What are you hoping for when you talk to someone—maybe especially someone you don't know—and what are you hoping for when you listen to other people talking, either live or through headphones? What is it about hearing other people's voices that you seek out?
In this episode we talk with Erica Heilman, creator of the podcast Rumble Strip. Erica's conversations with the wide range of people she talks to all sound unusually real—sincere, unvarnished, funny, regular, important, and humble all at once. So much of Oregon Humanities' work, including The Detour, revolves around conversation and trying to understand other people and ourselves, so we asked Erica to join us for a conversation about conversation.
Erica Heilman invites herself into people’s homes to find out what they know, hate, love, what they’re afraid of, and how they’re more like you than you’d realized. These are messy, obsessively crafted stories of the everyday.
Rumble Strip’s "Finn and the Bell" won a Peabody Award in 2022. Rumble Strip was named the number-one podcast of 2022 by the New Yorker and among the top ten podcasts of 2022 by the New York Times. The Our Show series was named the number-one podcast of 2020 by the Atlantic. Erica’s independent radio work has aired on NPR, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, CBC, BBC, KCRW’s UnFictional, KCRW’s Lost Notes, and on major public radio affiliates across the country.
Here are some episodes Adam and Erica mention:
- Makeup for a Special Occasion: "A couple weeks ago on Hardwick’s Front Porch Forum, someone called Tiana asked if there was anyone who could help her with her hair and makeup for an important date with her boyfriend. Front Porch Forum is an online, daily community forum, which is like a bulletin board at a local general store. You can find secondhand tires there. Or read complaints about the Selectboard. Every Vermont town’s got a Front Porch Forum and you have to be from that town to be on it."
- Finn and the Bell: "This isn’t a story about suicide. It’s a story about a boy called Finn who loved to fish and play baseball and write poetry and embroider . . . and what happens to a small Vermont community as it staggers forward after an unspeakable tragedy."
- Forrest Foster, Independant Dairyman: "Forrest Foster is a farmer in Hardwick, Vermont. It’s an organic dairy farm, seventy cows total and about forty milking at any given time. I spent an afternoon following Forrest around the barn, his sugarshack, we took a long ride in his tractor, out past his deer camp. He took me to the place where he cuts cedar and hemlock boughs for deer in the winter, and dispatches his old animals to feed the bear and the deer and the coyotes and the ravens."
Adam: Hey. Adam Davis here. This is The Detour from Oregon Humanities.
What are you hoping for when you talk to someone—maybe especially someone you don't know—and what are you hoping for when you listen to other people talking, either live or through speakers? What is it about hearing other people's voices that you seek out—and that sometimes feels good?
Early in 2023, I stumbled across a podcast called Rumble Strip, made by Erica Heilman. And as I listened to it, I realized that it felt different from a lot of conversations I encounter. Or maybe it was that I felt different encountering the conversations on Rumble Strip. Erica's conversations with a wide range of people she talks to all sound unusually real—sincere, unvarnished, funny, heavy, regular, important, and humble all at once. Rumble Strip is in its tenth year. It’s a project Erica produces independently while she works as a reporter and editor for Vermont Public Radio. Rumble Strip topped the Atlantic's best podcasts list and is featured in many more such lists. One episode, “Finn and the Bell,” won a Peabody Prize in 2021.
The show is different from just about everything else showing up on these year-end lists, and I'm glad it has, over time, earned this attention and admiration. Listening to the conversations on Rumble Strip, I felt like I was getting to know and quickly care about people I will never meet in small towns I had never heard of on the other side of the country. I also felt weirdly happy.
Something about the conversations in Rumble Strip, the voices, the sound, the pace, the approach, left me feeling happy—sad too sometimes, and curious, and other stuff. But above all happy. Since so much of Oregon Humanities’ work, including The Detour, revolves around conversations, and trying to understand other people and ourselves, my response to listening to a few episodes of Rumble Strip was to rashly type out and send Erica an email. I thanked her for her beautiful show and asked if she would be game to have a conversation about conversation that might become an episode of The Detour. Here's what Erica wrote back just a few hours later.
“That sounds like great fun, all of my favorite topics. Just throw out some dates and anything you'd like me to know in advance. I'm really glad you're liking the show over there on the left coast.”
What you're about to hear is from the conversation that followed, for which I'm incredibly grateful to Erica, who was game to talk with me in curious, humble, and humorous ways.
