Retracing the Blue Highways of William Least Heat-Moon

bluehighwayskhBlue Highways is one of my favorite books. I still remember reading it for the first time, and though back then I had yet to venture far outside of the US, I was filled with the desire to set out with no plans, no fixed destination, just an imperative to wander, to explore.  I remember reading the words of William Least Heat-Moon and feeling like I was there in those towns, discovering America alongside him.

CNN photographer Ed Alior recently retraced Heat-Moon’s journey, photographing exact places described in the book.  The results, of course, are beautiful. Many of the places remain as they were, but, as Heat-Moon laments in the accompanying interview, many are gone – rural areas and small towns have been swallowed up by urban sprawl and mom-and-pop shops were forced out of business by chain stores.

Heat-Moon complains about the chain stores especially in regards to food (“Yes, it’s likely ordinary and undistinguished, but it’ll be consistent. But why travel if consistency is all you want?” he asks) and in lodging. He says that today’s travelers have to head to the highway off-ramp to find lodging in many towns, which segregates them “from the heart of a community.”

Heat-Moon says these two changes have had a detrimental effect on travel. He also says that speed is a problem. We’re a nation of speeders and “speed corrupts.”  To really experience a place, whether it be a far-flung foreign land or an undiscovered part of our own country, we need to slow down. With limited vacation time, we can all be guilty of moving too fast, but, says Heat-Moon, “If you want to learn the territory between your place of departure and where you end up, you have to have time and use it wisely.”

Photo credit: christian moser via Flick

Posted by | Comments (3)  | November 25, 2009
Category: Notes from the collective travel mind

3 Responses to “Retracing the Blue Highways of William Least Heat-Moon”

  1. Jill K. Robinson Says:

    I remember picking that book for my book group, somewhere around 1997. I loved reading about his journey, the books he chose to take with him and the people he met. Others in my group didn’t like the book because “it dragged.” It didn’t move fast enough for them. How interesting to hear his comment about being a nation of speeders. Now, I want to read the book again.

  2. Fromm Says:

    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.

  3. johnyy Says:

    I remember picking that book for my book group around 1998