May 5, 2020
I just finished reading this wonderful book. As I approached the end, I began to read more slowly -- I didn't want the book to end. And now here I sit feeling as though I have just said goodbye to a good friend. Humpf.
A friend of mine gave me this book when he heard about my walkabout. He told me that it reminded him of the journey I was about to take. When I read the description of the book, I had a "whoa" moment -- looking for meaning, road trip, heartache. So I put off reading it for a while. I wish I had not.
Map of Heat-Moon's Trip
Surprisingly, during my walkabout I haven't crossed paths with many of the places he mentions in his book. But here are a few: several places in West Virginia (Left Hand, Sutton, Elkins), Dime Box, Texas and the Hopi/Navajo Reservation in Arizona. But he did give me some good ideas! Like me, he had an affinity for towns with unusual names.
Here is Amazon's description of the book:
First published in 1982, William Least Heat-Moon's account of his journey along the back roads of the United States (marked with the color blue on old highway maps) has become something of a classic. When he loses his job and his wife on the same cold February day, he is struck by inspiration: "A man who couldn't make things go right could at least go. He could quit trying to get out of the way of life. Chuck routine. Live the real jeopardy of circumstance. It was a question of dignity."
Driving cross-country in a van named Ghost Dancing, Heat-Moon (the name the Sioux give to the moon of midsummer nights) meets up with all manner of folk. Accompanied by his photographs, Heat-Moon's literary portraits of ordinary Americans should not be merely read, but savored.
That review is wholly inadequate. What captured me about the book were several things. First was Heat-Moon's beautiful writing. For example:
Gertrude Stein said: “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. That is what makes America what it is.” The uncluttered stretches of the American West and the deserted miles of roads force a lone traveler to pay attention to them by leaving him isolated in them. This squander of land substitutes a sense of self with a sense of place by giving him days of himself until, tiring of his own small compass, he looks for relief to the bigness outside—a grandness that demands attention not just for its scope, but for its age, its diversity, its continual change. The isolating immensity reveals what lies covered in places noisier, busier, more filled up. For me, what I saw revealed was this (only this): a man nearly desperate because his significance had come to lie within his own narrow ambit. I'll admit that paragraph was a direct hit on my soul.
And another example:
The country gave up the glacial hills and flattened to perfection. The road went on, on, on. Straight and straight. Ahead and behind, it ran through me like an arrow. North Dakota up here was a curveless place; not just roads but land, people too, and the flight of birds. Things were angular: fenceposts against the sky, the line of a jaw, the ways of mind, the lay of crops. The highway, oh, the highway. No place, in theory, is boring of itself. Boredom lies only with the traveler’s limited perception and his failure to explore deeply enough.
Second, Heat-Moon captures some real pearls of wisdom from the folks he talks to. For example:
He nodded. “Satisfaction is doin’ what’s important to yourself. A man ought to honor other people, but he’s got to honor what he believes in, too.”
“If you’re satisfied, that’s all they are to it."
Finally, and perhaps what I enjoyed the most, was how he painted images with his words:
Item: a man moseyed in wearing leather from head to toe; attempting cowpuncher macho, he looked more like a two-legged first baseman’s mitt. With him a bored blonde. “I’m a very competitive person. I’m in it to win,” he said, and the blonde yawned again.
Over another beer I watched faces that would be lucky to see A.D. 2000.
When I left, a man in a white goatee whispered, “No games of chance, cowboy?”
“Haven’t finished losing the first one,” I said.
That’s when something opened like a windowshade unexpectedly rattling up in a dark room. A sudden, new cast of light. What need for a man to make a trip to Lookingglass, Oregon, when he’d been seeing his own image across the length of the country? De la Mare was right: a mirror may not reflect mind, but a man’s response to landscapes, faces, events does. My skewed vision was that of a man looking at himself by looking at what he looks at. A man watching himself: that was the simulacrum on the window in the Nevada desert.
I had been a man who walks into a strange dark room, turns on the light, sees himself in an unexpected mirror, and jumps back. Now it was time to get on, time to see WHAT THE HELL IS NEXT.