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The Western Landscape
William Least Heat-Moon

The Missouri River: Waterway to the West

The Missouri River fascinated me, I suppose, initially because that's the river I grew up along. I grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. And at the time before St. Louis built a huge gateway arch there, we in Kansas City, speaking now of the '40s and '50s, we considered Kansas City as the gateway to the West. And that was due partly to the Missouri River—that was the first opening—from Kansas City, but also at various times that was the starting point for the Oregon and California Trails and for the Santa Fe Trail. Everything went through there. So I think that right from the beginning, I saw America opening westward and it took me a while to understand how really to turn myself artistically perhaps to the east, and try to make these connections of how East fits together with West. As I said, the Missouri River was really the first grand egress to the West.

A Changed River

There are places when you get out on the northern Great Plains—the country that George Catlin traveled widely and did probably most of his famous paintings in that territory—there're places out there on land where you can see some of the vistas that you see in his paintings. Many of those horizon lines are remarkably similar today. The people who were there look different, if they're there at all, but the landscape is certainly recognizable. What is not recognizable, except in a few places, is the Missouri River that he traveled up into Mandan country. The Corps of Engineers has reengineered the Missouri River from almost its headwaters just slightly on the other side of Yellowstone Park in Montana all the way to St. Louis to such a degree that it's truly a different river. When Catlin went up it in the Yellowstone, they on the boat were dealing with a braided river, that is, a river of many channels, some of them no more than trickles, others deep enough to hold a small steamboat. But it was truly a labor to get a boat up that river. Even today, if you look at one of the famous cruising guides that we have in this country, the Quimby's Guide, it tells you if you want to go up the Missouri River just as a day cruiser, think twice about it. Those are not the words, but that's the tenor of this.

There's an old slogan that—this is from probably 1900 or thereabouts (we're closer to Mark Twain's time now)—an old slogan among river men that boys went up the Mississippi, men went up the Missouri River. It was truly a challenge. And one of George Catlin's wonderful phrases describing the Missouri River, this works for people who know their classical myth in history and know about the River Styx, s–t–y–x, Catlin plays upon that at one point where, I guess it was the Yellowstone was getting snared in all these snags and sawyers that the Missouri River was filled with. He has a sentence in there referring to it as truly a river of sticks, s–t–i–c–k–s. When we ascended the Missouri River, its entire length—in 1995, the trip that I describe in River-Horse—there were two places where we got into a section that was a river of sticks and that was one of the moments where we felt most closely connected to the river that George Catlin knew and the one that we were seeing in 1995. But as I was suggesting earlier, this is a different river today. It's a different experience to describe it from Sioux City to the mouth above St. Louis, it's essentially a single channel and it looks like a child's notion of a river. It's not the sophisticated complex river that is its natural form, that is the braided river of many channels, many islands, thousands of islands. I think the percentage of islands left in the Missouri River now from George Catlin's time is something like less than ten percent. Almost ninety percent of the islands are gone. Depends on what time of year you measure those and whether you count a sandbar as an island or not.

In the Footsteps of Lewis and Clark

The world that Lewis and Clark went into, and we need to keep in mind that George Catlin was about eight years old when they left St. Louis, and he was about eleven when the expedition returned. Just at the right age for news of this great exploration to reach a boy whose mind was ripe for that kind of information. Lewis and Clark went into a world that was pretty well-known to European-Americans or Canadians all the way to the Mandan villages. It wasn't set out in any kind of even remotely scientific way and it wasn't even described very well in terms of any kind of writing or literature. But nevertheless, the routes were known. Lewis and Clark were not setting off into an unknown world, and certainly when we remember that that there were a good many thousand Indians living there and had been living there for at least fifteen thousand years, this was not an unknown land, except perhaps to people in Washington or Philadelphia and New York. When George Catlin went up in the 1830s, it was even more well-known, and after he came back we knew much more about it and certainly we knew far more about the indigenous people there. And when you add his marvelous work to that of Prince Maximilian and Karl Bodmer, we truly have a portrait of a people in a changed day.

The American West: No Garden of Eden

Sometimes Euro-Americans would, for various reasons, would speak of the American West as a Garden of Eden. I don't like the phrase for several reasons. One, it applies a Christian term to something that at that time was simply not Christian. But I don't like to think of any land as a Garden of Eden, because as I understand the Garden of Eden from reading Genesis, the planet has never been like that. This world in the West was a world that could kill one very quickly. This was a dangerous place to be. I don't mean simply from other human beings there. I'm speaking of storms; I'm speaking of starvation; of animals; of weather; any number of things could take one's life. This was a place of true challenge, and certainly the Great Plains were among the most challenging of those areas. This was a place that, not long before George Catlin went up the river, this is a place Zebulon Pike would refer to as the Great American Desert. This was a land that intimidated people more than anything else. It looks a little more friendly when you're on one of the rivers because you have water right there. But when you come up out of the river valleys, those Great Plains can even to this day can frighten people. This is the country that the coastal Americans, as we know, call fly-over country. But it's a magnificent land. And it's magnificent in part because it is not a Garden of Eden, because it is a challenge simply to move in that land—to get across it in any means, even by automobile today.

