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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.

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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 to the future of the Atlantic fisheries. For this northern segment of the book the drama of landscape is mostly absent, and Heat-Moon allows his characters more scope to explain themselves in purely biographical terms.

More than sixty visual and textual interjections—including twenty-three of the author’s photographs of some of his most engaging characters—punctuate the flow of Blue Highways. The book is something of a marathon of driving, talking, and looking, and these welcome pauses, which include everything from fragments of poems to lists of wildlife and imaginary headlines reporting the author’s demise in some mishap, are an effective component of Heat-Moon’s storytelling.

Blue Highways

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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, tupelo, bugeye, skipjack—which will send the typical urban reader to the dictionary.

The land itself offers many surprises, asserting the tenacity of deserts and swamps, mountains and waterways that modern, technological man has not yet brought under his control, and vast stretches of territory still undeveloped. In North Dakota, Heat-Moon quotes Gertrude Stein: “In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is.” So he comes to realize, at times to his own dismay, having voluntarily renounced the interstates with their assurances of food, gas, and lodging.

To his chagrin—but ultimately appreciative respect—the land sometimes even fights back, as if to say, “No man can win me so easily yet!” A late April snowstorm traps him overnight on a mountain road after he has ignored the warning: “ROAD MAY BE IMPASSIBLE DURING WINTER MONTHS.” Heat-Moon learns it’s springtime in the Rockies much later than anywhere else. He also discovers that even though man may install dams along the mighty Columbia, the Mississippi reserves its power to change course: “One day rain gonna start and keep on like it do sometimes. When the rainin’ stop, the Missippi [sic] gonna be ninety miles west of N’Orleans and St. Martinville gonna be a seaport. And it won’t be the firstest time the river go runnin’ from Lady N’Orleans.”

The Louisianian voicing this opinion is only one of many amazing characters whom Heat-Moon encounters on his odyssey. A Margaret Mead of his own homeland, Heat-Moon records speech and customs as alien to many Americans as those of Mead’s Samoans. He includes his own photographs of many of these people, but even more striking is his ability to capture individual Americans’ splendidly distinctive talk. In this, Blue Highways proves as gripping and as sharply observed as Studs Terkel’s transcriptions of everyday speech in Working (1975) and many other books. With equal fidelity, Heat-Moon renders Southern volubility and Midwestern taciturnity, Western tall tales and Yankee understatement. Says a Maine fisherman when the author joins him on his daily ocean expedition, “In fifteen minutes, we’ll find out if this pond’s got any damn fish in it.” The book is filled with the humor of the people, sounding much more natural than the standard snappy Hollywood or Manhattan one-liner.

A Texan tells about his uncle keeping sugar ants and feeding them molasses: “When they fattened up, he put them on a butter sandwich. Butter kept them from runnin’ off the bread. ... Claimed molasses gave them ants real flavor.”

A North Carolinian complains about the tastelessness of contemporary cigarettes:” ... maybe the popalation [sic] got scared by them mouse spearmints wheres they give a mouse a needle-shot of a substance ever day until he dies a cancer.”

A Cajun waitress in Louisiana asks about Heat-Moon’s crawfish order: “Did they eat lovely like mortal sin? ... You know, the Cajun, he sometime call them ’mudbugs.’ But I never tell a customer that until he all full inside.”

In the tiny burg of Nameless, Tennessee, Mrs. Thurmond Watts boasts that “we had a doctor on the ridge in them days.” One day, Mrs. Watts relates, she “took to vomitin’” from some bad ham and was “hangin’ on the drop edge of yonder. I said to Thurmond, ’Thurmond, unless you want shut of me, call the doctor.’”

Many of the towns that Heat-Moon visits did have “a doctor on the ridge” in the old days. Towns are not founded merely to become ghost towns. The shifting winds of “progress,” however, change the routes of the trade, the seats of industry, the demand for a region’s goods, and the town fades to a few dilapidated buildings, a few old-timers hanging on, content to let the modern world pass them by.

Among the young people whom the author encounters on his travels, most leave him more depressed than hopeful. A student at Mississippi College in Clinton, Mississippi, plans “to use the computer to enrich spiritual life” by running prayers through twice a day for a week. A ten-year-old marvels at the author’s van, not for the adventures it represents but for its surprisingly good gas mileage. In fact, many of the most vital people in the book are old—people such as Porfirio Sanchez, a sixty-seven-year-old part-Apache Mexican-American hitchhiker, and Alice Venable Middleton, an octogenarian schoolteacher on Smith Island, Maryland, eighteen years retired, who taught ecology long before it was fashionable. A notable exception to the dreariness of the young people whom Heat-Moon meets is Kendrick Fritz, a Hopi medical student who plans to return to his people’s land and community (he refuses to call it the reservation) and meet their health needs while preserving the Hopi culture.

In rejecting neither the present nor the past, this Hopi student becomes an embodiment of the book’s theme, while harborside Newport, Rhode Island, serves as a cautionary example: Newport tore down its atmospheric waterfront—grubby but historic—to erect a shopping area for the affluent.

Heat-Moon’s journey shows him how change can coexist with respect for tradition—a principle exemplified by a New Hampshire family that has been tapping the same maple trees for syrup for generations. Some changes are purely destructive, as when a powerful corporation seeks to buy up a small, centuries-old New Jersey town for industrial exploitation, against which the town’s citizens struggle for the sake of their heritage. With books such as this one providing admonition—and ammunition—Americans may be moved to defend all the more vigorously the splendor in diversity that distinguishes their nation. The widespread popularity of Blue Highways—a surprise bestseller—suggests that Heat-Moon has spoken for many Americans who hope that regional traits will continue to flourish and that the far corners of the land will not succumb to franchised hamburgers and homogenized speech.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 124

America. CXLVIII, April 9, 1983, p. 284.

Christian Century. C, June 8, 1983, p. 590.

Christian Science Monitor. February 11, 1983, p. B1.

Crace, Jim. “Sticking to the Backroads,” in The Times Literary Supplement. No. 4195 (August 26, 1983), p. 902.

Library Journal. CVII, November 1, 1982, p. 2097.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 30, 1983, p. 3.

Lyons, Gene. Review in Newsweek. CI (February 7, 1983), p. 63.

McDowell, Robert. “In Pursuit of the Life Itself,” in The Hudson Review. XXXVI (Summer, 1983), pp. 420-424.

National Review. XXXV, May 13, 1983, p. 580.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVIII, February 6, 1983, p. 1.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, November 5, 1982, p. 64.

Reed, J. D. Review in Time. CXXI (January 24, 1983), p. 63.

Updike, John. “A Long Way Home,” in The New Yorker. LIX (May 2, 1983), pp. 121-126.

Yardley, Jonathan. “Seeing America from the Roads Less Traveled,” in The Washington Post Book World. December 26, 1982, p. 3.

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