April 27, 2019

On a Mission in Montana

In his first published book, William Least Heat Moon wrote an account of his discovery of America around 1980. At that time he set his academic work aside—in fact, he set his life aside—and packed his belongings into a 1975 Ford Econoline van, which he nicknamed “Ghost Dancing.” He set forth on a circuit of exploration around the 48 contiguous United States.

His birth surname is Trogdon. “Ghost Dancing,” as well as his pen name, “William Least Heat Moon,” were drawn from his native American culture and genealogy.

He chose the title of his book, Blue Highways: A Journey Into America, because he had purposed not to take the interstates, but instead the lesser routes on his map designated in blue lines. “Life doesn’t happen along interstates,” he wrote. “It’s against the law.” So, very much like John Steinbeck in his Travels With Charley odyssey, Least Heat Moon sought to meet life by meeting people—and writing about them.

His detailed list of the relatively limited supplies that he brought along for the trip included two books: Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks. From both of these he quotes frequently in his encounters with the people he met on the blue highways.

And truly, Least Heat Moon encountered a diverse cross-section of America.

There is in this beautifully written book a heightened sense of detail, in its description of land and season and weather, of the internal and external forces experienced by the people he met along the way.

Readers, depending on the life that they have lived before taking up Blue Highways, would certainly respond to different characters who turn up on the author’s journey. For a certain subculture of readers, the signal character would be Arthur O. Bakke, a hitchhiker that the author picked up on a lonely stretch of road a few miles north of Moscow, Idaho.

Describing Arthur Bakke at first sight, standing at the windswept roadside, “gray beard at right angle to his face, . . . like Curry’s painting of John Brown standing before the Kansas Tornado,” it’s a bit curious that he stopped for him.

But he did.

After exchanging names and answering the hitchhiker’s inevitable first question, “How far ya goin’?” the new rider followed with another one, considerably less inevitable: “Do you want a free Bible course?”

By this time in the author’s journey—and just over halfway through the book—the reader has learned enough of William Trogdon to assume he would have little interest in such. But being the student of human nature that he was, he didn’t just jam on the brakes and show Bakke the door. They rode on together, in fact, for at least a couple days, during which Bakke identified himself as a Seventh-day Adventist. In Coeur d’Alene, Bakke said he thought he could find a place where they could overnight, asked to help him find the local Adventist Church. There the author waited in the van while Bakke went into the church, where an evening meeting was in progress. He returned shortly with the report that he’d found lodging for the night, and even a place for the author too, who said he’d stay in the van.

So for two days these two sojourners shared their life stories, exchanging Bakke’s frequent quotes from Scripture, complete with reference, and Trogdon’s faithful responses from the writings of Whitman.

In this dialogue, one of the questions that Trogdon posed to Bakke was about his reason for being on the road. Bakke’s answer was that after a loss in a divorce of almost everything he owned and a near-death experience, he had committed his life to Christ and, essentially taken to heart the Great Commission to “go and make disciples” (Matt. 28:19).

In fact, the question of interpretation—how to respond to the commands in the Bible—came up in their discussion. “I don’t interpret,” Bakke said, “I read the Word as it is and trust the Lord to make me understand.”

So Bakke’s reason for taking to the open road, enrolling, as he claimed, 10,000 Voice of Prophecy Bible courses, was the result of his self-designation as an international missionary volunteer.

Opening his Bible, Bakke read: “And the Lord said unto the servant, ‘Go out into the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled’” (Luke 14:23, KJV). Though Bakke didn’t mention hedges, the reference, for him to “highways” was clear.

To the casual reader of Blue Highways, these two chapters with Arthur Bakke, Seventh-day Adventist, form only one of many character studies of possibly eccentric individuals whom Trogdon encountered on his mission. But Bakke, as it turned out, was on a mission of his own. Trogdon recognized it clearly as a mission of “love and conviction. . . . I liked Arthur,” he wrote. “I liked him very much.”

To Christian readers of Blue Highways, however, these couple chapters suggest a great deal more about a life of Christlikeness. For Arthur O. Bakke it meant embarking on a literal, geographical odyssey of witness, a complete renunciation of the world. For the rest of us, it represents a stirring image of commitment and a signal picture of what it may mean to be in the world but not of the world.

Gary B. Swanson edits Perspective Digest.