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On the old highway maps of America, the main routes were red and the back roads blue. Now even the colors are changing. But in those brevities just before dawn and a little after dusk – times neither day nor night – the old roads return to the sky some of its color. Then, in truth, they carry a mysterious cast of blue, and it’s that time when the pull of the blue highways is strongest ..."
(Blue Highways)



Concerning the contents of William Least Heat Moon’s "Blue Highways" one could give the following summary: Having lost his job and his wife (due to a failed marriage), that means at a turning point in his life, the author William Least Heat Moon packs up his van and goes on an extended road trip. The book is thus regarded as an account of his 13000-mile journey along the backroads, the so-called ‘Blue Highways’, of the United States.

However, this kind of superficial summary would only result in a heavy protest on the part of all readers who really appreciate Least Heat Moon’s profound view of the diversity of America. " Blue Highways" is more than just an autobiographical road novel – it contains innumerable aspects of the ‘American road culture’, ranging from ethnical problems and the undeniable importance of diners to the true significance of road literature.

In other words, W. Least Heat Moon somehow assists in determining the myth of the road and he invites the reader to join him on a more abstract kind of road, namely that from the past to the present. Having native American ancestors himself, Least Heat Moon also lays enormous emphasis on the aspect of race and ethnicity on the road.

Why do people leave home to go on such an extended road trip? What is the myth of the road that fascinates so many? And above all, what do such road protagonists expect to find or discover on the road?

For William Least heat Moon the journey is on the one hand a sort of escape from home and on the other hand it obviously represents an attempt to forget or even heal.

"Etymology: ‘curious’, related to ‘cure’, once meant ‘carefully observant’. Maybe a tonic of curiosity would counter my numbing sense that life inevitably creeps toward the absurd. ‘Absurd’, by the way, derives from a Latin word meaning ‘deaf, dulled’. Maybe the road could provide a therapy through observation of the ordinary and obvious, a means wherebythe outer eye opens an inner one." (Blue Highways, p.17)

As the name ‘Least Heat Moon’ already indicates, his ancestors were Native Americans and thus his journey is as well an occasion to search for his origins, to somehow trace his ancestral roots.

Most road protagonists set out alone with the simple reason to find their true self. For William Least Heat Moon this search for himself requires the loneliness of the backroads and this purity of experience. However, although the loneliness of the backroads is quite an important aspect, Least Heat Moon knows that it is exactly his traveling alone that also brings him into contact with people, that makes him more sociable.

"It isn’t traveling to cross the country and talk to your pug instead of people along the way. Besides, being alone on the road makes you ready to meet someone when you stop. You get sociable traveling alone.
(Blue Highways, p.27)

When asking people what they actually associate with such a trip along the backroads of the United States you might get keywords and phrases, such as ‘loneliness’, ‘romantic and idyllic’, ‘nostalgia’, ‘the real America beyond all those metropolitan areas and superhighways’ or ‘the fear that your car runs out of gas with no gas station within the next 50 miles’. Looking at those associations, we will notice that exactly these ideas represent the pattern of traditional road novels. So "Blue Highways" is among other things about adventure, loneliness, about idyllic and less idyllic landscapes and even about such simple things as the fear to run out of gas far away from the next gas station.

Another essential aspect in Least Heat Moon’s "Blue Highways" is the emphasis on race and ethnicity on the road. However, we have to bear in mind that the phrase ‘race and ethnicity on the road’ refers again to two different aspects or two different point of views. On the one hand we need to determine the role of race with regard to the protagonist – this means: In how far is the race of the person traveling, in our case the author himself, of importance? On the other hand we must consider that on his trip this protagonist will encounter people of different races, religions and nationalities. In other words, this means that discussing the aspect of race on the road is only possible if we consider both, the author’s or protagonist’s race as well as the race of the people he gets into contact with.

"Blue Highways" makes you aware of the fact that the race of a protagonist is a decisive factor as it simply determines the way things are perceived. The same trip, narrated by various authors of different races, will undoubtedly result in a number of different perspectives.

For quite a long time, the aspect of race was not important at all in road literature, as authors or protagonists were mainly white male Americans.

"Most American road narratives have been lived, written and published by white males. This dominance is easy enough to understand, given the history of both American travel and American authorship. Native Americans, African Americans, women, and other minorities have moved around North America for centuries but not usually in the manner of the road quest conventions." (Ronald Primeau 1996: 107)

Nowadays the aspect of race gets more and more important, but what is meant by a difference in perception that I have mentioned before? – just think of a white male American on a trip across the United States and then imagine an African American going on the same trip. This is exactly what John A. Williams. a Black American author, did and in his book "This is my country, too" he outlines the various problems he was confronted with, as a Black American on the road.

