Lunar Exploration

A journey with Missouri writer William Least Heat-Moon deep into America and his mind's interior landscape

The R boys are whispering their secrets to Least Heat-Moon again, and in River-Horse -- his new book about an extraordinary transcontinental river traverse -- he transcribes the conversation for our eavesdropping pleasure.

Missouri writer William Trogdon has been attending to the R boys -- listening raptly to the voices of Osage forebears echoing in the cave of his subconscious -- since the writing of Blue Highways, the 1982 bestseller that recorded his 13,000-mile "journey into America" and self, a trip that began in despair over a lost teaching job and failed marriage but ended in eventual and wholly unexpected triumph: literary fame, popular success, economic freedom, spiritual renewal. The path to his destination, however, was as tortuous as the country backroads he had traveled -- leaving behind a litter of drafts and publisher rejections, "a pile of manuscripts almost as tall as he is," says friend and editor Jack LaZebnik -- until one "cold as hell" mid-Missouri winter night in 1981, while hoisting papers on the loading dock of the Columbia Daily Tribune, the would-be author, already past 40 with an academic career disappearing in the rearview mirror and a potentially rough road curving scarily out of sight ahead, at last found his way.

As with earlier white men lost in the American wilds, Trogdon eventually followed a trail blazed by an Indian scout. Although primarily of Anglo-Irish descent, Trogdon's family claimed a trace of Osage Indian blood, and the author's father had taken the name Heat-Moon in acknowledgment of that lineage, dubbing his elder son Little Heat-Moon and William, as the youngest, Least Heat-Moon. The names were used only in private, kin to kin, but the Native American worldview that his father's tutelage helped inculcate had a profound, "utterly crucial" influence on Trogdon's environmental and spiritual values, providing what he calls "a kind of nub to build my beliefs around. That little drop of Osage really helped me, as I got older, coalesce a lot of my interpretation of this world."

And so in the bitter 2 a.m. cold, as Trogdon labored in all-too-literal fashion with words by hefting newspaper bundles, the Heat Moon suddenly illuminated what was required to fill in the "hollowness" of Blue Highways' manuscript. "It just hit me," he recalls. "I'm writing this book as William Trogdon. I am William Trogdon, but that's not just who I am. When I was a boy, I was much more in tune with this other side of my life; for want of a better term, you could call that other life, that other person, Least Heat-Moon. I thought, "The person telling this story is not just William Trogdon, nor probably is it Least Heat-Moon. It's somebody with a foot in both worlds.' I said, "The obvious (writer of the) book is William Least Heat-Moon.' I flashed, "Yes, that's it!' So I went back, and the next day I started rewriting the book for the last time. I wasn't more than two or three pages into retyping it, and after about an hour or so, I thought, "I'm just a conduit. I don't have to do anything except follow along.'"

The R boys had fully manifested themselves and were finally speaking clearly. To his then-wife, Linda, Heat-Moon identified the source of his inspiration -- the genetic memory of his Indian ancestry -- and put a name to it or, more properly, them: "First it was "the red men,'" he says. "She'd say, "How's the book going today?' And I'd say, "Oh, the red men are really giving me some ideas.' I'm not sure where that came from. And then I got more familiar with them, and they became "the red boys.' Then they became "the R boys,' and that's where they stayed."

Heat-Moon -- the hyphen was added before publication of his second book, PrairyErth, to prevent folks from calling him simply "Moon" -- professes an unshakable belief in the R boys and draws a clear line between his personae as Trogdon and Heat-Moon: "The man who sits there and actually writes the book -- not necessarily the one who does the reporting, but the man who takes the reporting and begins trying to shape it intellectually and then starts trying to do it physically with words on paper -- that person is, I think, to simplify it and give a name to it, Heat-Moon. In ways that I can't explain, and it certainly can never be proven one way or another -- I'll never know myself -- I attribute that to the side of my ancestry that comes from the Osage.

"The most powerful illustration of the difference came when I finished PrairyErth," he continues. The morning after mailing his completed manuscript to the publisher, Heat-Moon was strolling up his long drive after fetching the mail: "I got about a quarter the way up that walk -- I can remember this scene absolutely vividly; I didn't even think about what I was saying -- and I said out loud, "They're gone! I'm Trogdon again. I'm William Trogdon.' I stopped dead in my tracks. I just felt different; I saw different. It was something taken away.

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