"In the River"

I think in part because my first book was Blue Highways, and my third book is River-Horse, and they both deal with crossing America by two different conveyances; wheels in the first one and a hull, a boat, in the third one, people tended to assume, readers of River Horse, that going across country was in a boat was sort of just like driving on a wet highway. Like a real rainy day, perhaps. Well, it's not at all like that. When you're on a highway, you're actually on the highway, you're on the pavement. When you're on a river— that's not a very good preposition there. You are in the river. We at all times were at least two feet into that river with our hull and the motors, or where we didn't have the motors, with our paddles. We were always dealing with two to three feet of river, being within it. Well, that changes everything. It certainly changes the speed that you move, which changes your perceptions and it changes your will, it changes, that is, your will to continue. It becomes a challenge at times simply to keep yourself alert, because the going can be so slow. But what it does, it enforces a view of America that one cannot achieve in any other way. When I get in a vehicle now, and move across any part of the country, it seems that I'm just skimming along, flying along, because I still remember what it felt like to be on the Ohio River, or the Mississippi or the Hudson, the Columbia, whatever river it was that we were on. How much we labored just to make a mile or so but that labored passage forever changed the way that I see this country. I tended to look at the country too much in terms of linkage by concrete and asphalt. Now I see it more in terms of drainages and creeks, rivers, even ponds to some degree.

George Catlin: Writer and Humanist

I think that George Catlin has not been appreciated to the degree that he deserves as a writer. I think he is appreciated as an ethnographer and certainly as a painter. I think, though, that his style is remarkable, and as a writer who spends a great deal of time working on how I express things, I pay attention to that in other writers. He had a capacity that few other people of his time or coming thereafter had. To read these notes on the North American Indians is simply a linguistic delight. This man can handle words. I think he's also remarkable given the 1830s when he was up on the upper Missouri—the sympathy that he had, because it is rare. There's one passage that concludes his first letter in his book that I think has two aspects that intrigue me, if I could just cite them. He says:

"The reader will be disposed to forgive me for dwelling so long and so strong on the justness of the claims of these people and for my occasional expressions of sadness, when my heart bleeds for the fate that awaits the remainder of their unlucky race, which is long to be outlived by the rocks, by the beasts, and even birds and reptiles of the country they live in;—,set upon by their fellow-man, whose cupidity, it is feared, will fix no bounds to the Indian's earthly calamity, short of the grave."

Well, I think that's a beautifully written paragraph, but the two things that strike me in addition to that are first of all, the sympathy that he had with the people that he was meeting, in this instance on the Great Plains. If people who had come after him had carried that same sympathy with them, relations even today, in the twenty-first century, between the Red and White would be so much easier and so much better than they have been. The other aspect is that I'm happy to say that Catlin was wrong there because American Indians have not been annihilated. Their culture is not dead. They have survived. They are not in the grave. And while yes, there have been tremendous losses, I think that he might be rather pleased today to see the liveliness, the ways in which so many tribal Americans have continued to survive and express themselves. He would be delighted to see the flowering of American Indian art, for example. I'm thinking especially of painting and sculpture here. I'm sure that would have moved him deeply to see how that's come about. And he would be happy to realize that that well-written but rather dark sentence that I just read has not quite come to fruition in the way that he imagined.

Finding the Tall-Grass Prairie

All three of my books began by looking at maps. The first one was an attempt to find a way across the country from coast to coast staying off of federal highways, on so-called back roads, the ones that I began calling blue highways. That's become a term now in our language for American back roads. Those roads were blue on this old Rand McNally road atlas that I was using. After Blue Highways came out, I began again looking for a topic to write about. This came from looking at a map, noticing a huge openness in east central Kansas in the tall-grass prairie. As a lover of maps, I'm fascinated by blank spots on maps. And this particular map showed, right in the middle of the Flint Hills of east central Kansas, a whiteness, a blank spot. And I thought, well, I want to see nothingness. I want to see what Rand McNally thinks is nothingness.

