“Life doesn’t happen along interstates. It’s against the law.”
– William Least Heat-Moon
“It is not down on any map; true places never are.”
– Herman Melville, Moby-Dick or, The Whale
I wrote in a preface or companion post to this article about the Red Road in Oglala Lakota holy man Black Elk’s vision and philosophy and how it connects to the “blue highways” of William Heat-Moon’s travel book.
This post is about modern day road visions. Blue Highways is the story of the author’s 13,000-mile journey and the people he meets along the way.
The Red Road may be the “right path” but he chooses the smaller roads and highways marked in blue on his paper road atlas. He avoids cities and interstates. He tries to avoid fast food and the usual interstate experiences. He seeks out towns because they have odd names and wants to find very localized American culture.
I read the book years ago when it was first released. It was on the NY Times’ best seller list for 42 weeks in 1982-83. The term “blue highways” became a way to describe a journey of introspection and discovery.
I mentally shelve this book next to Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. They are two books that I really loved reading and both are on-the-road, travel and spirituality texts. Pirsig is more spiritual and philosophical. Heat-Moon is more travel.
But both are modern epics and hero’s journeys to me. I read Zen upon publication in 1974, when I was a junior in college and it certainly made me want to take that journey (though in my VW Beetle rather than on a motorcycle).
This summer motorcycle trip of a father and his son took on other meanings when I was older and had my own two sons. But both books ponder big questions, as Black Elk did, of personal philosophy and how to live.
Pirsig’s route was a pretty straight shot from Minnesota to California. Westward Ho! Like Black Elk’s Red Road, Heat-Moon’s route is a loop. He does not drive across America, but he encircles it, mostly staying at the edges of the map.
I was particularly interested (as many of us would be) about his observations in my part of the country. That would be when he passes over the Verrazano-Narrows bridge in New York City to Staten Island, and then into Paradelle-country: Lakewood, New Jersey, Lakehurst Naval Air Station, somewhere on the Wading River in the Pine Barrens, Weekstown, Egg Harbor City, Millville, Bridgeton, Othello (“‘In Cumberland County we have a settlement of people called ‘tri-bloods,’ people that trace their history – or legend – back to a Moorish – Algerian, specifically – princess who came ashore after a shipwreck in the first years of the nation. The Indians took her in, and from the subsequent mixing of blood – later with a small infusion from the Negro – there developed a group composed of three races. The ‘Delaware Moors,’ they’re called…'”), Greenwich, Hancock’s Bridge and Salem, New Jersey.
Sadly, I have not been to most of those places myself. I really must plan a summer journey along that path for myself. No doubt, most of the places he passed through have changed a lot since he passed through tem.
I would also place on that mental bookshelf with those two books another one that I read much earlier in my youth that made me want to wander the roads of America. That book is John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley.
It’s not Steinbeck’s best book, but by the time I was in high school I had read almost all of his fiction and so I picked up this travel with his dog in search of America book. It is listed as non-fiction, but more recently I have read that some of it is fiction. Not all the people and experiences actually happened to Steinbeck on the road. I’m okay with that mix of fiction and fact. I think most fiction is that blend, though we hope that most non-fiction is not.
In 1960, Steinbeck started his trip because he thought he had lost touch with the country. I think he was looking for inspiration for his fiction, but found a book in the process. Like Heat-Moon, he traveled in a truck, a three-quarter-ton pickup truck he named Rocinante. (that is an allusion to Don Quixote’s horse. Heat-Moon names his truck Ghost Dancing, a more suitably American Indian name.) Pirsig’s trip is with a son. Heat-Moon is alone. Steinbeck was accompanied by a French poodle named Charley.
Robert Pirsig did take a Zen-like trip by motorcycle with his si, Chris, but most of the book is fiction. As far as I know, Heat-Moon did make the trip he describes, but as far as the accuracy of the dialogue with people and the many details he includes, I’ll assume some poetic license and post-trip research.
William Least Heat-Moon is the pen name of William Trogdon. He is an American travel writer of English, Irish and Osage Nation ancestry. His pen name came from his father saying, “I call myself Heat Moon, your elder brother is Little Heat Moon. You, coming last, therefore, are Least.”
He was born in Kansas City, Missouri and Heat-Moon attended the University of Missouri where he earned bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. degrees in English, as well as a bachelor’s degree in photojournalism. He also served as a professor of English at the university.
In the book and in his interactions with people he meets, he does come off as a professor. He assumes the role of just a sort of bum on the road
Heat-Moon’s journey of self-discovery (as we would say is one of its themes, if I was teaching the book) begins because of personal loss. He really starts his inward look by looking outward. He recognizes those who have made such journeys before, from ancient heroes real and fictional to Walt Whitman and Black Elk.
At the end of the book, when William crosses the Ohio River, drives through cornfields in Indiana and heads home, he seems to have more knowledge of himself through learning more about others.
I haven’t read William Least Heat-Moon’s book Writing BLUE HIGHWAYS: The Story of How a Book Happened and I don’t know anyone who has read it. I’m not sure if it will reveal some fiction in the facts, or if it will add more meaning to the book itself. It shouldn’t take a book to explain a book.
2 thoughts on “The Blue Roads”
William Least Heat-Moon says about his Ho the Book Happened followup book: “This story might be termed an inadvertent autobiography written not by the traveler who took Ghost Dancing in 1978 over the byroads of America but by a man only listening to him. That blue-roadman hasn’t been seen in more than a third of a century, and over the last many weeks as I sketched in these pages, I’ve regretted his inevitable departure.” Filtered as the struggles of the “blue-roadman” are through the awareness of someone more than thirty years older with a half dozen subsequent books to his credit, the story of how his first book “happened” is all the more resonant for readers who may not themselves be writers but who are interested in the tricky balance of intuitive creation and self-discipline required for any artistic endeavor.