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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:
Another Gone Thither.
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?”
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.
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.
Instead of the road, we followed a shortcut under large pines into the valley orchards and vineyards. The rocky soil was fertile where it got water, so, although too far above the river for paddy fields, it did produce fruit, melons, and chestnuts, all irrigated by timer-controlled sprinklers.
Toward the end of a dusty lane we came to the farm of people he knew and wanted me to meet. The Misawa family had lived in Nagano (“long field”) for a thousand years, most of the millennium as rice growers. After the Second World War that took both of his brothers, Daimaru Misawa bought an inexpensive piece of land on the dry slope above the valley floor. He cleared off mountain pines and, with other villagers, put in a cooperative irrigation system. In the nineteen fifties, he built a small home, then a larger one in the seventies. His five-acre farm was about twice the average size here, and his grapes, apples, peaches, and melons did well. His eldest son, Isamu, had just set up vinyl tents, a promising new method for improving grape production.
Now, Daimaru, at seventy-two, had time to build a traditional Japanese garden with a small fishpond, and he was free to watch television documentaries and foreign movies late into the night. Through Tadashi, I asked him about the strange night-bird cries. “I know,” he said. “Only come with darkness. Called Bird Nobody Knows. You have also in America?” I said, “Oh, many species of BNKs.”
To welcome us, the women, Michiko and Fuyuko, served a lunch of barley tea, small buns stuffed with pigweed, slices of intensely cured pickles, strawberries from their patch, fresh grape juice from the vineyard. We sat beneath an old peach tree in the orchard, the grass full of the vernal blooms. I pulled off a couple leaves of a dandelion, held them up, and said some Americans eat the tender shoots in a spring salad. As Tadashi translated, the women’s expressions changed from curiosity to surprise, before looking to me to see my nod that such was indeed true, and then the women giggled into their hands. Eating dandelions! Daimaru pulled one from my hand and said, “We eat everything, but this! This is weed!” I picked a leaf of a plantain and said it was also a good spring green, and to that the women were beside themselves with laughter. Then Daimaru, holding both dandelion and plantain leaves to appraise them, said, “Next spring, I try,” and the women again put small hands over their laughter.
The family rose to continue stripping their fruit. From a branch holding six or seven olive-sized green peaches, the women would pluck all fruits but the largest so that it might grow to its maximum. That painstaking attention gave them a good living.
Tadashi and I hiked down lanes lined with mugwort smelling like sage, through a bamboo thicket, into a blossoming locust grove, on past rice fields beside small houses, many of them with ridgepoles carrying a golden ideograph symbolizing water, a kind of invocation not for rain but for protection against house fires. The oldest homes had thatched roofs caked with moss, and the newer places synthetic tiles and solar panels. “Japan,” Tadashi said. “Always mixture.”
Somewhere near each house was a small garden of leeks, bottle gourds, eggplants, cucumbers, cabbages, tomatoes. There was almost no open land not turned into a rice field, an orchard, a vineyard, a vegetable patch. Along the lanes were hedges of yew and slender irrigation troughs rushing swift, cold water, some of it carrying clover blossoms children had launched a mile away. Above, winged shadows of circling buzzards sent pigs squealing for cover, and in the afternoon a wind from a dark, mountain storm set scarecrows to flapping but dropped no rain.
Often, out of a paddy field, muddy prints from a worker’s bare feet walked bodiless up the road to the next plot. Stepping along in the tracks gave me a sense of moving in another time, and I thought how, in 1945, such a trek here would have been unimaginable for an American. Occasionally, an unexpected flock of blurred, dark shapes of rice-field birds rose screeching into the air like so much winged mud flung upward. It was as if the damp earth itself thought to take flight.
Hiking that piece of remote Japan was an encountering of so many unknown things that my curiosity began to feel overloaded, and my perceptions seemed to be narrowing to the point of closing down, and that’s when I became aware of having passed several carved-stone markers set along the waysides. They awakened me, and I began seeing again. There were dozens of them: at crossroads, above fields, next to boundaries, beside a brook. Each was of gray granite, each uniquely shaped and chiseled, but all of them showed a pair of figures cut into the face of naturally shaped or smoothed stones about three feet high. I asked Tadashi were they tombstones, and he said, “Shinto roadside gods. In Japanese, we call Dosojin. Very ancient.”
