1999, he appears as physically fit as he is mentally acute. Fastidiously dressed and pressed, his mustache and full silvery mane neatly barbered and combed -- he even cadges scissors from the bar to trim a wild hair -- Heat-Moon carries about him an air of sharp precision, a trait unsurprising in a man who keeps careful bibliographic count of his immense library of books about exploration and travel (it contains 1,330 "firsthand accounts, just within America") and who knows the exact number of counties in the U.S. he's visited ("I've got just under 300 to go," he told Melinda Penkava on NPR's Talk of the Nation in October).

Although he quickly warms and grows expansive, Heat-Moon initially exhibits a certain polite reserve, an alert wariness: He obviously prefers to be the observer rather than the observed. Early in Blue Highways, he writes, "Sitting full in the moment, I practiced on the god-awful difficulty of just paying attention." Such practice has honed Heat-Moon's keen, searching eye to a hawklike sharpness. "He once drove with me to Michigan," LaZebnik remembers. "Driving from where we are in the middle of the state to St. Louis is a long, boring ride for me, and I take tapes along. I loaned a tape to Bill once, and he said he didn't listen to it; he had too much to see. So I said, "Bill, on this drive, show me what you look at.' So he showed me -- with the names of the grasses, the bushes, the trees, the antiquity of the houses, the glacier rocks -- for two hours, without a pause. He saw all that, and that's his great, great ability."

Heat-Moon's compulsive inquisitiveness, his need to examine and understand, manifests itself even in casual chat. Shortly after we meet, for example, talk turns briefly to the trail along the Mississippi in St. Louis and the conversion of the old Chain of Rocks Bridge into a hiking/biking path across the river. When I mention in passing the bridge's unique configuration, with its scary midwater bend, an intrigued Heat-Moon asks why the kink was introduced. Caught in the trap of my ignorance, I grope for an ill-considered hypothesis -- perhaps to shorten the length? -- that he gently but firmly dismisses as counterintuitive. The topic changes, but some minutes later Heat-Moon abruptly U-turns to the bridge and provides a brief, persuasive disquisition on the possible reasons underlying such a design. A half-assed answer just won't do; every question requires a proper explanation, even if it's only an educated surmise.

Heat-Moon's books -- the travel-literature classics Blue Highways and PrairyErth and the new River-Horse -- brim with such obsessively collected and checked facts and arcana; they overflow with folklore and anecdotes, handed-down tales and personal testimony, journalistic inquiries and history lessons, biological description and geological data, anthropological findings and sociological observations, literary quotations and philosophical musings -- stray bits and oddments that his strong narrative glue somehow binds, a patchwork quilt stitched prettily together with his words' golden thread. Heat-Moon then draws on this vast store of information to conjure with magical immediacy the landscape through which he travels, the people whom he meets.

"The thing I work on most intensively is to make my books graphic," Heat-Moon says. "I really want my words to be visual." The pictures he re-creates from his capacious memory -- what LaZebnik calls "his photographic mind" -- convey not only the here but also the now. "From the time I was a boy," he says, "I was fascinated by the idea of a time machine. I thought what an incredible thing it would be to have one. And the idea is with me when I'm traveling and probably several parts of every day. When I come into town from where I live, I wish I could hit the button and see what it was like on this very spot that I'm standing on now 500 years ago, 200 years ago, 10,000 years ago. The only way I know how to come close to doing that is through words, through writers' describing a piece of landscape. Part of what I'm trying to achieve in my books is to leave a record of what it was like to be in a certain place at a certain time. That's a very important thing to me: A hundred years from now, if somebody is reading any of my books, for them to say, "So that's what it was like to stand on Ninth Street in Columbia, Mo., in 1996; to see that mile of the Missouri River in 1995.'"

The Midwestern locales just cited give clear indication that Heat-Moon is less interested in chronicling the exotic and far-flung -- the usual stuff of the travel writer -- than in exploring the length and breadth, and plumbing the considerable depths, of the United States. "I'm always trying to memorize the face of America," he declares. "I'm just driven to know what this country looks like. When I check into a hotel, I get the highest room available, with the most open view available. When I fly, I always ask for a window seat, and I end up with a bad neck after long flights because I tilt my head to look. I read maps -- the same map again and again and again. In fact, all of my books have come about from reading road maps, each one, looking at Rand McNally and coming up with questions. I read road maps the way other people read holy writ, holy text, trying to find something new in it that I haven't seen before."

