Form and Content
One day in the winter of 1978, William Trogdon learned that his part-time job teaching English at Stevens College in Columbia, Missouri, was to end because of declining enrollment. The same day after speaking on the phone with his wife, from whom he had been separated for nine months, he sensed that the chances of a reconciliation with her were unlikely. Lying awake that night, the author recounts, the idea came to him of making a circuit of the back roads of the United States, as much to preserve his dignity as to survey the country’s land and people. Blue Highways is Trogdon’s account of his journey, which began on March 19 and lasted into the summer.
Trogdon was then thirty-eight years old, and he had held various teaching jobs while pursuing a Ph.D. in literature and a bachelor’s degree in photojournalism at the University of Missouri. Although he was not yet a published author, Trogdon’s background in American history and literature, combined with his photographic skills, prepared him to approach contemporary American life from both literary and journalistic perspectives.
Another aspect of Trogdon’s background has particular significance in Blue Highways: his Native American ancestry, which is the source of his authorial name, William Least Heat-Moon. The name is not a pseudonym, since he derives it from a name his father uses, “Heat-Moon,” a Sioux Indian phrase for the month of July. William’s elder brother claimed the name Little Heat-Moon; thus, “Least Heat-Moon” is a complete name to which the author has added his legal first name. Heat-Moon writes in Blue Highways that history has judged a “mixed blood” to be a “contaminated man” who has always had to choose against one of his bloodlines. Although the author rejects this attitude, the history and memory of the conflict of red and white men in America are recurring concerns of his journey in all regions of the country.
The author’s projected itinerary is circular, beginning and ending on his home ground in Missouri. In a modestly equipped van he named “Ghost Dancing”—an allusion to the Plains Indian ceremonies of the 1890’s which sought the return of the old ways of life—Heat-Moon follows the back roads of the United States in search of characteristic and enduring qualities of the land and its people. These roads, once shown as blue lines on highway maps, amount to about three million miles of “bent and narrow rural American two-lane” on which, the author notes, Americans each year spend $626 million in extra fuel dodging potholes. The “blue highways” are for Heat-Moon a seemingly inexhaustible source of historical, topographical, and cartographic anecdotes, but more important, they are places where the author finds that people still have time to talk, to tell stories, and to share their meals with a stranger such as himself.
Each section of Blue Highways is designated by a compass direction giving the general direction of travel. Proceeding clockwise from Missouri, Heat-Moon first heads east, as if in defiance of the country’s linear and westward historical development. His meandering route, shown in a map at the end of the book, takes him first to the North Carolina coast, then south and west to the Gulf coast. In comparison with the westward sections which follow, these are filled more with people and history than with landscape. As Heat-Moon’s journey takes him into the Southwest, his familiarity with character and topography diminish inversely to his need to question his purpose in traveling; these sections blend the author’s moods and his perception of landscape more distinctively than the others do.
As he travels north into Oregon and then eastward over the Rocky Mountains onto the northern plains, a series of encounters on the road leaves the author with a provisional clarification of his self-doubts, and the last third of Blue Highways returns to more objective matters, ranging from the failing water pump in Ghost Dancing...
(The entire section is 2,511 words.)