Blue Highways, hailed as a masterpiece of American travel literature, is an unforgettable journey along our country’s byways.
William Least Heat-Moon set out to explore “those little towns that only get on the map—if at all—because some cartographer has an empty space to fill. Remote, Oregon; Simplicity, Virginia; New Freedom, Pennsylvania; New Hope, Tennessee; Why, Arizona; Whynot, Mississippi.”
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Blue Highways Book Summary
Beware of thoughts that come in the night. They aren’t turned properly; they come in askew, free of sense and restriction. … Take the idea of Feb. 17, a day of canceled expectations, the day I learned my job teaching English was finished because of declining enrollment at the college, the day I called my wife from whom I’d been separated for nine months to give the news, the day she let slip about her “friend,” – Rick or Dick or Chick. Something like that.
That night, William Least Heat Moon gave himself the task of traversing the United States, following the highways marked in blue on the map, back-roads that passed through towns long abandoned by the austere multi-lane interstates.
After converting his Ford van into a makeshift camper, Moon set out heading eastward. He passed through towns like Nameless, Tennessee, then turned south along the Atlantic coastline, driving through Fort Raleigh, North Carolina, and Ninety-Six, South Carolina, striking up conversations with anyone willing to talk with him.
Outside of Conyers, Georgia, Moon happened upon the Monastery of the Holy Spirit. Though not a religious man, he stopped, in order to discover how a Trappist monastery was faring in the middle of Baptist country. F
ather Anthony welcomed him in and served him lunch. Moon was intrigued by monastic life, the philosophy of silence and austerity, and expressed the desire to talk to one of the newer brothers about how he had come to embrace such an existence.
The next day he was allowed to speak with former Patrolman Patrick Duffy, now known simply as Brother Patrick. Fed up with the “blindness, arrogance [and] selfishness” of society, Brother Patrick had quit his job as a cop in a tough section of Brooklyn: “For years I’ve been fascinated by intense spiritual experiences of one kind or another. When I was seventeen I thought of becoming a monk. … I felt an incompleteness in myself.” The monastery was the one place where he had found an escape from the world’s misery.
Days later, Moon found himself in Selma, Alabama. He drove down Martin Luther King, Jr Drive to Brown’s Chapel, where King’s civil rights marches had originated.
When he asked a passerby, James Walker, if things had progressed much since those days, Walker shook his head: “Been almost ten years to the day since King got shot and the movement’s been dead that long. Things slippin’. Black man’s losin’ ground again.” Moon probed Walker’s feelings further: “We got potential. First … brothers gotta see … where to go from here. I mean figurin’ a new course. King said turn the other cheek. Malcolm X said fight fire with fire. I don’t want that. But we gotta show the brothers they can do more than just hang cool like meat in a locker.”
Just then a police undercover van passed. “Why are they watching you?” Moon asked. James grinned, “They ain’t watchin’ us, my man – they be watchin’ you.” Evidently, any non-black in the neighborhood had to be a dope dealer. Moon decided it was time to move on.
He drove west out of Alabama, through Mississippi and Louisiana, and on into Texas, observing that the “true West differs from the East in one great, pervasive, influential, and awesome way: space.” Moon stopped in Dime Box, a town which “could have been an MGM backlot set for a Western,” and got a dollar-fifty haircut.
Claud Tyler, the patriarchal barber, reminisced about Dime Box’s golden old railroad days. Model T’s used to line up all along the road to the depot. Cars, trains, girls in big hats. “Dime Box made noise then,” Tyler sighed.
Once again back on the road, Moon wondered if he would ever find the end of Texas. Finally, he guided his van into Hachita, New Mexico’s “Desert Den Bar and Filling Station” to get a bite to eat. The bar was a “genuine Western saloon primeval, a place where cattlemen once transacted affairs of commerce and of the passions.”
After some food and beer, William encountered a “real cowboy,” who told him the 40-year-old story of the A-bomb test explosion at Los Alamos: It was daybreak and the cowboy was still asleep in his bedroll, “when comes a god-terrible flash. Couple of minutes later the ground starts rumblin’. Sound just kept roarin’.” This cowboy went on to claim that the blast had “ruined his genetics.”
The next morning Moon continued north, passing through Holbrook, Arizona, and other Indian reservation towns, and then into Utah. A seven-foot snowdrift and a late-spring storm forced him to spend a night shivering on top of a mountain. He then turned back to take a different route into Cedar City, and had a welcome breakfast there at Southern Utah State College. During the meal, he struck up a conversation with a Hopi student, Kendrick Fritz, who’s dream it was to become a doctor.
