Here, There, Elsewhere

Stories from the Road


By William Least Heat-Moon

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From the acclaimed author of Blue Highways, PrairyErth, and Roads to Quoz, a dazzling collection of travel tales from the road.

Here, There, Elsewhere draws together for the first time William Least Heat-Moon’s greatest short-form travel writing. Personally selected by the writer, these pieces take us from Japan, England, Italy, and Mexico to Long Island, Oregon, Arizona, from small towns to big cities, ocean shores and inland mysteries.

Including Heat-Moon’s reflections on writing these pieces, Here, There, Elsewhere is much more than the usual collection of amber; it is a coupled summation of craft and memory. A perfect treasury of prose and provocation for readers old and new, Heat-Moon’s most recent work reveals his absolute mastery across pages many and few.


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About a decade ago, I overheard the epigraph to these pages and jotted it down. In what follows, the other key words—hither and thither—I heard in Ireland when I was about to return from a 1966 jaunt—"a larking around," in my father's terms. While asking a policeman directions to the ferry-slip in Belfast, I turned away from my two pieces of luggage. Nobody saw anything, not even the bobby, but my small grip vanished and with it camera, photographs, logbook, shaving kit, pint of mead, passport, and my Icelandic Airlines ticket home. I still had the dirty laundry.

When I phoned my father to explain a delayed departure, he said, "So now you're over there in a dither in one of your pet thithers." I've come to appreciate his accidental rhyming because it's proved useful for notions in the next few pages intended to launch your way a caboodle of thithers. Come to think about it, maybe I've also found a future epitaph:

Here Lyeth

William So-And-So

Another Gone Thither.

The Here Within There

If you have a willingness to consider hypotheticals, then I have one concerning you: Were it not for a cuspidor, you just might not be reading this sentence. The spittoon belonged, in a way, to Ted Williams, the Boston Red Sox left fielder known as "the Splendid Splinter" because of his lanky frame, and the last major-leaguer to bat .400 for a full season.

In July of 1956, during a spell of feuding with Boston sportswriters over issues of reportage, he clocked his four hundredth home run, the only score in a one-to-zip victory over the team I followed, the Kansas City Athletics. As he crossed home plate, Williams lifted his head toward the men in the pressbox and expectorated an arcing shot in their direction, the first incident in a multi-game fit of temper that came to be called Great Expectorations.

I suppose in our time of even more coarse and nasty behaviors—a day when a yokel will send a wet aerial at a black congressman not for being black but for simply being a Democrat—my repugnance in 1956 might seem unworthy of notice. But to my sixteen-year-old mind, an honored player celebrating a record home run with sputum was deplorable and worse than taking a swing at an annoying reporter.

I was especially attentive to the event because in that golden era of magazine journalism, I wanted to become a photojournalist specializing in sports photography. Embracing the cause of my future fellow tradesmen, I wrote a letter to the Kansas City Star for its regular boxed-column "Speaking the Public Mind." To my surprise and delight, a few days later when the Red Sox were in town, the little dispatch appeared alongside five others, mine illustrated with a two-by-three-inch cartoon of the Splendid Spitter—as some had begun calling him—standing in left field, a cuspidor within salivary range.

Those 125 words were my first to be published. Neither I nor my family had any notion of how easy it is to get a letter accepted in a newspaper, and in our naivete we treated publication like an accomplishment, my mother referring to my "story" or "article," as if I'd written a real column. While I knew it was only a boy's letter, I could imagine something more, a dream made graphic and, as it proved, indelible in memory because of the illustration. I soon forgot my written words but not the cartoon image which I thought lent the piece gravitas. My mother had planted a seed that began germinating, only to wither, resprout, shrivel, revive once again to eventually produce seeds of its own, which is to say, my interests moved from photojournalism to literature to photojournalism to journalism and eventually on to what a chatty fellow waiting for a casino cashier in Las Vegas once said to me: "Oh, you're that other kind of bookmaker. Do your 'bets' pay off?"