Erica, maybe we could start, if it's all right, just so much of what comes through in that show is a sense of place, and so I just wanted to ask, sort of, where you are. And for you to answer that however makes most sense to you.
Erica: I am in a small, cluttered office looking out over a crappy wood pile that is covered with corrugated—what is it?—corrugated steel tied down with a rope. And there's probably two feet of snow out there and it's blowing hard out there. It's really, really cold. So, um, it's cozy. I'm in a cozy place.
Adam: OK, good.
Erica: And I can't, there are no humans. I haven't seen a human today.
Adam: All right, so four o'clock on a Friday afternoon and no humans in sight.
Erica: No humans. No humans today. I have not, I have yet to see one. I think I will, I will end this day with, with no humans.
Adam: Okay. Well, I feel lucky to at least be communicating in speech with you, so that's good.
Adam: And maybe that's actually a decent step towards the show. Um, you've been, I think you're upward of 200 episodes of Rumble Strip now.
Adam: Can I just ask what it's meant to be?
Erica: What is it meant to be, the show?
Erica: I think in a way the show helps me get through the day. I think that, after all, I mean it's been, oh, I don't know, ten years or something, and in the end, I think it's a selfish project about figuring out how to get through my days easier. Because I think everybody I talk to knows something that, uh, if I knew it, I could do my life better. And so I think it's, there's a sort of hunger in trying to find out what other people have or what they know or how they do it that might help me do it. I think that’s a big part of it.
Erica: I also have a really deep—I'm from this place, and I love it and I hate it. And I think, maybe, I've never been married, but I kind of wonder if marriage is like that—that, you know, you see its blind spots. It's broken and beautiful and endlessly curious to me. So it’s also a project about just getting deeper, deeper, deeper into this place.
Adam: Hmm. It's interesting with both parts of that. And the show feels like both of those things, I should say, to me. But with both of those, I mean, you could conceivably talk to people who you could learn from without recording those conversations. And you could get deeper into place, into where you are in Vermont, without sort of making a show and talking to people for what sounds like a long time and editing and adding lots of noise, ambient noise.
So what does that part of it add to the conversation part? Or how do you see the relationship between the conversations you're having and the people you're listening to on one hand and then presenting those to other listeners. How do those go together?
Erica: I think that a microphone is kind of a magical object. You know, a conversation is a very different thing with and without a microphone. The stakes go way up when you turn on a microphone, and the energy sort of collapses around two people who are doing this together. And I like high-intensity experiences with strangers.
And when you have a microphone, it sort of gives you license to ask personal questions. I mean, I always preface any interview with that really, you know, nobody has to answer any of the questions that I ask. I think in a way, too, that when I have a conversation with somebody and then I go away and, uh, you know, put that voice into the backside of my computer and start logging it and playing with it, I fall in love with everybody that I've ever interviewed. I fall in love with them, and it's easy because I'm alone with them then, you know? And the conversation—the goal is to make something where the listener can feel what it was like to actually be there. And that's not raw tape. If you just record a conversation and you play it for somebody, it's just endlessly boring. Almost any conversation is super boring if you just record it and hit play. Um, but the act of sugaring off all of the, um, chaff. It's like sculpting, I guess. The goal is to make something that kind of boils down the essence of what happened between two people. And being true to it. I mean, it's not to alter it, but to make it true through the edit.
So I like all those parts. I also like to make—I hate it and I love to make things. It's terrifying. It's probably, I don't know, 80% confusion. But the last little part of making something is like a kind of deliverance. I mean, it's a really sweet feeling. So I guess that's why I make a show.
Adam: Yeah. It's funny that you said a really sweet feeling and you talked about sugaring off as you were talking about the kind of editing process. I still want to ask more, if that's okay. And let me also say, I didn't say at the start really anything to ease us into this conversation, and I didn't say to you, If there's anything you don't want to talk about, just either let know or skip it.
Erica: Oh, that’s OK.
Adam: Yeah. Um, I figured you'd let me know. Uh, so there's still, it's interesting thinking, I love this idea of falling in love with the person you're talking with. And so maybe I want to go back a step before diving back in, and that is: how do you decide who you're gonna talk with and record?
Erica: I think they're all manner of accidental meetings that happen that lead to shows. I mean, it might be that someone says, “You gotta talk to my Uncle Bob.” And that person, you know, I may trust that that person is right or wrong, and then follow up with Bob.
