Revisiting acclaimed ‘Blue Highways’

Author to visit as part of historical society event

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian arts & features reporter

Published:

 
photo Author William Least Heat-Moon

If you go

What: Clark County Historical Museum’s annual dinner-auction, including special guests “Blue Highways” author William Least Heat-Moon and photographer Edgar I. Ailor III.

When: 5 p.m. May 12.

Where: Summit Grove Lodge, 30810 N.E. Timmen Road, Ridgefield.

Cost: $75 each; $65 for museum members; $390 for table of six. Reserve by May 9,

Information: 360-993-5679 or http://www.cchmus...

photoStonehenge at Maryhill, photographed by Edgar I. Ailor III for the book "Blue Highways Revisited." “I saw … a strange huddle of upright rocks. It looked like Stonehenge. When I got closer, I saw that it was Stonehenge — in perfect repair,” wrote William Least Heat-Moon in “Blue Highways.”

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Not long after he drove east through Clark County and out into the Columbia River Gorge, author William Least Heat-Moon had an epiphany. His eye was caught by a curious assemblage of tall stones that “looked like Stonehenge,” so he went for a closer look.

What he discovered was in fact Stonehenge -- the faithful scale reproduction that’s perched at a viewpoint overlooking the Gorge at Maryhill. It was built by a starry-eyed railway magnate named Sam Hill in the 1920s to memorialize local casualties of World War I. Heat-Moon was startled to discover, hidden out here in the American West, this monument to ancient builders and the dead -- and to the innate human tendency to wander and wonder.

“The people who built the British Stonehenge used it as a time machine whereby starlight -- the light of the past -- could show them a future of equinoxes, solstices, eclipses,” Heat-Moon wrote. “Across America I had been looking for something similar. An old urge in man. It seemed the journey had led me here.”

In 1978, Heat-Moon went on a huge clockwise wander around the outskirts of the United States as he was taking stock of a life journey that had suffered some grave interruptions. His marriage was failing and he’d lost his teaching job at the University of Missouri. He left from Columbia, Mo., drove east to North Carolina and then stuck close to the boundaries of the nation and the back roads that connect small towns.

The resulting travelogue he published in 1982, “Blue Highways,” spent 34 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list and was hailed as a modern classic. It seemed to encapsulate a certain time and spirit in 1970s America: the road trip of rediscovery. The beleaguered nation trying to figure itself out.

Nearly 30 years after that initial publication, Heat-Moon will visit the Summit Grove Lodge near La Center on May 12 along with photographer Edward I. Ailor III, who has just published a companion volume called “Blue Highways Revisited.” The event begins at 5 p.m. with a book signing and silent auction to benefit the Clark County Historical Society; there’s also a

fully catered dinner. Tickets are $75 or $65 for historical society members. Visit http://cchmuseum.org or call 360-993-5679.

Ailor’s color hardcover book retraces Heat-Moon’s original trip, adding a lavish visual element a generation later -- and answering many questions about the fates of those salt-of-the-earth people and out-of-the-way places Heat-Moon got to know along his way. These include everyone from a Trappist monk in Georgia to three hang-gliding dudes who developed their precarious science near the Central Washington town of Pitt.

The monk found post-publication fame a “pain in the ass” as people treated him like a guru; two of the three hang gliders quit, figuring they were “no longer bullet proof,” but one graduated to racing planes.

And then there’s Maryhill Stonehenge -- which hasn’t changed at all.

“That is a pivotal point in the journey,” Heat-Moon, 72, said during a telephone interview last week. “It was the halfway point and it was there I began to put together what the trip was about. I think the book makes clear that when you get to the bottom of yourself, the heart of darkness -- then it becomes time, if you want to move farther along, you’ve got to begin reaching out. It was there at Sam Hill’s Stonehenge that this started becoming clear to me.”

Good thing it was a “wonderful starry night,” Heat-Moon added with a laugh, otherwise “that awareness might have taken a lot longer.”

Sprawling America

Heat-Moon’s name gets a short, clarifying chapter in the book. His real name is William Trogdon and he is of English, Irish and Osage ancestry; his father was called Heat-Moon (that’s the seventh month) so he nicknamed his two children Little (William’s older brother) and Least Heat-Moon.

Photographer Ailor used to be Heat-Moon’s personal physician; they’d been acquaintances for years when Ailor, who retired to take up photography, revealed that he and his son had been retracing and photographing the original “Blue Highways” journey.

“I thought his photographs were strong enough for a worthy project, and I told him I’d help him complete it,” Heat-Moon said. In the end, his help consisted mostly of shaping and editing captions -- while reveling in the photos of a rustic America he chronicled 30 years ago.

Is that America still there?

Some things are different now, Heat-Moon conceded -- chiefly the sprawling growth of suburbia and the hollowing out of old-fashioned downtowns. “It’s gotten a lot harder to eat in what I call ‘Bert and Bettie’ cafes, where they cook homemade food instead of heating up stuff made in a factory in New Jersey,” he said.

Also different is the rise of electronic culture, which provides everyone with more information than they can use -- and much of it bad or frivolous. Young people who are so busy with digital devices that they don’t notice their real surroundings are “depriving themselves of a memory and a past that one of these days will become important to them,” he said. “These people are practicing an early form of dementia.”

‘Clearest memories’

What’s it like to revisit a book he wrote -- a journey he took -- 30 years ago? Can he even remember the journey itself, versus the very famous retelling that took on a life of its own?

“Indeed I do,” Heat-Moon said. “I find those three months on the road, traveling those blue highways, are the three months I have the deepest, clearest memories of.” Partly it’s because he took careful notes and tape recordings along the way, and then bolstered his memories by writing 10 drafts of the book over four years.

But his recollection remains so clear also because he was at such a critical juncture in his life, he said -- searching for meaning, searching for a new direction, after things fell apart.

“I had no distractions,” he said. “I was alone and I was in quest of something. I was paying attention.”

In addition to the new “Blue Highways Revisited,” Heat-Moon said, a 30th anniversary edition of his original book will come out late this year. Plus, he’s working on a new book called “Writing Blue Highways,” which is about how he translated his journey’s notes and fragments into a celebrated book.

“It’s been a continuing story over the last 30 years,” he said. “The story just continues.”