Moon asked Fritz if he thought whites were prejudiced against Indians. “About fifty-fifty,” Fritz answered. “Half show contempt … another half think we’re noble savages. Who wants to be somebody’s ideal myth?” Moon next inquired about Hopi religion and ethics. Fritz explained: “The Spider Grandmother did give two rules, to all men, not just Hopis. She said, ‘Don’t go around hurting each other,’ and she said, ‘ Try to understand things.’” Moon agreed that these two rules covered most everything having to do with human relations.
At sunrise, Moon drove “into the middle of nowhere” to Frenchman, Nevada, population 4, a town on the edge of a US Navy bombing range. From there he visited Reno, where the big news “was of a seventy-three-year-old Canadian who had been coming to the casinos three times a year for twenty years. She had met no success until last night when she won $183,000.”
Someone suggested that the whole thing was rigged by the casinos as a PR stunt. Moon left Nevada and drove on into California. “The day became a dim, sodden thing, damp without rain,” and the traveler’s mood swung accordingly. As he passed over Humbug Creek, he “could almost hear the laughter from on high.”
Moon, by now a bit weary, drove through Oregon into Vancouver, Washington, where, by virtue of a coin flip, he decided to take the “blue highway” that followed the Columbia River.
He traversed the side of the river where towns were few. Barely avoiding running out of gas, he then crossed into Idaho and headed east to Montana, where he picked up a hitchhiker named Arthur O. Bakke, a self-described “International Missionary Volunteer,” who shared with Moon the story of his sudden conversion after his car had gone over a cliff. Later, Moon pondered what he had learned from the born-again preacher: The word he carried to me wasn’t the City of God; it was of simplicity, spareness, courage, directness, trust, and charity. Despite doctrinal differences, he reminded me of a Trappist monk or a Hopi shaman. And, Moon decided, “I liked Arthur. I liked him very much.”
After passing through the Blackfoot reservation, where little crosses on the highway marked the many traffic fatalities, Moon sped over the Continental Divide and on to the expansive plains. Rather than accept the luxury of driving on an interstate highway, he followed a road weaving through Southern Canada to upstate New York; there he helped build a rock retaining wall on the property of a friend, Sam Chisholm.
As they worked, a “strange thing began to happen. We could feel an urging in the rocks. They fit one way and no other ways. It was as if the stones were, as Indians believed, alive.” Later, as he lay in bed, Moon thought of how much the work and companionship of old friends had meant to him. “I wouldn’t have been able to travel another mile if it had not been for these people.”
The next morning Moon started on the last leg of his journey, traveling north into Maine, where a group of crusty fishermen invited him to join them for a day on their boat.
Soon, Moon found himself in Othello, New Jersey. Asking about the origin of the name “Othello,” he was referred to Robert Roemer, the town’s local historian. Their conversation ended on the topic of history and preservation. “The evidence of history is rare and worth preserving,” Roemer pronounced. “Maybe I’ve been influenced by the old Quakers who believed it was a moral question always to consider what you’re leaving behind. Why not?”
Days later, in Maryland, Moon was directed to another octogenarian who loved history. “Miz” Alice Venable Middleton lived on Smith Island, and was one of those women “who make age look like something you don’t want to miss.” As a retired schoolteacher, it was natural that she address the subject of education: “A teacher should carry a theme. Mine was what they call ‘ecology’ now. I taught children first the system of things.”
To Alice, education sprouted from inside the individual; learning “is thinking, and thinking is looking for yourself and seeing what’s there, not what you got told was there.” After touring the island, Moon asked Alice what was the hardest thing about living in isolation. Her answer became an echo of his own theme: The most difficult thing? “Having the gumption to live different and the sense to let everybody else live different.”
A few days later, Moon once again neared Columbia, Missouri: home.
The circle almost complete, the truck ran the road like the old horse that knows the way. If the circle had come full turn, I hadn’t. I did learn what I didn’t know I wanted to know.
Blue Highways Book Review
When Blue Highways was published it catapulted Moon into literary stardom. Part travelogue, part history book, and a mixture of comedy and tragedy, the book defies strict categorization.
One of Moon’s central concerns is the grim reality of racial and ethnic tension in the United States; this issue is mingled with admiring homages to America as a dynamic multicultural patchwork.
The book not only keys on “common folk” as being worthy of our interest and honor, but praises America’s many other peripatetic writers, particularly Lewis and Clark, Walt Whitman and John Steinbeck, for their contributions to the travel genre and to the understanding and celebration of a continent.
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