As it was for Herman Melville’s Ishmael (Moby Dick, 1851), “it is a damp, drizzly November in [his] soul” when William Least Heat-Moon embarks on a journey of escape and exploration, a journey that in the tradition of other great American travelers, is also a voyage of self-discovery. Separated from his wife and laid off from teaching English at a Missouri college suffering from declining enrollment, the author begins a trip around the country in order to delve into the meaning of his life.
This is no solipsistic submersion into self, however, for Heat-Moon penetrates the surface of life in these United States to find the incredible diversity that persists throughout the land. As he moves from state to state, following a roughly circular pattern that takes him first to the Atlantic, then to the Gulf of Mexico, the Pacific, back to the Atlantic, and finally home to Missouri, he finds, behind the billboard veneer of modern mainstream America, people and places as strange to a contemporary urbanite as any that Ulysses and Gulliver encountered on their fantastic voyages.
How did Heat-Moon find them? Not by joining most American travelers along the multilane interstates, where one can travel secure in the thought that a McDonald’s or a Howard Johnson’s is never far away, where one can leave home without abandoning its familiar comforts, though also without experiencing a real sense of adventure. For some travelers, it is the destination that gives the journey a purpose; for Heat-Moon, what matters is the journey itself, an endless immersion in discovery.
So that he can avoid “the oranging of America,” as Max Apple has whimsically but aptly termed Howard Johnson’s expropriation of the country’s landscape, Heat-Moon steers clear of the interstates and takes his Ford van Ghost Dancing (as he has named it) down the backroads of the United States. These are the routes old highway maps traced in blue, in contrast to the red of the main routes—hence the book’s title.
Down these roads, Heat-Moon finds wonders that a generation raised on Big Macs and television would never dream of. His journey becomes one through time as well as space, as he peels away the billboards to discover not only the land behind but also the fascinating stories of each region’s past—the derivations of town names like Dime Box, Texas; and Nameless, Tennessee; the waves of settlers and immigrants; distinctive customs that have survived the homogenization enforced by network television. Moving across the country, he comes into contact with living annals of American history as well as scenes of memorable moments of the past: Martin Luther King’s Selma marches; the mining boom in the West; the opening of the Northwest, courtesy of Lewis and Clark and Sacajawea; battles of the Revolutionary War; the earliest English settlement in America, on Roanoke Island.
Beyond these stands the perseverance of the continent’s earlier inhabitants, whose imprint remains not only on the map in the names of rivers, towns, and states but also in the memories of the current inhabitants. These more recent arrivals often, with admiration, acknowledge to Heat-Moon (whom they do not recognize as part Sioux) the skill and respect of the various Indian tribes in their use of the land—abilities that modern America has generally lost. (“Indian,” not “Native American,” is the author’s preferred term.) Few pages go by without a reference to the tribal peoples and their place in the history of a particular region. In fact, any reader interested in the United States will be grateful for Heat-Moon’s close attention to the history of the various scenes visited.
There are more things on this American earth, then, than are dreamed of in many contemporary philosophies. Blue Highways demands concentration, as Heat-Moon describes unfamiliar scenes with occasionally arcane vocabulary—chukars, drumlin, pocosins,...