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"Doctor found out I was low on sperms.  Said my drawers was too tight--too much heat.  Tight pants don't allow the animal heat to escape, and the high temperature kills off sperms.  When I started wearing my old Army drawers again, Claud was pregnant inside three months."

I finished breakfast and drove up highway 4 in full envy of a man who could correct his marital problems by changing his shorts.

William Least Heat-Moon couldn't correct his marital problems or his overall sense of failure, but he had an idea he hoped would give him a fresh start.  He would drive around the United States, avoiding the Interstates, and using the secondary routes as much as he could.  What was life like in the towns along the back roads?

Let's ride.

The similarities between Blue Highways and Steinbeck's Travels with Charley are obvious and many:  Steinbeck named his modified truck Rocinante; Least Heat-Moon called his Ghost Dancer.  Both authors were out to take the temperature of the various regions of the Lower 48.  Least Heat-Moon didn't travel with his dog, though--his companions of choice were Walt Whitman and Black Elk.

Blue Highways is the more thorough of the two books; Least Heat-Moon kept to his planned itinerary more successfully than did Steinbeck, and his book seems better constructed.  In Blue Highways, the author's faithful recording of the voices of the people he meets reminded me of another classic:  Studs Terkel's Working.

The completion of the Interstate highway system, while it made travel easier, also made it duller in some ways.  America looks like a ribbon of concrete punctuated with gas stations, motels, and fast food restaurants.  The towns abandoned by the Interstates lost revenue; they may, however, have inadvertently kept their regional character through their isolation.

The Blue Highways route began in Columbia, Missouri, met the east coast in North Carolina, then approximated the perimeter of the continental U.S. clockwise before returning home.  As for the voices of the citizens, people couldn't wait to tell Least Heat-Moon their theories, philosophies of life, and whatever came to mind.  It struck me as a bit suspect that strangers would just walk up to him and start blabbing, and that made me wonder about the dull bits and negotiations that didn't get into the book, things like, "I'm writing a book, may I interview you for it?"  "Can I take your picture?"  "Can I quote you?"  The only place people were reticent was the northern midwest.

All around the country, the local history is explored and recounted, as the author and the people he talks to worry about preserving their way of life against the onrush of industrial and corporate forces that would obliterate it.

A man in Greenwich, New Jersey:

I've seen our county come a far piece in my time.  I'll not be alive when Greenwich becomes solidly obscured by industry, but you will, and you'll be younger than I am now when this nook of the bay is an industrial wasteland.  There are all kinds of reasons why there will be industrial development here, the greatest of which is that to make change is the most human creation.  And there are other reasons, reasons such as a corporate body having no soul.
A former teacher I wish I'd had in Maryland:
Learning rules is useful but it isn't education.  Education is thinking, and thinking is looking for yourself and seeing what's there, not what you got told was there.
As for William Least Heat-Moon's voice, it's a little gruff, a little wise-assed at times.  Sometimes when I'm reading, I hear a narrator's voice in my head.  This one sounded like Ward Bond.
If clouds gave Black Elk his visions, they merely made me wet.  But, like any man of ordinary cut, I sometimes heard human voices that showed the power not of visions but of revision, the power to see again and revise.
A final note about persistence:  After many publishers' rejections, William Least Heat-Moon was ready to give up trying; then he heard that Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was rejected 122 times before it was published.  So Least Heat-Moon vowed not to quit submitting his manuscript until it was rejected 123 times.  Lucky for you and me!

Originally posted to Monsieur Georges on Wed Apr 23, 2014 at 09:01 AM PDT.

Also republished by Readers and Book Lovers.

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