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Blue Highways: 09/04/16

Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon

Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon is an account of his road trip around the edges of the continental United States in 1980. I recently re-read this book as part of my research on the road trip narrative.

When I first read it, I was snowed in at a cabin in Pine Cove, California. I wanted to be anywhere but that cabin and Heat-Moon's road trip was my armchair escape. Heat-Moon's trip was also one of escape and of self-discovery — a way to find his place as a person of mixed ancestry.

a map of the route

The title refers to the author's decision to steer clear of the interstates whenever possible. He wanted to see the smallest towns, the ones with odd names. He didn't want to suffer the "tyranny of the freeway" (p. 43). As noted in The Lincoln Highway: Coast to Coast from Time Square to the Golden Gate by Michael Wallis and Michael S. Williamson, Heat-Moon's journey is in the proud tradition of the shunpikers — those who stay off the big roads in order to truly experience the great American road trip.

Blue Highways is a hybrid road trip. It starts neither somewhere truly urban (not one of the massive coastal cities such as Washington DC, New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles. Columbia, Missouri is a small city by their standards. Even by San Francisco, it's small. It's also located in the mid-west, a place that's passed-through in the journey from one coast to the other or from the city to the rural haven. Finally it's a circuitous route, one where the little dots on the map are the point, rather than the distractions.

The typical road trip story, whether fiction or nonfiction, is from the point of view of a white middle class male who in turn stops to visit with other white middle class people along the way. The United States in its narratives tends to whitewash. Heat-Moon's road trip did exactly the opposite; he sought out the stories not usually told.

That's not to say everyone he spoke to were minorities. He spoke to both sides, though his accounts of his white conversations are more charged and the inherent racism is glaringly obvious. It can't hide; it can't be swept under the carpet against the stories of oppression, racial profiling, poverty, danger.

As with all my other research reading, I live blogged my favorite quotes on Tumblr.

Four stars

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