Writing books is indeed a gambler's trade because it's one of hope against probability: the belief someone somewhere sometime might choose to spend money on your words rather than on a nice bottle of cabernet or on a couple of lottery tickets. What's more, perhaps vanity oversteps itself when writers gather their stories into collections, a thing so literary I offer it with considerable diffidence. Nevertheless, I remind myself of the old journalistic adage: No guts, no story. Besides, experience makes me confident it's unlikely you will have come upon more than, at the most, a couple of these pieces because many of them surely went to ignite barbecue briquettes or stuff parcels before you could see them. One advantage books have over a newspaper or magazine is that it's harder to wrap yesterday's fish with them.

So your being here now comes down to what life comes down to, and that's the inescapable linking of events, the perpetual outfall of circumstance and consequence: a left fielder with a cartoon cuspidor, a kid with a typewriter, a reader with a book.

These stories, each initially having a life span equivalent to a mayfly's, are not every journalistic piece I've ever written; in file folders are an equal number I'm leaving there because—to use a phrase employed by bookmakers of the pari-mutuel sort as well as by the other kind—I felt they were, so to speak, tales without legs: Even if they made it around the oval once, they are unlikely to do it again. But we readers have our own, different tracks—some for sprinters, some for mudders, others for beasts with great lungs. I hope the horses here will have a chance on your track and can at least finish in the money.

I initially assembled the contents in chronological order which did little more than suggest ways my writing may have changed (I'd like to say developed), but who would care besides me? Instead, I've arranged them intuitively, and that means you too can intuit an order to suit your experience. I believe there are continuing themes here, and finding them replicates the fundamental quest for connections forever necessary to make any sense of any whatever. Knowledge is a gathering for something greater: assemblage. One is collecting, the other constructing. The young absorb information at a prodigious rate, but interpretation and amplification, if they actually happen, develop slowly.

My mind functions like a kaleidoscope: bits and chips collect and, if things go well, arrange themselves over time into gestalts which once in a while transform into a concept of usefulness and, rather less than once in a while, of originality. My books in their greater freedoms, I trust, refract such a process as the words reflect a person, a place, an event, and the pieces adhere into a story; it's then that a writer turns to a reader's intelligence to take up the finishing stage and transform tale into personal meaning. That's the way writing—of a certain kind anyway—works if it is to work at all.

That notion raises another reason for bringing what's now before you back into light. Despite assertions to the contrary, exceptional is the magazine editor who truly trusts in the intelligence and creativity of his readership. How many times from an editorial desk have I heard, "Our audience won't understand this." "This" being an idea, a word, sentence construction, sentence length, literary allusion, historical reference, or a brief digression underpinning an idea. Too few editors grant American readers much capacity or willingness to think critically, just as they believe their audience will not tolerate a vocabulary beyond the basic five or six thousand words in common usage. If I formerly thought editors were wrong on those questions, now I believe my argument is weaker. Evidence of America getting "dumbed down" in self-fulfilling ways grows apace.

To look into the archives of almost any nineteenth-century newspaper or popular magazine is to see a level of expression that makes much contemporary journalism look like burbles from Simple Simon. The so-called plain style with its hallmark, the simple declaratve sentence free of subordinate clauses, reigns supreme and with it, too often, a decline of fluently sophisticated locutions and illuminating modifiers. I just now randomly took down an old book from my shelves: Edmund Flagg's 1838 The Far West: or, A Tour Beyond the Mountains. (The subtitle contains another twenty-one words, including two et ceteras.) Again with randomness, I opened it to page 187 and found the Ohioan's sentence about a night in Illinois:

It was near nightfall when, wearied by the fatigue of riding and drenched with mist, I reached the log-cabin of an old pioneer from Virginia, beneath whose lowly roof-tree I am seated at this present writing; and though hardly the most sumptuous edifice of which it has been my lot to be an inmate, yet with no unenviable anticipations am I looking forward to hearty refreshment and to sound slumber upon the couch by my side.

Would I like to have written that sentence? No, but I like following its sinuousities and partaking of the richness. It's not thin gruel. Today, how disheartening to see our willingness to give up banquets and smorgasbords for drive-thrus, libraries for game rooms, bookshops for places selling bookish items (Thoreau T-shirts, Brontë note cards, Dickens coffee mugs, Dickinson throw pillows).

