This past spring I took a circular, nationwide roadtrip of my own very similar to the one William Least Heat-Moon takes in this great book. Though my trip was a little shorter in length and a lot shorter in duration, I can definitely identify with Heat-Moon's efforts at self-discovery on the back roads of America. The most interesting aspect of this book is Heat-Moon's use of his Indian heritage and frame of mind while interpreting the various persons and regional cultures he comes across. Christians may object to his criticisms of certain religious tenets, especially when he freeloads off some devout Christians for food and lodging a few times during the trip. Also beware of Heat-Moon's habit of quoting Walt Whitman practically every five pages, while he spends far too much space on certain people and places. But otherwise we have a highly compelling travelogue of the backwaters and isolated small town denizens of unknown America, as well as many insights into the soul of the writer, and possibly the reader if he/she is so inclined. Also, the journey described took place back in 1978, and while certain descriptions and narratives are outdated, Heat-Moon was already lamenting the disintegration of America's small town charm by the fast-food/convenience subculture, which was just getting started at that time. Little did he know how much worse it would get! This book, along with the works of Kerouac and Steinbeck, belongs with the great American roadtrip classics.
on November 5, 1999
I ended up buying 17 copies of Blue Highways before I finally got all the way to the end of it, because I kept giving the one I was reading to friends that I knew would enjoy it as much as I did. Each year since, re-reading Blue Highways melts away the hibernation chill of winter by rekindled the fire of wanderlust and the need to eat some "ho-made pie" at a four-calendar cafe. My own "blue highway" pinacle was a memorable lunch with my college roommate during a two-lane cross-country trip where we found ourselves in a booth in a diner named Grandma's where the menu was what Grandma told us she had cooked for the day and we knew we had hit blue highway heaven when she scolded my friend, smacked his hand with a big wooden spoon and told him he couldn't have both potatoes and macaroni and cheese, that he had to eat a vegetable or she wouldn't let him have any pie for dessert. I caught her winking at the trucker at the counter, and he said that even though he hated vegetables himself, he had eaten them there every day for 20 years because Grandma's pies were worth it. He was right.
Here's how Blue Highways reveals the secret to eating well on the road: "There is one almost infallible way to find honest food at just prices in blue-highway America: count the wall calendars in a cafe.
No calendar: Same as an interstate pit stop. One Calendar: Preprocessed food assembled in New Jersey. Two calendars: Only if fish trophies present. Three calendars: Can't miss on the farm-boy breakfasts. Four calendars: Try the ho-made pie too. Five calendars: Keep it under your hat, or they'll franchise.
One time I found a six-calendar cafe in the Ozarks, which served fried chicken, peach pie, and chocolate malts, that left me searching for another ever since. I've never seen a seven-calendar place. But old-time travelers - road men in a day when cars had running boards and lunchroom windows said AIR COOLED in blue letters with icicles dripping from the tops - those travelers have told me the golden legends of seven-calendar cafes."
No maps are needed to travel Blue Highways. Just make sure you eat your veggies and don't make Grandma smack you with that big wooden spoon of hers and enjoy your pie.
on January 19, 2000
William Least Heat Moon may be one of the greatest writers of our time. First encountered his work in the New Yorker, which excerpted chapters from Blue Highways. I then (of course) had to read the book, which is an account of his journey in an old van, outfitted for sleeping/living, to see the real United States using only the small roads (which are marked on the map in blue -- hence the title). The events that caused him to put his usual life on hold, and take up this oddyssey, will strike a responsive chord for many readers who have ever wanted to stop the world and step back in time.
His experiences, the people he meets, the conversations they enjoy, make for an extraordinary insight into America.
His writing sings in the way that the old story tellers did...weaving a web that captures and captivates you until you finish the book. And then you don't stop until you've read all of his books! (Wish he'd write some more). I recommend this book highly for personal reading and for gifts.
on May 5, 2006
William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways is referred to by many as a "cult classic". If so, it's a shame this book is not better known. It is 1978 and William Least Heat-Moon is 38 years old. Upon the near-simultaneous loss of his college teaching job and his marriage, he needs to get out of town, to leave places of sadness, futility and routine, to clear his mind and renew his soul. William leaves Missouri driving a '75 Econoline that he also intends to live in for the next several months; the truck has been named "Ghost Dancing". He has determined that he will drive only the blue highways, the old map color for single-lane rural highways and county roads, the roads that lead to all the small places in America, lost and forgotten by time, faded in economic or historic significance. He will travel and look around and listen, meet new people and learn new things and new ways of thinking. Most of all he will think, taking an inward journey as well.
