I read Blue Highways when I was young, just out of college. I was single, a first-year English teacher, and I'd just bought an old Land Cruiser with a bad clutch and no air conditioning. I was 24-years-old and jonesing for a road trip.
In Blue Highways, William Least-heat Moon (also an English teacher) tells the story of his three-month 13,000-mile drive across America.
He drives slowly, taking his time. He always stops for coffee at roadside cafes. He makes the simple effort to talk with people—locals, hitchhikers, and fellow travelers. Most importantly, he avoids cities, traveling almost entirely on backroads, which he calls "blue highways" after the blue lines used for secondary roads on his Rand McNally Atlas. It's the type of trip a man takes when has time, lots of it, and he needs to do some serious thinking.
"It's the type of trip a man takes when has time, lots of it, and he needs to do some serious thinking."
He wrote the book during a rough patch in which he lost his job and left his wife. But he didn't wallow in pity or self-loathing. Instead, he took to the road in an old van.
"A true journey, no matter how long the travel, has no end" he writes as he is driving across the Utah desert towards Nevada. The road is empty. The rabbit grass sparse. It's the kind of landscape that gives shape to thoughts worth remembering.
As it turned out, I never took my "Blue Highway" tour because I couldn't keep that old Land Cruiser running. The furthest it ever got me without breaking down was about 80 miles. That took me into Idaho, but only barely. But my never-realized road trip doesn't take anything away from the book that inspired it.
In the best chapters, Blue Highways has a way of making me feel proud to live in a country that still has open spaces and forgotten corners. The prose is sharp and its moral compass is even truer now than ever. It's a reminder to slow down. To unplug. To worry less about ETAs and more about being in a moment.
"In the best chapters, Blue Highways has a way of making me feel proud to live in a country that still has open spaces and forgotten corners."
Every once and a while I see a Land Cruiser around town and point it out to my two boys. I tell them it's just like the one I used to drive. When they ask why I sold it I never have a good answer.
I wonder the same thing myself.
I still think about Blue Highways, both the book and the phrase, every time I find myself driving on a remote two-lane road. It's a credit to the lasting power of Least-heat Moon's story.
As great writers always do, he managed to make his story a part of my story. His roads, too, will always be my roads—roads that need to be driven slowly with both windows down, roads where there are only jackrabbits and open spaces as far as the eye can see.