So there's that. I mean, it's a small state too. So, I'll talk to somebody and then somebody while I'm in the barn with Forest Foster, somebody else walks in and seems like somebody else I might wanna talk to. So there's that. But then, I mean, in other words, living. It's all sort of an extension of my life, these conversations, in one way or another.
And then there are some just preoccupations or things that I'm thinking about that I then figure out, well, how do I wanna make a show about—you know, I'm thinking about my age. What do I do with that? Who do I want to talk to about that to get closer to what I wanna know? So yeah, it’s things I'm thinking about and people I'm meeting by chance.
Adam: Huh. It's funny, the sort of working tagline for this show, The Detour, is “a show about people and ideas.” And I think sometimes, it's the people that lead to the conversation, and sometimes it's the idea and then we find people to help think through the idea.
Erica: Exactly. Right.
Adam: You also have talked to some people multiple times, even many times over the years. And it feels like you've recorded and made shows around people you know pretty well. And so I guess I wondered about the relational part, and this is again, It's on the one hand, on the other hand kind of question that is, like, it feels like through whatever you're doing while you're recording, you're also like—leave the recording aside for a minute—you're having these very intense conversations often, and they're paced at a human pace rather than a journalistic pace, and they feel like they build relationship. And then you're also working with those later. To, I guess, you know, sugar 'em down. How do you think about the relational part of what you're doing and the kind of craft a product part of what you're doing? How do those go together and what's the relative weight of each?
Erica: So do you mean that you have a personal relationship with this person and then you're also recording this person and making a story for other people. Um, what is the relationship between those two things?
Adam: I think you just said my question much better than I did.
Erica: Oh. I mean, I think that that's endlessly confusing to me. Because, you know, the going down to the deer camp with Forest Foster and talking about his wife who's dying. We wouldn't be there if I weren't holding a microphone. Yes, I mean, I go milk cows with him once a week and I don't have a recorder. But there are certain things we wouldn't be doing if we weren't recording a, a conversation. So it's confusing because it's both. It’s both a relationship and also, many times, the recorder deepens the relationship. But the relationship is still, it's still a friendship. It's not that the person is simply a subject. It's that the act of recording them just makes them a better and better friend somehow. So I don't know that I can parse those, though I do sometimes worry that, you know, am I looking at my whole world as a potential story? And isn't there something kind of distasteful about that?
Erica: You know, I think probably sometimes it is distasteful. Um, you know, somebody tells me about the lunch lady who's 90, who walks to school still from—you know, she walks two miles to get to school. And my first reaction is I must meet her and I must talk with her with a microphone. So that's a pretty strong filter for the world, you know? And I don't know that, that's not—that may not be great for me or for the world to be like that.
Adam: Well, it's, I don't know. Yeah. I mean, it's interesting because I think a lot of journalism, uh, can feel, the word that came to my head while you were talking was extractive.
Adam: Rumble Strip does not feel extractive. Uh, it feels the opposite. And so one of the reasons I wrote you out of the blue was because I wanted to talk to you in the way we're talking, to get a sense of not only what you're doing, but what you think you're doing, because I feel like it feels quite different from a lot of the stories that I encounter in lots of different mediums. And you know, what you just said as a kind of throwaway was, sure I go and I milk with Forest once a week. Would you do that if there was no microphone around in the relationship?
Erica: Well, I mean, yeah, my milking with Forest came about because I interviewed him and then I love being around him, and he needs help, so I started milking with him. So the relationship started with a recorder in hand, and it has continued to be primarily just a friendship with periodic interviews. But that's not true—I mean, that's a rare case, and most people I'm not spending regular time with who I've interviewed.
But I do, I do think, you know, extractive is an interesting word. I think, I always also tell people before I interview them that if there's anything that they say that they don't wanna share, that they change their mind—about even the whole thing. They say, “I really didn't wanna do any of that.” I wouldn't play it. I don't think of it as—I'm not taking it from them. So if somebody says something about their, you know, cousin John, and they're like, “Oh my God, I really shouldn't have said that.” I just wouldn't use it. So that's deeply not something that a journalist does. I'm not there to get anyone.