Born of English-Irish and Osage ancestry, William Least Heat-Moon also has an Anglo name. He writes, "I have other names: Buck, once a slur...also Bill Trogdon." He explains his Osage identity humbly: "My father calls himself Heat Moon, my elder brother Little Heat-Moon. I, coming last, am therefore Least. It has been a long lesson of a name to learn." With that we begin.
Experts categorize this book as "travel literature". It is a travel book, for William does travel 13,000 miles across the United States and briefly through Ontario. He describes places, converses with people, learns or reviews history. As may be expected, the places are common and strange, mundane and magical. Some are pleasing and peaceful; others evoke indignance in William, unpleasantness and judgment. Most of the people are kind, some of them are wise. Some are alive with vitality and hope, others ghosts or near ghosts. But they are all human still, and in some way each is a gift. And that's what makes Blue Highways worthwhile: it is also a philosophy book, filled with the humanity of the author and the people to whom he gives voice. He is old enough to understand and appreciate the people and places he encounters, young enough to feel wonder and room to grow.
Two special voices live within William Least Heat-Moon's head and heart: Walt Whitman and Black Elk. Whitman, the poet traveler who has seen it all before, rides along to chuckle occasionally or illuminate an experience or thought. Black Elk offers gentle guidance and comfort; he is a steady hand.
It is inevitable that William Least Heat-Moon makes his way home. And it is not surprising that along the way he discovers that he can - that he has - "remade" himself. Blue Highways is a beautiful book.
on July 2, 2002
In Blue Highways, we get to share in William Least Heat-Moon's journey across America in a trip taken about 20 years ago. The trip was brought about by the demise of his marriage and the loss of his job. In an effort to reconnect with himself and his fellow Americans, Heat-Moon embarks on a journey without a schedule or destination. He seeks to just go, meet people, and see what happens. And here is the real strength of this book: Heat-Moon does an incredible job of capturing the essence of the people he encounters along the way. By sticking to the back roads (blue highways), he meets average, ordinary people and isn't shy about striking up conversations with them. As he discovers, people are pretty much the same anywhere: most like to talk about themselves, many have an interesting story or two, and everyone's looking to connect with someone/something.
I found this book to be quite an enjoyable journey. Even though sections of it are somewhat dated, the essence of the trip still rings true. For someone looking for a humorous travel narrative similar to Bill Bryson, you may need to keep looking. While there are humorous sections to this story, this tends to be much more introspective than anything Bryson writes.
I guess ultimately this book will appeal to those of us who would love to be able just to pack up the car, fill the gas tank, and take off wherever the road may lead. I know I had my atlas next to me as I read this and traced virtually his entire journey on my map. What I wouldn't give to be able to do a 25-year follow-up and see what has changed (or what hasn't!). This is a great book to get your imagination going!
on December 7, 1999
I purchased this book at a point in my life where I was desiring escape, and the travelogue genre was obviously appealing.
I have read it twice, and am reading it again, and cannot even hope to convey the warmth this book will give you. No matter what point you are at in your life, buy this book, you will not regret it.
The author experiences a slice of life that we all wish we could, and his knowledge of the history of his route is astounding, and never presented in an intimidating fashion. He presents the people he meets as they are, and both he and us come away the better for it. Appreciating the simple pleasures in life is underrated, and this book cannot be overrated.
on December 20, 1999
In search of the real America, or in need of escape, the author sets out to circle the country in a van, staying only on the state and local roads - the one's that appear blue on his maps. This is the record of what he saw on his trip, from the deep South to the Pacific Northwest, fishermen to farmers, through forests, snowstorms, deserts, and beaches.
This novel was deeply personal, and it reflected a feeling I have had in my life to explore the world by experiencing it first hand, not by reading about it in the book. However, sometimes the author seems overly sentimental, bemoaning the loss of regional distinctiveness and lambasting the homogenization of America while not always acknowledging that sometimes changes happen for the better. America has always been a country of change, and he realizes that change is always accompanied by a little bit of pain.
