Heat-Moon is a 38-year-old, laid-off college professor of Sioux and white blood. When his wife announces that she’s seeing someone else, the crisis deepens. He packs all he owns into his beater van, and decides to take a little trip. He drives around the U.S. on the “blue highways,” the rural back roads colored blue on old maps. The places he discovers during his 13,000-mile odyssey are unexpected, sometimes mysterious, and often full of simply the wonder of the ordinary.
“Movement is in our blood,” says William Least Heat-Moon in a recent CNN interview. “We all come from descendants who traveled.” It’s still the summer, still road trip time, and while the secondary highways on America’s maps are literally and metaphorically disappearing, maybe this book will inspire an end-of-the-summer road trip. Maybe the blue highways in your very bloodstream will call you to go somewhere you’ve never been before.
Part of what makes William Least Heat-Moon’s story so compelling is the way he takes you with him. This is quintessential ethnography, and Heat-Moon is a gifted field researcher. You literally feel like you’re going with him, learning about the literal topography of the places he goes, as well as simply amazing histories that might otherwise be forgotten. Heat-Moon seems to have a gift for connecting with people, for getting them to open up and talk. Often, I felt like I was slowing down and meandering into another century.
It was actually 2005 when I was about halfway through, and took the book with me as I drove out to Denver straight from Chattanooga with David Bell. We had a rented four-wheel Jeep, and off we went through St. Louis, almost running out of gas through those 300 miles of cornfields in Kansas. We were mountain biking in Moab some 36 hours later. I was including a “field research” essay component to my Composition courses, and was taking studious notes throughout.
Part of what makes Blue Highways still relevant today comes from within one of its very themes–the idea of personal histories and people’s attachment to place. There is a longing for what is lost, a coming to terms with things as they are, and a recognition that a person’s (and a people’s) identity comes from connection to environment.
With our ever-expanding population, we would all do well to consider this book for the seriousness of its themes. It’s also a joy. Read it and be inspired. Oh, and if you really do take a “blue highways” trip, please tell me about it–and consider taking me along?