Setting these stories forth again has allowed me to restore elements one editor or another deemed too challenging for the audience he perceived. My mind is an ordinary organ and thereby useful to judge contemporary capacities; if I can follow along, then so can thousands of others, including those who, unlike me, don't repeatedly have to look up the meaning of algorithm or the spelling of rabbit and sheriff to see where the double consonants belong. What the hell. Largely because of his name, I incline to sixth-century philosopher Simplicius. I admit to knowing little about him other than his disposition to observe nature (he coined the phrase ta panta rhei, "all things flow") and his uneasiness about a rising Christianity encroaching on freedom of thought. The annual sales of dictionaries and atlases probably indicates the existence of readers who own and sometimes use them, people who believe the jolliest part of knowledge is its discovery.

To my surprise, I've liked doing the restitution of the pieces here as I've liked returning details and sentence structures I dared not even try with an editorial practitioner of the hack-and-hew school where contravention passes for editing. In a few places I've put back what one editor called my "questionable earthiness" so you can judge whether it's relevant and thematically appropriate. To be no longer constrained by editorial presumptions and whims and word counts has been a relief, despite the risk of trying a reader's willingness to accept an occasional challenge. In a few places, where time and experience have clarified my intention, I've slightly reworked or expanded ideas. What is here now is as I want it, and that means I own any defects of judgment. (Be all this as it may, some of these stories have been lifted by instances of editing excellence for which I deserve no credit.)

On a number of assignments I was hired because an editor thought my "voice" right for a particular story; yet when I read his version, I saw paragraphs revamped, restructured, restated, reworked, and reduced so that the hired voice, now homogenized by erasures, became pabulum. That very sentence serves to illustrate my point: For some editors it would be too long, the five re words redundant, pabulum too esoteric, and homogenized by erasures too quirky with a meaning not readily apparent. The term for what numerous editors wanted—a word they would blue-pencil—is luculent. (In case you've forgotten or a dictionary isn't at hand: "easily understood.")

Why then, you might ask, accept certain assignments? Because of the offers of grubstaked journeys to places I wanted to visit. The lure was never exposition but exploration, the pursuit not for discourse but for discovery. My introduction to such "work for hire," the first story here, happened at the peak of magazine journalism when I was flown to New York City, put up in a fine hotel, and invited to lunch with an august editor before being sent to the comptroller's office to work out my expenses for a trip into the backcountry of Japan. An account executive's opening question to me was "How much do you need up front?" Flummoxed by the possibilities, I had no answer, and she said, "Would ten thousand dollars get you started?" This for a fellow who began his writing career by scrivening in a small van with a bad water pump, sleeping in the back, living on peanut butter and cottage cheese. Ten grand was a nice embrocation to effect a temporary cure for the itch of wanderlust. (I hear an editor: "Embrocation? Can't you just say liniment? What is this, a damn think-piece?")

To me, a road map is the printed lyrics to a siren's song where highways and rivers are like stanzas, and the little circles indicating towns are notes—some flat, some sharp, a few off-key. To begin a journey is to hunt for its tune, its melody, its harmonics, and to follow along from stanza to stanza is to hum a route from, say, Waxahatchie to Marfa, Shamokin to Altoona. The Sirens of classical mythology, each half-woman and half-bird, sang their enticements from a flowery island garden-meadow, surrounded there by moldering bones of wanderlusting men who heeded the lure of the bird-women's song only to die infatuated, turned to fools by deceiving temptresses knowledgeable of all that happens on earth.

Some of these archetypal elements—gardens, temptation, knowledge, death—may remind you of the Book of Genesis and the Omnipotent One's very first question to Adam hiding his naked belly full of forbidden fruit taken from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Walking the garden in the cool of the day, the Voice asks, "Where art thou?" (One hopes the question, coming from a Grand Omniscience, is rhetorical.) The query, as I take it, is not about location but about condition, and it is the unspoken but implied existential response from the Voice that's important: "Now that thou hast chosen, where dost thou stand? Dost thou see thy way hence among the thorns and thistles beyond the garden?"

