Perpetual Odyssey William Least Heat-Moon Pours His Travel Adventures into Best-Selling Books. His Most Recent, 'River-Horse,' Recounts His Cross-Country Voyage on America's Waterways

By Guarino, Mark | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), January 6, 2000 | Go to article overview

Perpetual Odyssey William Least Heat-Moon Pours His Travel Adventures into Best-Selling Books. His Most Recent, 'River-Horse,' Recounts His Cross-Country Voyage on America's Waterways


Guarino, Mark, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


William Least Heat-Moon approaches fear like an academic: He studies it. Then he takes a test.

At age 13, when he was just William Moon, he was sent into a forest near the Osage River in Missouri with just two matches, a sleeping bag, a knife, a little bit of food and some water.

"After that first night I was terrified," he remembers. "By the third night it wasn't so bad."

Most boys would balk at getting a vision quest weekend for their 13th birthday, but Heat-Moon was just beginning to realize he was not like most boys. His father was Ralph Moon - at least that's how he was known to his associates at the law firm where he worked. At home he was Ralph Heat-Moon, a name that acknowledged of his Osage Indian ancestry. His first son was Little Heat-Moon, but when the boy walked out of that forest at the age of 13, he became William Least Heat-Moon.

Then he grew up, and he discovered that earning his name in a forest was much easier than earning a name in the real world.

Overcoming his fear has become a life-long quest for Heat-Moon, but he pursues that goal through arduous and urgent action, not passive contemplation.

His three books, "Blue Highways," "PrairyErth" and the recently published "River-Horse," are lively first-person adventure tales on the surface, but they also provide insights into the writer himself. "Blue Highways," the book that sold over 1.5 million copies when it hit bookstores in 1983, recounted the weird, struggling America he encountered on its backroads, but it also recounted his own passage into a new life.

He was 38 when he wrote it, an age that might make his Jack Kerouac on-the-road adventures seem farcical. But since childhood, Heat-Moon had displayed as much wanderlust as the original Dharma Bums.

"I was inquisitive," he said recently over lunch at Ditka's restaurant in Chicago. The subdivision where he grew up bordered woods. Four blocks away was an abandoned, overgrown quarry twined by a creek. Most of the neighborhood kids wouldn't dare step into a wild place that wasn't orderly and safe.

Heat-Moon did.

"It just felt like a natural place to be," he said. "I would go down to the creek and clean it out. It was a place of incredible interest and a place I just wanted to be."

Some might see his wonderment with nature as a life calling, and he certainly did, but he didn't listen. Instead, Heat-Moon spent the next 20 years in college.

First, he enrolled in a photojournalism program at the University of Missouri, but that felt too much like vocational training. Then he enrolled in an English program, sticking around long enough to earn a Ph.D, but he couldn't find a job teaching.

So he returned to school and got a bachelor's degree in what he started out studying in the first place - photojournalism.

"I wanted to be a writer since I was 15," he said. "It never left. It was just pushed down."

Heat-Moon began acquiring photo equipment again. He started freelancing. He tried writing beyond the scope and style of an academic.

But he still had one problem:

He was afraid to interview people. To overcome the fear, he took to the road, intending to interview people who live on the back roads of America. His first marriage had just ended and he had nothing to lose. Although road trip books such as John Steinbeck's "Travels with Charley" and Robert Pirsig's "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" preceded him, he felt there was no travel literature his generation could relate to. People just didn't do those sort of things anymore.

So he did. Originally Heat-Moon planned to turn his interviews into magazine articles, or maybe some short stories. Instead, it turned into a four-year writing odyssey.

Even though he conquered his shyness (the interviews in the book grow longer as the trip progresses), Heat-Moon was faced to make do with what he learned from the trip. …

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