Blue Highways comes from what I am currently assuming is the great literary tradition of American road-trips in the 1970’s. (Though it was actually published in the 80’s. I feel you, Mr. Heat-Moon. #foreverediting)
When I was doing my research, compiling my list of all the books I felt I needed to read in order to understand this genre I was attempting to enter, Blue Highways was one that came up again and again. Which was… odd. Many of the recurring classics were books I was familiar with. Blue Highways? Not so much.
I suppose it’s one of those second level travelogue things. Everyone’s heard of On the Road and Travels with Charley. Only real travel readers know about Blue Highways. Or something.
Anyway, that’s a hell of a lot of digression away from the purpose of this blog. Back to business.
I liked it. William Least Heat-Moon was an enjoyable travel companion. Seeing the world through his eyes, hearing little bits about his past, experiencing interactions with back country citizens when the narrator is visibly Native American… all of it was fascinating.
Yes, for me, there was drag. The copy of the book I have is 412 pages long and looks to be in size ten font. Maybe nine. And much of that is scenic description. I’m not a huge fan of scenery. I like to know what things look like, yes, but I prefer to have the bare minimum of visuality (likely not a word) and a maximum of how a place feels. Like a 20/80 split.
The difference between:
“The blue house was bordered by twelve tall spruce. Clouds dotted the sky, serenely drifting in the wind, meeting the mountains far ahead of me. I looked down at the road, spotting the yellow lines and the cracks in the asphalt. It was going to be a rough ride.”
“The blue house was falling in on itself, a small army of spruce trees shepherding it off from the rest of the farms. Despite the pleasant sky, I shivered, thinking of the people who had built that little blue house generations ago, what must have happened to them to abandon their home. I pulled my eyes back to the highway, taking in the mountains that loomed in front of me and the distant clouds impaling themselves on the rocky peaks.”
So that’s not my best writing, or even good writing, but pulling it an imaginary place up off the cuff and writing about it in two different ways, while waiting for dinner..? C’mon, give me a break. I’m starving.
In sum, there was a lot of detached, very visual scenery that left me emotionally disconnected. Caputo did this as well, in his The Longest Road. I’d suggest that it might be a journalistic tic (detached descriptions), but I don’t believe Least Heat-Moon was ever a journalist.
What I did love about BH was the author’s humor. He would occasionally take a serious moment and make it ridiculous–in his own style, of course. Because it didn’t happen often, it would catch me off-guard, causing terribly un-ladylike snorts, usually in public places.
Least Heat-Moon also included photos in his travelogue, primarily of the people he would meet along the way. I found it surprisingly jarring to be reading a conversation, only to flip the page and find a photo that would immediately dash my mental image of the person to pieces. But, even with that, I enjoyed it. The grainy, black and white photos gave the book a sense of time and place, reminding me that this wasn’t a recent trip, but one that happened almost a decade before I was born. If it wasn’t for the photos and the mentions of prices (of food, gas, and the like), it would have been easy for me to settle into the comfort of thinking this was a current narrative.
A final note: the narrative would occasionally trespass into thoughtful soul-searching, awareness of himself, of the world, of his place in the world. Like his humor, it would come unexpectedly, catching me pleasantly off guard. It happened often enough so it wasn’t out of character, but not so often as to annoy or become dramatic. It was an easy balance, reminding you of his character and reason for being on the road.
I’ve gone ahead and picked up another one of his book, Prairy Erth. I won’t be reading it anytime soon, as I have so many authors to expose myself to (and hopefully not get arrested along the way *rimshot*), but I’m looking forward to the time when I can hop into a car with William Least Heat-Moon again.