Author Background

This author, also called William Lewis Trogdon, was part Native American and part Euro-American in lineage. This book chronicles a 13,000 mile long journey the author undertook in 1978 when struck by personal tragedy; his wife left him and he lost his job on the same day. The author consciously avoided known highways, keeping to the back roads which were colored blue in the old rand McNally atlas. Hence the name, “Blue Highways”. After he completed the trip around the US, he spent four years writing the book and putting it together.

Relevance of the Title

Blue Highways gets its name from the roads marked in blue in the old Rand McNally atlas. These were back roads that connected small towns. The 13,000 mile journey that went around US, barring the state of California, kept consciously away from main highways. The author’s aim was to connect with real towns were real people lived. The aim of the journey was therapeutic.

Main Themes

Travelling as A Means of Discovery

Humans have, since the time they appeared on earth, travelled looking for better places. Travelling, especially the kind where the destination is not the important thing but the journey is, helps people shed their inhibitions and emotional baggage. People become more open to experiences and people, who may not have interested you when pursuing that 9 to 5 job.

Small Towns

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The author decides to stick to back roads and small towns as he wishes to be lonely and also wants to preserve the purity of experience. He makes friends only when he wishes to have company. In small towns, he is more likely to have a true American experience. The real America lay beyond superhighways and metropolitan areas.

Characters

William Least Heat-Moon

The reason why Least Heat-Moon set out on this 13,000 mile journey was intensely personal. On the day his wife announced she was leaving him, he also lost his job as an English teacher. Things looked grim and he needed to get away to put things into perspective. But the journey turns out to be more than just a search for his true self. On the way, he reflects on the problems that concern the Native Americans, the African Americans and the Cajuns as he crosses into the states where they live. The journey takes him three months to complete. He works on the book for the next four years, polishing his prose which soars majestically. However, it is always grounded in the America that remains hidden from the media glare.

Summary

Some men, when they lose their jobs and their wives, take to drink. But William Least Heat-Moon took to the road.  For him the place he arrived was not important; the journey was. Stopping at towns marked on the blue lines that indicated back roads, on old Rand McNally maps, he travelled for three months. After 13,000 miles and innumerable stops, where he met some remarkable people, the journey is complete. It takes him a further four years to polish the book. It becomes a cult novel, avidly read by real travelers and the arm-chair variety.

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Quotes

  1. Beware thoughts that come in the night. They aren’t turned properly; they come in askew, free of sense and restriction, deriving from the most remote of sources.

It is at night that disturbing thoughts came to the author. They are not fully formed, they tempt people and they are unrestricted. Travelers are lonely at night so they cannot share their feelings. They come unbidden and hang around refusing to die down.

  1. There are two kinds of adventurers: those who go truly hoping to find adventure and those who go secretly hoping they won’t.

This is a tongue-in-cheek statement by the author. Adventurers may not all seek adventure; some like to play safe. Adventures are also different; some call for mental endurance; others for physical. Least Heat-Moon set out to find his true self. He wanted to remove himself from the trapping of metropolitan life that made self discovery difficult.

  1. “A man who couldn’t make things go right could at least go.”

The author had a lingering feeling of insufficiency; his marriage had failed and he was jobless. That left him with one option: embark on a journey of self-discovery.

  1. “My point was that what you’ve done becomes the judge of what you’re going to do—especially in other people’s mind. When you’re traveling, you are what you are right then and there. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterday’s on the road.”

The reason why travel appealed to the author is summed up in these words. People tend to judge one by his or her past. But when one is constantly on the move, there is no past to speak of. So people cannot judge you by anything of the present.

  1. “Often I’d seen the American propensity to take to the highway with as many possessions as a vehicle could carry—that inclination to get away from it all while hauling it all along.”
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Least Heat-Moon was a minimalist traveler. Too often on the highways, he had seen travelers moving with a truckload of possessions. That went against his grain of thought. The author’s aim was to get away from his past life. He could do that only if he shed his past completely – that included most of his material possessions.