Heat-Moon was first smitten with the road during his grade-school days, embarking with his parents from their Kansas City, Mo., home to drive America's blacktop, and a trip to New Orleans remains particularly vivid in his memory -- the spark that set his traveler's heart aflame. "My father liked to take a highway that ran through Kansas City and follow it to the coast or to the end of the border," he recalls. "So we did 71 for a way and eventually ended in New Orleans. It was my first time to see the Ozark Mountains outside of Missouri, my first time to see the Deep South, my first time to eat raw oysters that were not out of a can, my first time to hear myself in a context where I was surrounded by Southern speech. It was utterly fascinating to me.

"I think that early exposure put something into me that has never gone away. Why I'm fascinated with movement like that, traveling through the landscape, the deepest reasons I don't think I comprehend and probably never will. It would be like trying to tell you why I like chocolate. I don't know -- that's just the way the taste runs. I know this: It means much more to me to travel in this country than it does overseas, and that I think I understand. I think that's because I feel I belong here, I connect here, and I don't when I go overseas."

That connectedness explains why Heat-Moon has chosen to make his lifelong home in Missouri. Born and raised in Kansas City, Heat-Moon at 18 moved 120 miles east to attend the University of Missouri-Columbia, and there he's stayed -- except for a two-year hitch in the Navy -- for more than 40 years, earning a succession of degrees (A.B., M.A. and Ph.D. in English and a bachelor's in journalism) and teaching at both Stephens College and Mizzou before turning to writing full-time. The inveterate traveler, who has seen the attractive wonders of other countries and every state, explains his choice of residence in simple terms: "The most important single reason is roots," Heat-Moon says. "I feel I belong to Missouri, especially central Missouri -- by that I mean the belt running between Kansas City and St. Louis, this whole central part of the state. I speak the language here. I've thought many times, at least in my early years, that I might someday like to live in England, and it finally dawned on me after my fourth trip there that I can never live there more than a few months because I don't speak the language. I don't want to be in a place where I am forever a stranger and where there are things that I just don't understand because I wasn't raised there. It's a wonderful thing to know that I understand the lingo, that I understand so many of the assumptions."

Heat-Moon also confirms LaZebnik's observation that the topography of the central Middle West, so superficially bland, holds a special attraction for him: "I find this mix of rolling hills, trees and open land, farmland, to be particularly pleasing to the eye," he says. "When it's not obliterated or bungled by billboards or sprawl, it's just a wonderful view to me. It combines man and nature in a way that I like very much. It is not stunning the same way that, say, the Flatirons are in Boulder, Colo., but it's more satisfying in the long run to me. Somewhere deep within me, when some part of my interior eye sees that mix of rolling hills, farm and woods, it says, "This is homeland; this is what you know.'"

Heat-Moon's books speak to us in a similar way: He awakens readers to the special qualities in seemingly common sights, making the strange comfortingly familiar and the familiar intriguingly strange.

The first of his books, Blue Highways, recorded Heat-Moon's circular trip along the forgotten byways of rural America, those delicate blue lines on road maps indicating the two-lanes that wend though such places as Nameless, Tenn.; Dime Box, Texas; and Hat Creek, Calif. Although certainly part self-exploration -- a way of dealing with the loss of his job at Stephens College and the failure of his first marriage -- Blue Highways looks outward far more than inward, providing dozens of quickly sketched but finely detailed portraits of the (in every sense) incredible just-folks whom Heat-Moon encounters on his wanderings.

Like his namesake celestial body's effect on the tides, the writer must exert a magnetic pull on characters both fascinating and eccentric, as evidenced by a recent excursion with Heat-Moon to reconnoiter the former Indian mounds in downtown St. Louis. As our small group ambles down North Broadway near Mound Street, snapping a few pictures of the now-plaqueless boulder intended to commemorate the site, a second-story window suddenly slides open on the seemingly deserted coffee company behind us and out pops an inquiring head. "Taking a walking tour?" it queries. After the man above helpfully points out the approximate boundaries of the long-ago-leveled mound, Heat-Moon, his curiosity piqued, asks the unlikely resident the age of his building. "It's not a building," he replies cryptically, pausing dramatically before explaining that it was originally erected as a bridge between two larger structures, now both demolished: a filling in a cavity that remains even after the tooth is pulled. Apparently happy for some company along his lonely stretch of real estate, he then coaxes us inside to examine the ancient documents, machinery and furnishings stowed haphazardly on the first floor.

