NOTE: I read this classic American travel book for the first time recently for a friend's online book club but ultimately I was unable to attend the club's online discussion. So my friend asked me to send some comments which turned into a review that she then asked me to post. Here it is. -- @davidhunterbishop
Blue Highways is a book I put on my reading list when it was first published in 1982. It’s wandered off and on the list for many years.
You may have heard me exclaim: “Yeah, I always wanted to read that!”
But “that” was always sidelined by money, time, indifference, circumstance, happenstance, … whateverstance.
I never read the book.
Then recently a traveler friend @kristamuscarella posted her online book club pick, Blue Highways!
All of a sudden the road opened wide to some quality quarantine time. I could finally read and write about William Least Heat-Moon’s classic road travel book, then join Krista’s book club on Zoom to discuss it
After all, what else do travelers do when they can’t travel? They talk about travel.
Heat-Moon (born William Trogdon) in Blue Highways drives a converted van he calls “Ghost Dancer” around forgotten backwaters of rural America where he interviews a treasure trove of folksy, colorful characters that forms the meat of the book, and an adventure it is.
When you live in your van, have no planned route and a compass set on whimsy, you're bound for adventure.
But the facts that the author hit the road after simultaneously losing his job as a teacher and splitting up with his wife -- seemingly powerful forces that can drive the narrative of a book -- are hardly mentioned.
So maybe it’s a function of the time in which he wrote the book, because in today’s book world, leaving out a deep dive into such emotional drama like that is just about inexcusable.
This story had all the makings but the author avoided the potholes that swallowed his marriage and job. Wouldn’t some insight or perspective on those matters have provided a more understandable sense of motivation for a 13,000-mile road trip?
Paul Theroux says travel is equal parts flight and pursuit. While Theroux’s percentages may vary, it would have been interesting to know where Heat-Moon places on this continuum.
Fleeing failure of job and marriage? Middle-age malaise? Pursuing … what? Possibly a few magazine articles? A little help here, please?
I could see the story as a middle-aged man trying desperately to redefine himself after losing his job and watching his wife move away while at the same time succeeding spectacularly in his desire to be a writer. (A note in the Afterword mentioned that he found a new girlfriend soon after the marriage dissolved but she left him soon, too. Hey! People want to know.)
At one point Heat-Moon noted that he’d gone the first 11,000 miles of his journey without mentioning “Cherokee,” his wife, when he finally thought to call her. They talked, but apparently nothing good came of the conversation, he wrote. Nothing more was said of it. He just kept moving on.
Then I began wondering how he managed to find so many common people with such colorful, earthy, perfectly pitched down-home ways of expressing themselves? I don’t know.
Heat-Moon took a “satchel of notebooks,” … a microcassette recorder, two Nikon F2 35 mm cameras and five lenses with him, but rarely indicated that he’d used them.
Take that lengthy conversation Heat-Moon had in a Selma bar, for example. I doubt he took that microcassette recorder out after denying he was a reporter. So either he's got superhuman memory or he's recreating conversations after they occurred and perhaps taking some liberties with them.
I wonder if any other readers have a problem with that. It raises a question for me about all his other conversations. They are all so perfect. Are they really authentic or dressed up for the occasion?
Besides the adventure, the many stories and interesting characters Heat-Moon found along the way, he does acknowledge the vulnerability of loneliness, a common topic of discussion among solo travelers.
“Being alone on the road makes you really want to meet someone when you stop,” he wrote. “You get sociable traveling alone.”
I liked very much the companions Heat-Moon took with him -- Black Elk and Walt Whitman. Even though the author could make a good literal argument for being strictly a solo traveler, the frequent appearances of these two poets in the book belie reality, and sound very much here like Heat-Moon keeping his close friends nearby, perhaps for solace. It might help explain the bleak message Heat-Moon takes from his journey.
While his conversations with the locals are entertaining and at times uplifting, Heat-Moon’s overall take on the trip is decidedly gloomy. Listen:
“Black Elk says it is in the dark world among the many changing shadows that men get lost … ,” Heat-Moon wrote, in perhaps the most revealing passage of Blue Highways.
But then I got lost trying to figure out whether what comes next in the passage is still Heat-Moon paraphrasing Black Elk, or Heat-Moon adding his thoughts.
I’m guessing it was Heat-Moon, speaking through the shadings of his loneliness and estrangement:
“Instead of insight, maybe all a man gets is strength to wander for awhile. Maybe the only gift is a chance to inquire, to know nothing for certain. An inheritance of wonder and nothing more.”
How sad, “ … to know nothing is certain.” Yet the words are poetic, whoever they belong to.
And poets are handy to have around as friends for authors in need of such existential inspiration to post as mile-markers along the highway.
So by the end of the journey, I found in Blue Highways exactly what was foreshadowed in the book’s pivotal passage:
“An inheritance of wonder and nothing more.”
Quotes For A Good Life On The Road
“A foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth.”
-- Albert Einstein
See my complete collection of "Quotes For The Road" by clicking "More" in the dropdown menu above.
Who Am I?
I'm a retired journalist from Hawaii who tired quickly of retirement and hit the road as a slow, solo world traveler in August 2016. I've spent time in 20 countries on four continents. Currently I'm in sunny Merida, Mexico, waiting out developments in the coronavirus crisis before moving on. Meanwhile, learn more about me and my travels at Nomadic Matt, and Expat Focus, and in a great story by veteran Borneo newsman and prolific author James Ritchie, about our memorable meeting in Malaysia, A Confluence of Adventure Writers .
Also online ...
GARIFUNA SETTLEMENT DAY
Still the most authentic, lively and colorful local cultural festival I've seen on the road.
I found this Alternative Arts and Music Festival in the Amazon highlands of Peru. What a find!
Solas "Best Travel Writing" Awards
Saysha: What Happened?
13th Annual Solas Awards for Best Travel Writing
(Read it here)