On the old highway maps of America, the main routes were red and the back roads blue. Now even the colours are changing. But in those brevities just before dawn and a little after dusk – times neither day nor night the old roads return to the sky some of its colour. Then, in truth, they carry a mysterious cast of blue, and it’s that time when the pull of the blue highway is strongest – when the open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself.
Some thirty years ago I read one of the best pieces of travel writing I have encountered – Blue Highways: A Journey Into America, by William Least Heat-Moon, a university teacher of English, Irish and Osage Nation ancestry. After losing both his job and his wife one freezing Missouri February, Least Heat-Moon embarks on a mammoth roadtrip around the USA using only the ‘blue highways’ – the backroads that used to be marked blue on highway maps. Blue Highways tells of Least Heat-Moon’s attempt to find new direction in his life making the long circular journey around America (equivalent to half the circumference of the earth) in ‘Ghost Dancing’, a 1975 Ford Econoline that would be his home for close on a year.
Recently, returning from a trip to the Malverns and travelling our own blue highway (the A49) we stopped for lunch in Church Stretton and chanced upon a thriving independent bookshop. There we found William Least Heat-Moon’s most recent book, Roads to Quoz: An American Mosey, which we bought. I’ve still got my Picador edition of Blue Highways from the early 80s (that was a great paperback imprint!) and I decided that before embarking on Least Heat-Moon’s new journey, I would re-read the earlier book .
Least Heat-Moon embarks on his journey aware of ‘a nearly desperate sense of isolation and a growing suspicion that I lived in an alien land’. He sets out ‘in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected’. He seeks out places with strange names: Clouds, Dull, Subtle, Only, Wheel, Spot, Peeled Chestnut, Nameless, Why, and Whynot, to mention just a few.
Off the beaten track he encounters characters as unusual and as eccentric as the place names: Bob, Tony and Kirk renovating an historic log cabin in Shelbyville, Kentucky; ‘a man whose cap told me what fertilizer he used’ in Grayville, Illinois; Bill and his wife Rosemary spending eight years building a boat in Brooklyn Bridge, Kentucky, hoping to ‘sell this old trailer and sail … right out of the valley’; and Noel Jones in Franklinville, North Carolina, who has ‘lived along the creek all his life’ and has ‘a molar agivin’ me a deal of misery’. And that speaks only for the first few days of his journey. His black and white photos of the people he meets add depth to his pen-portraits.
Least Heat-Moon has a fool-proof method ‘to find honest food at just prices in blue-highway America: count the wall calendars in the cafe’. The more calendars on the wall, the better the food. He once found a six-calendar cafe, but is still searching for a seven-calendar place. Least Heat-Moon laments the disintegration of America’s small town charm by the fast-food outlets and convenience stores, which were then just starting to make their impact. Even reading the book in the early 1980s, it was like reading of a time past and a way of life that was rapidly fading.
As he makes his way across the continent, Least Heat-Moon has a spiritual guide at each shoulder – Walt Whitman and Black Elk – who offer contrasting but complementary solace. In an interview, the author later expanded on the influence that Whitman and Black Elk had on the book:
The reader can see in the early part of Blue Highways, Walt Whitman predominates where there’s some bitterness and certainly a great sense of loss in the narrator. But as the book goes on, and the narrator moves more into a re-emergence, a reawakening of his red background, Black Elk becomes the predominant outside spokesman. … It was a reawakening, very much so. The Sacred Pipe recounts parts of the ceremonies of the Oglala as told by Black Elk. In that book, Black Elk speaks of the blue roads of a person’s life. The blue roads are those roads that are destructive to human understanding and human cooperation. They are roads that are largely travelled by people preoccupied with themselves. And that was the story of my own life up to that point. It was also shocking because I thought I had coined the term, blue highways, only to find it used by a person who comes from the Plains, Indiana, with which I have some connection.
Early in the journey Least Heat-Moon quotes Walt Whitman:
You paths worn in the irregular hollows by the roadsides!
I think you are latent with unseen existences—you are so dear to me. […]
From the living and the dead I think you have peopled your impassive surfaces, and the spirits thereof would be evident and amicable with me.
Whitman comes to occupy one side of a debate in Least Heat-Moon’s being. In an essay, Journeys Into Kansas, he wrote of a crucial dilemma faced by the travel writer:
How do I steer away from self while depending on it almost absolutely for the discovery and formulation and presentation of the material?