And I also wouldn't make a show—or would never knowingly make a show—where listeners are looking at the person instead of climbing in with the person. In other words, if I can't climb into the humanity of this other person and, um, tell their story from the inside out, then I won't run it, because I don't wanna do that, don't think that that's, there's any usefulness in that. I mean, in other words, I guess I think that the whole thing is about, you know, if somebody, even somebody you deeply don't like, if you tease it back far enough and figure out how they got to where they are—this happened and that happened, and then this happened and this is what I made of it, and then I did that—it always makes sense. And if you can do that with people who are deeply unlike yourself, then you come to realize that they're just, we're really— there is a way to access people who are nothing like you. And I think there's real utility in that.
Erica: I think that's what we need more than almost anything. And I'm not talking about how do you feel, I'm not talking about psychology and you know, I'm not talking about feelings. I'm talking just about the nature of—you know, we could be talking about lunch, but the point is to climb into the other person and feel them from the inside out. And it doesn't have to be all feelings to get you there.
Adam: Mm-hmm. I'm sorry to have just interrupted there. What you're saying feels really important, and it's interesting because it shows up in—like in my work, I hear people talking all the time and shaking their heads about—you know, obviously everyone's talking about divides and polarization, and you're, it seems like, working very hard on the opposite, but not in a quick or sensationalist way. It feels like the horizon is further out and the approach is patient and very attentive to the person in front of you.
Erica: I think that the two—or at least this is my working theory, my working theory is that the three things that could solve almost all problems of cultural division are: approaching everybody with humility, curiosity, and a sense of humor. I feel like those three things keep you safe. If, you know, why are you like that? You know—humility, curiosity, and a sense of humor, I think are the things that we seem to be in, in, in short supply right now.
Adam: When you were a kid, were you a humble, curious, funny kid, or did you have to learn those three things?
Erica: No, I think I found my tribe when I arrived at radio. I thought, oh, these are the people who are always asking all the questions. Not TV people, frankly. I did that too, and that was not my tribe. And journalists are also not my tribe. They're definitely not my tribe, interestingly. But documentarians are my tribe. And I think I remember watching my father standing in the yard with Henry Palmer, who was a guy who lived down the road from us. And he was a real—uh, I don't know, mountain man is sort of reductive—but I remember going for Halloween and stuff, or trick-or-treating there and, and there were like skinned raccoons in the kitchen and stuff. Like it was a pretty out-there kind of a situation—there was no running water. It was an intense place. And Henry was an intense guy. And I just remember watching my father stand in the yard with Henry for hours, like just talking and knowing that there was something important in that, that it was my father's just real curiosity about what Henry knew that was generating this relationship, you know? That, that there were things that my father knew that Henry didn't, and things that Henry knew that my father didn't. So there was plenty to talk about.
Adam: Yeah, it is really interesting and it's pushing me back a little bit to this question of the double character of the endeavor when you're doing radio or podcasting. And that is, again, the interaction, the relationship between you and Forrest or Tiana or Armand, or Finn's mother, Tara. Like there's that, and then there's creating something that's very close to that for people you may never meet who may also never meet the person you're talking to. Both of those feel like big, kind of hard things to do, even if also there's something obvious about being curious and humble. Can we just stick on the part you just described with your father for a minute, watching that?
Erica: Yeah. There was God in that. I don't mean to get esoteric, but that's the—and I'm not a religious person and I don't go to church and I never did—but to me, the only, I mean, use whatever word you like, but the, the placeholder there is God, which is that there was something, even when I was little looking at that, that I thought, oh, that's transcendent. Like there's something, there's love, like, that's what love looks like, um, that that's the motor.
Adam: Can I ask about sort of your feelings about your emotions when you're in these conversations? Are you aware of them or are you just in the moment in the conversation? How much are you thinking about that while you're in conversation?
Erica: Yeah, that's interesting. I don't know that I—I mean, so it's funny, I was just talking to a producer about a show that I have to work on soon, and it's a show that is going to be about dating—online dating. It's for Vermont Public Radio. And that the idea would be that I would go on many, many dates. And I'm very excited at the prospect of making this show, but the co-producer was saying, well, you know, but you won't be able to be there. You, I mean, you won't, her concern was you'll be doing an interview so you'll be guarded in some way.
And I thought that's an odd assumption because I feel like I'm, in many ways, at my most vulnerable and open in an interview. And that's, which isn't to say that I'm there to talk about me, I'm not. But I do feel like in order to ask questions, you have to be right on the horse with the person in terms of what they're feeling and saying, and not, and not saying, in order to find the next question, right?
