the museum of americana

a literary review

Blue Highways Revisited Interview

Prose Editor Lauren Alwan interviews Edgar Ailor III and Edgar Ailor IV.
 
Blue Highways Revisited begins with an anecdote: of reading Blue Highways the first week it came out (in 1983)—and in nearly one sitting. The book “planted the seed,” as you write, of retracing the journey, though the idea was deferred during the course of your medical practice and raising a family. Can you describe what about Blue Highways crystallized your interest in landscape photography and travel?

EA III: My interest in travel and landscape photography was well entrenched long before reading Blue Highways in January of 1983. As a kid my parents introduced us – an older sister, a younger brother, and me – to the fun of travel. We saw bears in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee. We traveled to Minnesota to see Lake Itasca and walk across the start of the Mississippi River, and to the pine forests of Georgia and the swamps of Florida. As a Boy Scout I was fortunate to visit multiple western National Parks and canoed into Canada from Eli, Minnesota. I got my first 35mm camera on graduation from high school – in time for the Canadian wilderness canoe trip. It was my first prolonged landscape photo shoot with a good camera and it left an impression. After looking at my first roll of color slides, I remembered dreaming for the first time in vivid color.

In 1969, I was fortunate to marry a sweet young chemistry major, Susan K. Weiss. After the wedding reception we made our escape only to discover the next morning that I had left my – now our – camera at her parents’ house. We drove back to Gordonville, Missouri, to retrieve it. As we drove up the long drive, Susie’s mom was sitting on the porch at the side of the house. We still laugh about her mother’s response. She yelled in to Susie’s dad, “Herman, he’s brought her back.” I assured Susie’s mother that I intended to keep her daughter, who for forty-three years has been very tolerant of the need to get up early to catch the best light and to photograph well after sunset. Susie too, loves to travel and sees wonderful angles and objects that I sometimes miss. Her support and love of travel nurtured the process of starting my career in landscape photography.

What did crystallize that cold January night was a dream of how incredible it would be to get in a vehicle and see the backroads of America, find the wonderful and wise characters Heat-Moon met, see all the “don’t-blink-or-you-will-miss-it” towns he visited, and capture the scenic beauty of 38 states. I already loved travel and landscape photography. Through Heat-Moon’s words however, I had just discovered a route I would have to see for myself.

In fact, Blue Highways led to a longtime friendship with the author, William Least Heat-Moon, who lives in the same area outside Columbia, Missouri. When you proposed the idea of retracing his original journey, he encouraged you to pursue the project, and later became involved as an advisor and editor. What was the experience like?

EA III: In Heat-Moon’s just released new book, Here, There, Elsewhere, Chapter 8 – A Little Tour in Yoknapatawpha County – he tells of his pilgrimage in the early 1960s to Oxford, Mississippi, to meet an author he idolized, William Faulkner. He and a friend, Ollie, hung out in the Mansion Café intending “to meet the master, learn what kind of man he was, see his country… .” As you read the young Heat-Moon’s account – he had just finished his B.A. in English – you feel his enthusiasm as he recognized the places and people Faulkner included in his stories.

Approaching Blue Highways Revisited was much the same for me. I had the opportunity to record conversations with Heat-Moon, my favorite author, about the writing of Blue Highways and photograph multiple archives from his trip: to listen to the story about the refitting of his van’s interior, Ghost Dancing; to see the Olympia portable he wrote the first draft on; to see pages from his original logbook and manuscript pages with the hundreds of deletions and insertions as he described his process of writing; it was beyond exhilarating.

Blue Highways Revisited is an extraordinary collaboration on many levels, not only between longtime friends, and author and reader, but between father and son as well. What has the project meant in that way?

EA IV: It was a wonderful experience to work with my father on Blue Highways Revisited. We only a had a few weeks time to shoot together but we were in constant communication during the project.  It was great to work with a photographer that I knew and trusted, but for that photographer to be my father…amazing.

EA III: To have the opportunity to work with your adult son on a major project is priceless.  Edgar IV, of Ailor Photography-New York, photographed and contributed images from Missouri to North Carolina and from New York to South Carolina. It was also wonderful to have an outstanding photographer to bounce ideas and images off of. Because of schedules we only got to shoot together for a few weeks, but his independent photography of the route frequently added a perspective I would have missed. He is also our technical guru and designed our Facebook page and our Blue Highways Revisited website.