Nineteenth-century drawing of a siren

I can't recall any cosmic voices ever asking me where I stand and how I plan to proceed from there, but it's a question I do ask myself, considering that we all arise in a scarcely known uterine thither and inexplicably end up hither and faced with making sense of an initial journey we have no remembrance of. Every night in our dreams we find ourselves in some location, and never do we know how we arrived at that place: arrival without passage (the very thing you want when flying commercial air). Proof you're dreaming is the inability to explain how you arrived where you are: you're in a barn or basement or bubble chamber, yes, but just how the devil did you get there? Answer that. And then, alakazam! the barn or basement is a beach or a belfry, and you have no idea how you got there either. It's such universal passages between hithers and thithers that have made the journey the earliest and most common literary and spiritual motif on the planet; in some form in all cultures it exists.

Every journey begins with a here and lights out for a there; but to a traveler bent more on the there—on destination—a here often receives little exposition beyond a name; yet within every there and elsewhere and somewhere and anywhere hides a here. And so the question: Just how far is here from there? From one point of view, we can visit a there or elsewhere only in memory or imagination because every actual moment can occur solely in a here, just as a now never allows arrival in a then. Yet, it is the beyonds that validate and authenticate the heres we must perpetually travel in and can never depart. Hithers hold the light to thithers and reveal them for what they are and are not.

The more I travel and embrace geophilia, the less perceived distances can become so that the end of a good journey suggests the wholeness of things and the connections that erase an illusion of separation. "Contact! Contact!" cries Thoreau in The Maine Woods: "Who are we? Where are we?" thereby raising the question of links between who and where.

When Pascal writes, "All man's troubles come from not knowing how to sit still in one room," should we believe him? His are the words, of course, of a privileged man who had brought to him his sausages and bathwater. As for the rest of us, we must get up, go out, and set forth. God asks Satan, "Whence comest thou?" and Old Harry grumbles, "From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it." Satanic or not, that reply gives an excellent means of finding one's path.

Elementary navigation relies on first establishing two other positions, so that by triangulating, a precise location—a fix, an I am here—can be determined. It's the situating of those first two that's the rub, and I have yet to discover any method other than by striking out from some here bound for some where; that's why the symbol of philosophy could be represented with greater accuracy not by a brass lamp but by a brass sextant. (How about a GPS you say? Not so graphic.) What is wisdom but perceiving how heres connect to theres, hithers to thithers, I to thee? Elsewheres are heres waiting to be uncovered and seen anew, and separations are veils hiding the wholeness of subject and object, now and then, truth and misperception, your belief and mine.

In one way or another, the stories in this book are theres and elsewheres I try to connect with heres, each of them chanced upon because I couldn't sit still in my room, although at this moment I am in there once again, pen in hand and sitting at my desk, with a hope this sanctum of a here somehow has become larger than when I first left it so long ago. If not, my duffel bag sits ready.


In 1983 I received an assignment for a special issue of Time magazine about the new Japan as the economic engine of Asia; my plan was to wander off into the backcountry and find a story. I had traveled there some years earlier for the ostensible purpose of "studying" (admiring) Zen art, but even more to rid myself of notions left over from World War II, then only a couple of decades past.

For this second trip, Time put me up in Frank Lloyd Wright's wonderfully peculiar Imperial Hotel, now demolished, and the editor gave me a few days in Tokyo to get the feel of Japan. Then, I and my interpreter, Tadashi Sato, headed up into the mountains of Honshu. We were the same height, the same weight, and I think we looked out onto things from about the same plane, and he seemed to embody my Japanese pen pal whose 1946 letters I still hold. For me to move beyond Pearl Harbor and for Tadashi to put Nagasaki in the past were of much importance, and I think that's why the mysterious, stone Dosojin figures spoke to me.

Let me add: An editor demanded I quote Tadashi in perfect American English. Now, at last, he speaks as he actually did—charm over perfection.

Up Among the Roadside Gods

We had come out of Tokyo, Tadashi and I, come out of the chaos of bodies and things; come out by the Bullet Train providing hundred-mile-an-hour passage through rice fields hard by small industries and then up through mountain valleys. We had left a city of rooftop birds—pigeons, crows, sparrows—and we hoped to see a different life in these mountains, among the greatest in Japan, the ones even the Japanese call "the Alps." Here was the Hida Range.

Now, instead of dingy city birds, in Nagano prefecture of central Japan, we saw turtledoves with feathers tipped gold like scales of the carp, and swallows dipping low, and skylarks singing from their hovers. "I know birds," Tadashi said. "There's big ones and small ones."

