I’m not sure why it took me so long to pick up Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon. Published in 1983, the book shows up frequently in my secondhand book perambulations. I think I was put off by its reputed genre: travelogue often seems trite to me. Who wouldn’t write about a paid vacation to someplace fabulous or fun?
But no publisher paid for Heat-Moon’s gas or lodging. He did plan to write an article or two of tripping around the US perimeter in his old van—he’d packed a tape recorder, after all. But the notion to publish a book came later. First came losing his job and his wife, good enough reasons to get up and go.
The title Blue Highways comes from the color of state and county roads on old highway maps and atlases back in 1978 when Heat-Moon set off “not simply to cross America but to encircle her.” Heading east from Missouri, he decides to visit rural towns with colorful names like Remote and Riddle, Oregon; Why, Arizona and Why Not, Mississippi; and Contact, Nevada, Hog Heaven, Idaho, and Dime Box, Texas. Along the way, he records conversations with folks who don’t mind passing the time of day with a stranger. If there’s something better to do, they don’t let on.
As the journey progresses, Heat-Moon begins to seek out particular kinds of people, those who know the history of an area or have witnessed the conflicts of communities undergoing change. This is the late 1970s, when the promises of the Civil Rights movement have not come fully to fruition, but many are resistant to what changes have been made. While a white man in Selma, Alabama, complains bitterly to Heat-Moon that “change has ruined this town,” a young Black man laments, “Ain’t nothin’ changed.”
Blue Highways is a travelogue. Through the author’s eyes, we view the many geographic regions of the United States, as well as their corresponding cultural differences. As a travelogue, Blue Highways winds through the small towns that so-called progress seems to have left behind. Some of the towns on the author’s map had already disappeared; a few roads ended with nowhere to go but back. The author regrets the disappearance of “six calendar diners,” establishments where local people meet and eat and travelers are served a slice of locale with their eggs and bacon.
But Blue Highways is also an oral history of life on the cusp of hyperconsumerism, a life before cell phones and the internet shrink distances and introduce identities based on corporate branding of all things consumable. These stories are about folks who live off the grid, not from rejection of government or corporate control, but because the grid hadn’t yet come to them. The people Heat-Moon meets build their own houses, fix their own cars, grow or raise or catch their own food. They make their own entertainment too, be it music at a backroads bar or a running argument with a friend of sixty years.
Change is a constant topic of conversation throughout Heat-Moon’s travels, just as change is a constant in the lives of the people he meets. In his search for “places where change did not mean ruin,” Heat-Moon finds that the struggle against ruin requires commitment to the past while keeping an eye on the future. As he reaches the East coast of his circular journey, he hears of a community that fought hard to retain control over change in what the author calls “a story of the past, the future, the present.” In Greenwich, New Jersey, he learns the story of the Atlantic City Electric Company’s secret purchase of land along the Delaware bay in a plan to rezone coastal marshland as heavy industrial and to run oil tank lines through one of the first permanent English-speaking settlements on the bay, a place where townspeople considered historical preservation and “geographical refuge” as “central to [their] history.” The citizens fought the changes and at the same time proposed new commercial ventures, like soybean crops and a new cannery.
This struggle struck me especially as a farmer with small-scale agricultural land in the midst of encroaching commercial development and light industry. The issues raised by a Greenwich community activist could be said of our 101-year-old farm as well: “The problem of what we’re doing lies in deciding what’s the benefit of history and what’s the burden. We’re not trying to hold back the future, but we do believe that what has happened in Greenwich is at least as important as what could happen here. The future should grow from the past, not obliterate it.” These sentiments make sense to me; I hope they will to others in our community if conflicts between agricultural and industrial use arise.
After seeing it for years on secondhand bookshelves, I read Blue Highways, finally, because of its beautiful evocations of nature. I wouldn’t call the book an ecobiography, or ecology-based memoir, in the way I think about the genre (you can see my new website on this topic here) but the book does have much to offer in writing about the uneasy connections between humans and the natural world.
As he travels the blue highways, Heat-Moon often retreats from towns and people to off-road sanctuaries where he can be alone. Here he records what he calls “particularities” like “a green and grainy and corrupted ice over the ponds”; raindrops, lightning, mosquitoes and a slug are his traveling companions.
Pulling off the Natchez Trace Parkway in Mississippi, a blue highway that follows the contours of a river without billboard or powerlines—a highway that doesn’t, in the author’s words, “outrage landscape”—he stops to hike a trail into a swamp. Here he senses the arrival of spring as emboldened forms of life begin to emerge from the rot-stewed muck: “I had a powerful sense of life going about the business of getting on with itself. Pointed phallic sprouts pressed up out of the ooze, green vegetable heads came up from the mire to sniff for vegetation of kin. . . . I could almost feel the heat from their generation: the slow friction of leaf against bud case, petal against petal. For some time I stood among the high mysteries of being as they consumed the decay of old life.”
Refreshed by the natural world’s regenerative power, he returns to the road, only to discover emergent signs of humanity amongst a different kind of muck: “strawberry-syrup pancakes, magic-finger motel beds, and double-cheese pizzas.” Leaving kinship with a Mississippi swamp behind, he rejoins the human-built world and yearns for “a texturized patty of genetically engineered cow.”
As we encircle the country with William Least Heat-Moon, we learn to see regional landscapes in a new way. On a seemingly barren drive across Texas with nearly 100 miles between one town and the next, he pulls off the road to make a list of “nothing in particular”— in fact, thirty things that inhabit the nothingness within his vast line of sight. Starting with a mockingbird, he lists insects, many varieties of cactus, small mammals, and shrubby trees that can live on little water, ending his list with earth, sky, and “wind (always).” He rejects the notion that the desert is empty: “To say nothing is out here is incorrect; to say the desert is stingy with everything except space and light, stone and earth is closer to the truth.” We see this close-up too and learn that each area of the country has its own list to offer.
As Heat-Moon writes in the epilogue to Blue Highways, in his three months of travel “preeminent always was the ancient wish to leave an old world and enter a new one.” Traveling with the author, we enter many new worlds, each with its attractions and troubles. Preeminent always for me was the thrust of change that does bring ruin, from outraged landscape to backroad blight to urban inanity. It’s hard to see those old roads go but I’m grateful Blue Highways captured some of their stories before they disappeared. Rich with the small particulars that lend laughter and lament, this is a book to read not once, but many times as we remember where blue highways came from and where they need to go.