Sojin means “ancestor deity,” but do, a homonym of philosophic significance, with a slight change in the vowel sound can mean either “road” or “earth.” The figures reminded me of the once-prevalent wayside shrines of crucifixes carved by peasant farmers in the Tyrolean Alps. The figures in Nagano conveyed not a Christus in agony but workers living sometimes in resignation and at other times in vibrant acceptance of difficulties. Across parts of Japan, Dosojin smile and scowl, dance and kiss, drink and sometimes copulate; along our route they were often a couple standing simply in quietude, holding hands, bodies scarcely distinguishable one from the other. Always it was man beside woman, because Dosojin are female and male, singular and plural, sweet and bitter, health and sickness, life and death, one and its other. They are a linking figure, an earth-ancestral deity to guide lives passing by.
They are not stripped-to-loincloth saviors long in dying; rather they are field hands garbed in wrinkled trousers or courtiers enwrapped in robes, whose sagging eyelid or curled lip or impudent chin thrust upward may express a countryman’s untutored chisel responding to existence. Dosojin care not about sin and redemption; they belong to Shintoism where there’s no necessity to exclude alternatives or opposites; if something is useful, then use it, and if not, ignore it. In their ordinariness and sublimity they are about nows moving in a long flux of befores and afters.
I began, so it seemed, hearing them. From one face staring brazenly: Eat all your egg? Keep on trudging! Another with half-closed eyes: What’s your hurry? The coffin will be waiting. And one standing alertly: Good luck, boys! And then one who spoke not at all, smiling slyly as his hand groped for a smooth breast under his companion’s kimono while she reached deftly toward his middle, she surely hoping he’d eaten all his egg.
Seventeenth-century stonecutters, freed from building fortifications during ruinous civil wars, returned home to carve figures that might promise peaceful days and protection against destructions; from them emerged godheads made in the image of peasant realities where the traveler sees not the human in the god but rather the power of realizing life—a capacity for deity—in the human.
The older Dosojin are sometimes in the form of massive stone phalluses but the genitalia is about regeneration and fertility, not unlike some ancient American rock art. If these deities expose an organ of increase to passersby, it is not to flash an obscenity but to bless them with the prosperity of generation and to give affirmation of creative powers that lift a life beyond animal existence. That’s why, at the New Year, the Nagano Dosojin festivals are children’s celebrations where new life honors the continuance of life. If, during the rest of the year, children throw mud at the stone figures, or whip them with sticks, or urinate on them, the long-suffering Dosojin will be cleansed by the festival-night fires and will reemerge again to offer a quickening and endurance to human souls.
Layers of meaning here are ancient and many and reveal an ambiguous fluidity requiring not literateness but simply a willingness to interpret a three-dimensional art. The invitation to the traveler is to abandon exclusive definitions and limitations created by presumed absolutes. Dosojin suggest reaching beyond bewilderments of contemporary life—where time is scarce to get one’s bearings—and into an older realm where change was evolutionary and thereby unquestionably significant, and one knew what to pay attention to. They intimate that underneath rapid and bewildering turns, there is a more stable spiritual substructure for all who will seek it.
On our way back to the farm for the night, Tadashi and I became confused about our course. After a wrong path, we happened upon a crossroads Dosojin carved with a kind of crude compass rose as if pointing out the ancient reminder that life itself is journeys crossing othernesses offering fellowship and unions. Pointing to the compass-like carving in the stone, Tadashi said, “Dosojin showing us which is way.”
Traveling through England in 1966, I discovered the excellence of genuine ales, only to return home with a longing for an authentic pint. In the early eighties I read about nascent efforts to brew, once again, good beer in America, and I thought a story about why such a movement was rising and what it promised might further the cause of independent brewers boldly taking up against the crushing power of certain corporations. I wanted to help underdogs snap at the heels if not bite into brewery magnates, and, to be sure, I hoped to make it—at last—easier on my travels in America to close a day with a good ale or lager, a fine pilsner or porter, maybe even a barley wine.