Such chance meetings and friendly invitations -- Heat-Moon moments -- abound in Blue Highways, and they perhaps account for a large measure of its immense popularity. In the book, Heat-Moon notes, "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 connections Heat-Moon made with his subjects -- "He has a great ability to get people to talk and reveal themselves," says LaZebnik -- in turn linked him to a wide audience pleased to find common ground in an increasingly alienating world. "I think that's the great appeal," LaZebnik asserts. "We're seeing ourselves in that book." Blue Highways eventually sold a million-and-a-half copies -- an astonishing success by any measure, but especially for a serious work by a first-time author.

Heat-Moon pretends to no special knowledge when asked why the book took such a firm hold of the public's imagination: "To be honest, I don't know," he admits. "Sometimes I wish I did know; most of the time I'm glad I don't, because that means I can't try to find a formula for success and follow it. There are so many variables. It is true that road books are just integral to our lives as Americans, partly because we've become an automobile culture. We also are the descendants of people, every one of us in this hemisphere, whose ancestors came from the other side of the world. This is not so clear in the case of blacks, because so many of them came under duress, but for the rest of us, we are the descendants of people who have come here looking for a better way of life. So for anybody to take on the topic of "My life is getting crappy; I'm going to take off and try to improve it by moving' -- it's a most American thing to do. As a topic, it really goes to the heart of our imaginations and our hopes, and perhaps if there is such a thing as genetic memory, it may even catch that, too."

More than eight years passed before Heat-Moon's second book finally appeared. A disappointment to those longing for a more-of-the-same sequel to Blue Highways, PrairyErth takes a radically circumscribed approach to travel writing: Whereas his first book roamed the entire U.S., Heat-Moon in his follow-up remains fixed in a single county in Kansas. Parenthetically subtitled "(a deep map)," PrairyErth takes three-dimensional measure of Chase County's 774 square miles, exhaustively (and, on occasion, exhaustingly) recounting its natural and human history from endlessly multiplying points of view and angles of entry. Defining both the means and end of the book, Heat-Moon quotes Anatole Broyard: "In anthropology now, the term "thick description' refers to a dense accumulation of ordinary information about a culture, as opposed to abstract or theoretical analysis. It means observing the details of life until they begin to coagulate or cohere into an interpretation." In PrairyErth, the "ordinary information" -- more than 600 pages and 200,000 words of it -- includes oral histories and conversations, lectures and reminiscences; a collection of newspaper clippings, an inventory of a mid-19th-century settler's possessions, a list of the 140 names for Kansas' Indians, a "hornbook" of writings on the Kaw tribe; and tales, both real and mythic, of residents past and present. PrairyErth brings order to this chaotic profusion with a rigorous but elegant framework that divides the county into a dozen quadrangles; Heat-Moon then proceeds through Chase from bottom to top and right to left, telling the stories of land, animals and people he deems appropriate to each tract. As the author moves slowly through its landscape, accreting data, Chase County -- a small place, seemingly insignificant -- grows large. And as we learn more and more of it, its mystery paradoxically deepens even as the details "cohere."

PrairyErth is a magnificent book, a legitimately epic work, but its daunting length and density limited its appeal, and its sales -- a still-impressive quarter-million and counting -- fell well short of Blue Highways' totals (which continue to burgeon with a new edition released in conjunction with River-Horse). "It's not so popular because it's more difficult," explains LaZebnik, "and it's more difficult because it's more profound. It's a poetic work, and he experiments with not only language but with the point of view and the approach. It has everything. It's a classic. I think they (Heat-Moon's books) will all last, but that one above all."