Adam: And because you've used the word interview a few times, and we've also talked some about conversation. Uh, I guess I'm curious about those two things. The same or different for you?
Erica: Yeah, I think they’re the same. Well, no, they're not the same—I mean, I come from, I had my stint in documentary television, and that's the lexicon, interview. I do think that conversation implies less stakes or something. An interview maybe implies that you've turned the recorder on. So the conversation has a little bit more energy or point or direction to it or something.
Adam: Huh. I guess I'm a little surprised about the stakes difference in what feels like a useful way. I was thinking, if anything, it might be reversed—that in an interview, the end is clear. It's gonna be for some other thing. You know, in a way to go back to a word we used before, it's so that something will be extracted from one of the speakers by the other, and then something will be produced and kind of then that'll be done. Whereas a conversation, it feels to me like, who knows? But it'll be alive in a different way.
Erica: Well, I think, okay, here's another distinction maybe, which is, I am very much there in a conversation that I'm having with the microphone turned on, but I'm not doing much talking. So, which is not to say—the person I'm talking with feels, I hope, feels very much in conversation with me, and I am in conversation with the other person, but I'm not talking for five minutes or ten minutes. I am taking in what the person said. I am responding to it and asking another question, and sometimes the questions are very personal. I mean, very often the questions are very selfish. I want to know this for me. I'm asking you this question for selfish reasons, and it's about me, but it's really you I want to hear talking about this for my own sake.
I am on some level thinking as an editor when I'm in conversation with a microphone. So it's not that I'm not, I am thinking about what is happening and also, Oh boy, I don't have a beginning to that amazing thing he just said. So I'm gonna loop back in a minute and go mining around for the beginning of whatever that thought was.
Adam: Yeah. What makes it even, I guess, more interesting as you're talking for me is that everybody engages in conversation all the time. Like we all talk to each other. But not everybody can take those, or would want to take those, and make them into, as you said before, kind of, episodes that other people would care about listening to. So it's both who you have in mind and also this tool you're carrying around—the microphone—which it seems like also functions as a reminder of, kind of, your role in the conversation.
Erica: Yeah, and I, you know, I mean, there is a goal here. The goal is to, the goal is that you will find yourself in that person who could not be more unlike you than they are. I mean, because I do want you to fall in love with people who you don't know, because I do think that there's some—I mean, it's a small eccentric show that touches a few people, but it does feel like a useful thing to do to introduce people to each other in a real way and have them find themselves in each other. That does seem like a useful thing to do in my very limited capacity.
Adam: I like how you just described what you're doing. So our, we're a nonprofit here in Oregon and sometimes, you know, you get the question—and we're called Oregon Humanities, which tells people nothing about what we do. So you know, people will say, “Oregon Humanities? What's that?” Or “What do you do?” And my shorthand these days is: we try to create conditions for people to connect across differences of background and belief.
Erica: That's the ticket. It’s a good thing to try to do.
Adam: A good thing to try to do. And weirdly difficult right now. But also not as difficult as it's sometimes made out to be. It's it or not as complicated. It may be difficult, but not complicated.
Erica: Oh, here's what I think about that, which I couldn't agree more. And I think it's as simple as, talking about it is complicated, but being at the grocery store and at the checkout and saying, “Are you going to the play on Thursday?” To the person who is checking you out, who's, you know, I don't know who is, who's that person? A 17-year-old. You know, somebody deeply unlike me, right? We're gonna have a conversation about the play on Thursday at the school and all of our differences collapse. Immediately. It does. It's not complicated. If we're gonna talk about cupcakes, we're gonna talk about the play. Okay. When it's pitchfork time, we can't kill each other because we talked about the play that time when I was buying donuts. It's really that simple. If you can find somebody at the checkout, if you can find some common ground, then A+, you’ve done it.
And it is complicated in that it's not happening. But I don't think that connecting with people is very complicated. But we don't give it any credence anymore, and our opportunities for doing it are reduced. You know, we are so siloed. We just don't come across people in the school lobby as much as we used to or find ourselves having to go to a store instead of order something online, where you have to deal with other humans who aren't just like you. So I just think the world has changed in that way and so it's harder to find each other across boundaries because we don't really need to anymore.
Adam: And then, and so in your—it is very much the case, it sounds like, that Rumble Strip is an attempt to help find each other across boundaries. And for you personally, it sounds like.