Of all the stories I’ve written, “A Glass of Handmade” has had the widest circulation and impact, and even a quarter-century later, I continue to hear responses to it. If only other casus belli I’ve tried to champion in short pieces and in books could have been so quickly and happily concluded! But their time also will come.
For this piece, I have let stand references to dates as they originally were in 1985 so that now the story is partly a history of a movement. To bring a couple of details forward: Redhook Brewing got bought up by giant Anheuser-Busch which later got bought up by an international corporation even bigger, and the day of my being able to sit down over a pint with a brewing pioneer has passed. Instead, my town now has a pair of brewpubs, two of nearly two thousand now across America, the most since the 1880s. A local grocery carries some two hundred kinds of malt beverages made by independent American brewers: ales, porters, pilsners, stouts, Oktoberfests, lagers, and wheats, some made from or flavored with cherries, peaches, vanilla, chilies, agave, cocoa nibs, hemp seeds, sorghum, and, for all I know, kohlrabi and turnips.
One last detail: In 1986, a small company making home-brewing equipment sent me a kit as thanks for the reportage, a gift I forwarded to the Venerable Tashmoo who spent his last years concocting a variety of (usually) toothsome suds we often shared at his home in the foothills of the Bear River Mountains in northern Utah. Our final conversation was mellowed by a wedge of sharp cheddar and a glass of his Tashmoo Titillator.
Jack Kerouac often went in search of the perfect American bar, a quest I have furthered for different reasons and with results steadily diminishing, mostly because of the continuing absorption of American breweries into larger corporations. Today , only ten companies brew 95 percent of American beer, with Anheuser-Busch and Miller controlling more than half of that output. By 1990, I read, they will have two-thirds of domestic brewage. Now, if you consider Lite a beer rather than a mere beverage, or if Budweiser satisfies, then you have no need for concern. On the other hand, if you desire beers regional and traditional, even idiosyncratic, in those statistics you may see alarm. After all, how can a perfect bar exist without genuine brews? Drinking Lite in an estimable bar is like watching donkey ball at Wrigley Field.
A longtime friend who appears in my work here and there as a handy foil and commentator, a journalism professor and a Canadian expatriate of Scotch and Ojibway ancestry, had recently heard that an authentic, traditional brew was available in Albany, New York, once an Erie Canal city known for good ales. He (I call him the Venerable Tashmoo) and I set out for the capital in quest of a glass of genuine handmade. In an industrial-district warehouse not far from the Hudson River, we found the tiny operation William Newman opened in 1981 after learning the craft in England. Standing in the brewhouse, he explained how he made his Amber, Winter, and pale ales in the traditional way, using nothing more than barley, water, hops, and yeast. Because his annual production was fewer than ten thousand barrels (a barrel holds thirty-one gallons), Newman’s operation is a boutique, or micro-, brewery. Last year he handmade some 4,600 barrels of ale, about what Anheuser-Busch pumps out faster than I can, on a hot day, finish a bottle of it.
One September afternoon, the Venerable and I watched Newman brew, and we tasted grains of his various malted barleys, and helped him stir the mash; we sampled the sweet wort (pronounced “wert”), the hopped wort, the green beer, and the finished ale fresh from the maturing tank. Young Newman (to be a microbrewer is to be under forty) wanted to give his city a choice of flavors and fill a vacuum industrial breweries have left as they bought up makers of regional beers. He wanted something distinctively local and good, worth a customer’s effort to find his products, and he planned to make it all himself rather than resorting to contract brewing whereby a larger company turns out a beer according to a recipe provided by a would-be brewer. New Amsterdam of New York City and Samuel Adams of Boston are contract breweries, not micros. But now that demand for Newman’s ales has grown, he uses the Schmidt Brewery in Pennsylvania to make his bottled lager, although he is in attendance.
From Bill’s old warehouse, Tashmoo and I broadened our search for good beer—beer of another time, we believed—to Rochester, New York, at the other end of the Erie Canal. There the California Brew House (a tavern, not a brewery) offered 178 different labels. We refreshed memories of domestic brews we hadn’t poured in years—like Yuengling’s Porter and Ballantine India Pale Ale—and imports we’d never poured, from Norwegian Aass to Polish Zywiec. “When I was about thirty,” Venerable said over an Old Peculier of peculiar orthography, “I ordered a corned-beef sandwich and a beer. The waitress said, ‘What flavor?’ That was a time when a brand meant a distinctive taste.”