A city fellow all the way, after serving sixteen years in the national Self-Defense Forces, he took up work in Tokyo as a translator. Although raised in Fukuoka, he was born in 1942 in Nagasaki because his mother, following custom, returned to her natal city for his birth. Because of that, as well as to escape air raids near Fukuoka, she and Tadashi went back again to Nagasaki in August of 1945 for the birth of his brother.

He does not remember the explosion. But he does remember his anger when, a few years later, classmates began dying from radiation-induced leukemia. He has worked to put the bitter memory behind him. As a survivor of the nuclear fire, Tadashi receives free, lifetime medical care, and he reports twice annually for a physical examination. Perhaps because one of the high hills of Nagasaki stood between him and the epicenter, his health is good.

As for me, born in 1939, I too grew up on the war. The tales of my childhood were more often stories from the front than from the Brothers Grimm or Mother Goose. A disabled marine told me that the Japanese had green blood, and that's why they craved red American blood. And one time I sneaked a look at snapshots of POW-camp atrocities worked on Chinese women. For a while thereafter I did not doubt that blood came in different colors to match hearts.

We left the Bullet Train, on which we got to know each other, at Niigata and took an ordinary limited southwestward down along the blue Sea of Japan. At the coastal city of Itoigawa we boarded a primitive local that followed the Fossa Magna, a grand cleft dividing interior Japan, into the Hida Mountains. The train chugged up-country, passing through hot-spring villages with station names now no longer painted in both Japanese characters and Roman letters, passing the jade mines near Hotaka. The railroad paralleled the Hime Kawa, a river that seemed to flow granite, so gray and stony it was. The dark, snowy Hida peaks had gone into another weather, but in the valley the day was warm, and a butterfly wobbled through an open window of the slow coach, turned an unsteady circle, and, having effortlessly gained ten feet of elevation and a tenth of a mile of ground, flew on out the other side. Many things—insects, machines, workers—chugged along slowly up there.

At last the incline leveled to a high flatness split by the Azusa River and surrounded by mountains called "the Roof of Japan." Even at this elevation, rice sproutings lay in all directions. The planting was finished but for a paddy field here and about, and seedlings grew green, ready for the "plum rains" of June. At Misato, a farm village with no lane running straight, we left the railroad and walked up into the foothills where we took a room at a mountain inn called Muroyamaso. We were the last to sit down at long tables already laid with the evening meal: stewed seaweed with onions, white radishes sliced into threads ("For digestion," Tadashi said), raw octopus and tuna, a small grilled trout served cold, deep-fried bits of skewered pork, bean curd, miso soup, and rice. For dessert, fresh strawberries and kanten, a transparent gelatin made from seaweed and here served with, as if to apologize for the inelegance of the seaweed, a cherry blossom set in the center.

We drank beer, but the local farmers, still rosy after a communal bath, drank sake from bottles the size of an old fireplug. They drew the corks with their teeth and looked down the slopes onto their fields with satisfaction and speculations about weather and the potential harvest. Bound tightly around their temples were hachimaki, small towels to absorb the perspiration from their hot soaks, but also to aid concentration.

Present too were members of an Elders Club—each man matched to a woman—everyone wearing a starched, post-bath yukata. Their age having freed them from minding a field, from requisite concentration, the elders did not wear hachimaki. One slight man, his curving spine that of an old field-worker, sat down beside me. He talked, his words coming quickly. Tadashi had to stop eating to interpret the rush of sentences, his translations containing not a single definite article. The fellow's name was Michisada.

"I was in big war," he said to me. "Navy. All of us here fought. To live on was our fate—not our glory." He took my hand and shook it repeatedly and between shakes continued to hold it softly. "Guess my age." I chose to guess sixty. He cackled, shook my hand again, and stroked my face: "I'm sixty-seven!" To Tadashi he said, "You and our American come visit my mushrooms. I'm mushroom farmer. We are foolish people, and we believe mushrooms keep away cancer."

He offered a cigarette, but I thanked him no. He said, "Tobacco not for you?" Leaning close, he inserted his thumb between two fingers. "For you, only sex?" He carefully shielded the gesture from the women, some of whom, listening to the radio, were humming along with "I Never Promised You a Rose Garden." Michisada-san laughed at his gesture, shook my hand, and whispered, "No tobacco, no sex—coffin still wait."