Even if Heat-Moon had chosen to present his material in a simpler, more accessible way, PrairyErth's subject -- Kansas -- was certain to narrow the book's audience. Why choose to devote such time and attention to a place that most regard, in Heat-Moon's own words, as "miles to be got over"? "Well, partly to be deliberately provocative," he confesses, then jokingly adds, "That's something my friends accuse me of. But even more important, my belief was and is this: If I can interest people in a place known for boredom and dullness, and they can see that this place that should be utterly dull, in fact, when you look in deeply enough, is fascinating, then I assume they know that anyplace else they go in this country, on this planet, is so deeply fascinating they cannot get into the heart of all the mysteries that are there. Now, whether I did that or not is another question, but that's what I wanted to do.

"I know this: PrairyErth has never been out of print except for a couple of months one year. It still sells. I still get letters about it. At first it was not very well understood what was going on, and the early reviewers, most of them, had no idea what the book was about. They wanted Blue Highways 2, and it's not that. But I kept saying, "Give the book time. People will catch on to it. Ordinary readers are far better than most reviewers.' And that's what happened. I think it did wake people up to making close scrutiny of the turf that they live on. That was the ultimate goal."

In River-Horse (Houghton Mifflin Co., 509 pages, $26), Heat-Moon hopes for similar results: to amp up our increasingly dim awareness of America's rivers, to remind us of their vital importance in our past and present lives. Heat-Moon laments, "This country turned its back on rivers when railroads took over and the steamboats stopped moving people and freight."

The unprecedented voyage he undertook -- a 1995 journey across the continent entirely by water -- had a personal relevance as well: "I think, more than anything else," says LaZebnik, "it was a challenge to see if he could do it." Heat-Moon acknowledges that element of self-interest, noting with earned pride, "People have taken boats across America before, but nobody under the provisos of a single season and keeping water under the hull (the entire length) -- the trip was almost 5,300 miles, and we came out of the water for about 212 miles. I don't think anybody's done that before. I wondered if somebody could do this. Then, more particularly, I wondered, "Could I do this? Do I have it within me to do this?'"

Although undeniably motivated by individual goals -- the writing of a book among them -- Heat-Moon emphasizes that the trip's ultimate purpose was political. "Let me say it this way," he explains. "This is the blue planet. It's the blue planet because we're mostly water. We as creatures, quoting from the book, are two-footed jugs of water primarily. We're about 70 percent water. Water is, I think, probably our most important basic resource, yet it's the one perhaps beyond all others that we've abused the most. When I was a boy growing up in Kansas City, we considered the Missouri River just something that we sent our sewage on down toward St. Louis, never stopping to think that Omaha was doing the same thing to us and we were taking our drinking water out of this river."

River-Horse enumerates a depressingly lengthy list of insults to the nation's waterways: pollution generated by agriculture, industry, mining and ranching; erosion and siltation created by poor timber practices; historic flooding caused by channelization, levee building and dam construction; species of every kind endangered by all these factors in deadly combination. Desperately concerned with such environmental degradation, Heat-Moon wanted to address the manifold problems but struggled to find a means of keeping a general audience's interest. "I didn't think that I could get people to read about them unless I had a story to weave into the issues," he says. "I thought, "OK, a voyage. I think people may read about that, and they may stay with me long enough to inform themselves.'" (For a more extended discussion of those issues, see the companion article "Water Wrongs" on the RFT's Web site at

Far more of an adventure story than Heat-Moon's previous books, River-Horse moves in an appropriately linear fashion -- the straight line to Blue Highways' circle, the horizontal x-axis to PrairyErth's vertical y. For four months, Heat-Moon and his "lotic mates" -- the seven co-pilots, collectively known as Pilotus, who accompany him on the trip -- struggle against time and current from New York Harbor to the Columbia River Bar. Facing endless threats and difficulties, they press relentlessly on, occasionally traveling in canoe, jet boat or raft but largely making their slow way in Nikawa (Osage for "river horse"), a 22-foot flat-hulled C-Dory, as it bucks and dodges through scarifying high winds on Lake Erie, dangerously swift water on the flooded Mississippi and maddeningly shifting courses on the ever-changeable Missouri.

