The topic is travel, and the locations are far-flung: Kansas to New Zealand, Long Island to Japan, Great Britain to Alaska. William Least Heat-Moon’s latest book is not a meandering travelogue, however, but a philosophical peregrination about the act of travel, its universal effects and personal consequences.
“Here, There, Elsewhere” is a collection of previously published articles written by Heat-Moon (“Blue Highways,” “PrairyErth”) from 1983 to 2011. He describes this collection as a restitution of the pieces he submitted during this time frame, to redirect editorial changes that he claims in many cases did not reflect his original intent. In fairness to editorial interdiction, Heat-Moon does admit that some of the stories were improved by editing. Either way, he is pleased to be able to present the articles as he wants them to be presented and is willing to take responsibility for “any defects of judgment.”
“To be no longer constrained by editorial presumptions and whims and word counts has been a relief,” he writes, “despite the risk of trying a reader’s willingness to accept an occasional challenge.”
He laments America’s dumbing down, and a few articles presented here are difficult to navigate in spots. His writings may have the reader reaching for a dictionary on occasion, not at all an exercise the author would disapprove. He is content to let the reader be the judge, without the editorial intermediary, of the value of his “questionable earthiness,” as one editor termed it.
His writing can also take a poetic turn as he comments on food in Mexico accompanied by “a salsa smelling like a blossom and tasting like hot smoke from a pistol barrel.”
The writings cover a range of topics but mostly derive from Heat-Moon’s travels, whether assigned or self-directed. Some entries shed biographical light on Heat-Moon and his growing-up years in Kansas City or, more recently, on his farm in rural Missouri.
Of particular interest to local readers, he gives special attention to Kansas in “Prairie and Plain” and “Writing PrairyErth.” And any Kansan who has ever wearied of hearing how flat and boring the state seems to the rest of the country should enjoy “Crossing Kansas.”
Heat-Moon defends the unique beauty of the prairie but offers, in a separate article on New Zealand, a wry personal observation: “Raised on the edge of the Great Plains, I must take alpine scenery in moderation to avoid overdosing on the spectacular.”
For those who have not read any of Heat-Moon’s books, “Here, There, Elsewhere” offers an opportunity to sample the flavor of his writing as he covers a variety of topics, from archaeology to brewing ale. Although the value of the travel experience permeates the entire book, the introductory piece, “The Here Within There,” along with “The Classic American Road Trip” and “Not Far Out of Tullahoma” help to differentiate travel from mere tourism.
“Americans believe in the spiritually redeeming efficacy of travel almost as if it were prayer. We are prone to try to modify our lives simply by just going, whether on a walk around the block or on a coast-to-coast trek.”
A particularly entertaining entry, “A Little Town in Yoknapatawpha County,” recounts the author’s 1961 pilgrimage as a college student to Oxford, Miss., with the naive ambition of meeting the author William Faulkner. Although he never realized his goal, his adventurous attempts make for more memorable reading than an actual Faulkner encounter probably would have produced.
To William Least Heat-Moon, travel is a means of becoming, a way to realize your full self. It is a path to both journeying outside your current frame of reference and also to delving more deeply into your inner being. Heat-Moon loves to relate a good travel story, but he’s not one to settle for the superficial overview. Whether in explicating geologic strata or the essence of the inner life, he digs deep and is ever the explorer.