Pulling me to my feet, standing alongside, his arm linked with mine, he motioned to a friend who had been a naval officer of high rank but was now only wondrously long-headed and bearded like Jurojin, god of wisdom and longevity. "He takes picture," Michisada-san said, nodding. "This picture goes to you in America. A souvenir. Look for it one day."

From our room, Tadashi and I watched dusk come down the valley to conceal smoke from burning rice-straw of last year as the small bright fires became celestial in a bowl of night turned topsy-turvy.

On the tatami-covered floor we set out our quilts topped with pillows filled with buckwheat chaff. We lay listening, drowsiness slowing conversation. Then there started up in a grove of near pines an unearthly sound. Soon, from farther away, an answering call, and, from farther yet, another, until the slopes rang with the cries. I asked what night-bird it was, and Tadashi said, "Can it be a real bird? Wild monkeys also live in these mountains." We lay and listened to the darkness for some time, and the last thing I heard was "Who sleeps with such sounds going?"

Well into the night the invisible creatures struck their calls against the dark until toward dawn cuckoos joined in with their ceaseless two-notes, then a rooster, then small chirping birds—buntings and white-eyes—until the morning was a racketing to match the night.

Michisada-san joined us in the big, communal bath, a steamy pool of water reaching to my neck. We were all naked, and the genitalia of the old men hung thick and long from the warm water. He had been waiting for us. With a grower of mulberry leaves, we all sat and soaked, and through a half-misted window we looked down onto the fertile plain below. "Eat all your food this morning," Michisada-san said. "Especially egg. For sex energy in middle of man." He pointed to his middle parts.

I did as I was told and ate all of my breakfast: raw egg over rice, sliced yellow radish, fresh seaweed, fermented wheat, konago (dried fish smaller than matchsticks), bean soup. And then Tadashi and I went out.


  • "Heat-Moon wanders off in every direction in this scintillating collection of short writings...A master at conjuring place, Least Heat-Moon intertwines primeval geology with modern social mores, gorgeous scenery with tourist tackery, vast landscapes with intricate psychologies...There is a dazzling variety of places, people and curiosities, linked by a highway of funny, perceptive, and generous prose."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Hallelujah! William Least Heat-Moon is on the road again...[He] slices down through layers of biography, history, folklore and geology to deliver a place in full.""—Bill Marvel, Dallas Morning News
  • "[Heat-Moon is] at his finest when in often overlooked places...Here, There, Elsewhere is worth the investment in time, a good dictionary, and open-mindedness."—Katherine Hauswirth, Christian Science Monitor
  • "[Heat-Moon's] curiosity and adventurous nature have not dimmed, however, making him a first-rate travel guide. He is an original, memorable word-smith."—Steve Weinberg, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
  • "This captivating new collection of his short-form travelogues ... are always greater than the sum of their parts. But the most endearing tales are those closest to his home and heart."—Kristin Baird Rattini, American Way
  • "Least Heat-Moon is truly one of this nation's best travel writers, if not the best. He takes travel writing seriously as a literary genre. An essential title; highly recommended."—Lee Arnold, Library Journal

    "Altogether wonderful . . . Heat-Moon loves the funky byways of America. . . . His destinations matter less than the infectious curiosity he brings to every journey."—Entertainment Weekly
  • "This is a call to get out a map and explore rural America the beautiful. If urban life makes you feel like you're losing your mind and your way, set out to your own blue highway to quoz."
    Fort Worth Star-Telegram
  • "Mr. Heat-Moon demonstrates such a sharp intelligence, relentless curiosity and fine phrasing that nothing more could be desired."
    Dallas Morning News
  • "A Great American Gothic....Despite his vision of a society that has depleted far too much (forests, aquifers, coastlines) through its excesses, Heat-Moon's sense of humor remains intact."
    Los Angeles Times

On Sale
Jan 8, 2013
Page Count
416 pages

William Least Heat-Moon

About the Author

William Least Heat-Moon is the author of the bestselling classics Blue Highways, River-Horse, and PrairyErth. He lives near Columbia, Missouri.

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