Erica: Yeah, I mean, I've never been very good about articulating the purpose of the show or, I don't know. I hope that is something—I guess I worry a little bit about naming its goal that somehow I'll lose sight of the goal, I think that is probably true, but I don't wanna have a mission statement and I also wanna have plenty of license to fail and make stupid parodies and, you know, I wanna make whatever I feel like making it the moment and it won't always serve that goal.
Adam: Yeah, that's great. And that also sounds creatively liberating. And I say that as someone who—
Erica: It’s also deeply downwardly mobile.
Adam: Yeah, that's what I meant by liberating. Yeah. Um, I mean, like my job, I have a job where I'm the executive director of a nonprofit, and we get some federal government money and some state government money, and individuals write us checks and foundations support us and we do some fee-for-service stuff. And what does that mean? It means we have to have a strategic plan. And, you know, we need to be able to write grant reports and account for everything. And there are good reasons for that.
Adam: But I think what we're trying to do is also the kind of, as you said, like, it's this mysterious thing, in a way, where we're trying to get people talking and listening, maybe even more than talking, listening to each other. And I kind of think everybody knows what that's for, and I kind of think everyone knows how to do it, even if we're not doing it enough. But so then it's funny to articulate it all the time where I almost think can't the doing of it do the work?
Erica: I think that talking about it can be very counterproductive. I think you just make the cupcakes and invite people to come and let 'em figure it out. You know, everybody likes cupcakes. We can all agree on that. And if you invite enough people from town and then you do it four times so that everybody realizes nobody's gonna get hurt if they come for the cupcakes, that all that's gonna happen is you might be in a room with people who you don't know, mission accomplished. But you spend a lot of time talking about the importance of doing that and it disappears.
I've just been thinking a lot, in this state—I come from a very white state, right? And a very wealthy in certain pockets and very, very poor in other pockets. And the thing that we talk about, that we're getting better at talking about, and God bless us for getting just marginally better and better about talking about gender and about race, about equality and equity. We're getting better at these things. We're moving in the right direction in these ways, in these conversations. But we never talk about class. And class is a weird word. I'm not even sure what it means. But it points to a bunch of things that we don't talk about. And if we don't talk about those things and we get better at talking about all the other things, all the other isms, then I think we're failing. And in my world here, the tensions are cultural tensions. You know, and it sort of offends me when people say, Gosh, you come from such a—what is the word I'm looking for here?
Adam: Homogenous, or something like that?
Erica: Yes. “You come from such a homogenous place.” And I'm like, that's just deeply not my experience. There is so much cultural richness here, in different towns and different streets and different houses. There's so much here that is variable and interesting and hard. But we just ignore these. And I think it's just because we don't wanna talk about these things because, well, for lots of reasons. We don't like to talk about class in this country at all.
Adam: You're naming a lot of big, important things, and I feel like many of them are together, but the two biggest that I think I hear you saying, one is at the beginning of this discussion, it sounded like you were saying once you fly a flag, you decrease the likelihood that everyone's gonna be welcome.
Erica: Yes, that is true. And people can argue about it, but it's true. And what I care about is that everybody come for cupcakes. That's really my goal. My goal is that we have an event and people show up for it. And that is my—that’s the bottom line. And so that means stepping away from the public discourse right now about all the isms. Like I just don't, that's not what we're doing, and that's not going to achieve our goal of getting everybody the bonfire.
Adam: Although I do, it felt to me like the second part of your comment was to say, we're paying so much attention to certain differences that we're not seeing or addressing one of the most important ones, and that has more to do with money in class than with say, race or gender.
Erica: Yeah. And there's a lot of—I mean, I just learned this word—there's a lot of intersectionality about all of this. I mean, can you really parse class and race? Is it wise to parse, you know, being poor and a single mother? I mean, all of these things, none of them are mutually exclusive necessarily. But I do think, at least here in my state, and we’re very polite here. You know, public radio, very polite. There's something harder, for some reason about talking about class. And maybe because it is a much sorer place. Um, it also, it is really the “those people.” I mean, because very often class divides—you know that politics are a very boring shallow indicator of differences in class. So we go down that rabbit hole and we end up on that merry-go-round talking politics, which is kind of a dead end. But if you don't go that far, if you just explore in other areas of that and figure out, well, how do we get there? Something came before all of that political division; what is it? And how do we get everybody at the dinner table together to talk about it? Um, that's complicated. It's complicated, but, one good way to do it is to just have a bonfire and have enough bonfires that everybody realizes that they're welcome to come. And that it's actually kind of interesting to come and be standing around with people who are really deeply unlike yourself.