"It was harder than I expected," confesses Heat-Moon. "And, believe me, I expected it to be not only risky but difficult. People can look at a map of the United States, or they can drive it and cross highway bridges and look down at these rivers, and it looks like a wet highway down there. What they don't realize is that wet highway is moving, typically, four or five different directions under your hull at the same time. What's even more to the point, those rivers have underneath them, unlike any highway, just about everything human beings have ever made, sticking down there waiting to tear open the bottom of your hull. On the river, you've got to continually be sweeping and looking at the depth finder. Down is in a way the most important direction. That's where the real trouble is -- it's underneath, and you can never see it. Things that you can see, like tows, are incredibly dangerous, but because they're so visible -- unless you're in a fog or moving at night -- you can deal with those. But there is no way of seeing the rocks, the steel bars. I found out just last week that we had passed over one sandbar on the Ohio River where about a month ago they discovered live hand grenades. We sailed right over live hand grenades!"

River-Horse not only spins a whacking good yarn but also works on several deeper levels: as thorough environmental primer on riverine issues, as contemplative study of nature, as compelling history of America's westward expansion, as modern simulacrum of both the Lewis & Clark expedition and 19th-century travel journals. Heat-Moon especially excels at re-creating the in-the-moment drama of the journey, capturing and communicating its sensory experience. LaZebnik, who accompanied Heat-Moon on two stretches of the trip, marvels at the evocativeness of River-Horse's descriptions: "He showed me things that I had not noticed and had not heard and had not tasted and had not felt. Reading was like a revelation: "Oh, yes, so that's what it was.'"

Regrettably, River-Horse's plenitude does not include the sort of marvelous encounters with common folk that distinguished Blue Highways and PrairyErth. Dozens of people appear in the narrative, but they're hurried offstage with such rapidity that we seldom develop the kind of intimacy with the characters that occurs in Heat-Moon's other work. The press of time -- Heat-Moon's need to travel quickly to ensure that sufficient water was running on Western rivers -- essentially made impossible the leisurely chats that develop relationships. Peter Lourie, one of Heat-Moon's co-pilots on the journey, reveals in his children's book In the Path of Lewis and Clark: Traveling the Missouri, which recounts a portion of the trip, that this constant pressure to move on was particularly dismaying to Scott Buchanan, another of Heat-Moon's boatmates: "Scott likes nothing better than to chat with river rats, people who live on the water," Lourie writes. "Scott has confided to me that he's frustrated we're moving upriver so fast. He says, "It seems pretty senseless, just getting in a boat and watching the water. It's the people that make a river interesting.' He wants us to slow down, but we cannot." Heat-Moon doesn't deny some regrets: "I do understand people when they say, "Well, this doesn't have people to the same degree and depth that the other books do.' Yeah, I know, but I don't know of any way around that. We had to keep moving. Part of the given of the trip was we were going to do this in a single season."

Heat-Moon's decision to treat his co-pilots as a single composite character, Pilotus, in a sense compounds this problem, missing an opportunity to provide some additional human coloration by allowing us to learn who his companions are as individuals. Instead, the co-pilots are reduced to a kind of animate Venn diagram: The small area where the seven overlap, representing the characteristics they share, is all we're allowed to see. Still, the Pilotus who emerges -- acerbically witty, hyperarticulate, delightfully literate and knowledgeable -- is an undeniably fascinating creation.

And even if Pilotus remains a troublesome conceit to some readers, Heat-Moon mounts a persuasive defense of what he terms the "sequential portrait" of his co-pilots: "The problem is that I couldn't write this book without, I was afraid, embarrassing or shaming or maybe in some way harming these seven people who had given me so much to help me get across the country. When people are under duress and living close together, people don't always acquit themselves in the way that they would under better circumstances. I kept thinking, "How do I write this story truly and honestly without offending them?' I just couldn't solve it. Then it finally dawned on me: "Wait a minute -- the important thing for the reader to know is what happened between Pilotus and me and the river. If I pull punches and try to cover up any weaknesses that happen there, I'm leaving important information out that the reader should know.' It's not important for the reader to know whether Scott Buchanan was Pilotus No. 1 or Pilotus No. 6. They should know Scott Buchanan was there; they just don't need to know when he was there. So I thought, "I can tell far more truth by giving Pilotus anonymity.'"

Heat-Moon's carefully airbrushed approach to Pilotus nonetheless comes at a real cost on occasion. He chose to delete, for example, a sequence in which one of the Pilotuses weeps on the dock. Heat-Moon excised the "crying jag" because the emotional instability resulted not from the trip but from the co-pilot's own nature. "My editor here begged me to put that scene in," Heat-Moon says, "and he may have been right -- that may have been a loss to the book." But including the scene, he believed, would risk a "deeply offended" friend.

