Saturday, January 05, 2008

Blue Highways

With a divorce around the corner, when his life seemed empty, William Least Heat-Moon set out on a journey around the perimeter more or less of the U.S. He wanted to see if he could travel around the country using only the highways marked in blue on the map foregoing the interstates. He succeeds and along the way, as you’d expect, he meets character after character, whom he manages to elicit story after story, opinion after (sometimes half-baked) opinion. He gets to the history of each locale through the informal guardians of the past.

The book is beautifully written. He makes you feel like you’re part of each encounter. He adroitly weaves in Native American myth, philosophy, history, geology, poetry and folk lore to illumine his tales. His insights beautifully reveal his motives and his thoughts and questions about them.

Least Heat-Moon reminds us of John Irving’s assertion that there are just two plot lines: 1) a stranger comes to town and 2) a stranger leaves town. Heat-Moon does both. Along the way he’s befriended, suspected, ignored, challenged, and welcomed.
This is probably the best book I read in 2007. As I read, I wanted to tell everyone I met that they MUST read Blue Highways. Now I can’t wait to read his other books on journeys on foot and by water around the U.S.

I’ll give you the first paragraph to whet your appetite:
Beware thoughts that come in the night. They aren’t turned properly they come in askew, free of sense and restriction, deriving from the most remote of sources. Take the idea of February 17, a cay of cancelled expectations, the day I learned my job teaching English was finished because of declining enrollment at the college, the day I called my wife from whom I’d been separated for nine months to give here the news, the day she let slip about her “friend” -- Rick or Dick or Chick. Something like that.
Then let’s try the page 69 test. What’s that like?
‘Travelin’ alone! Ever ascared alone?’ I shrugged. ‘Me, I ain’t never aschared,’ he said. ‘Looky here.’ From his left breast pocket, he took a worn bullet: a .22 long rifle. ‘I carried a live forty-five round in the war and never got shot by friend or foe. Always carry me a round over my heart, and ain’t never ascared because I know when I dies it’s agonna be from this. And quick. Lord’ll see to that -- when it’s my time.”

From that I’d say you get a taste of his encounters. Moreover, his reflections are perceptive and articulate. Trust me. Blue Highways did make me homesick, made me think about the various folks I’d meet waiting for a subway in Chicago or living in L.A. God bless America’s characters! They reveal that individualism ain’t all bad.
Remind me not to cruise through the next Wisconsin or Indiana hamlet.

(I'm sure he talked to a few people who weren't colorful, just bland. We all do, don't we?)

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