Adam: And it's interesting, I was, I guess, thinking back to what the topics are that Rumble Strip takes up more or less directly, and now that you have been talking about class and money, I think it's rarely explicit, but often present. In the shows—but again, rarely the direct target.
Erica: Yeah, I mean, I've come from public—I mean, I don’t come from, but I’m kind of in the public radio sphere, right? Who do we not hear from in public radio? Um, we don't really hear from poor people. We don't really hear from deeply conservative people—conservative being a word that’s hard to define, maybe. But there are people we don't hear from, and I'm generally kind of interested in why that is. I'm interested in that. And I just wanna be at a party where everybody comes, you know?
Adam: You're listening to The Detour with Erica Heilman.
Adam: I was, I guess, thinking back to one specific episode, and that's the episode that I think is, it might be called “Makeup for a Special Occasion.”
Erica: Tiana, right?
Adam: Tiana. And so when you talked before about sort of, you want to present people so that listeners fall in love with them, that happened to me. It's a short episode. I know that this show is about Tiana getting ready to actually have a very important dinner date with her boyfriend, but I kind of fell in love with her during that show.
Erica: Yeah, me too.
Adam: And that show also felt like it was about class. Here's a short taste from the beginning of that episode with Tiana called “Makeup for Special Occasion.”
Tiana: I'm looking for someone who'd be willing to do my makeup and possibly hair on the 23rd of this month. Just something simple with my eyes and something to hide some red spots. Is there any way to make an illusion of a skinnier face? I usually don't like anything that's considered girly. However, I want to surprise my boyfriend for our first ever anniversary. I have a nice dress picked out with some matching press on nails. The issue is I have no clue how to do makeup considering I don't own any makeup and I have a very round, chubby face. Thank you for reading.
Erica: That's Tiana reading a posting she wrote last week for Front Porch Forum in Hardwick. Front Porch Forum is an online daily community forum, which acts a little like a bulletin board at a local store. Every Vermont town's got one, and you have to be from that town to be on it. In my town, there are a lot of bear sightings. People buy and sell a lot of tires. Last week we learned that someone left a red thermos and a striped towel at number 10 pond, and someone else scored a Champion three-inch portable chipper. People complain about the select board a lot on Front Porch Forum, and after winter storms, someone usually thanks the road crew and then suggests that maybe we should all be a little more grateful for the road crew. There are a lot of lost and found cats. Anyway, my friend Tara found this posting from Tiana on Front Porch Forum and we agreed that it was the most vulnerable, most open-hearted posting we had ever seen. And since neither of us know how to do makeup or hair, we decided to find somebody who did. I got together with Tiana for a few minutes on the day before her date just to learn more about what she had in mind.
Adam: I did go back and listen to lots of shows in part because I was trying to see if what I—because I started by listening to recent stuff and then I just wanted to go, Oh man, there's something happening here that I don't feel or hear in most things I listen to. So then I just wanted to go listen to different shows and I think it's there right from the start. And I wondered how much do you feel like, are you learning along the way about what you want to do and how to do that more?
Adam: What sorts of things?
Erica: When you asked about kind of what is the show trying to do, what is the mission of the show? I think perhaps my reticence is that it's always changing. That I know much, much better now what I'm interested in the show's—what I'm interested in learning, and also what I hope the show is achieving. But I don't wanna get pinned down because that could change again. I had no idea what the show was about in the beginning. None! I just started. And figured it out as I went along, and hopefully got better as I went along. But it is a very mysterious—I mean, it's a diary on some level. I'm just making something that interests me, and I'm getting older, so that changes.
Adam: But it's interesting too that like your show ended up at the top of a couple of lists of top ten podcasts at 2022. The way I found your show out here in Oregon was because I saw it, I think, maybe on the Atlantic and the New York Times near at or near the top of the list. I just thought, “Oh, I'll give this a listen. I haven't heard of it.” And then I thought, Where the hell have I been? How haven't I heard this before? What's it been like to see that kind of recognition happen?
