William Least Heat-Moon
On a dismal morning in March, 1978, William Least Heat-Moon left Columbia, Missouri, on Interstate 70. It was “the fastest route east out of the homeland,” he would later write, and the starting point of what would be a remarkable and influential journey through the continental United States. At the time Heat-Moon was thirty-eight years old. His teaching job at Stephens College had been eliminated, and a separation from his wife of ten years appeared to be permanent. Driven by “a nearly desperate sense of isolation,” he left Missouri determined to make a journey solely on “blue highways”—the writer’s now-iconic term for the back roads he assiduously studied on U.S. road maps. Eighty-two days later, after traveling through thirty-eight states and over 13,889 miles, Heat-Moon’s journey became the basis for the travel memoir Blue Highways: A Journey into America.
The book was released in January of 1983, and brought Heat-Moon immediate recognition. Called “a masterpiece” by Robert Penn Warren, the book spent forty-two weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list and has since become an American classic. The account is a highly personal one, filled with close observation, dry wit and keen style, but unlike many travel memoirs, Blue Highways reveals little of the author’s personal back story, and only rarely refers back to the journey’s inciting events.
“When memory is too much,” Heat-Moon writes, “turn to the eye. So I watched particularities.”
Indeed, Heat-Moon’s gaze is for the most part outward, and in precise and artful prose depicts the world he finds in the streets of little known towns, or along deserted roads, or in backwoods as he searches for an ancestor’s grave.
Heat-Moon has long been considered a contemporary adventurer in the literary/historical vein, but he is also an innovator of the form. In 1999, he published PrairyErth (Deep Map): An Epic History of the Tall Grass Prairie Country which unpacks a complex portrait of the prairies and grasslands of Chase County, Kansas. The book spawned a category of literary exploration known as “deep mapping.” A deep map work of writing most often centers on place, and alongside traditional tools of reportage and research, uses fields of study once considered outside the tradition of history-based topography, such as geology, archeology and weather; folklore and art; autobiography and memory. In Blue Highways, there is reportage and history alongside folk lyrics, genealogy, the poetry of Walt Whitman, vintage baseball terminology. With its rich digressions of history and social portraits, Blue Highways appears to have been the first step toward the deep map form.
I was heading toward those little towns that get on the map—if they get on at all—only because some cartographer has blank space to fill: Remote, Oregon; Simplicity, Virginia; New Freedom, Pennsylvania; New Hope, Tennessee; Why, Arizona, Whynot, Mississippi.
Click here for a map of the route Heat-Moon followed on the original Blue Highways journey, and to see a slideshow of Blue Highway places, photographed by the father and son team of Edgar Ailor and his son Gar (and read more about the book that documents their journey), visit Issue Two of the museum of the americana.