Blue Highways Revisited
Even with record high gasoline prices and sweltering temperatures, millions of Americans will take to the road this summer to discover America. Before they do, they should also take the time to rediscover Blue Highways: A Journey into America, a classic American travelogue written by William Least Heat-Moon. Blue Highways will soon reach the 30th anniversary of its publication, and in honor of the occasion, two photographers recently retraced the author's journey and took photos showing what the people and places described in Blue Highways look like today. Their work has been published in Blue Highways Revisited, a remarkable achievement in its own right.
Although Blue Highways is a positive and hopeful book, it was born of despair. Least Heat-Moon, who is part Osage Indian, lost his job as an English professor on the same day his half-Cherokee wife told him she was seeing another man. With no commitments and few prospects, Least Heat-Moon gathered his meager savings, a few supplies, and copies of Whitman's Leaves of Grass and Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks and set out on a circular journey across the backroads of America, the so-called "blue highways" in the old Rand McNally road maps. He left his home in Columbia, MO the first day of spring in 1978, drove east, and followed a route more or less along the perimeter of the country (although he bypassed California completely). He returned three months and 13,000 miles later, and he spent the next four years polishing his observations into a manuscript which, after dozens of rejections, became a bestseller shortly after it was published.
And what a story it is. Least Heat-Moon's prose can soar, but it never ceases to be grounded in the sights, sounds, and personalities of an America that our mass media largely ignores and that some may believe no longer exists. He also brings the American landscape and bewildering diversity of our people vividly to life. Among the individuals Least Heat-Moon meets on his journey are a couple building a houseboat from scratch in Brooklyn Bridge, KY; the proprietor of the Swamp Guinea Fish Lodge in Oglesby, GA who, when asked about the source of his name, says "the Swamp Guinea only tells regulars"; a Trappist monk in rural Georgia who used to be a beat cop in Brooklyn; the patrons of the Desert Den Bar and Filling Station in Hachita, NM, where Kit Carson and Wyatt Earp would have felt at home; and a beautiful woman on horseback in WA whom the author boldly propositions (it undoubtedly got lonely sleeping in the back of a 1975 Econoline van). There is also this wonderful description of being invited into the home of a family in Nameless, TN, where the author is served buttermilk pie and treated to old-time country classics on a hand-cranked Edison phonograph, "the kind with the big morning glory blossom for a speaker":
It was one of those moments that you know will stay with you to the grave: the sweet pie, the gaunt man playing the old music, the coals in the stove glowing orange, the scent of kerosene and hot bread. "Here's 'Evening Rhapsody.'" The music was so heavily romantic we both laughed. I thought: It is for this I have come.
Of course, Least Heat-Moon also encountered a few lost or sad characters along the way: an unrepentant racist in Selma, AL (who seemed "more empty than malicious"); a runaway teenage girl gobbling handfuls of Quaaludes in northern WI; and a man he called the Boss of the Plains, who obsessed over his misfortunes, which included a family that fell apart after his daughter modeled her face and bare shoulders for a condom ad. The self-obsession of the latter man seemed to bother the author most, since "things outside himself seemed banal[.] ... I suspected the Boss embraced one crisis after another because they gave him significance, something like tragic stature."
Although Least Heat-Moon never says so explicitly, he undoubtedly found the self-pity of the Boss of the Plains an affront to the spirit of the country he inhabited. The author is no political conservative, but he has little time for people who wallow in self-pity or fail to appreciate Americans' endless ability to reinvent themselves. In fact, Blue Highways is ultimately the tale of how Least Heat-Moon transcended his personal adversity and marital problems so intense he laughingly referred to them as "the Indian wars" by lifting his gaze from himself and towards the richness of the country surrounding him. This becomes clear near the end of the book, when the author describes an epiphany he experienced on the trip while reading the following words from Whitman:
Can each see signs of the best by a look in the lookinglass?
Is there nothing greater or more?
Does all sit there with you?
Something opened. Call it the Lookinglass syndrome. Like a crazed enemy running amuck, ego, that excessive looking inward, had had its way in the Indian wars and now the old life with the Cherokee was lost. But what had not been lost was the chance, as Black Elk says, "to make over."
Like the millions who immigrated to America, and others taking to the American road, Least Heat-Moon found the promise of America is that it gives you the ability to remake yourself. If you're not satisfied with the life you have, go out and build yourself another one. Ironically, a man who was part Native American came to this understanding by becoming an immigrant to his homeland.
If you have the time, you should reread Blue Highways or discover it for the first time before you take your own journey into America. Doing so will enrich your travels.