Authors: William Least Heat-Moon

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American journalist

Identity: American Indian (Osage)

Author Works


Blue Highways: A Journey into America, 1982

The Red Couch, 1984 (photographs and introduction)

PrairyErth: A Deep Map, 1991

This Land Is Your Land: Across America by Air, 1997 (photographs by Marilyn Bridges)

River-Horse: The Logbook of a Boat Across America, 2000

Columbus in the Americas, 2002


Born William Lewis Trogdon, William Least Heat-Moon gained fame under his American Indian name. His father, Ralph G. Trogdon, practiced law, and his mother, Maurine Davis Trogdon, was a housewife when Heat-Moon was born in 1939. Heat-Moon studied literature at the University of Missouri, receiving a master’s degree in 1962. From 1963 to 1965, he served in the United States Navy, stationed aboard the USS Champlain. From 1965 to 1968, he taught English at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, and reentered the University of Missouri, earning a Ph.D. in 1973 and a bachelor’s degree in photojournalism in 1978.{$I[AN]9810001848}{$I[A]Heat-Moon, William Least[Heat Moon, William Least]}{$S[A]Trogden, William Lewis;Heat-Moon, William Least}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Heat-Moon, William Least[Heat Moon, William Least]}{$I[geo]AMERICAN INDIAN;Heat-Moon, William Least[Heat Moon, William Least]}{$I[tim]1939;Heat-Moon, William Least[Heat Moon, William Least]}

In 1978, after separating from his wife and being laid off from his teaching job, Heat-Moon embarked upon an adventure that resulted in his best-selling, highly acclaimed first book, Blue Highways. It all began when Heat-Moon piled many of his most-valued possessions into a 1975 van, which he named “Ghost Dancing,” and set out to visit small towns with curious names. Living in his van, he spent the next three months driving thirteen thousand miles, circling much of the United States in a counterclockwise route. Heat-Moon interviewed the colorful characters he found along the roadside or in the small-town cafes and grocery stores. Heat-Moon did not start the journey with the idea of writing a book. He admits that the trip was really a way of escaping, or running away from his problems, something he later called a “very childish thing to do.” He did hope to find subjects that would make good short stories or journalistic features. By the end of the first month, however, he recognized that his experiences were more than short stories, and he began to plan a book.

Returning to Columbia after his travels, he began writing Blue Highways, choosing the title from the blue lines that connect small towns on the road maps. Published in 1982, the book sold millions of copies in a very short time, staying on the best-seller list for more than a year. It won numerous awards and honors and put Heat-Moon on a short list of prestigious contemporary writers who have won both popular acceptance and critical acclaim.

In 1984, Heat-Moon contributed photographs and wrote the introduction to The Red Couch, a photographic look at America. Also in 1984, he served as a lecturer in the famous journalism school at the University of Missouri and wrote liberally for many popular magazines, including Esquire, Time, The Atlantic Monthly, and Family Circle.

His Osage ancestry has greatly influenced Heat-Moon, his name being one example. His father’s American Indian name is Heat-Moon, which means the hot month, or July. The author’s older brother is Little Heat-Moon, while the name Least Heat-Moon came down to the author himself. Naming his van “Ghost Dancing” was a tribute to the Ghost Dance that American Indians held in attempts to bring back the rapidly disappearing bison. His decision to tour the United States in a counterclockwise fashion was also, he said, influenced by his heritage–just as he feels John Steinbeck nodded to his European ancestry when he traveled around America clockwise before he wrote Travels with Charley (1962).

In 1991, Heat-Moon published his second book, PrairyErth, which he described as a vertical quest, unlike Blue Highways, which he called a horizontal quest. PrairyErth, which is an old geologic term to describe the soils of America’s central grasslands, is set completely in Chase County, Kansas, a place in the Flint Hills where large tracts of tallgrass prairie survive. Peeling back layers of history, Heat-Moon wrote of Chase County from its actual geologic formation through time until he reached the twentieth century. The book, subtitled A Deep Map, was dedicated to his second wife, Linda Keown Trogdon, a teacher.

An apparent need to experience thoroughly the subjects of his writing is obvious in Heat-Moon’s work. On his Blue Highways journey, he took two books: Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1856-1892) and Black Elk Speaks (1932), which he felt would give him comfort and courage. On that trip, Heat-Moon soon learned that Ralph Waldo Emerson was correct when he said that every man he ever met, in some way, was his superior. Throughout the trip, Heat-Moon found people who knew many things he did not know, and he felt that each was a teacher to him.

In April, 1995, Heat-Moon set out on a new travel venture, which he planned to use for his third book. The trip was made by water, following, as much as possible, the 1804-1806 route of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. The four-month journey, made with several companions, included navigations on the Erie Canal and Lake Erie as well as down the Hudson, Allegheny, Mississippi, Ohio, Salmon, Missouri, Snake, and Columbia Rivers. It also included visits to small-town cafés and talks with waitresses and forest rangers. The result was River-Horse: The Logbook of a Boat Across America.

In 2002, Heat-Moon published Columbus in the Americas, a detailed history that examines the strengths and weaknesses of Christopher Columbus as a navigator, explorer, and leader. Based on the logbook of Columbus and other firsthand accounts of his four voyages to the New World, the book argues that his dealings with the cultures he encountered not only did considerable immediate harm but also set the pattern of behavior for those who followed him.

BibliographyBaker, Samuel. “William Least Heat-Moon: Navigating America.” Publishers Weekly 246, no. 38 (September 20, 1999): 55-56. A profile of the author, whom Baker calls “cartographically-obsessed.”Heat-Moon, William Least. Literary Cavalcade 37 (1984). A two-part interview that provides a look at Heat-Moon’s writing philosophy in general and his reflections on how he came to take the journey which produced Blue Highways.Newquist, David L. “The Violation of Hospitality and the Demoralization of the Frontier.” Midwestern Miscellany 21 (1993). Compares Blue Highways with John G. Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks (1932).
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