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Blue Highways

A Journey Into America

by William Least Heat-Moon

Paperback, 429 pages, Little Brown & Co, List Price: $15.99 |


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A Journey Into America
William Least Heat-Moon

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William Least Heat-Moon recounts his journey through America along the nation's back roads.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Blue Highways

Blue Highways

A Journey into America

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 1999 William Least Heat-Moon Bill McKibben
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-316-35329-8



Beware thoughts that come in the night. They aren't turned properly; they comein askew, free of sense and restriction, deriving from the most remote ofsources. Take the idea of February 17, a day of canceled expectations, the day Ilearned my job teaching English was finished because of declining enrollment atthe college, the day I called my wife from whom I'd been separated for ninemonths to give her the news, the day she let slip about her "friend"—Rickor Dick or Chick. Something like that.

That morning, before all the news started hitting the fan, Eddie Short Leaf, whoworked a bottomland section of the Missouri River and plowed snow off campussidewalks, told me if the deep cold didn't break soon the trees would freezestraight through and explode. Indeed.

That night, as I lay wondering whether I would get sleep or explosion, I got theidea instead. A man who couldn't make things go right could at least go. Hecould quit trying to get out of the way of life. Chuck routine. Live the realjeopardy of circumstance. It was a question of dignity.

The result: on March 19, the last night of winter, I again lay awake in thetangled bed, this time doubting the madness of just walking out on things,doubting the whole plan that would begin at daybreak—to set out on a long(equivalent to half the circumference of the earth), circular trip over the backroads of the United States. Following a circle would give a purpose—tocome around again—where taking a straight line would not. And I was goingto do it by living out of the back end of a truck. But how to begin a beginning?

A strange sound interrupted my tossing. I went to the window, the cold airagainst my eyes. At first I saw only starlight. Then they were there. Up in theMarch blackness, two entwined skeins of snow and blue geese honking north, anundulating W-shaped configuration across the deep sky, white bellies glowingeerily with the reflected light from town, necks stretched northward. Thenanother flock pulled by who knows what out of the south to breed and remakeitself. A new season. Answer: begin by following spring as theydid—darkly, with neck stuck out.


The vernal equinox came on gray and quiet, a curiously still morning not winterand not spring, as if the cycle paused. Because things go their own way, mydaybreak departure turned to a morning departure, then to an afternoondeparture. Finally, I climbed into the van, rolled down the window, looked alast time at the rented apartment. From a dead elm sparrow hawks used each yearcame a high whee as the nestlings squealed for more grub. I started theengine. When I returned a season from now—if I did return—thosesquabs would be gone from the nest.

Accompanied only by a small, gray spider crawling the dashboard (kill a spiderand it will rain), I drove into the street, around the corner, through theintersection, over the bridge, onto the highway. I was heading toward thoselittle towns that get on the map—if they get on at all—only becausesome cartographer has a blank space to fill: Remote, Oregon; Simplicity,Virginia; New Freedom, Pennsylvania; New Hope, Tennessee; Why, Arizona; Whynot,Mississippi. Igo, California (just down the road from Ono), here I come.


A pledge: I give this chapter to myself. When done with it, I will shut up aboutthat topic.

Call me Least Heat-Moon. My father calls himself Heat-Moon, my elder brotherLittle Heat-Moon. I, coming last, am therefore Least. It has been a long lessonof a name to learn.

To the Siouan peoples, the Moon of Heat is the seventh month, a time also knownas the Blood Moon—I think because of its dusky midsummer color.

I have other names: Buck, once a slur—never mind the predominant Anglofeatures. Also Bill Trogdon. The Christian names come from a grandfather eightgenerations back, one William Trogdon, an immigrant Lancashireman living inNorth Carolina, who was killed by the Tories for providing food to rebelpatriots and thereby got his name in volume four of Makers of America.Yet to the red way of thinking, a man who makes peace with the new by destroyingthe old is not to be honored. So I hear.

One summer when Heat-Moon and I were walking the ancestral grounds of the Osagenear the river of that name in western Missouri, we talked about bloodlines. Hesaid, "Each of the people from anywhere, when you see in them far enough, youfind red blood and a red heart. There's a hope."

Nevertheless, a mixed-blood—let his heart be where it may—is acontaminated man who will be trusted by neither red nor white. The attitude goesback to a long history of "perfidious" half-breeds, men who, by their nature,had to choose against one of their bloodlines. As for me, I will choose forheart, for spirit, but never will I choose for blood.

One last word about bloodlines. My wife, a woman of striking mixed-bloodfeatures, came from the Cherokee. Our battles, my Cherokee and I, we called the"Indian wars."