As he travels, the philosophizing is not overly explicit. Neither are his personal problems, which are alluded to but not expounded upon. Instead, he lets the people he meets and his experiences with them speak for themselves. Unfortunately, there is nothing very cohesive about the stories, no incentive to get to the end except to see the author's cycle completed. Perhaps a second reading would allow me to pay more attention to the author's personal struggle, but even so, the stories are basically independent, with only the underlying theme of coping with change to tie them together. Perhaps that was the authors' struggle all along.
on November 1, 2000
Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon is a wonderfully written recollection of a cross-country adventure taken by the author. Armed only with his van (ghost dancing), his "desperate sense of isolation" and longing to leave his present situation, he sets out across the country traveling only on rural state and county roads, which are marked in blue on his old atlas (5). Heat-Moon describes an America, which travelers rarely see from the many interstates that now crisscross the country. His detailed account of the journey, and the many people he interacts with gives the reader insight into the character of the American people. He meets people of various backgrounds and culture, learning something from each, and describes the passing landscape painting a picture as clear as if the reader was sitting in the passengers seat. His journey begins and ends in his home state of Missouri, taking him in a circular path around the country. This circular journey "represents the direction of natural forces", according to the Plains Indians (418). With each new route, and each new town Heat-Moon is able to capture the essence of the America not yet commercialized. He meets Bob Androit, who is restoring a nineteenth century log cabin. Heat-Moon envied the fact that Androit was "rebuilding a past he could see and smell, one he could shape with his hands" (14). He also meets Bill Hammond and his wife Rosemary, who are building a boat the author spied from the road. "You'll walk off before I get tired of talking boats" was Hammond's response once he realized Heat-Moon wanted to talk about the boat. Through the people he meets, the author gets a feel for the changes in character, attitude, and dialect, as he moves across the country and is able to present this well on paper. When asked where he is headed next by storeowner J.T. Watts, the author responds, "I don't know" to which Watts adds, "cain't get lost then" (35). This book is loaded with dialogue, which is the fabric of the journey, for without the stories of the characters he meets the book is simply a description of the changing landscape and the roads he travels. Heat-Moon's conversations with the many people he interacted with were not degrading and pompous, but were informative and witty. The author's ability to weave comedy and light hearted jabs into conversation with locals added a great deal to the readability of the book. He describes a gas station attendant as "a surly fellow who could have raised mushrooms in the organic decay of his front teeth" (243). Humorous reoccurring themes carry throughout the novel such as his rating system for diners in which the number of calendars hanging about determines the quality of the diner, and the newspaper headlines he envisions when in certain situations such as "Drifter Blown Away In Bar" during an evening spent in a Dime box, Texas bar (267). Heat-Moon is mostly a listener and an observer who lets the people tell their stories. Throughout the book are photographs of the people who Heat-Moon has had the most engaging conversations with. This adds reality to the journey, and is a reminder that these are real people, with true stories. Recounting his journey Heat-Moon says " In my own country, I had gone out, had met, had shared. I had stood witness" (406). Heat-Moon is able to recount his journey in such a creative way and take the reader with him.
on August 20, 2000
This was a very well written account that displayed the desire to seek out and experience. When tumultuous times occur in a person's life, the enlightened choose a way to positively confront it. Heat-Moon customized his van and made it a great travel & living space to experience the people and places of America. Possessing a Doctorate, he wrote in a nice, simple, down-home style. He also spent a lot of time with nice, simple, down-home people across parts of the country most of us miss. Many of the conversations with the folks he'd encountered made me realize how we, in general, perceive the world and society, and how we like to give our "ten cents" (opinions) from time to time. After completing his journey with Ghost Dancing he worked on the book, while doing some laborious work. This was an insightful look at the real America most of us miss.
on December 12, 2000
Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon is a marvellous book about his "journey into America" in search of his identity. He travels on small byways (marked in blue on the maps)which manifest the true spirit of America, rather than the bleak outlook presented by unbroken interstate highways. Consequently, the reader experiences a spark of wanderlust, and wants to meet that innocent America which never distrusts strangers.
Starting out on a low key (after he loses both his wife and his job) in his van named "Ghost Dancing," Heat-Moon begins to enjoy his journey from the South to the Pacific North-West when he talks to numerous people about their lives. His knack to make others talk to him is worth noting.
The colorful use of language and parallel structures makes the reader feel as though he/she was sitting beside Heat-Moon and having fun. I likened it to a Star Wars ride I had at Disneyland. The reader relishes the wonderful flavor of the book when we meet enigmatic people such as Bob Androit who is building a log cabin and Bill Hammond who is building a boat. The spirit of Individualism stands out as we note numerous things which are characteristic of a particular state such as the blue grass of Kentucky and its well-bred horses.
The book is astonishing due to the fact that we don't read about "created characters." Genuine people living in rural locales talk to us through Heat-Moon. The inclusion of their photographs makes it even more interesting.
This journey through America reminded me of my journey on life's highways and brought back many memories. I hope it does for everyone else too.