So I drove out there. Well, what I drove into, this was in the mid-seventies, what I drove into was the finest remaining stand of tall-grass prairie in the nation. Tall-grass prairie once occupied most of the country from Ohio across the middle western states about a third of the way across Kansas north and south a good distance. It was a huge piece of the forty-eight states. It is the heart of the so-called bread-basket. Today, if somebody goes out to see the tall-grass prairie, you're not going to find it until you get to the Flint Hills, in east central Kansas, and even there, it can disappear on you because of cultivation, urban sprawl, towns spreading, cities, any number of things. But there's this one spot, in Chase County, Kansas, in which you can go off the state highways there and still see the prairie much as it looked a century or two ago. The horizon lines are virtually unchanged; the sounds are virtually unchanged. You're not going to have the bison moving through in numbers, or even singly I suppose, but certainly the feel of the tall-grass prairie's there. The sound of the wind in those grasses which can sometimes be as high as ten feet, that's unchanged today in that place.

Trees in the Tall-Grass Prairie

The tall-grass prairie that one sees today, as I suggested earlier, is difficult to find. The best place is in Chase County, Kansas. Nevertheless, what you see there is a place that has far more trees in it than it ever had in the days of George Catlin, or certainly in the centuries before him. Along with the coming of Euro-American agriculture came trees. By stopping the great burns that occurred on the Prairie either naturally from lightning or other sources, or from Indians setting fires to encourage buffalo to come in and graze on the new grass or in some cases to drive the buffalo into a particular pattern, with the suppression of these fires, and the planting of trees, the great tall-grass prairie is a more treed place than anything George Catlin would have ever seen. As much as I love trees and love forests, when I get on the tall-grass prairie where trees can survive with a little care—if you get farther west into the so-called middle-grass prairie, the short-grass prairie, trees even today struggle too much to do very well. But in the tall-grass, they can compete there. A tree is almost an eyesore to me. I want to look across and I want to see these six- and seven- and eight-foot grasses moving in the wind. I don't want to see a tree there. Trees, we have enough trees in this country in certain places. We don't have enough tall grasses. So I'm a protector and a lover in the proper areas of the great grasses. And we know of course that George Catlin painted some of the prairie fires. Those landscapes of his are to me some of the most evocative. And they're almost photographs of what a real prairie fire would have looked [like] before the coming of Euro-Americans.

Connecting to Nature

I think that one of the things about education that concerns me most in the twenty-first century is what I see as a continuing lack of connecting with landscapes, with the American land itself. We, as creatures, physically, physiologically come from the land. That's what we're made of; that's what our bones, our flesh, our blood, that's where that comes from. I think one of the challenges of education in the twenty-first century is to connect young people with those sources that make them. Were I a teacher of anybody from—I don't know, age four or five on up to whatever, certainly through the school years, I would be keenly interested in getting the young people out into the countryside. I think that they should see a field of wheat and understand the relationship to that head of wheat, those grains on there, and the bun that they're eating, that surrounds their hamburger, wherever they live, whatever city or town. I think that they need to know that gasoline comes from the ground. It doesn't come out as gasoline, but they need to know the connection between gasoline and oil and where oil comes from. They need to know the scent of oil. They need to feel the pull of a Missouri River, or of a Columbia River or of a Potomac River. They need to know what that water feels like; they need to know what it tastes like. They need to take a walk in the Rockies, in the Sierra, to know what those rocks, many of them, feel like.

The Prairie Is Not Flat

I think perhaps the greatest misconception of the American prairie is that it's flat. It rarely is flat. Now it is true that in places if you look at the horizon line, which may be forty or fifty miles away, horizon lines can be flat. But if you start walking to that horizon line, you'll know very quickly that it's anything but flat. Even if we're talking about Kansas, which is a place that in the popular imagination is a state of flatness, western Kansas is four thousand feet higher than eastern Kansas. So that's more than four Empire State Buildings stacked end on end. So anybody who thinks that Kansas is flat, needs to stand at the base of the Empire State Building, look up, and take that times four plus, and that's how high Kansas is in the west. And that's all a grand tilt, but within that tilt are many hills and valleys.

The Prairie: A Land of Sky

We think of the Great Plains as treeless, and that's somewhat true depending on how close you are to a town, or a watercourse, particularly a big watercourse like the Missouri River or the Platte, but I think the most important thing to describe the American prairie is sky. It's a land of sky above all else. You feel the sky out there. You become a part of the sky, because in places, particularly up on a ridge or something. You really feel that you're standing up in the sky. Yes, your feet are attached to the earth, but nevertheless, it's almost as if you're sticking up into the sky, not just a little piece of air. It's the sky that creates a wonderful openness that I think nearly everybody feels when he or she travels into the prairie. Especially the first time, that openness can be intimidating. When you adjust to it and then you return to the woodlands or the mountains wherever the sky gets closed in, the horizon gets closed in, there can be a feeling of claustrophobia that hits you. Every time that I would go from my home in Columbia, Missouri, which is a wooded, very heavily wooded place, into the tall-grass prairie, and would be out there for two or three weeks, when I would return, I felt the whole world was right up in my face. How did these trees get up here so close? And it would take two or three days before I would adjust again and would feel comfortable in the woods.

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