Tom Miller and I have met only once. I cannot remember where or when it was, and I'll bet Miller can't either. It was at some sort of bookish event--possibly an autograph party and quite probably in California. I do recall, however, that as soon as I noticed the title of Miller's book, The Panama Hat Trail, and as soon as I had been assured that it was indeed about Panama hats, I rushed over to introduce myself and get acquainted with the author.
"Easy enough to write a book about Panama hats," I was thinking. "Anyone could do that." But writing one good enough to get published was another matter.
Thus, a writer myself, I approached Tom Miller as a high-school physics teacher might have approached Albert Einstein. The ensuing conversation was amiable. Typically of writers at multiple-author book signings, he had not read me and I had not read him. I wanted to find out why Miller, with several successful travel books to his credit already, had chosen a subject with such speculative sales prospects. Miller, for his part, wanted to find out why I--having spent time in Oklahoma among the Potawatomi and Seminoles, and having spent my grade school years enrolled in a school for the daughters of those tribes--would devote myself to writing about Navajos, Zunis and Hopis way off in New Mexico and Arizona.
Our exchange must have gone well, because I remember adding Tom Miller to the list of people I'd enjoy having as a neighbor.
Now, many years later, having read The Panama Hat Trail and Miller's other books, that impression has been strongly reinforced. The pair of us tend to have at least two things in common. We agree--and I'm confident I can speak for Miller based purely on evidence from his books--that traveling any place is more fun if you have a bona fide reason for being there.
Miller and I also come very close to accord on the single photograph that defines the American West. His, taken by Mark Klett, shows a U-Haul trailer parked beside a two-lane road with the monolithic sandstone formations of Monument Valley looming in the far, dim distance and a passenger seated in the cab checking a road map. Mine, taken by my wife, Marie, while we were accumulating scenery for The Thief of Time, a mystery involving the robbery of the Southern Ute gambling casino, features a billboard in the foreground, and the spire of Ship Rock rising in New Mexico across a wee bit of Colorado and a corner of Utah. The billboard displays a picture of a hamburger and reads "Burger King 97 miles."
The Panama Hat Trail, of course, is not exclusively about that famous headwear. It is about all those interesting people and odd circumstances Miller finds and enjoys while tracking the hallowed hats from their fibrous origin in Ecuador to just about every place where high-fashion folks squander their money on luxury ideas. Panama hats are certainly too pricey for the Ecuadorans (not Panamanians, it turns out) who harvest the raw material. So what! They gave Miller a legitimate reason for being there, raising his status from that of just another tourist to that of a commercial/scientific investigator.
Indeed, I had played that game myself in my years as a journalist, and I know how it works. Having embarked upon a semi-similar junket to Quito and the Ecaudoran Andes myself not long before Miller conducted his research there, I can endorse the acuity of his vision. My official excuse for going was to inspect the University of New Mexico's Andean Center, in which physics students pursued cosmic-ray research and language students familiarized themselves with various Andean dialects. Three of these students had been arrested after the murder of a local drug retailer, which brings me to the unofficial reason I was sent.
At the time I had dropped out of journalism, was working on a graduate degree in English literature and held a part-time job as a sort of handyman for university president Tom Popejoy. When I asked him why he had deputized a fellow who spoke only border Spanish and who knew even less than that about physics, Popejoy revealed the other part of my mission: I was to meet with a Quito attorney, place an envelope full of money in his hands, and arrange to spring the three UNM students from jail and get them back to New Mexico.
These credentials, like Miller's tracing of the Panama hat trail, gave me a chance to meet all sorts of folks who otherwise would have had neither reason nor desire to talk to me.
In reading about Miller's travels through Ecuador in this book, I discovered that the things he saw and felt worthy of note were the same things that had stuck in my mind. The working class of Quito, he remarks, always seemed to be bearing some burden on their backs. I once stood on an overpass in that same city, watching a stream of laborers carrying huge sheets of plywood with only their legs visible, and thought of carpenter ants homeward bound yet invisible beneath a line of moving leaf fragments.
I guess that's what a person interested in politics or sociology would call a significant detail. Tom Miller doesn't miss such details--especially those that illuminate the human comedy. Maybe that's why following him on his trek along the Panama hat trail makes for such a lively journey.