In October, we learned of a bar in the basement of an old Washington, DC, apartment building where the Brickskeller offered nearly five hundred bottled beers. Before the winter was out, we’d visited twice. Late on the second trip, dedicated to foreign beers, we shared Pfungstadter, Stingo, Gorilla, Leopard, Bombardier, Double Dragon, Damm, Zipfer. As Tashmoo finished half of a Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter from England and I a Smith’s Nut Brown Ale, I noticed inside our glasses the drying foam created strata called Irish lace. Looking across the table at the other empty glasses still splendidly layered, I pointed out the stratifications, the archaeology of an evening. Tashmoo, raising his glass as if hunting a small shard, said, “Try to get that with a mug of insipid American brewage.”
At the next table, a man raised his Thousand Oaks Cable Car and said, “You gents need to try a West Coast beer. Meet the future of American brewing.” That was the sentence that offered what was to become a kind of salvation, a knowledge forever bringing either joy or sorrow—the first when you have it, the other when you don’t.
Still, our quest might have turned out differently had I not misjudged the climate of southeast Alaska and overloaded my backpack with unneeded cold-weather gear. On my way north to write a story about fishing and logging among the Tlingit and Haida Indians, I stopped over in Seattle for an interview. Later, walking down Madison Street toward the Alaska State Ferry slip, and wanting to get from beneath my pack of miscalculations, I happened on the Mark Tobey pub. It was what they call well-appointed, right to the blackboard menu: Scotch eggs, smoked salmon, mushroom canapés, brandied bread pudding. The tap handles gleamed with local names I’d never heard of: Redhook, Pyramid, Bridgeport, Hale’s Pale, Grant’s Russian. Because I liked the name, I ordered a Redhook and lifted the pint for a gargantuan gulp, dimly aware of a fellow watching me. The ale rolled and jumped in my mouth, in my head. It made me drink with palate, tongue, cheeks, nose, throat, and—according to my observer—with my eyes. “Well?” Brian Milbrath asked, and I mumbled it couldn’t be an American who brewed anything like that.
“Yep, right here in Seattle,” he said. Milbrath understood my need to taste, to fight guzzling, to keep silent for the concentration. “I see you’re not a Wet Air or a Green Death man.” Wet Air is the insanely popular American light beer with the orthographic cuteness which, he believed, was its single claim to distinction. Green Death is a local term for the large-selling green-labeled beer named after the grand Seattle volcano.
Milbrath told me he was a keg specialist, one who installs and maintains beer-tap systems. While I sampled my way down the draft line, he listed the microbreweries of the Northwest: Redhook, Thomas Kemper, Yakima, Hart, Hale’s, and Kufnerbrau, all of Washington. In Oregon there were Bridgeport, Hillsdale, and Widmer. In California, Sierra Nevada, Palo Alto, Stanislaus, Thousand Oaks.
Along the entire West Coast, more were appearing. Throughout the region were also brewery pubs, and in San Francisco was the microbrewery that outgrew the term but retained the quality, Anchor. Seattle is a wellhead for people who honor taste buds as much as appetites: Cooper’s Alehouse had twenty-two taps, eighteen of them microbrews; Jake O’Shaughnessy’s restaurant had a backbar of more than a hundred-fifty bourbons and fifty single-malt Scotches; even a Safeway not far distant sold thirteen roasts of coffee beyond the cans of Maxwell House and Folgers. Seattle, Milbrath was saying, had become the city in America for serious beer explorations because the citizens prefer to taste what they pay for. Maybe it was the frequent vapors of the Northwest coast: Even they had more color, flavor, and aroma than Wet Air. Light beers did not sell here as they do in, say, Phoenix or Cincinnati or Atlanta. In Seattle, it was becoming more difficult to peddle a beer with a lone attribute: chilled wetness.
