Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least Heat-Moon, part 1

I am eternally grateful to Matt Ferrence for sending me this book at the right time (and then I goofed and waited three months to read it, but that’s on me). Matt is the author of Appalachia North, which I am also carrying around in the van and not getting around to as early as I’d like (I swear I’m just saving it for a special occasion). And he is a very fine teacher – check out this awesome talk on Big Hair Drum Fills, one of the highlights of last winter’s residency at my school.

First, the personal significance of this book cannot be overstated. Matt sent it to me near the start of my own van travels cross-country; Blue Highways is Heat-Moon’s travelogue of the same sort of journey. It will be hard to separate my experience of this book from my similar life experience. I will try, but it will be hard. I have so much to say about this book that I’m breaking this review into two posts, starting with general comments and moving into selections and closer looks.

A brief foreword by Bill McKibben was most remarkable to me because of McKibben’s significance to me and (more so) to my father, who points out that this book was “published and lingering on the NYT bestseller list in the year of your birth; and the author was the age you will be when you hit the road again a year from now.” He didn’t catch the foreword, though. That’s okay: there’s not much to it. It amounts to McKibben’s praise of this classic, and some cursory observations about how the world has changed since 1978 when Heat-Moon took to the road. Books have been written about the changing world; I think it’s to McKibben’s credit that he doesn’t try to write that book in the preface to this one. He gets out of the way quickly, which I appreciate.

So, in we go. At his opening, William Least Heat-Moon is in some crisis. He learns he’s lost his job teaching English; he calls to check in with his wife, from whom he’s been separated nine months, and she lets another man’s name slip. And he finally breaks, and takes off in a way (he later realizes) he’s always been tempted to do. He moves into a truck he calls Ghost Dancing, outfitted with bunk and other gear, and heads out. (This already holds many parallels to my own life.)

Heat-Moon travels the nation in a great loop, some 11,000 miles of it, and in a mere three months. (I have decided that he’s a little cagey about his timeline, although it’s there if you read closely. I’ve been out nearly twice as long now as he was, but I’ve traveled only 9,000 miles or so. And written very little.) His goals for his trip are vague, and he’s generally a little put out when asked to articulate them (something he’s asked to do rather more often than I am, possibly because dogs [see below re: dogs]). These goals get a little clearer – or a little clearer in their muddiness – as his trip progresses. This makes perfect sense to me. He had to take the trip to figure out why he had to take it.

the Blue Highways route (click to enlarge)

Along the way, he talks to people and sees the sights. He seeks out small towns with interesting place names: Nameless, Tennessee; Whynot, Mississippi; Dime Box, Texas. He wants to eat good Cajun food, and authentic diner food anywhere; he wants to hear what people think, of their place and of the changing world. He sets out to record (literally, he carries a microcassette recorder, and a camera and backup lenses), and conducts what I think I’ll call interviews, although he clearly wouldn’t call them that – not to his interviewees, who think they’re just having conversation. Heat-Moon picks up hitchhikers, of course, including a proselytizing Bible-thumper, and they match quotations: Whitman versus the Bible. It is an invigorating episode, actually, although I would not have had quite the patience Heat-Moon shows. (Maybe this is why I travel with a dog!) As McKibben advises, “If at any point these passages look like blog posts from someone’s summer trip, read them again more carefully. Savor them. Because this is about as good as writing ever got.” (I love the implication that writing is not still getting, but has got.) Well, the passages in question are blog-like: they read like journal entries, and they are chronological. But McKibben’s point is well taken. These are not mere journal entries. They add up to a greater sum. (I’m already giving the lie to what I said about the insignificance of McKibben’s foreword, aren’t I. Well, so be it.)

When a waitress in Gainesboro, Tennessee insists, “Cain’t travel without a dog!” Heat-Moon replies: “I like to do things the hard way.” If you’ve been following that other blog, you know my instant reaction to this. He continues: “It isn’t traveling to cross the country and talk to your pug instead of people along the way. Besides, being alone on the road makes you ready to meet someone when you stop. You get sociable traveling alone.” And you know, that’s true. I keep to myself quite a bit; because I’m not really by myself at all.

Hops in a van on a boat

Among the enjoyable features of Heat-Moon’s writing: he writes a hell of a phrase, often causing me to guffaw aloud in public. Indiana 66 is “a road so crooked it could run for the legislature”; Sulphur Spring, which the Shawnees believed was curative, tastes “bad enough to cure something.” “Golden Styroform from Big Mac containers blew about as if Zeus had just raped Danae. Shoot the Hamburglar on sight.” “Muddy holes a small man on a small unicycle would have disappeared in…” “Note to mapmakers: without a gas station, cafe, water tower, and stoplight, you don’t have a town.” And a coinage: he spots something with a toothy grin looming in front of his truck “just before I smunched it.” I like a good, onomatopoetic coinage. Note that, aside from the indictment of McDonald’s, these phrases are pleasing in themselves, purely for their words, and not for their greater meaning.

