Friday, July 24, 2015

Nonfiction | Tales from the Road

My first encounter with travel writer William Least Heat-Moon was through his well-known Blue Highways, a travelogue covering the backroads of America in the late 1970s. I never knew until recently just how well-known that book actually is. I thought he was some obscure writer I had uncovered by happenstance.

What I've learned since is that Heat-Moon has been doing this kind of exploring his whole life. He's made a career out of it, actually (essentially my dream job, should this whole librarian thing not work out). The more-recently published (2013) Here, There, Elsewhere: Stories from the Road is a collection of essays he's compiled from his life on the road over the past 30+ years. They range in topic from persons to places to events to abstract ramblings, but this is Heat-Moon's life, told 2,500 words at a time.

For an author like Heat-Moon, this has got to be an ideal, dream project. It's an opportunity to share all your work in your own forum, freeing the writing of any unwanted constraints placed by editors, with the space available to reflect or share context previously unknown. Heat-Moon is not a writer for the masses; his experiences are not dumbed down for a general audience. He writes with an intricate use of language, preferring big words over small to the point that sometimes a dictionary is a necessary accompaniment to his writing. But I don't get the sense that he's thumbing through a thesaurus for words with more syllables; rather, if he doesn't just naturally use such sophisticated language, I imagine he's actually doing semi-extensive research to find the very best word to capture exactly what he means. And when language is used in such a way, it's quite powerful and quite beautiful.

Few, if any, of these essays felt arduous to finish. I did, though, find several worthy enough to highlight and share:

"A Glass of Handmade" chronicles a search for quality beer in a time when large corporations had nearly completely absorbed small American breweries. The piece is originally from the mid-1980s when Lite beer was being forced upon consumers, changing the face of the beer industry. Heat-Moon and his companion, "the Venerable Tashmoo," embarked on a quest to find microbreweries that still reflected local traditions and culture in beer brewing. This is a fascinating piece, especially considering the massive trend back towards craft beer since its original publication. [Available online here.]

"A Little Tour in Yoknapatawpha County" shares an early experience with exploration when Heat-Moon journeyed through northern Mississippi—Oxford, to be precise—to find William Faulkner. This was back in 1961, when Faulkner was still alive and living at his famed Rowan Oak. Heat-Moon's hunt for the story behind the story man inspired my own visit to Rowan Oak during a recent roadtrip through Mississippi's Delta region.

"Wandering Yosemite" highlights the conflicting nature of our most majestic public spaces—at the same time, presenting an uninhibited, untouched depiction of the great scope of our local nature while providing the familiar modern comforts to the park's visitors. Can you truly experience the unbelievable without leaving your car? A great thought-provoking piece.

"Into the Antipodes" takes Heat-Moon on an all-expenses-paid trip to New Zealand where he discovers the local culture and wildlife. He captures the vastness of diversity—in landscape, wildlife, and custom—that is remarkably housed in such a small spread of land. Having recently been to New Zealand myself, this was particularly relatable and enjoyable.

And finally, "Not Far Out of Tullahoma" is an ode to the open road, sharing the American passion for the road and how it's ingrained in our blood and our national identity. Sharing the beginning of his own love affair with exploration, Heat-Moon highlights the growing trend in American vacations—where destinations draw tourists, veering away from the journeys that inspire travelers. This is an amazing piece that demonstrates the connection between us and transportation, and how this connection has evolved to change our habits and culture.

To me, Heat-Moon represents arm-chair travel at its very best, where it's not just about taking the snapshot to capture what you've seen but to capture the entire experience—to see and do and learn and think and reflect—and determine what it means.

1 comment:

Emily said...

Thank you for sharing this thoughtful review! I read and enjoyed Blue Highways, but I had heard mixed things about this one. From this review, it sounds like something I'd really enjoy, and I'm going to pick up a copy.