Monday, July 1, 2013

Nonfiction | America by Highways and Byways

On the old highway maps of America, the main routes were red and the back roads blue. Now even the colors are changing. But in those brevities just before dawn and a little after dusk—times neither day nor night—the old roads return to the sky some of its color. Then, in truth, they carry a mysterious cast of blue, and it's that time when the pull of the blue highway is strongest, when the open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself.

There's something about road trips that holds a special place in the American psyche, that has inspired generations of folks to hit the open road and discover what makes this country tick—the forgotten towns and the people in them forgotten, too. One thing I took away from college in New York was the reminder that "there's a whole other country out there; you're living in a bubble, and there are as many ways to live as there are people." Road trips have always been about discovering those people and those ways of life, and probably discovering something about yourself along the way.

At least, that's the romanticized version you usually read about.

Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon takes us on a journey around America by the back roads. The author strays from the interstates and highways and circles the country via the back roads that wind through those small forgotten towns. Escaping, however impermanently, from the fizzling end of a relationship, he sets out in a makeshift fort of his own—a trusty old van equipped with sleeping and cooking utilities—to "discover America." Along the way, he meets an America that is "disappearing." [Though, seeing as how this book was published thirty years ago, it's probably already gone.]

This is about one person out to explore, without anything particular in mind. It's about the journey being more important than the destination. And it's a reminder that there's more out there than what you see every day.

One of the things I enjoyed the most was the author's style of writing. He shares his experiences with a frankness and honesty that conveys his own confusion or apathy or curiosity during his journey; he paints small scenes that capture a moment that can say so much without words. Mostly, though, he serves as kind of a straight-man riding through the country, letting the experiences bounce off him so that we can more clearly see them. As he rolls up in small towns and converses with strangers, we see little glimpses into these ways of life that are probably very different than our own.

I don't think any record of "travel writing" can truly convey the vastness and diversity of a place and/or its people, because travel writing is so inextricably linked to the writer, the one voicing the experiences. But it does introduce you to people you've never met, places you've never seen, and fuel that drive to hit the road and experience for yourself.

I wish there was a cross-country road trip memoir that is more current (and if there is one and I'm missing it, feel free to share). Society is a lot different now than it was in 1979 and I'd like to see if that small-town isolation still exists in our current technologically-driven and -connected world.

If you like this, A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins is another travelogue from the same era with a similar feel. And that's one of my all-time favorites.

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