‘Blue Highways’ (1982) – In Search of America thirty-five years on

In Books by Will Carroll

‘…The pull of the Blue Highway is strongest, when the open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself’

Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon

In 1982, shortly after the break down of his marriage, William Least Heat-Moon (born William Trogdon) outfitted his Ford van with a camping stove, a bunk, and a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and John Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks. His aim was simple, to search for the America still hidden from plain sight. The America fading in a sequence of trail signs and crumpled tourist maps. ‘When you’re traveling, you are what you right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.’ The philosophy of the American road is simple: take only what you need, and leave nothing but footprints. Now, thirty-five years later, Heat-Moon’s enduring work of travel writing continues to inspire generations to head out into the heartland and shake the blues of city life in favour of the Blue Highways.

Heat-Moon’s journey across the country introduces him to people from all walks of life, from a rural monastery in Georgia and the winding roads of Appalachia, to remote western saloon’s hanging onto the dusty trail with little more than the spurs of their cattle rustler boots.  Topographically speaking, Heat-Moon sees it all. Winding rivers and lush hollers, mountain roads covered with snow and arid plains gasping for rain. The natural diversity of America’s biomes plays out in a beautiful tapestry as Heat-Moon pushes on, leaving his home state of Missouri behind in a quest for freedom. In many ways, his story is the story of every drifter who has been on the road for days, hitching the miles down slowly, waiting for that wink of a café over the next rise in the road. It’s the quintessential travelogue of the American roadtrip in all its quotidian, mundane beauty. There are no open-top drag races down boulevards here, just a simple man in a simple van.

‘To the rider of back roads, nothing shows the tone, the voice of a small town more quickly than the breakfast grill or the five-thirty tavern.’ The iconography of Americana can be a little saturating in literature; readers of the Beat generation will know all too well the smells of a greasy spoon or a truck-stop. For Heat-Moon, they become less the romantic machinery of American freedom and more the places to pause, to consider, and, most importantly, to eat. Over the course of the trip, Heat-Moon enjoys everything from seafood buffets that cover entire tables to a traditional traveller’s breakfast of fats and grits. The journey becomes equal part culinary odyssey into the meals of the everyday and everyman, as well as becoming an ode to the American roads.

It’s not all smooth travelling for Heat-Moon though, who is vulnerable and open to the ‘Oregon Blues’, the wistful sadness of the lonesome traveller far from home. He combats the onset of sadness by way of the hitchhikers and other strange characters he meets along the road, transcribing their conversations about the simple and superfluous throughout the book with an accompanying photo placing the speaker alongside their little slice of America, be it a lumber mill, gas station or eatery. For Heat-Moon, whose chief motive on the road is to find the strangest town names in America, the apex of which is Nameless, Tennessee, everything he sees is part of the life-blood running under America’s roads. No café is too forgettable, no strip of greenery too boring. Every town matters and, in a country so vast with a people so varied, that isn’t something objectively considered.

Thirty-five years later, the Blue Highways still call, and Heat-Moon still provides the ultimate companionship for those chronically afflicted with wanderlust. If you can’t quite afford the trip yourself, there is no better proxy travelogue that this.

By Will Carroll