Time and Men and Deeds

Christopher Driver

  • Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least Heat Moon
    Secker, 421 pp, £8.95, May 1983, ISBN 0 436 28459 6

The platitude about America, also voiced by Americans, is that it is a country that thinks big and thinks new. One sees why. There is plenty of there, there, between Nameless, Tennessee and Liberty Bond, Washington – two stations on Moon’s orbit of his own land. As for novelty worship, planned obsolescence – though not necessarily more objectionable than the unplanned British kind – came in 31 flavours or 57 varieties long before the phrase was invented. The celebration of obsolescence even lies near the heart of the terminally destructive arms-race which America, naturally, leads. In the city park of Langdon, North Dakota, the author gazes at a ‘retired’ Spartan missile ‘that now apparently serves the same function as court-house lawn fieldpieces with little pyramids of cannonballs once did’. In Britain, we clearly treat ephemera of this kind with sad disrespect. Why was Julian Amery never invited to unveil one of the Blue Streaks that never were as an adornment to St James’s Park? When Mrs Finchley trades Polaris in for Trident, will the old model be put on public display outside the United Reformed church of that borough (conveniently called St Margaret’s)? A poor nation like our own should never order a missile without thinking about its antiquarian value.

William Least Heat Moon (son of Heat Moon, which is Sioux for ‘the seventh month’, and younger brother of Little Heat Moon) stresses his red identity at the price of suppressing – almost – his legal patronym, William Trogdon. This was (he tells us) the name of a distant grandfather ‘who was an immigrant Lancashireman living in North Carolina and was killed by the Tories for providing food to rebel patriots’. Least Heat Moon’s wife, also of mixed blood but Cherokee not Sioux, appears to have been part of the reason why, at the age of 38, he set out on a ten-thousand-mile journey round or, as he puts it, ‘into’ America, to sort himself out and to look for places ‘where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected’. He slept most nights in his converted truck, called Ghost Dancing after the desperate resurrection rituals danced by the doomed Plains Indians when they realised that progress and white chicanery had undone them for ever.

All this personal information is compressed into a mere couple of emotionally controlled pages out of 400. The rest is eye, ear and different kinds of curiosity: historical, technical, geographical. The result falls short of the masterpiece that Robert Penn Warren hails on the jacket. It needs a bigger and better-stocked mind to carry the reader from one individually satisfying sketch to another over such a long span. But for a writer’s first published book it is a formidable achievement, combining the restless determination of Tschiffely’s Ride with a touch of Richard Jefferies or (among recent American naturalist-travellers) Edwin Way Teale. Moon uses a camera and a tape-recorder competently, but as aides-mémoire, not as mistresses. Between these covers are locked the perceptions of a reluctant solitary, perhaps, but a solitary all the same. Moon has friends: he stopped with a couple by Canandaigua Lake near the Canadian border, and helped them to build a drystone wall that would outlast them all. But he is more at ease with strangers whom he will never see again. One doubts, somehow, whether he returned to his Cherokee a less awkward husband than he set out.

Every traveller in America expects to encounter the country’s notoriously wide spectrum of hospitality, from the quixotically generous to mean-minded indifference or worse. You are never quite certain, when you step onto a stranger’s land to admire the view, whether you are going to be invited to stay a week or (as happened to me once) be put under citizen’s arrest. Moon is luckier than most Europeans would expect him to have been. Vulnerable in his camping truck, he nevertheless reports: ‘I have been mistaken for a hoodlum many times, by policemen and others, but never met one.’ But few Europeans, and for that matter few New Yorkers, Texans or Angelenos of the muggable classes, venture far on the blue highways of Moon’s title – the American equivalent of English B roads or Michelin yellow ones. These are routes and places where people are found minding their own businesses, boats, forests or monasteries, and they respond with surprising amiability to a man who appears at their shoulders without notice, asking direct and minute questions about what they do and why they do it. Moon’s prose has an interesting quality of contented, quasi-post-coital repose when his curiosity is satisfied and he knows how something or someone works.

He started out on a road he knew all too well, eastwards out of his native Missouri. Memories were painful.

So I watched particularities. Item: a green and grainy and corrupted ice over the ponds. Item: blackbirds, passing like storm-borne leaves, sweeping just above the treetops, moving as if invisibly tethered to one will. Item: uprooted fencerows of Osage orange (so-called hedge apples although they are in the mulberry family). The Osage made bows and war clubs from the limbs; the trunks, with a natural fungicide, carried the first telegraph lines; and roots furnished dye to make doughboy uniforms olive drab. Now the Osage orange were going so bigger tractors could work longer rows.

In Kentucky, two encounters touch his quintessentially American respect for a smooth join, a correct solution to a technical problem, a neat fix. Three young men in Shelbyville are restoring a 150-year-old log cabin whose existence they have divined beneath an asphalt cladding (‘siding’ is Moon’s American word). ‘Bigger than railway ties, the logs lay in dovetails, all careful work done only with ax, adze, froe and wedge.’ Further on, in a gorge of the Kentucky River, he follows a road that leads to a do-it-yourself dry-dock where an ex-Navy welder is working on his dream boat, ‘a smooth skin of steel plates fused like a surgeon’s sutures’. But these vignettes of technically preoccupied America are preparatory exercises for a longer episode, 300 pages later, when Moon goes trawling in Maine, and has to match his pace and descriptive powers against the Kipling of Captains Courageous:

  What began as a good fishing day has turned sour. The sternmen, cutting the fish, struggle to stay upright on the wet, pitching deck. The return to port at twenty knots over the surge of sea is a harum-scarum carnival ride of bouncing and salt spray and following gulls. ‘Find another street, captain!’ Ron yells. ‘I’m about to slip with this knife and cut a tallywhacker off!’

