Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least Heat-Moon, part 2

Without the errors, wrong turns, and blind alleys, without the doubling back and misdirection and fumbling and chance discoveries, there was not one bit of joy in walking the labyrinth. And worse: knowing the way made traveling it perfectly meaningless.

Today I continue my review of Blue Highways begun on Wednesday.

The above quotation refers to a literal labyrinth, a maze the narrator walks that is too obvious. But clearly its meaning applies to the mad trip of life: the joy and pathos and point is not in knowing but in discovering.

Unavoidably, in the deep South, Heat-Moon finds racial tensions, which he follows to Selma to ask what’s changed since King’s march. He has a totally chilling experience there: this question is not welcome among the whites of the town he encounters, although the Black citizens have a little more to say. He is shaken down in the middle of the night by cops who, he’s warned, didn’t like him talking with Black residents at all. He’s curious about the experiences of Native Americans everywhere he goes, which is unsurprising considering his own heritage; he is also sensitive about his status as a “mixed-blood.” “Let his heart be where it may,” such a person “is a contaminated man who will be trusted by neither red nor white.” This feeling of not quite belonging inhibits his investigations on the road, which happens but rarely, and usually only out of concern for his immediate safety. The reader feels this “mixed-blood” identity is a pressure point for the narrator, and I’m curious whether he’s explored it in his other works (there are several, but this is all of his I’ve read to date). I accept that this book is not where that material belongs, but it does seem like something he has to write about.

I appreciated his exploration of environmental concerns, although as a topic for this book, the natural world is at least as obvious as racial issues. “Everyone believes what the dredge and bulldozer can do, they can also undo; but a Cajun named Cassie Hebert told me he had yet to see a bush-dog make a mink.” Part of what Heat-Moon is out for is a view of a changing world, to grasp the last of the real, the old, the rural, before it is corporatized and made same – a process much completed between his trip and my own. “I took to the open road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected,” he writes (and as always, the use of ‘men’ pisses me off, but on with it). Places where change did not mean ruin. One of my first thoughts about this book, in its earliest pages, was: I cannot visit the places this man visited. I can go to towns with the same names, which occupy the same spaces, but the diners he judges by the number of past-year calendars on their walls have surely fallen to Subways and Sonics by now.

When Heat-Moon gets into the question of where “the West” begins, I am intrigued. I’m not sure where I’d say, but maybe somewhere west of San Antonio, in my home state of Texas, which is where the question arises for him. “Texans say the Brazos River,” he asserts, and first I want to state that I’ve never heard of an agreed-upon general Texan answer to this question; but I would personally argue hard against the Brazos. Why, that’s east of Austin! His generalizations about Texas fall short for me, because it’s too big a state to generalize (I’d argue that probably even Delaware is too big to generalize, but that’s a different story. Also I’ll be in Delaware soon and let you know). I was tickled to see several of my own homes appear in these pages: for example Johnson City, Texas (“truly a plain town”), where my friend lives who sold me my van. And a little trivia about Fredericksburg, Texas, another town in my old neighborhood: “Main Street’s wide because an ox is stupid,” Heat-Moon is told, although there is a little longer story to it than that. Go buy this book to read it on page 144. Much later in the book – in its final pages – we encounter Elkins and Buckhannon, West Virginia, giving me a thrill, since I’ll be teaching in Buckhannon this fall and taking a rental home maybe as far out as Elkins (not far).

Heat-Moon travels largely spontaneously and by whim. He may study his atlas the night before he drives; he may turn the wheel when he sees a sign that looks interesting. Exceptions to this seat-of-the-pants rule are made for major destinations and to visit friends. This is very much the way I travel, too, and I was frequently pleased and sometimes flabbergasted to find us so much in sync.

Had I gone looking for some particular place rather than any place, I’d never have found this spring under the sycamores. Since leaving home, I felt for the first time at rest. Sitting full in the moment, I practiced on the god-awful difficulty of just paying attention. It’s a contention of [the author’s father] Heat Moon’s – believing as he does any traveler who misses the journey misses about all he’s going to get – that a man becomes his attentions. His observations and curiosity, they make and remake him.

Etymology: curious, related to cure, once meant ‘carefully observant.’ Maybe a tonic of curiosity would counter my numbing sense that life inevitable creeps toward the absurd. Absurd, by the way, derives from a Latin word meaning ‘deaf, dulled.’ Maybe the road could provide a therapy through observation of the ordinary and obvious, a means whereby the outer eye opens an inner one. STOP, LOOK, LISTEN, the old railroad crossing signs warned. Whitman calls it ‘the profound lesson of reception.’

