What’s so special about Kansas: Interview with William Least Heat-Moon

Whatever else prairie is—grass, sky, wind—it is most of all a paradigm of infinity, a clearing full of many things except boundaries, and its power comes from its apparent limitlessness; there is no such thing as a small prairie any more than there is a little ocean, and the consequence of both is this challenge: try to take yourself seriously out here, you bipedal plodder, you complacent cartoon.

William Least Heat-Moon, PrairyErth

We have to admit, that we have used this series on the site as an excuse and reason to reach out to some of our favorite authors. We heard back from Rolf Potts and Marci Penner, and now, we’re honored that we got some face time, or rather Facebook time, with William Least-Heat Moon.

To start with, yes, we know he lives in Missouri, but he spent a great deal of time in Kansas researching his book PrairyErth: A Deep Map, and he’s an advocate for the prairie and the small town.

He’s written extensively about America and its landscapes in books like Blue Highways: A Journey into America, where he writes of checking out the back roads of the country after his divorce and in River-Horse: The Logbook of a Boat Across America, sets off aboard a small boat named Nikawa (“river horse” in Osage) from the Atlantic at New York Harbor in hopes of entering the Pacific near Astoria, Oregon.

His work isn’t just about travel within America; his most recent book Here, There, Elsewhere: Stories from the Road is a collection of his selections of his best shorter travel stories.

His insightful, thoughtful writing paints the pictures of lives and places that may be far beyond our own experience, but he brings them close and takes us with him on his journeys. His writing is intensely good and will stay with you.

Deep in working on his own book, and not knowing us beyond our cautious request that he write the foreword for our book, he graciously answered a few questions for us.

Kansas Trail Guide: You wrote PrairyErth, an in-depth book on Chase County, Kansas, which is situated in the Flint Hills. Part of the area has been set aside as a national preserve. Why do you think that the Flint Hills ecosystem is an area worth protecting?

Heat-Moon: It’s the American uniqueness of the tallgrass prairie and its rarity today.

[Kansas Trail Guide: The tallgrass prairie is at 4% of what it once was, and one of its largest intact swathes is in the Flint Hills. Thanks to the underlying rock, it’s a landscape that is unfarmable, and so was saved from being plowed under, but there has been a switch, it seems, from seeing the land as useless to a unique ecosystem.]

Kansas Trail Guide: What do you think is the appeal of a landscape like the Flint Hills that some may think is uninteresting or uninspiring compared to mountain or beach landscapes?

Heat-Moon: The tall prairie asks people to look more closely and deeply (hence the subtitle of PRAIRYERTH–“A Deep Map.”)

Kansas Trail Guide: In our upcoming trail guidebook, we’re focusing on the trails that can be accessed on foot, on a bike, or on a horse as compared to any highways or byways, forcing people to slow down to experience the area.

What value, if any, do you see in getting off the paved sidewalks and onto trails through the woods and the prairies?

Heat-Moon: Our human origins do not lie along sidewalks and paved surfaces; rather they lie where living things arise from soil and water.

Kansas Trail Guide: Your writing has focused around traveling, often more slowly than most people travel. Do you have another big trip in the works? Or one that you’re working on writing up?

Heat-Moon: My days of writing about long travels are likely at my back now. I hope now to look more closely at what I find on the little place in the woods where I live.

[Kansas Trail Guide: We’re looking forward to reading more from him.]

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