Monday, January 28

Blue Highways

A few years ago I was unemployed and spending much of my time feebly cobbling together a series of short stories that I have long since abandoned. There was a brief stage where I seriously considered setting out in an automobile (a contraption I did not and do not own) with a sack of Moleskine notebooks, a chunk of my savings account, and the misguided notion that I could pen a great American travel book. I would travel on America’s back roads, visit America’s small towns, and talk to America’s battered middle class.

I ended up making it as far as the Pioneer Square-Skid Road District, home of Elliott Bay Book Company. It was there that I picked up Bill Bryson’s The Lose Continent: Travels in Small-Town America. I’m no connoisseur of travel literature, I’ve never read Chatwin or Theroux or Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. For some reason my first stop was Bill Bryson. This was a terrible mistake.

I am loath to quote an Amazon reviewer, but M. Leslie has The Lost Continent pegged when she writes: “There's no detail of his travels, just a repetitive litany of how bad the food is, how horrible the motel, how fat the tourists, and how dull the road.” The tone is consistently caustic, mean-spirited and condescending. What a unfortunate missed opportunity to write a worthwhile book about America.

If I were to do it, I thought, I’d do it all differently. I’d roll into town, seek out the local diners and saloons, the mom and pop shops, the butchers, the bakers, the candlestick makers. I’d approach the people and the towns with genuine interest and curiosity. I'd treat those I encountered with respect rather than mockery. Ah, but one thing led to another and I got myself employed. The dream quickly faded, but I still felt there was a need for that book.

So it was a great relief to read William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways recently and discover that I’m off the hook. THE great American travel book has already been written. Wheras Bryson struck out, Heat-Moon hammered it out of the park. His warmth, optimism and passion for American people and places shine through on every page.

In March 1978, having recently lost his wife and his job teaching college English, Heat-Moon departs Columbia, Missouri, and sets out on a three-month long trip over the back roads of the United States in a van he calls "Ghost Dancing." The book gets its title from the blue back roads of old American highway maps. Refreshingly, Heat-Moon is rarely the star of his travelogue. Blue Highways is memorable for the author’s ability to find fast friends wherever he stops. Peppering his prose with history, great conversation, philosophical musings, and the poetry of Walt Whitman, Heat-Moon offers an intimate portrait of an America often passed by in the age of interstate highways.

Nameless, Tennessee. Dime Box, Texas. Hat Creek, California. These places you'd be lucky to find on a map have a history worth telling and people worth knowing. With his compassion and fearlessness, Heat-Moon introduces us to boat builders and saloon keepers, a runaway teen, a born-again Christian, fishermen, farmers, college students and small town cops. How fortunate not only that a man would chronicle this kind of journey with exacting detail but that he's also a damn fine writer. I can't recommend this one highly enough.

William Least Heat-Moon in his own words:
Salon interview
Powell's interview

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