New ways of seeing can disclose new things: the radio telescope revealed quasars and pulsars, and the scanning electronic microscope showed the whiskers of the dust mite. But turn the question around: Do new things make for new ways of seeing?

Coming early, on page 17, this felt like a lot to consider at the time I read it – so new to Heat-Moon – and it still feels like a lot to consider now. But it also feels like the essential question. Later,

She longed for the true journey of an Odysseus or Ishmael or Gulliver or even a Dorothy of Kansas, wherein passage through space and time becomes only a metaphor of a movement through the interior of being. A true journey, no matter how long the travel takes, has no end. What’s more, as John Le Carré, in speaking of the journey of death, said, ‘Nothing ever bridged the gulf between the man who went and the man who stayed behind.’

Maybe this is Heat-Moon’s subtle point, but I want to ask the question outright: doesn’t the Le Carré line apply equally well to more worldly journeys? Forgive the self-reference here (so sorry), but I wrote early in my creative thesis about moving into the van: “I hope to return home from these travels as someone else. But is that not also the scariest thing imaginable: to jump into a crucible hoping to be transformed, not knowing what will spill out the other side? How on earth does one pack for such a trip?” How are we changed by the things we do and the places we go?

This book is a source of many one-line philosophies, koans even, that a traveler could spend her time on. Part of me thinks I should put them on note-cards and consider one every morning as I set out.

There are two kinds of adventurers: those who go truly hoping to find adventure and those who go secretly hoping they won’t.

A Brooklyn-police-officer-turned-monk says (among many other wise things),

I learned to travel, then traveled to learn.

Heat-Moon again:

A rule of the blue road: Be careful going in search of adventure – it’s ridiculously easy to find.

On the road, where change is continuous and visible, time is not; rather it is something the rider only infers. Time is not the traveler’s fourth dimension – change is.

Let me tell you, never in life have I lost track of time like I have out here.

In a hotel room at the geographical center of North America, a neon sign blinking red through the cold curtains, I lay quietly like a small idea in a vacant mind.

This line, coming a little past the center of this book, is immediately and obviously sad, and poetic. And I so sympathize: I too have sat sad and poetic in a rundown hotel room. But look more closely. Like a small idea in a vacant mind? Well, the idea is small: maybe this is a bad sign, the smallness of the idea. But maybe it’s hopeful: in a vacant mind sprouts something small. A beginning. I don’t know. I’m still deciding.

Before I left home, I had told someone that part of my purpose for the trip was to be inconvenienced so I might see what would come from dislocation and disrupted custom. Answer: severe irritability.

I do so sympathize. And yet, only a few lines later:

I built a little fire, cut some sausage, and put it in the skillet with two eggs. The pine popped and snapped in the flames, the sausage hissed like serpents, the warm air moved, and I was washed. Nights like last night made for mornings like this. I could stay on the road forever.

This too I’ve experienced. Move a few miles down the road and find new life.

On this topic, though, I confess I’ve felt some of the same malaise, aimlessness, and sadness that Heat-Moon has; in fact, it sometimes feels like he conjures his experiences again in me. When a full day’s rainstorm keeps him holed up in Ghost Dancing reading his atlas, the same rainstorm kept me holed up in Foxy, reading Blue Highways. When his mood turns dark, mine does as well. I’m not sure I should blame him – coincidence, causation, correlation? Certainly, if he has cause to feel morose at the America he finds, I can only have more cause. At any rate, it makes me feel his words ring truer.

I gained so much from this book. For one thing, I added a number of places from Heat-Moon’s travels to my own map of maybes: Crater Lake in Oregon, Selma (how could I have passed this by?) in Alabama, Manteo and Wanchese in North Carolina. And I hope to be goaded to my own increased writing by his prodigious output. A mere three months gave Heat-Moon this book of 420 pages, which began as an 800-page manuscript. My five months have given me mere notes and jottings (and copious blog entries, of course, as McKibben warns against).

But its value is vast, and not just for fellow van-dwellers. Blue Highways teaches about America, a place in time, or a series of small places in relationship to time. It teaches how to live in the world, how to relate to strangers. It’s an extraordinary series of sentences, gorgeously and wisely and hilariously written. It’s an absolute classic.

Matt, thanks again.


Rating: 7 for objective value and 9 for its commentary on my life right this minute, so call it 8 spontaneous redirections.

And come back next week for my examination of Blue Highways marginalia!

One Response

  1. […] He may have thought I was joking, but here I am, writing about the highlights, marking, and marginalia of Matt Ferrence in the copy of Blue Highways that he gifted me. (Reviewed here last week in two parts.) […]

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