In college I subscribed to the “free” listserv used mostly by faculty and staff; it was mostly things I didn’t need but occasionally a stack of books would come up for grabs. In the spring of my senior year, as I tried to imagine what I would be doing in my future, one of the offerings was River Horse by William Least Heat Moon. I crawled in my bed early one evening and began to devour his story of Nikawa traveling up the Missouri headed for points west. I savored the stories of the people he met and wanted badly to be part of such a trip. River Horse lead me to discover Blue Highways, priming the way, I like to think, for my desire to get out and see the country.
Least Heat Moon had become one of those authors (like Tim Egan) that I hardly needed to know the subject matter before I was committed to buying anything they might release so when the opportunity to preorder Here, There, Elsewhere: Stories from the Road for my Kindle popped up under my Amazon suggestions in November I immediately ordered it.
Here, There, Elsewhere is collection of essays that had appeared in various publications between 1983 and 2011. Each essay has a short introduction in which Least Heat Moon gives us some background into the writing of each piece—often noting the ways in which he has revised the essay to remove the influence of an editor’s lack of belief that American readers may have “much capacity or willingness to think critically, just as they believe their audience will not tolerate a vocabulary beyond the basic five or six thousand words in common usage.”
Essay topics range from the rise of craft beer (“A Glass of Handmade” written in 1985), his youthful attempt to meet William Faulkner (“A Little Tour in Yoknapatawpha County), “Crossing Kansas,” traveling on foot (“With a Good Stick in Hand”), traveling in Scotland (“Just South of Ultima Thule”), to writing (“Writing PrairyErth”). Normally my response to a book I love is to read it through breathlessly, without stopping. In this case, I was drawn to savoring each piece as its own little treat.
Least Heat Moon’s stories of international travel are interesting to me as are the bits about writing, or beer production but his passages about domestic travel—and more specifically, maps—are what have always drawn me to him. Some of my favorite examples of this from Here, There, Elsewhere:
“To me, a road map is the printed lyrics to a siren’s song where highways and rivers are like stanzas, and the little circles indicating towns are notes—some flat, some sharp, a few off-key. To begin a journey is to hunt for its tune, its melody, its harmonics, and to follow along from stanza to stanza is to hum a route from, say, Waxahatchie to Marfa, Shamokin to Altoona.” (“The Here Within There”)
“But my book of longings was something else, a Rand McNally with its seeming infinitude of highways, country byroads, parkways, and even something new with an old name: a turnpike four-lands wide running through the mountains of Pennsylvania, the home of the most iconic American travel vehicle ever—the Conestoga wagon.” (“Not Far Out of Tullahoma”)
But this tidbit on active travelers really got me. To be a truly active traveler, to get off the beaten track and really absorb the essence of a place—to walk its streets, poke into its dark corners, and really feel it—is what I hope we’re striving to do all the time:
“About then a few Americans, seeing consequences, began trying to turn themselves from passive tourists back into active travelers who explore the genius of a place, searchers for the quiddity of Owyhee Country or Hell Roaring Creek or the Rosebud Reservation, or an alley in Charleston. And as they headed off down some of the abundant and often vacated miles of American two-lane, those travelers started to uncover living fossils: a village still possessed of its mercantile heart, a diner grinding its own coffee beans, a clam shack so good the kid in the backseat stopped thinking of clams as slimy, a neighborhood tavern with a fellow or two who knew why Peculiar Street was so named, a nineteenth-century inn where one could sleep inside history.” (“Not Far Out of Tullahoma”)
Here, There, Elsewhere is another excellent example of Least Heat Moon’s writing—he writes in long sentences often filled with lists and rambling ideas. It is not a single compelling story which can make the verbose lists and long sentences seem slightly tedious, however, as one settles into the cadence of his words, they seem to roll along with the hum of travel.