The conversation drew a circle around us as if we were rolling dice. Everybody, including one brewing chemist, had a charge to make against the big beer companies. The group hooted down a couple of patently loony claims, but on three there was consensus: (1) Industrial brewers are turning more and more to “heavy” or high-gravity brewing whereby beer is made with strong alcoholic content only to be watered down before bottling. (2) The “beechwood” aging proclaimed by Anheuser does not mean beer stored in wooden casks; rather, it refers to thin strips of wood thrown into the steel maturing tanks. (3) Miller Lite contains propylene glycol alginate, a seaweed extract supposed to leave a residue on the tongue to hold a bit longer what little flavor there is. That charge, the chemist said, could be checked in Chemical Additives in Booze, a booklet published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Before I got under my pack again to leave for Alaska, I wrote a postcard to Tashmoo: The quest—Next stop, Puget Sound.
Home again, I bought the booklet and found these compounds listed for Miller Lite: propylene glycol alginate, corn syrup, chemically modified hop extracts, amyloglucosidase, papain enzyme, liquid sugar, potassium metabisulfite. I phoned the company and got spokesman Bob Bertini, who said, “We have no additives in our beers.” I read the list to him. He answered with what sounded like a dismissive snort: “I won’t get into the items one by one, but there’s no way that list is factual. Other than corn syrup, yeasts, hop extracts, and water, we don’t discuss our recipes—for competitive reasons.” Wasn’t that rather convenient? “Look, we’re advertising purity now because we saw a growing concern regarding any product with preservatives or additives. We haven’t changed our beers—we just changed our labels.”
Tashmoo and I arrived in Seattle on an English spring day—dim and damp—just the kind of weather for a small tap house in the late afternoon with an occasional seagull flapping down the street. Cooper’s, although not in Kerouac’s perfect-bar category, nevertheless had the feel of a neighborhood place, a corner tavern, but this one was a tabernacle of handmade brews and side-order food. Despite the loudly testosteronerated, meathook softball teams which meet there to swill plastic pitchers of Green Death, other customers, although young, generally knew what should and should not be in a glass of real beer. Zymurgy was a serious topic.
We had just sat down when, as if choreographed for us, over the television came a loud Boom-diddy-boom-boom… Made the American Way!… No preservatives!… No additives!… Purity you can see and trust! To the beer commercial, a young chap called out a common term for male bovine scat. Pleased by my smile, he said, “Clarity ain’t purity! You gonna trust a company that manipulates its beer so it can put it in clear bottles?”
While the city dripped, the Venerable and I sat snug and judged Northwest handmade. He considered Bridgeport the best, we both deemed Pyramid Ale with its high hoppiness a splendid thing, but I chose the whole line from Redhook Brewing Company: Redhook, Blackhook, Winterhook, Ballard Bitter. I liked moving from one to another. It kept the taste buds alert.
A man trying to save money—microbeers are about half-again higher—ordered a Bud Light. The Venerable said to him, “If you want to save money, order a seltzer with lemon.” Soon after, Tashmoo, becoming bold as a zymurgical evangelist, lectured a young woman dithering about her thighs and the calories in a Bud Light. “Miss,” he said, “that beer has only a third fewer calories than a regular Budweiser. The same ratio between Miller and Miller Lite. Fifty calories less, that’s it. You know what fifty calories is? A half-cup of soybean sprouts. Light beers are jokes as beer and hoaxes as dietetics.”
That’s when I reminded him of what we’d seen at lunch in a place downtown: A man—fifties, blue blazer, penny loafers, Wall Street Journal under his arm—ordered a Hale’s Pale Ale, took a single sip, handed it back to the bartender to dump, and ordered a Heineken. The Cooper’s bartender, who’d begun listening in, said, “The beer a guy drinks at twenty-five is the one he drinks at fifty-five.” Considering it, Tashmoo, just beyond the half-century mark himself, said, “Then I should still be drinking Old Wooden Shoe of Minster, Ohio.”
Over the course of the evening this notion emerged: The microbrewers confront a generation of World War II servicemen who learned beer from the 3.2 percent stuff in olive-drab cans, men who came to believe that taste in beer, like taste in water, was to be avoided. With a younger generation, small brewers must face those brain-stunned by television advertising that has made them unwittingly want to drink only what corporations want to sell. Tashmoo, ever the commentator: “Shape the audience to your product—that’s where you make money.”
