- Michaela Bramwell
Travel Writing Review Essay Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon
Blue Highways: A Journey into America is a travel writing memoir published in 1982 by Fawcett Crest. It describes the author, William Least Heat Moon’s, three-month solo road trip across the United States, visiting unheard of towns and learning about himself and the world around him along the way. The book is known as a “masterpiece of American travel writing.’’ The backroads the author decides to take are colored blue on road maps, giving the book its title. The book is 420 pages and costs about $18.99.
Blue Highways details a non-conventional travel experience that acts as an escape from Moon’s troubled life and encompasses the feeling we all have, to drop everything, leave our lives behind, and experience something new. Throughout his journey, the author looks for intimate and authentic experiences in each town, talking to locals about their lives, dining at local bars and restaurants, and gaining as much wisdom as possible in order to better understand the world. The author writes, “A man that couldn’t make things go right could at least go.” The book encompasses the overall theme of taking the roads less traveled in the name of self-discovery.
Preparing for the Read
The time period is a very important part of this book, so to prepare I did some research on the 1970s, specifically social issues, the difference of lives between those from the North and the South, and historical events that took place during this time period in American history. It gave me context as I read the stories of those living in the Deep South and how they viewed racial issues. I also did some research about the author himself, to better understand his mindset as he embarked on this journey. I found that he is a ½ Native American but white passing, well educated, English speaking, middle class, Northerner. Moon’s varying identities made his journey a much smoother experience than someone of a different race or gender journey’s may have been.
In addition, I read a review of the book written by Anatole Broyard in the New York Times in January 1983. Broyard connects Moon’s past teaching career with the life teachings that he writes about on his journey. He writes, “The job Mr. Moon had lost was teaching English, but in ''Blue Highways'' he goes on teaching, teaching us, as Proudhon put it, ''the fecundity of the unexpected.'' Broyard also highlights the significant aspect of people’s willingness to say important things to travelers in order to make them stop and listen. This willingness shaped Moon’s journey and is how he gained so many different perspectives.
The Journey Begins
The 13,000-mile journey begins due to Moon’s discovery of his estranged wife dating someone else and losing his job. He packs his van and leaves his hometown of Columbia, Missouri to escape his life that is slowly falling apart. He visits Kentucky, Tennessee and both Carolinas, meeting new people and hearing fascinating stories.
Driving Through North Carolina
A section of the book I enjoyed was when Moon drove through New Bern, North Carolina, my home state, and connected what he saw visually to NC’s military history, which is such a big part of the state’s legacy. He writes, “The military devastation, the repeated exchange of a town by Union and Confederate troops as the course of the war shifted that did in so many other Southern cities did not happen to New Bern. New Bern is a city where the old South still shows on the streets rather than the museum.”
I found an additional moment funny where Moon stopped a group of teenagers in a parking lot drinking beer to ask what there was to do around the area on a Friday night. The boys laughed and said, ‘You can watch the electric bug light at DQ that’s one. Or you can hustle up a six pack and cruise the strip.’’ This book was written in the 70s, but not much has changed when it comes to limited things to do in NC. In today’s age I know that hanging out at Cook Out on Friday nights is the new “drinking in a parking lot.’’ It’s interesting to see how things change, while simultaneously staying the same.
I think Moon does a really good job with details that allows the reader to set the scene of where he is in their mind. Moon stops at a diner in South Carolina and describes, “On the walls were the Gettysburg Address, Declaration of Independence, Pledge of Allegiance, and a picture of a winged Jesus.” This is the “stereotypical” southern diner aesthetic that emphasizes God and America. Moon is forced to acknowledge his own stereotyping when he expects an old sweet grandmother to come and serve him, but instead comes a young, easily irritated and serious woman. This doesn’t fit the picture he has in his mind of the South, but he continues.
Lesson from a Monk
Moon meets a man who is planning to become a Monk in Georgia and listens to his story as to why he wants this new life path. The most interesting lesson the Monk teaches him is when he says, “Coming here is following a call to be quiet. When I go quiet, I stop hearing myself and start hearing the world outside me. Then I hear something great.” These words symbolize Moon’s own personal journey of discovery and his version of “going silent,” is leaving his everyday life behind to see and understand the lives of others that are so different from him.