  With everything hosed down and secured, Ron pulls out a couple of big yellowtails. In quick strokes, he slices behind the gills, down the spine, flips the fish and does the same thing, then, with two final quick cuts, frees the fillets. ‘Put your nose here,’ he says, and holds up the flounder.

  ‘All I smell is sweetness.’

  ‘Sweetness is right. It’s fresh. Once you eat a real, honest fresh flounder, you won’t like what lubbers call fresh seafood. You’ll be like the woman after the French tickler – never satisfied again.’

It will surprise most Europeans to learn that Moon, at once a hearty and a fastidious eater, manages to fare better round Main Street America than most of us have ever managed to do up and down fifty-dollar-a-plate Fifth Avenue. He attributes some of his success to divining the correlation between the number of wall calendars in a café and the quality of its food:

No calendar: Same as an interstate pit stop.
One calendar: Preprocessed food assembled in New Jersey.
Two calendars: Only if fish trophies present.
Three calendars: Can’t miss on the farm-boy breakfasts.
Four calendars: Try the ho-made pie too.
Five calendars: Keep it under your hat or they’ll franchise.

This is doubtless better than no guide at all; and it is interesting, though not surprising, that the only successful transatlantic imitation of the consumer-based Good Food Guide is Where to eat in Canada: American culture has less room for this kind of pernicketiness coupled with social responsibility. But a nose for a good meal, and for the individual who is likely to provide it, must be lodged somewhere in the Sioux bloodstream. Here is Moon talking of Rochester folk of Italian stock: ‘Pauline made the lunch from what she had taken from her garden and the edges of the field: a salad of dandelion and wild mustard greens served with olive oil and vinegar, boiled cardoon deep-fried in a garlic egg batter, boiled and sugared rhubarb, and a small piece of fried venison from a quart jar.’ And his account of Cajun cooking in Louisiana is worthy of M.F.K. Fisher for its communication of pleasure at once animal and informed:

  The woman put two bowls on the oil cloth and ladled up gumbo. Now, I’ve eaten my share of gumbo, but never had I tasted anything like that gumbo: the oysters were fresh and fat, the shrimp succulent, the spiced sausage meaty, okra sweet, rice soft, and the roux – the essence – the roux was right. We could almost stand our spoons on end in it.

  The roots of Cajun cooking come from Brittany and bear no resemblance to Parisian cuisine and not even much to the Creole cooking of New Orleans. Those are haute cuisines of the city, and Cajun food belongs to the country where things got mixed up over the generations. No one even knows the source of the word gumbo. Some say it derives from an African word for okra, ching-gombo, while others believe it a corruption of a Choctaw word for sassafras, kombo, the key seasoning.

  The woman disappeared, so we ate gumbo and dipped bread and no one talked. A gray cat hopped on the bench between Seipel and me to watch each bite of both bowls we ate. Across the room, a fat, buffy mouse moved over the stove top and browsed for drippings from the big pot. The cat eyed it every so often but made no move away from our bowls. Seipel said, ‘I’ve enjoyed the hell out of tonight,’ and he laid out a small shrimp for the cat. Nothing more got spoken. We all went at the gumbo, each of us, Minnesotan, Cajun, cat, mouse, Missourian.

Moon’s book has its longueurs, like the landscape he traversed, but he rises easily to comparisons with writers whom he may never have read. He does not know everything – though where did he learn his Latin? – but he listens with an intellectual’s sensitivity to historical nuance, and this is rare in America, even in academic circles. Surely not more than one Missourian in a thousand would have made any kind of sense of what two walnutty old men in Puritan New England told Moon about why, and how, a faceless corporation had been fought off, temporarily at least, from making an industrial mess of Greenwich, New Jersey and its oddly – but explicably – named district, Othello. The reasons had to do with the Quakers and liberal Presbyterians who had settled in the neighbourhood around 1680. After explaining the 300-year-old Quaker ideal – ‘thee must never, never touch the principal’ – the old Jerseyman got up:

  At the door, he looked again at my licence plate. ‘The ancient Incas,’ he said, ‘when they travelled the great mountain empire, were required to wear their own distinct costume so they could be recognised. What do we have now? A licence plate? Ideas are a man’s costume, his colours.’

  I started to say something, but he waved it off and put his arm on my shoulder. He said: ‘Descartes believed travelling is like conversing with men of other centuries. Have your miles brought you to agree with the old phrasemaker?’

  ‘I agree.’

In other words, Least Heat Moon has learnt how to talk to the ghosts of his own country (not just his own Indian people). He has instinctive access to the once-substantial men and ideas from the still relevant past that hover and dance, like the figures of the Cave in Plato’s Republic, behind the trivial, two-dimensional screen of Reagan’s B-movie America. A brave New World, still, that has such people in it.