The photographs in this volume are stunning. Heat-Moon’s original journey determined the locations and subjects, yet you made new discoveries as well—like the cottonwood tree filled with hanging shoes outside Eastgate, Nevada. What was it like, deciding where and what to shoot?

EA III: Before we started to photograph I marked the route in a 2006 Rand McNally Atlas by reading Blue Highways and following every turn – sentence by sentence. As you read the book you occasionally wonder, “How did he get from one town to the next little burg – which of several two-lanes did he take.”  His original manuscript was over 800 pages in length and he worked hard to boil it down to about 425 pages – he presumed that no publisher would accept the full 800. So an occasional detail or fork in the road got deleted. Heat-Moon confirmed my tracings of the route and helped me fill in any gaps in his almost 14,000 mile trail through the 38 states involved. I then made a second copy for Edgar IV. Before we photographed any area, we reread, highlighted, and underlined the portion of Blue Highways for that section of the route. We made a list of the intricately described scenes, colorful cafes, mom-and-pop restaurants, and five-thirty taverns for that section of the path. We wanted to capture everything that still existed, but also look for and document how the back roads Heat-Moon visited were different. So when we saw the shoe-covered cottonwood in Nevada, or the American flag on the Vermont barn, or the wineries on Long Island, they were all part of the changes three decades later. The amazing part was how much had not changed. Time and time again we would round a bent or pop over a hill and be looking at a scene that Heat-Moon had described thirty years prior. Perhaps the hardest part was deleting thousands of images we would have loved to include in the book.

Much of Heat-Moon’s book concerns historical identity in America of 1978, and the degree to which change occurred, or didn’t, in the less-traveled places. Despite the nearly three decades between Heat-Moon’s journey and your own, most of the locales in the book have remained blue highway places. Did you find much had changed, culturally or physically?

EA III: Heat-Moon’s graphic descriptions of landscape made recognition of many scenes he painted in words easy to recognize. Before we started, I expected the landscape to have changed more, but if you stop to think about it, he was traveling remote routes and they have changed the least in the past three decades. Man’s city sprawl fortunately hasn’t disrupted as many of the isolated regions.

Most of the “five-thirty” taverns had closed, but fortunately some survived. More of the mom-and-pop restaurants and cafés remained open and they were a delight to visit. I always left with a stomach a little too full. Time, of course, took its attrition with the 37 characters in Heat-Moon’s 23 photographs. We found 11 still living and we had the privilege to bring our readers up to date on these colorful people. Culturally, backroads America remains a fabulous source for intriguing wide-spots-in-the-road filled with fascinating characters. In all the folks we had the opportunity to talk to while searching for taverns, cafés, or characters, we didn’t meet a soul that wasn’t willing to assist in our quest. The blue highways America is still filled with warm, welcoming, hard working folks – comfortable with their surroundings and slower pace of living.

For practical reasons, the trip was made in thirteen segments that ranged from two to twenty-nine days, and took place over a period of years. Were the intervals between trips useful in refining travel strategies or artistic approach?

EA III & EA IV: Yes, we realized after several segments that finding Heat-Moon’s characters was going to be unlikely as we followed the route. Bob Andriot still lived in the same town, Shelbyville, Kentucky. The three hang gliders, Alba Bartholomew, Bob Holliston and Garland Wyatt all lived in the same area near White Salmon, Washington. I found Alba and he connected me with Bob and Garland. Tom West still lives near Kennebunk, Maine during the summer. Tracking down the others took a lot of interviewing folks on the route to get a clue and then extensive Internet searches. The multiple segments did allow some backtracking as we went back to where we last stopped shooting. It took three trips through Woodstock, Vermont – the last with an over night stay – to be in town when the Wasp’s Snack-Diner (hours 7 AM to 2 PM) was open.

The photographs in this edition are carefully composed and elegantly designed—which seems like a challenge when photographing nature. Can you speak about this aspect of technique?