Erica: Well, one thing that—I don't wanna be ungrateful. And I'm deeply grateful, especially when the writing is really good. When the reviews name something that I am trying to do that isn't articulated in the show, but I know that the writer can feel, that's enormously gratifying.
But the fact of being on the list. Uh, I don't know how to feel emotion—I don't feel anything. My ego maybe feels something, but I don't know how to feel about it. It feels vaguely out of body or something? But when the writer names something that makes me feel like they're getting something that I'm laying down, then I feel very happy. And when a person I've interviewed calls me or writes to me after they've heard their own story, and they feel that they loved it, or they felt like I got something about them, that is elation. That feels the best.
Adam: When the person who the show is about tells you, yes, thank you. That's the best?
Erica: Yeah. That's the bomb. That's it. That's the top. That's the best.
Adam: Yeah. I think that circles back to why it's the opposite of extractive, what you're doing.
Erica: Yeah, maybe. Maybe. Yeah. I mean, it's also relief, believe me, there's relief and elation.
Adam: You know, there's a moment in what must have been a very hard show to make, and that is the “Finn and the Bell” show, when, it's about a young man who sounds like an amazing young man who committed suicide. And you don't treat it in a sensational way and you don't try to explain it as you say at the outset. You try to help us understand who Finn was and is. There's a moment in that show when you're talking to his friend who doesn't want to answer a question you ask and instead mentions a fishing hole they went to together and you go to the fishing hole with him. Do you remember? Do you remember all of that happening clearly?
Erica: Oh yeah.
Adam: Yeah. What was going on there for you when that, when that all happened?
Erica: Um, well, I had a little bit of shame that day. I mean, I went out to talk with him. I knew he didn't, he was very—I mean, all of the people I interviewed for that show were initially reticent for obvious reasons to talk with me. And he seemed more reticent than most. And we sat down on his front porch and, um, started talking, and he just, he was seized up with the deep desire to not be emotional with a stranger, and there was nothing unemotional about the subject, right? We were there to talk about his friend who killed himself. That's why we were talking, and he did not want to bear much to me, a stranger. And It was five minutes perhaps. And then I said, “Let's just go for a drive.” But I wish it had been two minutes. Or not at all. You know, I wish I had just—I mean, I say that except that we actually did really enjoy that drive. And we really did like standing at that fishing hole. And I did—the goal is to leave an experience, an interview or a conversation with a person leaving them feeling bigger, not ever smaller. Leaving them feeling seen and also somehow galvanized or that we have visited some third place together. That's the goal. And I never wanna leave someone feeling diminished in any way. And I do think that that drive, the drive and the fishing hole, he felt like himself again. And he felt back in control. I mean, in fact, he told me, “No, I'm not gonna tell you where this is.” You know, he was exactly himself.
Adam: Yesterday, I drove about three hours down to a town called Yoncalla, which is about a 1,200-person town, 30 minutes north of a bigger town called Roseburg. And I was in a school, a K-6, Yoncalla Elementary, and we were talking to kids—and I say we, I was with a guy named Raphael Otto who works with the Children's Institute, and we were together working on another episode of this show to get kids talking about like where did their ideas of success come from. And we brought, you know, microphone and headphones. And at first, I think the kids were sort of scared and not sure what was going on, and then once a couple kids were happy to talk into the mic, suddenly we realized we're gonna be here all day. And I guess I wonder if I can go back to you with this question about being the person with the mic recording conversations. It's like, when it's feeling really good, what's going on? What's happening in the world and what's happening inside you when these recorded conversations are happening?
Erica: Huh. Well, the very best thing that that can happen is that you find yourself in a place with another person who's basically a stranger that neither of you has ever visited, and that in fact didn't exist before you sat down to talk with that person, that you've made some country, some island of your own with that person.
And you're just surprised and amazed to find yourself there. And it couldn't exist without you and that other person. You are in this third place together. There is something about that that is sublime, and that that's the best thing that can happen. I don't know. It's a feeling, you know? It's a feeling that you are suddenly in a new place that doesn't exist and won't exist when you’ve left.
Adam: You can find links to Erica's work, Rumble Strip, and the episodes about Tiana and Finn in our show notes. The Detour is produced by Keiren Bond. Dave Friedlander is our editor. Ben Waterhouse, Alexandra Powell Bugden, and Karina Briski are our assistant editors. Enormous thanks to Erica Heilman. See you next time.