William Least Heat-Moon: my unintentional stalker

I say that with great affection. Let me be perfectly clear that I am sure Mr. Heat-Moon never set out to have his travels continually intersect with my life. He is a very pleasant, benign man as well as one of my favorite travel authors.

And until Roads to Quoz, no matter what he wrote, he did some form of drive-by on me.

I first became aware of Heat-Moon through his American travel biography Blue Highways, in which he drove around the country while avoiding nearly all freeways. In so doing, he spent a little time in the town where I went to high school. There’s a photo in there of people I knew in those days, picturing a scene I remembered well–it was across the highway from a classmate’s family farm, and up the road from my first serious girlfriend’s house. This town has less than 1000 people and is in no way on the beaten path. What a coincidence, eh! Okay, big deal. Then…

One fine day back in the 1990s or so, I received a generous and thoughtful present from my grandparents (maternal). If you read the series from the carriage-room earlier this year, well, that was when these grandparents were still managing the family ranch back home in Chase County, Kansas; my grandfather remodeled that carriage-room gods know how many times. It was a very nice gift: a hardback, signed copy of Heat-Moon’s new travel biography PrairyErth, a study of Chase County. Now, of all the counties in the United States that our esteemed author could choose–there must be at least five thousand–he picks the hardscrabble, low-population-density county from which my family comes? Okay, great. Statistically, I guess it was unlikely but not astronomical. I Got Over It.

At the time, I was living in Seattle. If you are in Seattle and you like Greek food, one of your heavens is Costa’s Opa in Fremont. It’s very close to a cool harp shop where the door chime is a guitar pick fixed to the top of the door, which strums a mounted dulcimer as the door opens or closes. Costa’s is right on the ship canal near the Fremont Bridge, with many quaintnesses and impossible parking. Well, I’d taken my (platonic) friend Barb out to Costa’s, and we had the usual wonderful dinner of Hellenic delights. And then I happened to glance over her shoulder, and guess who’s sitting in the next booth?

Yep. If you’ve ever seen a photo of Heat-Moon, he can’t be mistaken for anyone else. Now, of course, I’m going to say hello, but of course, I’m not going to butt in on his dinner. When he and his companions made ready to go, I approached him and explained my Chase County connection. He was very gracious, interested in what part we were from, quite a polite fellow. One senses he was rather delighted to be recognized two thousand miles away from his Missouri residence, since he was less well known then. I later wrote him a letter, and he sent a friendly postcard back.

Well, it was getting weird, and from then on I came to anticipate Heat-Moonery in my world. Of course, I was a lock to purchase his next book, River-Horse, his adventure travel story of a boat journey from New York City, NY to Astoria, OR. With only seventy miles of portage. By this time I was living in Kennewick, on the eastern side of Washington. I snapped up a copy as soon as it hit print, and sure enough: he’d gone right past us. His boat almost swamped in Lake Wallula, maybe seven miles away, and he hit Clover Island not long after. If I’d known, I could have made a three-mile drive down to the river and brought him home for a restorative dinner.

Then Heat-Moon switched tack on me completely, the clever fellow. His next wasn’t even a travel biography, but an historical study: Columbus in the Americas. I have never once been to any place where Columbus landed, stole, enslaved or let his men fornicate. Surely this would break the chain. Surely there could be no connection.

If you are of an age to remember the 1960s, you remember the Monday Holiday Law. This moved most of our national and bank holidays out of mid-week, preferably to Monday, so people could have three-day weekends. It was a good law and idea. It was also my first introduction in life to the uses of power, and how it would simply brush aside small inconveniences without caring. You see, I happen to have been born on Columbus Day, or what was once Columbus Day. It was kind of fun, my birthday being a holiday. And then one day the government made a law, and my birthday wasn’t a holiday any more. I took guidance from that. Nothing’s safe, ever, not even your birthday.

Except for the lesson it embedded in my developing psyche, I’d forgotten about that until Heat-Moon’s book. While I’m no more an admirer of the old slaver than Heat-Moon is, the day is the day. Of all the topics, of all the days…

When Roads to Quoz (a mosey in search of the unusual) came out, therefore, I more or less assumed that somehow he’d end up someplace important to me, or that had factored in my life, or would have some other connection. At that point, however, the well went dry. Nothing in the book connected to me, and I haven’t run into Heat-Moon anywhere else (though I would like to). With a little luck, he’ll run across this post and say hello.

He can stalk me any time.

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