EA III & EA IV: We both shot with a Canon 1DS Mark II using a 70-200 telephoto lens and an 18-36 wide-angle lens. We nearly always shot from a tripod, which maximizes the sharpness, allows use of a smaller aperture (shooting slower but greater depth of field), and helps us better frame the image. We used a level on the hot shoe to keep our image level.

The biggest challenge was the fact that we couldn’t do all of our traveling early morning or late afternoon to dusk when the light is best. When we go on a job location for a photo shoot, we work the hours and the time of year when the light, flora and color is at its peak. When your subject is a continuous road trip of 13,889 miles, it is hard to see each mile at the right time of day, in the ideal season, and in the best atmospheric conditions.

Many of the photographs have a painterly quality, both in composition and color. Are there specific painters or art forms outside photography that influence your work?

EA III: If I could emulate painters with my photography they would be Monet and Renoir. Renoir, because of his deeply saturated colors. I have always loved Monet’s choice of architecture and landscapes – some in a panoramic fashion. He also captured the same building or scene in variations of light and atmospheric conditions – something any landscape photographer loves to do.

You went to great lengths to search out the book’s original “characters,” and succeeded in finding eleven. It appears that much of the searching was by necessity carried out locally. How did you go about it?

EA III: I did do a lot of talking to the town folks trying to locate characters – at least when there were people in the town or when the town still existed. I quickly concluded that I needed to talk to the citizens with grey hair – they knew the folks that lived there thirty years ago. The population was thin in some towns. In Nameless, Tennessee, I knocked on every door in town (five or six), except one, which had a very angry dog in the fenced in yard. I was in town late morning and no one was home. I would eventually find Marilyn Watts, the only living member of the four family members Heat-Moon photographed in 1978, by calling directory assistance for Cookeville, Tennessee, a larger town twenty or so miles from Nameless. I was given a listing for Davis Watts who turned out to be her nephew and son of Thurmond and Virginia Watts. Davis and Aunt Marilyn were gracious enough to meet me in Nameless on another trip.

When I arrived at Brooklyn Bridge, Kentucky hoping to find Bill and Rosemary Hammond and see the Bluebill – a 64-foot boat they had been building from the ground up for nine years – I found only one person home (again 5-6 doors to knock on). The lady of that home knew Bill was no longer living and knew Rosemary had moved years ago, but she had no idea where. As it turns out Blue Highways gave me the crucial clue. Heat-Moon noted that she worked in a nearby community in the public library. I called the nearest town with a library and asked to speak with the employee with the greyest hair. After my explanation and a brief chuckle by the receptionist, she connected me with the library’s director. He remembered that Rosemary moved back to her hometown of Peru, Indiana, where I was able to track her down.

The most difficult character to track down was Laurie Chealander. In September 2007, as I followed Heat-Moon’s route in western Nevada on Highway 50, I found where Frenchman, Nevada, had once been. There were no buildings—only a few pipes rising from the ground. Examining the Frenchman photograph in Blue Highways confirmed I had found the right spot – a large gravel parking area, the shape of the distant mountains, the angle of US 50. The pieces of the puzzle fit. The town was gone and I was unable to locate any members of the Chealander family. Fallon and Reno directory assistance produced several leads, but none of them got me to the Chealanders. Internet searches provided eight possible addresses but no current phone number. I wrote a letter and explained I was mailing the same letter to all eight addresses. About a week later Laurie called me and I would fly to Reno to interview Laurie and meet her three daughters and one grandson.

You revisit the stories of a few individuals Heat-Moon met on his trip—like Laurie Chealander in Nevada, and Fred Tomlins from Moscow, Idaho. I found these accounts, in the detail and tone, a wonderful complement to Heat-Moon’s originals. Can you give us an idea about your writing process?

EA III: When I tracked down Fred, Laurie, and other characters, I would make a list of the questions that came to mind from reading their story in Blue Highways and use those questions to start the interview. From that point on, the conversation and thirty-year update seemed to flow naturally. With their permission I would record the interview so I didn’t have to depend on taking notes or my memory to get the facts straight. All the characters were so nice that I would occasionally call back to ask a follow-up question and I stayed in contact so I could eventually send them a copy of the Blue Highways Revisited – the second book with their story and photograph.

As stated in the book’s preface, it was not unusual to encounter a familiar scene from the book, such as “Fields of…green, under…locust trees” in New York. I’m curious, did you prepare for each day’s journey by reading related passages?

