In 1960, John Steinbeck took a road trip around the Continental US with his dog Charley, a trip that would later be published as Travels with Charley. This post is not about that book, though I do heartily recommend it to one and all. This post is about a book that Newsday magazine called
“The most ingratiating, life-affirming American travel memoir since John Steinbeck told of roaming with his dog, Charley, more than twenty years ago.”
My mother has been recommending I read Blue Highways: A Journey into America for quite some time, but it was that descriptor that sold it to me. In 1978, William Least Heat Moon took a page out of Steinbeck’s book and spent three months driving the back roads, or what he called “Blue Highways”, referring to the small, off the beaten track roads connecting rural America, which were drawn in blue in old atlases.
This is a book about personal discovery just as much as it is about a rediscovery of towns and villages left to the vestiges of time. Least Heat Moon acts as a Humans of New York-esque reporter, photographing the people he meets and telling their story in short and beautifully written chapters. Every person he meets has a lesson for him, even if that lesson is only that it is unwise to be caught sleeping in a parked truck. He often refers back to the various people he’s spoken to, and ties in their philosophies and his own feelings with snippets of Walt Whitman poetry and Black Elk sayings.
“The scent of plants saturated the mist. Alexander the Great, I’ve heard, was preserved in honey, Lord Nelson in brandy, and Jesus in aloe and myrrh. If I can choose, I’ll take my eternity in essence of sage and juniper.” (p.198)
“Stars shone with a clarity beyond anything I could remember. I was looking into — actually seeing — the past. By looking up into the darkness, I was looking into time. The old light from Betelgeuse, five hundred twenty light-years away, showed the star that existed when Christopher Columbus was a boy, and the Betelgeuse he saw was the one that burned when Northmen were crossing the Atlantic. For the Betelgeuse of this time, someone else will have to do the looking. The past is for the present, the present for the future.” (p.249)
Something I found while doing some research is this very cool interactive map that shows all of the places Least Heat Moon mentioned or visited, and you can read quotes from the book that describe each stop.
All in all, I enjoyed this book very nearly as much as I enjoyed Travels with Charley, and I would recommend both as classic American travelogues.