The travel writer’s task, for Least Heat-Moon, is to resolve ‘the perpetual problem of the writer’s self in its surroundings’ in a way that maintains ‘the primacy of fact’ upon which non-fiction depends. So the writer must provide a precise description of people and topographical features, whilst at the same time neither ‘annihilating the self’ by removing the personal entirely from the narrative nor, worse, probing the self so extensively as to fall into ‘some solipsistic hole, which, surely, is always the death of good travel writing’.
One of the most striking sections of the book comes when Least Heat-Moon reaches the Texan desert west of the Pecos River. Here, he suddenly senses the seemingly empty landscape as richly separate from himself.
It was the Texas some people see as barren waste when they cross it, the part they later describe at the motel bar as ‘nothing’. They say, ‘there’s nothing out there’.
He decides to put this to the test and makes a list of ‘nothing in particular’, identifying thirty natural entities or processes – from circling buzzards to coyote tracks, from species of grass and cactus to ‘earth’, ‘sky’ and ‘wind (always)’. Crossing the Utah desert he remembers Whitman:
O to realize space!
The plenteousness of all, that there are no bounds,
To emerge and be of the sky, of the sun and moon and flying clouds, as one with them.
In the desert, he feels ‘as if I were evaporating’, becoming one with place in a way that Walt Whitman celebrates in Leaves of Grass until, driving deep into the desert, he comes to sense the desert not so much as place or landscape, but as an extension of his self:
The immensity of sky and desert, their vast absences, reduced me. It was as if I were evaporating. […]
I looked out the side window. For an instant, I thought the desert looked back. Against the glass a reflection of an opaque face. I couldn’t take my attention from that presence that was mostly an absence.
Soon after, reading Black Elk’s account of the ancient rites of the Oglala Sioux, Least Heat-Moon encounters a passage that stuns him. In contrast to the good and straight red road of life, Black Elk says, the blue road is the route of ‘one who is distracted, who is ruled by his senses, and who lives for himself rather than for his people’.
I was stunned. Was it racial memory that had urged me to drive seven thousand miles of blue highway, a term I thought I had coined? That’s when something opened like a windowshade unexpectedly rattling up in a dark room. A sudden new cast of light. What need for a man to make a trip to Lookingglass, Oregon, when he’s been seeing his own image across the length of the country? … My skewed vision was that of a man looking at himself by looking at what he looks at. A man watching himself: that was the simulacrum on the window in the Nevada desert.
Hadn’t I even made a travelling companion of the great poet of the ego, the one who sings of himself, who promises to ‘effuse egotism and show it underlying all’, who finds the earth in his own likeness? Money half gone, I’d come up with a bit of epistemological small change.
A few miles north of Moscow, Montana, Least Heat-Moon picks up Arthur O. Bakke, whose first question is, ‘Do you want a free Bible course?’ He turns out to be another of the extraordinary characters encountered on the journey.
Miles further along, as Bakke dozes, a bird swoops and slams into the car, and we get this memorable exchange – one of hundreds that make this book a treasure. Least Heat-Moon stops to see what kind of bird it was:
I picked it up, a warm crumpled fluff limp in my hand, its talons clenched into tiny fists. “A sparrow hawk,” I said.
“Throw it away”.
” ‘There is no object so soft but what it makes a hub for the wheeled universe’. The poet, Walt Whitman, said that.”
When Bakke probes Least Heat-Moon about his beliefs, quoting Bible verses, Least Heat-Moon responds by quoting Whitman (‘Why should I wish to see God better than this day?’) and Black Elk (‘Whatever you have seen, maybe it is for the good of the people you have seen it’). Least Heat-Moon places value on something that both writers share, despite their different ancestries: the centrality of the physical (American) landscape in their spirituality. Farther along and alone again with his thoughts, Least Heat-Moon notes this consonance of vision and writes:
This squander of land substitutes a sense of self with a sense of place by giving him days of himself until, tiring of his own small compass, he looks for the relief to the bigness outside—a grandness that demands attention not just for its scope, but for its age, its diversity, its continual change.
Towards the end of his odyssey, on remote Smith Island, Maryland, Least Heat-Moon meets the octogenarian Alice Venable Middleton. She asks him how he comes to be in Maryland:
I told her and used Whitman’s phrase about ‘gathering the minds of men’.
She said, ‘When olden-day travellers went about, they might carry something called an Album Amicorum to gather the signatures and sentiments of learned men they visited along the way. Is that what you’re doing?’
‘I’ve thought of the trek more as just the bear going over the mountain to see what he could see.’
- Back Road Adventurer on America’s Blue Highways: CNN.com feature with a slide show of photographs by Ed Ailor who retraced the route William Least-Heat Moon took, plus an interview with the author.