”Word is out that I’m here,” William Least Heat-Moon guesses minutes after he has crossed into Chase County, Kan., the setting and subject of his new best- seller, PrairyErth (a deep map). On this afternoon drive with a reporter, he has paused only long enough to point out where the main street of Saffordville has run to weeds, but already he suspects that someone has picked up a telephone to herald his return to this 744-square-mile county, where 3,000 people abide by the rule of just one stoplight. For most of the sunbaked day, he doesn’t encounter anybody as he revisits the tombstones, railroad lines, and abandoned schoolhouses he has woven into his epic portrayal of the prairie. But sure enough, when he stops by Darla’s Fun Center in the county seat of Cottonwood Falls, it’s clear that word is indeed out: No sooner has he ordered his guest a ”red one” — the house special of tomato juice and 3.2 beer — than the town’s grocer strolls in and says, ”I heard you were here.”
In 1978, when Heat-Moon was running from a dissolving marriage and circling the states on the trip described in his best-seller Blue Highways: A Journey Into America, he never stayed anywhere long enough for folks to work up much curiosity about him. But early in his research for this second book, he caught the wary eye of Chase County natives. They weren’t impressed that in 1983 Blue Highways had stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for 42 weeks, or that for a time Heat-Moon was the envy of every American with wanderlust. To the people of Chase County, Heat-Moon was just another stranger. As one businessman remembers: ”Howard (the bartender at Darla’s) called me and said, ‘There’s some little guy in here with a beard and glasses writing down everything everybody says. Somebody said you might know him. If you don’t, I’m gonna throw his ass outta here.”’
Now Heat-Moon, 52, is again sitting in a Naugahyde booth at Darla’s and looking around at the men and women wearing worn-white jeans and tractor caps, and he still isn’t entirely comfortable. ”I’m sure that there are several dozen people in this county who think I’m just about the most worthless piece of crap that has ever come through town,” he says. ”You can eat what the people raise in the pastures here, and you can’t eat what I do.” Indeed, Chase County is a place where burly men plow the prairie and women castrate bulls. This delicately boned man with clean fingernails and a trim beard doesn’t fit. As one Chase Countian puts it, ”He’s a stranger in town, so people watch him pretty closely.”
But that’s only fair. What Heat-Moon lacks in brawn, he makes up for in curiosity-and he has assiduously applied his curiosity to this place for the past eight years. The son of a Kansas City, Mo., lawyer, Heat-Moon first crossed Chase County as a youngster counting license plates from the backseat of his family’s Pontiac Chieftain. Later, when his marriage was failing, he found solace on the open road. But after the success of Blue Highways sprang him from his $2,000-a-year job on a loading dock, he returned to the heart of Kansas, partly because it had so few roads. He made frequent trips from his Columbia, Mo., home and second wife, Linda, to stay for weeks at a time in the Super-8 Motel in Emporia.
And though he recorded details about this particular place, he says his 624-page book is really ”about the world, Chase County. It’s not about Kansas.” It’s about a couple who got carried away by a tornado and about Heat- Moon’s queasiness hunting coyote with an old-timer. It is about women’s rights, slavery, and the uprooting of the Kaw Indians.
It’s natural that Heat-Moon’s narrative should circle around to reach Native Americans. His given name is William Trogdon, but when he sits down to write, he says, it is his Osage Indian heritage (he’s one-quarter Osage) that gives him his voice; hence his pen name. ”There is a possession that will seize me. It’s as if Bill Trogdon is gone, as if I’ve become Heat-Moon,” he says. This prairie land is Heat-Moon’s muse. But the people who live among the bluestem are fond of telling him that if your great-granddaddy didn’t homestead in the county, then you’ll never belong. Yet even they admit they’ve come to see things a bit differently in the eight years since Heat-Moon started poking around in their backyard. Nor is it lost on them that Heat-Moon has swallowed his share of pickled turkey gizzards at Darla’s. So when he pulls into Cottonwood Falls to visit Whitt Laughridge’s real estate office on Broadway, folks now will drop by to drink iced tea with him and talk about the politicking behind a controversial proposal for a national park to preserve something of the county’s tallgrass prairie.
Heat-Moon’s dearest hope is that PrairyErth will give the park proposal a boost as it undergoes congressional consideration. Stranger or no, he has come to inhabit this land more fully than many whose families have spent generations here. ”I do have a sense of being part of the place now,” he says. ”I’ll always feel a part of it, whether I’m welcome or not.”
In October, Chase Countians finally did something big to make him feel welcome. They honored him with a ”do” on the courthouse lawn, complete with dancing and speeches and a pit-barbecued buffalo. And on that day, in that one-traffic-light county, folks bought 1,500 copies of PrairyErth. Indeed, the word is truly out: Heat-Moon has passed their way.