August's Literary Birthday 'on a blue highway'

August's Literary Birthday 'on a blue highway'

Sunday, 29 August 2021 01:26

by, Suzanne Moore, Wilkes County Librarian

My month is ending with the pages of Blue Highways: A Journey into America, a book by William Least Heat-Moon.  Heat-Moon turned 81 years old on August 27.   This book, published in 1982, actually began in 1978, when he was 38 years old, as he set off on a cross-country journey using only back roads; ‘blue lines’ on the old-style Rand McNally road atlas.   Over a period of three months, Heat-Moon covered 13,000 miles in his customized van, a home on wheels.  Some say his travel memoir is a cross between Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley and Kerouac’s On the Road.  Forbes magazine included Blue Highways on their list of ‘15 travel books that will make you change the way you see the world.’ 

William Least Heat-Moon, of Native American descent, tells how he got his name.  Heat-Moon was his father’s name, his older brother was named ‘Less’ Heat-Moon, so this explains how he came to be ‘Least’ Heat-Moon.   His decision to journey along out-of-the-way roads came after losing his teaching job, due to low enrollment, and separating from his wife.  He named his van ‘Ghost Dancing,’ in reference to a Native American resurrection ritual.  I thought this was an appropriate name for his mode of transportation, especially since this quest helped to resurrect his life as a photo-journalist. 

You may ask how my view of the world, or should I say America, might have changed from reading Blue Highways.  Personally I haven’t traveled very far west and in my life so far, most vacations are family visits.  I certainly recommend this book as unforgettable ‘armchair travel’ . . . a must-read on your next staycation.  At the time Heat-Moon took his trip, I had just gotten my first driver’s license and often imagined what it would be like to see where the road would take me.  Looking back on those years, the late seventies, and considering how times have changed since then, I guess my view of the world after consuming this book has heightened my hindsight and increased my wonder.  To think about discoveries waiting along endless highways and differences we could find by taking those roads less traveled.

Here’s a favorite quote from Heat-Moon . . . any traveler who misses the journey, misses about all he’s going to get – that a man becomes his attentions.  His observations and curiosity, they make and remake him.

Heat-Moon was on a solo adventure, but he did meet some interesting people along the way.   His stories include research on the areas he passed through as well as conversations with all walks of life. 

an evangelist hitchhiker, a teenage runaway, a boat builder, a monk, an Appalachian log cabin restorer, a rural Nevada prostitute, fishermen, a Hopi Native American medical student, owners of Western saloons and remote country stores, a maple syrup farmer, and Chesapeake Bay island dwellers 

I felt compelled to keep turning pages, to read and see, who would turn up next.  I also loved the way Heat-Moon described everything his senses were experiencing.  Another example from the book:

Clumps of wild garlic lined the county highway that I hoped was Shephardsville Road. It scrimmaged with the mountain as it tried to stay on top of the ridges; the hillsides were so steep and thick with oak.  I felt as if I was following a trail through the misty treetops.

Chickens doing more work with their necks than legs, ran across the road, and, with a battering of wings, half leapt and half flew into the lower branches of the oaks.  A vicious pair of mixed-breed German shepherds raced along trying to eat the tires.

Even more enjoyment, value-added, when reading Blue Highways is to ‘hear the music and taste the food’ that changes throughout the journey. 

Heat-Moon followed Blue Highways with PrairyErth: A Deep Map, another book; where instead of traveling long, far and wide, on back roads, he would travel to Chase County, Kansas a place he had loved when discovered on his first journey.  Here he would travel in and around the county, near and deep.  He would learn more about the history and the people in that place.

There is also an excellent documentary on YouTube about Heat-Moon’s Return to PrairyErth.  In the documentary there is a British couple, telling about how once they had read PrairyErth they knew they had to move from England to Chase County, Kansas. 

Other authors recognized with an August 27 birthday are: 

Theodore Dreiser, Ira Levin, Kristien Hemmerechts, and Jeanette Winterspoon

Wonder of the Day!