"For the African American on the highway, the road is not always open and dangers cannot be for long overlooked. "I do not believe white travelers have any idea of how much nerve and courage it requires for a Negro to drive coast to coast in America [...] Nerve, courage, and a great deal of luck. African Americans do travel and do write about traveling, but not usually for the samereasons and with none of the reckless abandon of the white male on a questfor self-discovery. Williams takes with him a list of places in America whereAfrican Americans can stay without being embarrassed, insulted, or worse. (Primeau 1996: 117)

So Williams’ perceptions and his experience are certainly different from those of a white male American.

Concerning the aspect of race in "Blue Highways" we should bear in mind that William Least Heat Moon, who was in fact born as William Trogdon, is not a pure Native American – he has ‘just’ Native American ancestors. Thus he is not confronted with the same kind of prejudices or insults that Williams had to face. In " Blue Highways" the aspect of race is introduced and given emphasis to by William Least Heat Moon himself. Although he is in search for his ancestral roots it would be exaggerated to say that he really identifies himself with the Native Americans, it is rather curiosity, interest and deep concern. Thus "Blue Highways" contains a number of descriptions and hints concerning the Natives’ living conditions, their traditions and beliefs, but again and again Least Heat Moon also mentions the enormous injustices done to Native Americans.

"...the government’s given a lot of our land to Navajos, and now we’re in a hard spot – eight thousand Hopis are surrounded and outnumbered twentyfive to one. I don’t begrudge the Navajo anything, but I think Hopis should be in on making the decisions. Maybe you know that Congress didn’t even admit Indians to citizenship until about nineteen twenty. Incredible – live someplace a thousand years and then find out you’re a foreigner" (Blue Highways, p.183)

"Still waiting on the weather, I started reading a book I’d bought in Phoenix, ‘The Sacred Pipe’, Black Elk’s account of the ancient rites of the Oglala Sioux. In contrast to the good and straight red road of life, Black Elk says, the blue road is the route of ‘one who is distracted, who is ruled by his senses, and who lives for himself rather than for his people’. I was stunned. Was it racial memory that had urged me to drive seven thousand miles of blue highway, a term I thought I had coined?" (Blue Highways, p.219)

However, it has already been mentioned that we also need to consider the people who get into contact with the road protagonist – people of different races, religions and origins. In the United States ‘race’ refers to more than just African or Native American and thus in Dakota Least Heat Moon is of course concerned with the Natives’ problems, in Alabama he tries to illustrate the current situation of African Americans, in Louisiana that of the Cajuns, whereas in New York he had to face the Italians’ problems in the American melting-pot of nations.

"Sunday was spaghetti day. But there were other hard things in Rochester, even if you were born in America like us. If your name ended in a vowel, you didn’t go to college." "What’s a vowel got to do with it?" "Masucci, Zambito, Gambrini, Barsetta. You were Italian, my friend. All they would say to you was ‘Shut up’ or ‘Go to hell.’ " [...] "Rochester was tough. If you were a German off the boat, you got a good job. "Kodak or Bausch and Lomb wanted Germans. They thought just being Kraut made a good worker in lenses and film. But if you were Italian, you got the shovel and pick. No questions asked, no answers given." (Blue Highways, p.312)

Apart from the myth of the backroad and the aspect of race, a third element that attracts the reader’s attention, has to be mentioned. On his circular trip, Least Heat Moon was particularly interested in back roads, as he intended to rediscover a lost America far apart from the modernism of superhighways. In a certain nostalgia, Least Heat Moon wants to rediscover the past and thus there also is a certain emphasis on history in "Blue Highways". With Least Heat Moon traveling the road seems to become a link between the past and the present.

"Somewhere between that vile past and the vacuous present, somewhere between history and trends, there must have been other possibilities for Thames Street that the burghers of Newport missed. There was no point staying on; what I’d come for was gone, replaced by things available all over the United States." (Blue Highways, p.362)


Heat Moon, William (Least), 1982: Blue Highways. A Journey into America. Little, Brown and Company. Boston.

Lackey, Kris, 1997: The American Highway Narrative. University of Nebraska Press.

Primeau, Ronald, 1996: Romance of the road. The Literature of the American Highway. Bowling Green State University Popular press.


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