The small brewers of traditional lagers and real ales must address customers who will consider a lo-cal lunch to be a diet soda with a side of fries. Yet, in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Denver, and even Dallas of all places, microbrewers, if not nipping at the heels of the industrials, were at least growling low in the corner. The next day, the Venerable and I went off to a growler.
The Redhook brewery was in a former transmission-repair shop in Ballard, Washington, near the waterfront of Seattle. Although the lower area was still a kind of seagoing place, now it also had galvanizing companies and genetic-engineering labs. Ballard stood with one leg in the past, one in the future—about the same position as Redhook Brewing.
Paul Shipman, president of the company, grew up in Philadelphia, was graduated from Bucknell in English literature, received an MBA from the University of Virginia, learned winemaking in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and, in the seventies, sold wine door to door as if it were encyclopedias. When he moved to Seattle, he worked first for a winery even though he had long been passionate about beers of full flavor. He never gave any thought to improving wine, but he knew that beer in the United States was another territory. Travel in England had confirmed how far Americans have strayed from their earlier tradition, but, he told us, “I just couldn’t see any kind of a business in beer.” Then, in 1981, his friend Gordon Bowker, chairman of Starbucks Coffee and Tea Company, gave him “a pitch” about opening a boutique brewery.
Shipman said, “The brewing industry showed signs of being ripe for a small entrepreneur.” The megabrewers, growing huge by absorbing regional breweries, had such a lust for profit they moved all of their beers toward the middle of a public taste they could create and control. Their lager-style beers became ever less flavorful as they proved Americans would buy slightly alcoholic carbonated water, a solution one small brewer calls “lawn-mower beer—what you drink mowing the yard.” The brewing process changed as zymurgical chemistry developed and per-barrel cost dropped. Industrial chemists found ways to control the highly erratic nature of beer fermentation, methods requiring chemical inducements. “The bigger the scale of operation,” Shipman said, “the safer a corporation wants to be. It moves toward the middle to avoid risk, and chemically manipulated brewing helps reduce risks.”
Excerpted from Here, There, Elsewhere by William Least Heat-Moon Copyright © 2013 by William Least Heat-Moon. Excerpted by permission.
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The Here Within There 5
Up Among the Roadside Gods 17
Second Draft 29
A Glass of Handmade 31
Putting Legs Back on a Story 55
A Little Tour in Yoknapatawpha County 57
A Conducer 69
Oysters and American Union 71
The Nose of Chaac 79
Beyond Cross-Purposes 93
Crossing Kansas 95
All Knowledge Human and Cosmic 107
Out East on the North Fork 109
A Dust Ball Under the Bed 121
Of Time and a River 123
To Explain Delight 133
With a Good Stick in Hand 135
The Manichean 139
The Old Land of Misfortune 141
In the Guise of Fiction 153
The Last Thanksgiving of Whispers-to-Hawks 155
Approaching the Ineffable 163
Prairie and Plain 165
To Go Solo 181
A Fallen Yew, an Oaken Pillar, a Forgotten Birch 183
The Great Miscellaneous 203
A Residue of History 205
Not Far Out of Tullahoma 217
A New Order 229
Designing a Corporate Potlatch for the Next Century 231
A Trio of Postcards 243
Just South of Ultima Thule 245
Sounded by Trumpets Silent 261
Writing PrairyErth 263
The 3,170th County 271
The Smoked Ciscoes of Gitche-Gumee 273
The Because-It's-There Association 283
A Land for the Resolutely Curious 285
Anchovies and Olives 299
Morning in Manarola 301
Something of a Firefall 311
Wandering Yosemite 313
One Sweet Talker 325
Into the Antipodes 327
A Criminal to Remain Anonymous 343
On the Staked Plain 345
Assonance from the Upper Missouri 351
The Pencil Makers 353
Why Do It So Often (and in So Many Ways) 363
The Classic American Road Trip 365
Bipedal Kaleidoscopes 371
Pictures from the West Country 373
Chronology of Publication 391
In Acknowledgment 393
Index of Places 395
Posted February 8, 2013
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Posted February 4, 2013
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Posted October 13, 2013
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