Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Willam Least Heat Moon


One of my favourite contemporary authors is the American travel writer William Least Heat Moon. A best seller in the United States he is almost unknown in the UK and is completely unknown here in Australia. This is a shame because his stance would go down well in Britain and Oz. He's a slow traveller and a close observer of places and people. He's the antithesis of the Michael Palin school of travel journalism, whereby a celebrity Palin goes on vast voyages and meets people prepared for them by their producers or researchers. Heat Moon occasionally does go on epic journeys but when he does this he takes his time about it so that he gets a real feel for the land and the human geography. The people he meets are the people he meets, he doesn't go out of his way to look for eccentrics or characters; he encounters the people who happen to be in the same place he is. 
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Heat Moon's first book was Blue Highways a journey on American backroads that he took after he got fired from his job, divorced and lost his house. He lived in his car for a while and then took Paul Simon's advice and went out to look for America off the national highway grid. It's a terrific read and an exploration of a country that is gradually ceasing to exist as regionalism and localism vanishes in the face of corporate sameness. The first Heat Moon book I read was PrairyErth: A Deep Map where he explores a tiny community in the Flint Hills of Kansas, unpacking this one small place in intimate and extraordinary detail. I love Heat Moon's concept of the Deep Map - the idea that although you're not travelling very far you are getting to know one place very well. I've been doing a Deep Map of St Kilda for the last five years, before that I did an eight year Deep Map of Denver and before that a one year very Deep Map of the Old City of Jerusalem; before that a Deep Map of Upper Manhattan (Manhattan across 110th Street). I didn't know about Heat Moon before I read him in New York but in a way I was still carrying out Deep Maps without knowing the concept: in Oxford, Coventry, the Kings Cross area of London and my very first Deep Map: Coronation Road in Carrickfergus where I knew who lived in every house, what their father did for a living, who their brothers and sisters were and often who their cousins were too. 
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I see I got off the topic a little there...Ok back to Bill Least Heat Moon. As you can see from his name he's part Native American and in the spirit of the Indian guides who helped Lewis and Clark he decided to see if it was possible to canoe from one side of America to another with the least number of portages possible for River Horse. This, I think, is my favourite of his books and should be required reading for everyone who's ever had the dream of kayaking or canoeing from river to river across the map (I can't be the only one can I?) I loved this book both for the adventure and for the beautiful prose and its one of the few "great ideas for a travel book" that actually led to a great travel book. 
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PrairyErth, Blue Highways, River Horse - 3 travel classics that deserve to be on your bookshelf.