This book is considered a classic in travel writing, particularly in the sub-genre of road memoirs. I’m surprised that I never read it before. It takes place in 1978, although it was not published until 1982. After a heartbreaking separation from his wife, the author takes off alone to tour the United States in a small camper van he names Ghost Dancing. The title of the book comes from his intention to avoid the interstates and stick to secondary roads, those that appear in blue on old paper maps.
Heat-Moon starts out from Missouri and heads east to North Carolina. From there he swings southwest through the Deep South to Louisiana. He then heads across Texas and Arizona, turns north through Nevada to Oregon, follows the north side of the Columbia River in Washington, turns north in Idaho and follows the Canadian border closely through Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, and so on. From New England he turns west again and goes back to Missouri.
The author writes of life on the road and the unutterable loneliness that would sometimes overtake him. The most fascinating aspects of the book, however, are the long interviews he has with people he meets on the road. In the small towns he passes through, he goes out of his way to find the most idiosyncratic residents. He lets them talk freely and copiously about their lives and philosophies without interruptions or judgments.
Apart from a few days here and there when he stays with friends or people he has met and the occasional hitchhiker he picks up, Heat-Moon remains alone and goes his own way. He confesses he feels lonely sometimes, yes, but at the same time the loneliness is glorious. I know this feeling, having hitchhiked in numerous countries around the world. Almost always I was by myself, and sometimes I left congenial travel companions, including lovely and intelligent women, so that I might continue on my solitary journey. Heat-Moon quotes Walt Whitman extensively throughout the book. Here’s a Whitman quote of my own that illustrates what I am talking about (Part 11 of “Song of the Open Road”:
Listen! I will be honest with you,
I do not offer the old smooth prizes, but offer rough new prizes,
These are the days that must happen to you:
You shall not heap up what is call’d riches
You shall scatter with lavish hand all that you earn or achieve,
You but arrive at the city to which you were destin’d, you hardly settle yourself to satisfaction before you are call’d by an irresistible call to depart,
You shall be treated to the ironical smiles and mockings of those who remain behind you,
What beckonings of love you receive you shall only answer with passionate kisses of parting,
You shall not allow the hold of those who spread their reach’d hands towards you.
As usual, I have to stop before I end up reproducing the entire poem.
As I read, I could not help envying the author and the freedom he enjoyed on the open road. I have felt that freedom, and I realize its value. Longing for it has recently caused me to write a novel as a sort of wish-fulfillment called The Senescent Nomad. I figured that if I can’t be on the road right now, I can at least imagine what it would be like. Still, I would love to do it for real.
The world of the late 1970s that Heat-Moon writes about does not exist anymore. I know, because I was on the road during that time too, and I know what it was like. People and experiences would be profoundly different now. Still, the road is the road, and there would be adventure and excitement as well as periods of boredom and loneliness, and it would all be wonderful.
In the meantime, read Blue Highways. It’s a well-written memoir about a singular journey.