I love his descriptions of the strange and the wonderful in the everyday – McKibben praises this too, although he chooses different passages to highlight – me, I’m partial to the one with the bicycle in it. Driving up a steep rise in Arizona,

I shifted to low, and Ghost Dancing pulled hard. A man with a dusty, leathery face creased like an old boot strained on a bicycle – the old style with fat tires. I called a hello, he said nothing. At the summit, I waited to see whether he would make the ascent. Far below lay two cars, crumpled wads. Through the clear air I could count nine ranges of mountains, each successively grayer in a way reminiscent of old Chinese woodblock prints. The Mogollon was a spectacular place; the more so because I had not been anesthetized to it by endless Kodachromes. When the cyclist passed, I called out, “Bravo!” but he acknowledged nothing. I would have liked to talk to a man who, while his contemporaries were consolidating their little empires, rides up the Mogollon Rim on a child’s toy. Surely he knew something about desperate men.

I will forgive the dig about the child’s toy (especially since I didn’t see the bicycle in question), and recognize that the final sentence I quote here hints at a mostly unstated theme of Blue Highways. At least not until late in the book does Heat-Moon begin to address the pain of his failing marriage, and the fact that he is, on some level, running from something (its failure) or seeking something (its salvation). The desperate man who may have something to teach our narrator is one of the subtle through-lines of the book, and this moment with the leather-faced cyclist points it out. It is not til page 327 that he puts it plainly: “Some men take their broken marriages to church-basement workshops. I took mine to the highways and attempted to tuck it away for nearly eleven thousand miles.” I think it a charming touch of realism, that the reader must wait for thousands of miles, along with the narrator, to learn what the hell is really going on here.

As McKibben points out, Heat-Moon “is fluent (unobnoxiously) in the literature of our language).” Our narrator quotes Whitman and Black Elk (from Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks) most frequently, I think, as well as Heat Moon (the author’s father), and (naturally) Thoreau; I also appreciated reference to Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley (which I read before this blog was born, and I regret that, because I’d love to compare the two. I remember it fondly). Likewise John McPhee’s The Pine Barrens. Here’s Gertrude Stein, too: “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. That is what makes American what it is.” Now, I have visited Big Bend and I hear tell of the wide open spaces of Montana and Alaska, but I wonder if this statement is still true at all. The quotation is credited (not here, but I found it) to Stein’s 1936 The Geographical History of America, more than 80 years ago now. I can believe it was true then. When I read this line, I stopped and put down the book to sit with it and ask myself: is this what I want? Space where nobody is? It’s part of an ongoing and important series of questions I’m asking myself these days. This is not necessarily material for this book review; but it’s significant, I think, that a book makes one stop and question.

I love an author who will teach me new words, too. Heat-Moon had me look up quodlibet, which is either “a topic for or exercise in philosophical or theological discussion,” or “a lighthearted medley of well-known tunes.” The usage here is “a mockingbird knocked out a manic of quodlibets,” so I guess we’ll go for the latter definition. He had me look up mochila, which turns out to be (prosaically) Spanish for ‘backpack.’ He teaches me conterminous, which means ‘sharing a common boundary,’ as in the conterminous or contiguous United States. Tallywhacker: slang for penis. Arrack: distilled spirit made from coconut flowers or sugarcane. Swiving: having sexual intercourse. Cockahoop: as a verb, to carouse, basically, but used here as an adjective it means something more like ‘extremely and obviously pleased.’ Whilom: former or erstwhile.

On the other hand, Heat-Moon can be a little creepy in his appreciation of the bodies of young coeds, and in his sympathies with other grown men and their appreciations. I know this is a sign of the times (as Pops pointed out, the year of my birth, this book was published – that’s four years after Heat-Moon took his trip). It’s something I’ve noted with Abbey, not to mention Hemingway – two of my all-time favorites. But still, ugh.

On the other other hand, Heat-Moon impresses with his openness to consider any- and everything put in his path, and he deserves credit for his sensitivity to issues of social justice, racism, and environmental concerns. That’s where we’ll start up again on Friday with more on Blue Highways. Now go order your copy.

4 Responses

  1. In 1989 I was gifted a hardcover first edition of this book by a kind boss as I was leaving Massachusetts and heading to back to Texas to library school. I am certain I did not read it as closely as you have but I did read it twice. What I recall is that it was a balm in a transitional time, thanks for reminding me why that was true. The book is long gone from my shelves but at your recommendation, I will enjoy looking for my old edition as I haunt used bookstores and library book sales.

    • That’s a lovely story and a fun treasure hunt. Read more on Friday about its mixed effects on me; but worth every minute. Your travels have been a guide to me too, Liz.

  2. […] Today I continue my review of Blue Highways begun on Wednesday. […]

  3. […] of Matt Ferrence in the copy of Blue Highways that he gifted me. (Reviewed here last week in two […]

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