EA III: No matter how many times I had read the passage in question, I would always read it again the night before the days travel and frequently refer to my list of scenes and buildings to locate.

Fans of Blue Highways are sure to be fascinated by the photographs of ephemera and Heat-Moon’s personal effects from the trip: the gas receipts, notebooks, and manuscript pages, along with the author’s Red Wing boots and Ray-Bans. Were there photographs of similar items that didn’t make it into the book?

EA III & EA IV: Yes. We have photographs of one of the books Heat-Moon carried with him and occasionally quoted, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. Heat-Moon collected matchbook covers on the trip: the Woodstock Inn and Bentley’s – both in Woodstock, Vermont; Fisherman’s Wharf Restaurant, Wanchese, North Carolina; Claudia Sanders Dinner House Restaurant, Shelbyville, Kentucky; and Pat’s Waterfront Restaurant, Henderson, Louisiana. We also have a photograph of Ghost Dancing’s original registration.

I couldn’t help but wonder, after reading Blue Highways Revisited—once you had completed the trip, did you and Heat-Moon discuss the differences in your separate journeys?

EA III: We have. His trip was undertaken during three months of continuous travel, lasting eighty-two days, from the first day of spring to about the first day of summer. Coincidentally, we spent eighty-two days photographing his route, plus twenty-six days of additional travel getting home and back to where we last photographed. We would occasionally veer away from the Blue Highways path for a few miles to photograph something of interest or beauty, but we always let the reader know. You might also note that the image we captured may not always match the season Heat-Moon described.

Driving the route in the Sportsmobile (an extended Ford van converted to a small RV with four-wheel drive) was probably similar to traveling in Heat-Moon’s Ford van, but my van had a few amenities his didn’t. Heat-Moon smiles when we list the differences. The Sportsmobiles’ top pops up – so when I’m stopped I can stand upright. It has air conditioning, a built-in generator, a microwave, a refrigerator, a propane heater, running hot and cold water with a shower off the back, a rear seat that folds down to make a full-size bed, a sound system, a DVD player, and a small flat-screen TV. Heat-Moon had a radio, a cooler, and an endless supply of freezing cold streams for bathing. He had a road atlas with him and purchased books as he traveled. I was well stocked with gazetteers. I would leave town with the refrigerator filled with one-person packaged portions from two of my favorite restaurants, although I also ate peanut butter and jelly as did Heat-Moon. He frequently parked on a street overnight. I usually looked for a county, state, forest service, or national park campground, or a Wal-Mart parking lot when no park was nearby. I never got used to the street sweeper that cleans the massive parking lots sometime between two and five a.m.

More significantly, Heat-Moon left Columbia, Missouri, after finding his teaching position at Stephens College was being eliminated because of a shrinking student population. He also had just learned that his wife whom he had been separated from for nine months “had a friend.” So at that time in his life it took real guts to continue a meagerly funded trip with no emotional support from home. I had the luxury of a loving, supportive wife who encouraged me to tackle the journey and a son who was sharing the workload and the experience. It was a blast and I had the fun traveling weeks and retuning home to welcome arms.

You are both busy with a successful photography studio in Columbia, Missouri, but do you have plans to collaborate on another book?

EA III: We plan to. We have three projects in mind. I hope we will be talking about one of those books in several years.

EA IV: …and I am looking forward to working on them soon.
 

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AilorsEdgar I. Ailor III began his photography career on a high school yearbook staff. With a camera always nearby, he honed his skills through several decades of practicing otolaryngology. On retirement in March of 2005 he started Ailor Fine Art Photography in Columbia, Missouri, with Edgar I. Ailor IV.  Edgar I. Ailor IV was born to the flash of a camera and he quickly learned no milestone was complete without photographic documentation – so his love for photography began at an even younger age than his father’s. Edgar IV and his family settled in Schenectady, New York, where he worked for several years serving youth through not-for-profits before forming his own company, Ailor Photography New York. The Ailors’ portfolio of Blue Highways Revisited images was accepted in 2011 as one of a hundred worldwide photography projects for the Santa Fe Review, a prestigious juried review with participants from thirteen countries and twenty-three states.