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William Least Heat-Moon

      . . . writer. Mr. Least Heat-Moon's mix of adventure, reportage, philosophy and humor have become a standard by which travel books are now judged. The best-selling author of the classics, Blue Highways and PrairyErth, he has supplemented those experiences with stories and insights from his journey across America by boat, memorably recorded in River-Horse. With a PhD in English and an undergraduate degree in journalism, Mr. Least Heat-Moon lives near the Missouri River.

      William Least Heat-Moon's requires a great deal more of trips than most of the rest of us do. He is intent on turning those trips into Journeys. That requires writing a book in which he can share his trip with the rest of us. It is in the telling that Mr. Heat-Moon's Journey emerges.

      Both the physical and the literary adventures are arduous. It took Mr. Heat-Moon four months to cross America by boat in a single season, adventure enough for most of us. (He started in New Jersey and the New York City Harbor, ended just outside Astoria, Washington.) But the sometimes harrowing trip was in some ways the easy part. The Journey that turned out to be River-Horse took four years and demanded that Mr. Heat-Moon reinvent his sense of self. Mr. Heat-Moon's classics Blue Highways and PrairyErth worked in much the same way - four years writing the one, eight years the other.

      Adventures have a way of finding Mr. Heat-Moon, in no small measure because he goes looking for them. A journalist by trade, Mr. Heat-Moon has become a traveler-writer like no other. Having dramatically expanded our sense of place in both Blue Highways and PrairyErth, he looked for and found an adventure that would focus readers on the state of America's water and waterways.

      But Mr. Heat-Moon didn't want to write a book about water that only environmentalists would read. He knows they know the issues. Instead, he reaches out to us all to share his adventure, to weigh his experience and to decide for ourselves whether it's important to have clean water. River-Horse not only covers thousands of watery miles, it also is a time machine. Mr. Heat-Moon shows us a panorama of eras during which people have traveled America's rivers, from indigenous peoples to European settlers to the Corps of Engineers. Mr. Heat-Moon and "Pilotus" (the one gender-neutral character Mr. Heat-Moon created from the seven co-pilots who joined him) experienced much of what our forebearers did. They moved through space and time, feeling the rivers in their eons as bodies of water giving way to other eras. Around any given bend, contemporary civilization could slip away and they'd be paddling in another century, confident they were seeing what people 800 years ago saw.

      As William Least Heat-Moon had hoped, there is no greater adventure than trying to take a boat from the Atlantic to the Pacific, staying in-country the whole way. Happily, on both his trip and on his Journey, Mr. Heat-Moon allows each of us also to become "Pilotus." Now we must decide for ourselves if clean water matters. And act on that decision.


[This Program was recorded April 24, 2001 in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

William Least HeatöMoon uses his book River-Horse to show Paula Gordon and Bill Russell the purpose(s) with which trips begin. He tells stories that demonstrate his journalist rule of thumb that tough going makes for much better copy. He considers the central role experience plays for a writer. He recalls the origins of Blue Highways.

Conversation 2

Mr. Heat-Moon describes what motivated him to write his adventure with water River-Horse and those of us to whom he speaks in it. He remembers the elements that led to his decision to travel east to west instead of vice versa. Recalling the literary problems and decisions that were critical to the shape River-Horse took, he reveals challenges in a writer's life. He introduces his character, "Pilotus," explaining how Pilotus allowed Mr. Heat-Moon to tell a greater truth that the literal one. He credits feminist writer Mary Kay Blakely (and Virginia Wolff) for helping resolve the problem of Pilotus' gender and expands on the larger challenge.

Conversation 3

River-Horse's broad consideration of the importance of clean water and Mr. Heat-Moon's passion for environmental issues are introduced. He describes his/a reporter-writer's job to "Show, Not Tell," using adventures on the Missouri River as his example, expanding specifically on "river" as metaphor and generally on what contributes to making writing good. He compares how dramatically differently he entered the American landscape in Blue Highways, PrairyErth and River-Horse. He tells a story of Yosemite to illustrate his hope that he helps readers look more closely at land. He offers the essence of his perspective on human existence and experience. He contrasts them to the current political scene and uses arsenic in water as his illustration of destructive short term economic goals, "selfish and private greed" that defy long term well-being on all fronts.

Conversation 4

The monetary discussion of short and long term value continues, with Mr. Heat-Moon using his voyage and the Louisiana Purchase to illustrate. Using his family heritage as an example of how complex America is, he suggests how he distinguishes different elements in his own pysche. Mr. Heat-Moon tells the story of choosing his pen-name and expands on the deep importance that name has had for him. He recites the two slogans he mounted on his boat's bulkhead and explains how they affected his journey. He speaks respectfully of the traveling companion who best knew the Missouri River and draws parallels with honored and ancient river stories. Luck and foolhardiness are examined in light of his slogans.

Conversation 5

Mr. Heat-Moon explains why he believes that our greatest education is encountered when we get into trouble, with examples from his (ultimately successful) attempt to cross America by boat in a single season. He tells why "Time" was the real boat captain. He remembers the adventure's exhilaration and its unrelenting tedium, contrasting both the experiences of 18th and 19th century adventurers in time and space. He describes the Purgatory of urban sprawl he experienced from the river. The trip's fulfillment is considered and compared to Lewis and Clark's journey of conquest and imperialism.

Conversation 6

The conversation turns to the role of rivers in commerce as Mr. Heat-Moon gives examples of the effects of human intervention which raise social, environmental and economic questions for consideration. Stories of the subsidized transportation industry follow, with literary and geographic comparisons. The results of both the process of travel and that of writing are summarized.


William Least Heat-Moon shared a bit of his "technique" with us while he was in Atlanta. We enjoyed his company, admire his ability to combine pleasure with work. We look forward to evenings at the Flat Branch and The Pine Butte Guest Ranch.

Related Links:
You can continue to explore the works and ideas of William Least Heat-Moon at his website, from which you can also contact him.

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