Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Great Journeys: William Least Heat-Moon in America

I am adding William Least Heat-Moon's Blue Highways (1982) to my collection of great journeys, but my notes on this enchanting book are, I'm afraid, drawn entirely from memory, as I long ago lent my copy to a friend or colleague, and unsurprisingly it hasn't come back. If I were lent Blue Highways, I would steal it, too.

Blue Highways is a great journey because it is a book about looking and listening first, and commenting second. The opening premise, too, is perfect (in literary terms) if a bit shitty in terms of the author's actual life: Least Heat-Moon loses his university job, his wife leaves him, and, with the few hundred dollars he has left to his name, he decides to buy a van and take to the "blue highways", or the quieter roads that were once printed in blue on American road maps. He has nothing left to lose, and can really only gain by travelling.

As well as keeping off the big roads, he does his best to avoid cities, and sleeps in his van. His main food source is road-side diners, at the time a fading institution of road travel for which he develops a rating system based on the number of calendars hanging up on the walls: the fewer the calendars, the less likely it is that you're in for a good meal. He is seldom hastled, in fact only twice, and on both occasions it is by the police. Otherwise, he is left alone to do what he does best, which is to move slowly enough to be able to strike up conversations with the people who live by the blue roads he follows - that is, he is by no means a solitary traveller, even though he moves through America on his own.

Thus, the structure of the book reflects Least Heat-Moon's most important quality as a traveller, which is his willingness to stop and talk to strangers. Blue Highways records dozens of stories, patiently transcribed (one assumes during quiet nights in the van) and allowed, for the most part, to stand on their own right. Taken together, the conversations and potted autobiographies that they contain form an odds-and-ends collection of American stories from the late 1970s. And while Least Heat-Moon forms an obvious link between these stories, he allows us to listen and to make the connections between the stories for ourselves, as though they have merely been collected from the roadside and stored in the back of the van.

The book, when first published in 1982, was a stunning, unexpected commercial success, and still sells thousands of copies every year. It's probably time I got my second copy.