Friday, December 30, 2016

Blue Highways

I'm reading Blue Highways, a gift from my friend Marion, in a way author William Least Heat-Moon never intended and probably couldn't have foreseen. Blue Highways is Heat-Moon's travelogue of his three-month loop through the backroads--the map's blue highways--of the United States in 1978. It was a bestseller at the time, and a book I always knew about and wanted to read but never quite got to. Now I have.

Blue Highways is partly an elegy to a then-vanishing America, where people lived as they had fifty years before. Heat-Moon didn't have to wander far off the interstate to find folks living in tarpaper shacks with no plumbing, drinking free spring water that bubbled up from half a mile underground and eating whatever they could catch from the local pond. The book has one foot in the then-now and another in the past.

Reading it today, nearly forty years after Heat-Moon's odyssey, piles another time shift on top. Now I can follow his route on Google Maps, and use Street View to tour the towns he traveled through. I can Google the businesses he patronized and the people he met. Some of them turn up. Heat-Moon didn't know how all the stories he told would turn out; now, I can look up the endings of at least a few.

Not surprisingly, most of Heat-Moon's America from fifty-years-before-1978 appears to be gone. A little more surprisingly, so does a lot of his America from 1978. It wasn't that long ago. I was there. Blue Highways did (unintended?) double duty, documenting both its past and its present before they both passed into its future--where I can ride along with Heat-Moon on a computer that's about the same size and weight as the paperback edition I'm reading.

It's a trip.

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