For these reasons I named my truck Ghost Dancing, a heavy-handed symbol alludingto ceremonies of the 1890s in which the Plains Indians, wearing cloth shirtsthey believed rendered them indestructible, danced for the return of warriors,bison, and the fervor of the old life that would sweep away the new. Ghostdances, desperate resurrection rituals, were the dying rattles of a people whoselast defense was delusion—about all that remained to them in theirfutility.

A final detail: on the morning of my departure, I had seen thirty-eight BloodMoons, an age that carries its own madness and futility. With a nearly desperatesense of isolation and a growing suspicion that I lived in an alien land, I tookto the open road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and wheretime and men and deeds connected.


The first highway: Interstate 70 eastbound out of Columbia, Missouri. The roadhere follows, more or less, the Booneslick Trail, the initial leg of the OregonTrail; it also parallels both the southern latitude of the last great glacier incentral Missouri as well as the northern boundary of the Osage Nation. TheCherokee and I had skirmished its length in Missouri and Illinois for ten years,and memory made for hard driving that first day of spring. But it was thefastest route east out of the homeland. When memory is too much, turn to theeye. So I watched particularities.

Item: a green and grainy and corrupted ice over the ponds.

Item: blackbirds, passing like storm-borne leaves, sweeping just above thetreetops, moving as if invisibly tethered to one will.

Item: barn roofs painted VISIT ROCK CITY—SEE SEVEN STATES. Seven at onefell swoop. People loved it.

Item: uprooted fencerows of Osage orange (so-called hedge apples although theyare in the mulberry family). The Osage made bows and war clubs from the limbs;the trunks, with a natural fungicide, carried the first telegraph lines; androots furnished dye to make doughboy uniforms olive drab. Now the Osage orangewere going so bigger tractors could work longer rows.

At High Hill, two boys were flying gaudy butterfly kites that pulled hardagainst their leashes. No strings, no flight. A town of surprising flatness on asingle main street of turn-of-the-century buildings paralleling the interstate,High Hill sat golden in a piece of sunlight that broke through. No one movedalong the street, and things held so still and old, the town looked like amuseum diorama.

Eighty miles out, rain started popping the windshield, and the road becameblobby headlights and green interstate signs for this exit, that exit. LAST EXITTO ELSEWHERE. I crossed the Missouri River not far upstream from where Lewis andClark on another wet spring afternoon set out for Mr. Jefferson's "terraincognita." Then, to the southeast under a glowing skullcap of fouled sky,lay St. Louis. I crossed the Mississippi as it carried its forty hourly tons oftopsoil to the Louisiana delta.

The tumult of St. Louis behind, the Illinois superwide quiet but for the rain, Iturned south onto state 4, a shortcut to I-64. After that, the 42,500 miles ofstraight and wide could lead to hell for all I cared; I was going to stay on thethree million miles of bent and narrow rural American two-lane, the roads toPodunk and Toonerville. Into the sticks, the boondocks, the burgs, backwaters,jerkwaters, the wide-spots-in-the-road, the don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it towns.Into those places where you say, "My god! What if you lived here!" The Middle ofNowhere.

The early darkness came on. My headlamps cut only a forty-foot trail through therain, and the dashboard lights cast a spectral glowing. Sheet lightning behindthe horizon of trees made the sky look like a great faded orange cloth beingblown about; then darkness soaked up the light, and, for a moment, I was blinderthan before.

In the approaching car beams, raindrops spattering the road became littlebeacons. I bent over the wheel to steer along the divider stripes. A frog, long-leggedyand green, belly-flopped across the road to the side where the puddleswould be better. The land, still cold and wintery, was alive with creatures thattrusted in the coming of spring.

On through Lebanon, a brick-street village where Charles Dickens spent a nightin the Mermaid Inn; on down the Illinois roads—roads that leave you illand annoyed, the joke went—all the way dodging chuckholes thatTime magazine said Americans would spend 626 million dollars in extrafuel swerving around. Then onto I-64, a new interstate that cuts across southernIllinois and Indiana without going through a single town. If a world lay outthere, it was far from me. On and on. Behind, only a red wash of taillights.

At Grayville, Illinois, on the Wabash River, I pulled up for the night on NorthStreet and parked in front of the old picture show. The marquee said TRAVELOGUETODAY, or it would have if the O's had been there. I should have gone toa cafe and struck up a conversation; instead I stumbled to the bunk in the backof my rig, undressed, zipped into the sleeping bag, and watched things go dark.I fought desolation and wrestled memories of the Indian wars.

First night on the road. I've read that fawns have no scent so that predatorscannot track them down. For me, I heard the past snuffling about somewhereclose.


The rain came again in the night and moved on east to leave a morning of coolovercast. In Well's Restaurant I said to a man whose cap told me what fertilizerhe used, "You've got a clean little town here."