Heat-Moon's fear of causing damage, in fact, is a fundamental reason he's contemplating a turn to fiction in the future. Fiction has other lures for Heat-Moon as well -- not the least of them, says LaZebnik, is a possible escape from research -- but he says, "I'm partly motivated by hearing so many tales and incidents and details over my life that I'd like to use. A lot of those stories need the cover of fiction for me to keep from harming somebody. If I wrote them exactly -- this is who said this at this time -- it's back to the Pilotus question again. I could end up in a lawsuit. It certainly could embarrass people, and that's never my intent. I can tell the truth without embarrassing people."

Still, however admirable Heat-Moon's motives, the occasional suppression of feelings and telling personal quirks in River-Horse gives the book a slightly antiseptic quality: perhaps too much has been scrubbed clean. The gut-spilling messiness in a scene near the book's conclusion, when a woman in a Portland bar makes unexpected advances on Heat-Moon and he reveals that the river trip has "flattened another marriage," delivers an exposed-nerve jolt, and River-Horse would have benefited had such emotional revelations not been doled out so stingily. Again, Heat-Moon acknowledges his miserliness in sharing these unguarded moments, but he points out that the nature of the voyage dictated a certain stoicism: "I really worked to keep emotional encounters from happening," he says, "either between me and Pilotus or between me and my past life, because they were a threat to our continuation."

This discretion marks Heat-Moon's other works as well: Although visibly present in the books -- which are all told from a first-person perspective -- the author often seems to be hiding in plain sight, always shifting focus from himself to others. "He's strangely enough a reticent man," says LaZebnik. "We talk about him together, but to other people he kind of holds it back. With Blue Highways, in the early draft, he had a long section on his quarrels with his (first) wife and what caused the separation and how he felt, and he cut that and cut that and cut that. He said, "It has nothing to do with the final book.'"

A legitimate need for privacy factors into Heat-Moon's approach, but it's just as clearly an aesthetic decision. For example, when reviewing a 1985 multiauthor book called River Journeys in the New York Times, Heat-Moon singles out Germaine Greer's contribution for praise: "Unlike some of the other voyagers," he observes, "she does not celebrate the adventurer over the adventure." In Blue Highways Heat-Moon very much foregrounds rural America and its people, with the author frequently disappearing into the soft-focus background, but the book spawned a passel of imitators -- Pink Highways, for example, about a gay man's journeys -- that placed their authors front and center. "What these books all try to do is to take a physical trip and turn it into a spiritual quest," Heat-Moon says. "That's a wonderful thing to do, and travel writers have done it for generations, but it's become almost a cliché now of the American travel book, and I just did not want to do that again." Although Heat-Moon was coping with some difficult personal issues on the River-Horse voyage -- his decision to take the trip, in fact, contributed to a second divorce -- he emphatically says, "I didn't want the book to be about me and another failed marriage. As I said on several occasions to my friends, "I've already written that book. Why would I write it again?' Some of these are the same people who say to me, "Man, if you'd write Blue Highways 2, you could sell a lot of copies.' Yeah, but I'd probably go insane writing it, too."

Finally, Heat-Moon says, River-Horse should not be judged by how much he reveals of himself, his co-pilots or his acquaintances along the way. "The real characters in River-Horse are the bodies of water that we're on," he asserts. "I think that a lot of the early reviewers just haven't understood that the Missouri River is a character in this book; actually, it's many characters, because the Missouri has many different faces, many different moods. The Missouri comes alive in the terms that, in a word, personify it."

In the end, even those readers pining for more of Heat-Moon's profiles -- longing for a Blue Waterways -- will take comfort in the lavish beauty of River-Horse's prose, which consciously emulates the lushness of 19th-century works such as Dickens' novels and Meriwether Lewis' travel journals. Asked to identify Heat-Moon's principal strength as a writer, LaZebnik responds without hesitation: "His ear for language," he enthuses. "The rhythm and the music of words. Bill has won awards for his poetry -- he doesn't really write it anymore; he's too busy writing poetry in prose, you might say. But it's his language. He's a poet, and a poet is one who has an acute ear for sound. You'll find no banalities in his writing."