I think this “call to be quiet,” the Monk describes is so necessary in the polarized time that we find ourselves in. It seems that everyone is shouting at each other, trying to be louder than the other, only hearing themselves, their stories, and their life experiences. When we are quiet and we listen, we start hearing the concerns of those who live in a world outside of our own and understand that the entire world isn’t the same as the world in our own personal bubbles.
Civil Rights in the South
The most interesting part of the books was hearing Moon speak to white Alabama locals about their feelings on the growing protests and calls for racial justice in the South. In the past, we’ve commonly only heard about the social changes in the 70s from the perspective of Black Americans or white power hate groups, but rarely from everyday people who witnessed the protests and changes but weren’t really engaged on either side.
Moon spoke to a bartender and a customer in Alabama and asked them what had changed in Selma since Martin Luther King’s march. Ray replied, “The way we do bidness what’s changed. For the worse. But the thinkin’ ain’t.” Ray described having Black employees that washed cars for him, but continued to call them the n word, solidifying that he still looked down on them. Ray believed that the press should have ignored the protestors and that it was ignorant for the police to beat the protestors down because it just brought more attention to them. Ray described those marching as an inconvenience. Being from the North, this was Moon’s first real understanding of what the South in the 70s was like for Black Americans and opened his eyes to a world so different from his own, highlighting his own privilege.
With everything going on in 2020, some of the biggest racial protests in American history, it reminds me that there are people going about their everyday lives and see those protesting as an inconvenience to them. Even fifty years later, we see that like what Ray has said, “the way we do business” and socially interact with each other has changed, but attitudes of racism have not. I think this section was one of the most significant points of cultural importance in the entire book.
Looking at this book from a travel writing as inquiry perspective, Moon’s overall objective is to gain knowledge about the different cultures around him and how they differ from his own life, for better and for worse. One of his main research questions is: How has the South changed after King’s marches? He interviews all walks of life, including white and Black everyday people, who have different perspectives on how the world is changing when it comes to racial justice. Moon describes his research findings perfectly: ‘A white man griped about changes, and a black said there weren’t enough changes to gripe about.’’ It’s astonishing that this takeaway is still relevant in 2020.
The main takeaway from Moon’s exploration of Texas and the Southwest is that everyone takes for granted what they have and what we see as our own everyday life is another man’s dream. Moon meets a Texas Rancher named Sanchez that tells him that he wouldn’t want to live in the country, but rather the city because the country was ‘no place for a poor man.’’ Moon was shocked as he, growing up in the city, wanted nothing more than to live in the countryside. He writes, ‘Here was a man whose people had lived in the hard land for ten thousand years; he wanted the city. And here was another man whose forebears-built cities who wanted the desert.’’ Moon learns that not everything is what it seems.
End of the Journey
The travel writing aspect that Moon incorporates on his journey is fascinating. He allows his journey to drive him by spontaneously interacting with and following the advice of those he meets randomly along the way. He has an idea of what he wants to find out but doesn’t interfere with the natural way that things progress. Another inquiry research aspect that Moon uses connects to what we have been doing in our own NC region interviews, which is starting off his interview tactics by bringing up a shared topic to establish a relationship between the interviewer and the interviewee. He always begins by asking people he meets where they are from, which leads to them opening about their lives and experiences. Moon throughout the book, acts as an observer, which is what allows him to fully understand where he stands in the world.
At the end of his journey, Moon has found a new understanding and perspective on his own community, the country, and his life. He writes, “The end of all our exploring Will be to arrive where we started And know the place for the first time.” By this he means, that the purpose of exploring is to gain new knowledge and experiences that change our original beliefs about the world around us. I also believe that exploring is never truly complete. We should all continuously be exploring because the world is always changing and there is always more to learn.
Again, I believe in these polarized times, and the want to explore outside of our own bubbles to understand the lives of others so different from our own is so needed. Journeying across the country is an extreme example that obviously not everyone can take, but I believe the practical version of Moon’s journey is surrounding yourself with different kinds of people, whether it be race, ethnicity, religion, political views, etc. Forming relationships with people different than you allows for a more well-rounded view of the world and can help you on the journey to knowing yourself better as well.
My Experience Reading Blue Highways
Overall, I enjoyed reading Blue Highways because of its original concept and relevance to any time period in America, even though it was written decades ago. I think Moon did a good job letting his journey and those around him lead the book, instead of trying to steer the direction based on what he wanted to gain out of the experience. I think this is a strong quality of any travel writer and ultimately helped him to learn more in the end.