Touring America on Blue Highways

William Least Heat-Moon’s life crumbled around him somewhere in the late 1970s. Then, he did what anyone with multiple life crises staring at an overwhelmingly uncertain future wants to do: he got in his van, complete with sleeping bench and food stores, and drove. The tales of his adventures find life in their re-telling in his book, blue highways, published in 1983 about his three-month adventure around the United States. After eight drafts and four years of work, this book reads like a movie script, offering detailed images of encounters with unique characters and the cities they represent. Heat-Moon relays his narrative with an awareness that his journey is much more than a cross-country road trip, though he readily admits that there are no magical epiphanies forthcoming either.

 Instead of insight, maybe all man gets is strength to wander for a while. Maybe the only gift is a chance to inquire, to know nothing for certain. An inheritance of wonder and nothing more. (Heat-Moon, 240)

blue highways reads like a history of the late 20th century for me. The writing illuminates racial tensions, reviews the history of urban development, and speaks of tourists and “national preservation” with a touch of disdain that has disappeared from common vernacular in our paralyzing suburban lifestyles. Heat-Moon’s journey echos some sentiments from my own recent road trip while simultaneously quelling my own desire to pack up and head East. As he travels, Heat-Moon encounters his own past, modernized past recognition. He wanders from coast to coast, circling the country while exhausting his savings. Near the end of his journey, he reflects,

If the circle had come full turn, I hadn’t. I can’t say, over the miles, that I had learned what I had wanted to know because I hadn’t know what I wanted to know. But I did learn what I didn’t know I wanted to know. (Head-Moon, 411)

I think my own journey is a bit like that, both in my touring vacations and the larger journey of life. I want to take the interstates, the fast roads that will carry me along with millions of other people to  destinations I hope are better than the place I currently inhabit. I’m slowly learning, though, that I need to slow down and appreciate the journey. Talk with the people I get to know along the way, and appreciate the history of what has brought me to where I am, regardless of how dim the future appears. No matter how far I fun, drive, or fly, I will come home. I will be richer for the experiences I’ve had, but ultimately, I will find many blue highways in my own life as I find mountains, valleys, rivers and streams. Might as well enjoy the journey, wherever it may lead.

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