Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1179
Blue Highways is simultaneously an exercise in literary geography, a work of social analysis and criticism, and an account of a spiritual journey. Each section of the book contains varying degrees of these elements, presented in a sophisticated yet vernacular tone intended to appeal to a wide audience. The author’s background in American history and literature is the essential foundation of all three aspects of the book, and its unity derives perhaps as much from his scholarly affinities as it does from his experiences on the road. Among the meager belongings he takes with him on his journey are two books, Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855) and John G. Neihardt’s Black Elk Speaks (1932). These volumes come to represent for Heat-Moon the two poles of his consciousness, with Whitman’s poems giving voice to passionate, self-absorbed experience and the words of Black Elk, an Oglala Indian medicine man, showing man as a small component of the great design of the world.
Heat-Moon’s account of his journey, for all of its introspective potential, is based principally upon encounters with diverse, usually interesting, characters. The contrast between their modest material circumstances and the integrity of their lives is one of the author’s recurring themes, but his approach to the social landscape does not idealize or sentimentalize his subjects; he finds enough people to distrust, and even to dislike, throughout his trip. Those who engage his respect, however, are generally given the most extensive treatment, and they often are the subjects of his photographs.
One of the early encounters in the book, and one of the most unusual, takes place in a Trappist monastery. On the road near Conyers, Georgia, Heat-Moon notices a water tower topped by a cross and turns in at the driveway. While in the monastery’s bookshop, to his surprise he is invited to lunch; after lunch, he is invited to stay the night and to interview a brother about why he became a monk. That evening, after attending vespers in denim and suspenders (Father Anthony reassures him, “How could that matter? But singing on key does. Can you?”), Brother Patrick—the former patrolman Patrick Duffy—explains his complex and not always serene attraction to the monastic life. “I start from the entire broken man—entire but whole,” he says. “Then I work to become empty. . . . In looking for ways to God, I find parts of myself coming together.” This episode at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit foreshadows the author’s gradual turning from Whitman’s view of the world to that of Black Elk, a theme that is quietly sustained throughout the rest of the book.
Though Heat-Moon’s visit to the monastery is not wholly solemn (he finds that the traditional readings at mealtimes are more likely to be current best-sellers than Scripture), it belongs largely to the book’s philosophical side. The author is more disposed to use humor and irony in creating his portraits of locale and character. Place names are an unfailing catalyst for his descriptions, and Blue Highways is a treasury of funny and illuminating ones such as Nameless, Tennessee; Dime Box, Texas; Why, Arizona; and Whynot, Mississippi (Heat-Moon’s only index is one of place names, which can be read as an enjoyable retrospective of the entire book). In searching for Nameless, Heat-Moon “was looking for an unnumbered road named after a nonexistent town [Shepardsville] that would take me to a place called Nameless that nobody was sure existed.”
In a spirit of panregional advocacy, Heat-Moon tries to make all parts of the country equally interesting, but though Blue Highways goes a long way toward this goal different regions present such varied literary opportunities that some sections of the book are arguably richer than others. The landscapes of the West, for example, seem to present a background against which Heat-Moon’s characters stand out with greater clarity. In Texas, Arizona, and Utah, Heat-Moon meets three remarkable characters.
After spending a harrowing night in a snowstorm at the ten-thousand-foot summit of Cedar Breaks, expecting a bear to extract him from his van like a sardine from a can, Heat-Moon meets a young Hopi chemistry student in the cafeteria of Southern Utah State College. Kendrick Fritz, like William, has an Anglo last name, which was passed on to him by his father from army days during World War II. Their talk starts with the subject of prejudice against Indians, moves to Kendrick’s ambition to become a doctor, and then turns to the Hopis’ past and future survival. “Medicine’s a pretty good survival technique,” remarks Heat-Moon. “Sure,” answers Fritz, “but I also like Jethro Tull and the Moody Blues. That’s not survival.”
Over the next hour, Fritz talks about the Hopi religion. The key element, Heat-Moon sees, is emergence, and it is represented by a figure carved in rock near the Hopi village of Shipolovi. This figure, which the author adopted as a graphic element to be placed at the beginning of each section of Blue Highways, is a mazelike mandala, or four-part design, which symbolizes the “road of life” and is a “map of the wandering soul” and a reminder of the cosmic patterns through which we all move. For a Hopi ethical code, Fritz offers two contemporary-sounding rules: “Don’t go around hurting each other,” and “Try to understand things.”
Coming at about midpoint in Blue Highways, the meeting with Kendrick Fritz focuses many of the themes of the book—the situation of the American Indian as outsider, victim, and survivor; the relationship of people to the land; and the way the past lingers in the present. Heat-Moon’s tone is not self-righteous or elegiac; reciting the lessons of the past is an occasion not for nostalgia but for considering how to salvage the future. He is occasionally sardonic but only rarely ill-tempered, and the irony to which he is naturally drawn seems to be mainly a protective coloration. Heat-Moon’s anecdotes and images, as much as they make a case for cultural diversity, seem to be aimed at easing the tensions of American culture.
A talented interpreter of regional accents and attitudes, Heat-Moon is an affectionate advocate for his subjects and their ways of life; as a traveler, he enjoys nearly complete freedom to choose the terms of his encounters (to say nothing of his writer’s license to omit unredeemably banal events). Occasionally his naive adventures take an unexpected course, as in a Chicano bar in New Mexico, where he is pressured to bet away the money he is carrying or face punishment of an uncertain kind. North of Moscow, Idaho, he picks up Arthur O. Bakke, a small man with an aluminum suitcase, whose first question is not the hitchhiker’s unvarying “How far ya goin’?” but “Do you want a free Bible course?” “Oh, god, not this,” thinks Heat-Moon, anticipating hours of uninvited preaching. Nevertheless, by the time they reach Kalispell the next day, Bakke has become a friend, although one he would rather not take on to North Dakota.
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