Ever feel like you need to get away from it all? In 1978 William Least Heat-Moon did. The writer had been laid off from his teaching job at the University of Missouri and was going through a rough patch with his wife. What better way to do some self-discovery than a little road trip? Perhaps a 13,000 mile circular trek around the entire country would do the trick. He set out from Columbia, Missouri on the first day of spring in a ’75 Ford Econoline van he named Ghost Dancing with $428 stashed under the dash. The goal was to discover the true America and his true self by using primarily 2-lane back roads and going wherever his mood and his atlas took him (2-lane roads were blue on maps in those days). Blue Highways is in the same genre as John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley, but more humorous and with a bit more heart.
Throughout the journey, Heat-Moon narrates from a sort of inner monologue and lets us feel like we’re in the passenger seat. He met memorable characters everywhere he traveled and we get to experience their direct quotes as well as the author’s take on the situation. There were the Trappist monks he stayed with in Georgia, the rowdy bar patrons he drank with in Texas, the future doctor in Arizona, the runaway teenager in Wisconsin, the maple syrup farmer in New Hampshire and many more. A true cross-section of 1978 USA. Some crazy things happened too: In Nevada he stepped into a strip club by accident thinking it was a roadside bar, was hired off the street to help a fishing crew unload their catch in North Carolina and got trapped in a snowstorm overnight near Cedar Breaks in Utah. Then there’s the banana slug he picked up in a forest to photograph later, only to have it mysteriously disappear inside the van … try sleeping thinking a banana slug might slime across your face in the night. All those unexpected quirky moments are part of what makes a road trip so great. (We have plenty of our own.) It’s also amazing how many people let an unknown traveler into their homes to chat, have dinner and even spend the night. Three months after leaving, he arrived back at his starting point a changed man. He’s not entirely sure exactly how he changed, but he knew he had to make the journey and then write this book to find out.
The author probably sums it up best himself in his afterword: “Perhaps it’s in our blood, maybe it’s just in our history, bur surely it’s in the American vein to head out for some other place when home becomes intolerable, or merely even when the distant side of the beyond seems a lure we can’t resist.”
One of the surprising things I found while reading is that even though the events happened in 1978, much of the subject matter he encountered is almost timeless. If you overlook that he doesn’t have a cell phone, GPS or Internet access it could have happened yesterday. Almost makes me long for the trips before we had an iPhone and iPad to connect us with the outside world.