Words obsess Heat-Moon, and he strives for exactness even in speech, revising, correcting and emending as he talks: "Hate to phrase it that way," he complains. "Let me strike the word." He delights in the discovery of new terms. During one of our interviews, Heat-Moon spontaneously coins the neologism "bluelane" and pauses to note his find: "I've never used that phrase," he says. "I like that: "bluelane.'"

The immensity of his vocabulary, of course, isn't always appreciated. Travel writer Paul Theroux, for instance, in his largely admiring New York Times Book Review article on PrairyErth, describes Heat-Moon as "slightly pedantic (he knows the words "forb' and "chert' and you don't)." "It's the most common thing, especially with River-Horse, that I'm criticized for," Heat-Moon sighs and then by way of example points to a short notice in People in which the reviewer decries his "occasionally stilted writing": "He cites a sentence I say in St. Louis -- "I much missed my great friend.' Well, I could say, "I missed my good friend a lot.' Sure, there's nothing wrong with that, but why can't we be big enough as readers, as speakers, as listeners to also tolerate "I much missed my great friend.' That sounds very euphonious to me."

Like any good explorer, Heat-Moon attempts always to push the boundaries: "I really want to do whatever I can as a writer to encourage all of us to read -- and speak -- with a capacity to respond to the incredible potential richness that lies within the English language," he announces. "We have the largest vocabulary of any language on earth -- some 300,000 words, depending on how you count it. It's a huge vocabulary. There's no reason that we shouldn't use a much greater portion of that than we do. Would we ask painters that they use a palette of six colors or of three colors? Would we want to tell a pitcher in baseball, "You can only use two pitches'? No, the more pitches you have, the better. Why wouldn't we want this in language, too? You can only use the 5,000 words of that thing called basic English. Why? You can only respond to human experiences in these particular forms. Why? What's the point of being human with all of our imagination and our possibilities if we're going to constrict them? Why do we want to put ourselves in cells, cells of imagination, cells of expression? But that's what I find all the time.

"I just get so fed up with the pandering and, to use the cliché, the dumbing-down of America, especially in our books. There are 50,000 so-called books published every year more or less in this country, and my guess would be that 49,000 of those aren't really books -- they're pieces of paper between various kinds of covers. River-Horse was on the Times bestseller list when it first came out, and as I remember there was one other thing on there that I would call a book, and that was Frank McCourt's 'Tis. The Dalai Lama -- that's not a book. Mankind's wrestling biography -- that's not a book. How to do this or that -- those aren't books."

Heat-Moon refuses to pander; he wants active engagement in his readers, not passive acceptance, and he draws particular inspiration from the Indian concept of the "storylistener." In many Native American cultures, disparate stories about creatures, heroes and legendary figures would be told over many nights -- obliquely related parts that the listener must assemble into a whole. "I wanted to do that in PrairyErth," Heat-Moon says. "I give the reader all the spokes of a wheel, but I don't put the wheel together. I guess with PrairyErth the most obvious expression of that is the one page toward the back of the book that's entirely black -- something I stole from Laurence Sterne -- in which I say to the reader, "Hey, this is your page. You do the topic of the book that I forgot.'"

A touchstone for Heat-Moon in this regard is James Agee's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, an achingly beautiful work about Southern tenant farmers during the Depression. Heat-Moon calls the book "America's great unknown classic" and acknowledges that its bold structural experiments and richness of expression were "absolutely critical" for PrairyErth and remain a key influence. "James Agee gave me courage as a stylist," Heat-Moon explains. "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men freed me to say, "I've got to find new forms to express these ancient ideas.' I think if a writer is going to have integrity, he or she pursues the vision in whatever way comes up, and you do not worry about how many people you're going to carry along with you. Clearly I'd like for PrairyErth to have had all the sales that Blue Highways had; I'd like for all my books to have the sales that Mankind had for his wrestling book. But I couldn't have written any of my books without feeling I'm doing something that hasn't quite been done this way before.

"A number of us who are writing today need to challenge readers, open up the way that you can say things. I hope I never yield on that point. I hope that whatever I write from here on, I have the guts and the courage to keep saying things in expansive ways, knowing all the time that I'm going to catch hell for it from certain people."

William Least Heat-Moon, in the final accounting, answers only to the R boys. And they allow no compromise.

For more information on this topic, see accompanying sidebar, "Water Wrongs".

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