"Grayville's bigger than a whale, but the oil riggers get us a mite dirty aroundthe ears," he said. "I've got no oil myself, not that I haven't drilled up asieve." He jerked his thumb heavenward. "Gave me beans, but if I'da got myrightful druthers, I'da took oil." He adjusted his cap. "So what's your line?"

"Don't have one."

"How's that work?"

"It doesn't and isn't."

He grunted and went back to his coffee. The man took me for a bindlestiff. Nexttime I'd say I sold ventilated aluminum awnings or repaired long-rinse cycles onWhirlpools. Now my presence disturbed him. After the third tilt of his emptycup, he tried to make sense of me by asking where I was from and why I was sofar from home. I hadn't traveled even three hundred miles yet. I told him Iplanned to drive around the country on the smallest roads I could find.

"Goddamn," he said, "if screwball things don't happen every day even in thistown. The country's all alike now." On that second day of the new season, Iguess I was his screwball thing.

Along the road: old snow hidden from the sun lay in sooty heaps, but theinterstate ran clear of cinders and salt deposits, the culverts gushed withsplash and slosh, and the streams, covering the low cornfields, filled the oldsoil with richness gathered in their meanderings.

Driving through the washed land in my small self-propelled box—a "wheelestate," a mechanic had called it—I felt clean and almost disentangled. Ihad what I needed for now, much of it stowed under the wooden bunk:

• 1 sleeping bag and blanket;

• 1 Coleman cooler (empty but for a can of chopped liver a friend had given meso there would always be something to eat);

• 1 Rubbermaid basin and a plastic gallon jug (the sink);

• 1 Sears, Roebuck portable toilet;

• 1 Optimus 8R white gas cook stove (hardly bigger than a can of beans);

• 1 knapsack of utensils, a pot, a skillet;

• 1 U.S. Navy seabag of clothes;

• 1 tool kit;

• 1 satchel of notebooks, pens, road atlas, and a microcassette recorder;

• 2 Nikon F2 35mm cameras and five lenses;

• 2 vade mecums: Whitman's Leaves of Grass and Neihardt's Black ElkSpeaks.

In my billfold were four gasoline credit cards and twenty-six dollars. Hiddenunder the dash were the remnants of my savings account: $428.

Ghost Dancing, a 1975 half-ton Econoline (the smallest van Ford then made), rodeself-contained but not self-containing. So I hoped. It had two worn rear tiresand an ominous knocking in the waterpump. I had converted the van from a clangytin box into a place at once a six-by-ten bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, parlor.Everything simple and lightweight—no crushed velvet upholstery, no wineracks, no built-in television. It came equipped with power nothing and drovelike what it was: a truck. Your basic plumber's model.

The Wabash divides southern Illinois from Indiana. East of the fluvial floodplain, a sense of the unknown, the addiction of the traveler, began seeping in.Abruptly, Pokeberry Creek came and went before I could see it. The interstateafforded easy passage over the Hoosierland, so easy it gave no sense of the upand down of the country; worse, it hid away the people. Life doesn't happenalong interstates. It's against the law.

At the Huntingburg exit, I turned off and headed for the Ohio River. Indiana 66,a road so crooked it could run for the legislature, took me into the hillyfields of CHEW MAIL POUCH barns, past Christ-of-the-Ohio Catholic Church,through the Swiss town of Tell City with its statue of William and his crossbowand nervous son. On past the old stone riverfront houses in Cannelton, on upalong the Ohio, the muddy banks sometimes not ten feet from the road. The brownwater rolled and roiled. Under wooded bluffs I stopped to stretch among theperiwinkle. At the edge of a field, Sulphur Spring bubbled up beneath a cover ofdead leaves. Shawnees once believed in the curative power of the water, andsettlers even bottled it. I cleared the small spring for a taste. Bad enough tocure something.

I crossed into the Eastern Time Zone and then over the Blue River, which was abrown creek. Blue, Green, Red: yes—yet who ever heard of a Brown River?For some reason, the farther west the river and the scarcer the water, the morehonest the names become: Stinking Water Branch, Dead Horse Fork, CutthroatGulch, Damnation Creek. Perhaps the old trailmen and prospectors figuredsettlers would be slower to build along a river named Calamity.

On through what was left of White Cloud, through the old statehouse town ofCorydon, I drove to get the miles between me and home. Daniel Boone moved on atthe sight of smoke from a new neighbor's chimney; I was moving from the sight ofmy own. Although the past may not repeat itself, it does rhyme, Mark Twain said.As soon as my worries became only the old immediate worries of theroad—When's the rain going to stop? Who can you trust to fix a waterpumparound here? Where's the best pie in town?—then I would slow down.

I took the nearest Ohio River bridge at Louisville and whipped around the cityand went into Pewee Valley and on to La Grange, where seven daily Louisville &Nashville freight trains ran right down Main Street. Then southeast.