Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Back Roads in Blue

Happens from time to time that a landmark book from years ago comes to hand, it’s pages filled with words, observations and insights as fresh as tomorrow. Such was the case with William Least Heat Moon’s 1982 classic, Blue Highways: A Journey Into America. The genesis of this book lay in the author’s dismissal from his teaching position and the decision to suddenly ‘Chuck routine, live the real jeopardy of circumstance’ and set out on a long circular trip over the back roads of the United States. The book’s epigraph tells us:

‘On the old highway maps of America, the main routes were red and the back roads blue…in those brevities just before dawn and a little after dark—times neither day nor night—the old roads return to the sky some of its color. Then, in truth, they carry a mysterious cast of blue, and it’s that time when the pull of the blue highway is strongest, when the open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself.’

Recommended by a friend a couple of weeks ago, the first attempt to locate it on local library shelves came to nothing. The second library search three days ago was successful, but the hours since have been too short to finish the book. Could be because so many of the book’s passages encourage an immediate second reading, a desire to bathe oneself in the plain beauty of the writer’s words. Because of the quality of Least Heat Moon’s prose and because of his original insights, I’ve been tempted to share some of his observations despite being only halfway through the book’s 411 pages.

The premise of Blue Highways is simple. The plan was to travel around the United States using only the old back roads that pass through small town America. Leaving Missouri in a half-ton Ford van the author took a vaguely circular route traveling for one year, going from one small town to another. His days and nights on the road produced a book one critic called ‘An inner look at the still-beating heart of forgotten America…a journey every Modern man should take.’

Traveling through the bluegrass country of Kentucky…‘It’s an old debate here: Is bluegrass indigenous to Kentucky or did it come accidentally to America as padding to protect pottery shipped from England? As for the rock under the bluegrass, there’s no debate. Water percolating through the soft limestone leaches out the calcium and phosphorus that make for strong yet light-framed stake winners whose spine and leg bones have the close grain of ivory rather than the more porous grain of horses pastured in other areas…In Lexington, I passed row after row of tobacco warehouses and auction barns on my way into the thousand square miles of bluegrass wold once called “God’s footstool,” a fertile land where pumpkin vines grow so fast they wear out the melons dragging them along. So they say.’

Still in Kentucky: ‘…and I steered a course over the swells of land. The captain before his binnacle. Past creosoted tobacco barns with silvery galvanized roofs, past white farmhouses, down along black lines of plank fences that met at right angles and linked the countryside into a crossword puzzle pattern.’

South Carolina…‘Darlington, a town of portico and pediment, iron fences, big trees, and an old courthouse square that looked as though renovated by a German buzz bomb. But on the west side of the square stood the Deluxe Cafe. The times had left it be. The front window said AIR CONDITIONED in icy letters, above the door was neon, and inside hung an insurance agency calendar and another for an auto parts store. Also on the walls were the Gettysburg Address, Declaration of Independence, Pledge of Allegiance, a picture of a winged Jesus ushering along two kids who belonged in a Little Rascals film, and the obligatory waterfall lithograph. The clincher: small, white, hexagonal floor tiles. Two old men, carrying their arms folded behind, stopped to greet each other with a light, feminine touching of fingertips, a gesture showing the duration of their friendship. I went in happy.

I expected a grandmother, wiping her hands on a gingham apron, to come from the kitchen. Instead I got Brenda. Young, sullen, pink uniform, bottlecaps for eyes, handling her pad the way a cop does his citation book. The menu said all breakfasts came with grits, toast, and preserves. I ordered a breakfast of two eggs over easy. “Is that all you want?”

“Doesn’t it come with grits and so forth?”

“Does if you ast fort.”

“I want the complete, whole thing. Top to bottom.”

She snapped the pad closed. I waited…I was counting grains of rice in the salt shaker (this was the south), when Brenda pushed a breakfast at me, the check slick with margarine and propped between slices of toast. The food was good and the sense of the place fine, but Brenda was destined for an interstate run-em-thru. Early in life she had developed the ability to make a customer wish he’d thrown up on himself rather than disturb her.’

More of South Carolina…‘Oak and pine covered the slopes except where sections had been logged out or a pasture opened. In the sunny flats, kudzu from last year had climbed to wrap trees and telephone poles in dry, brown leaves. Whole buildings looked as if they had been bagged. Introduced from Japan in the thirties to help control erosion that had damaged eighty-five percent of the tillable land, kudzu had consumed entire fields, and no one has found a good way to stop it. Kudzu and water hyacinth, another Japanese import, have run through Dixie showing less restraint than Sherman.’


  1. I became curious about the book in the early 80's after continuously seeing it on the bestseller lists for a year or more. Didn't read it until many years later but it is a timeless book. The sharp observations of the land and people off the beaten path are models of how descriptive writing should work. Good, good book.

  2. I would like to travel through the country roads like that. Maybe when I get old I will do just that.

  3. You're probably going to want to own that. It's a keeper.


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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America