Blue Highways

Blue Highways coverNonfiction. 412 Pages.
Written by William Least Heat-Moon


This isn’t a new release, but every once in a great while I go back and re-read a classic. This book definitely qualifies.

Although 20 years old, William Least Heat-Moon’s account of his journey along the backroads of the United States is a must-read for everyone.

This book is two parts travelogue and one part historical narrative, stirred, then liberally garnished with homespun philosophy that rings even more poignantly twenty years later.
Today, the backroads of America have been dotted with the “Golden Arches” of McDonald’s franchises. You can still find some of the people and places Heat-Moon writes about, but it is getting harder. America is undergoing a cultural deforestation. Commercial developments commodify and package what was once folksy and genuine. Accents are becoming less pronounced. Lifestyles are becoming more homogenized. Things are becoming a little too the same..

Heat-Moon’s narrative shows us what we are losing and reminds us all what being American is truly all about.

Hint: It’s not Big Macs.


The book starts out on a horrible February day when Heat-Moon learns two things:

  1. He’s been fired from his teaching position because of declining enrollment.
  2. His wife has left him.

Many people in today’s world would seek counseling from a qualified therapist, spending oodles of dollars to lay on a psychiatrist’s couch and tell a stranger about their problems.

Heat-Moon chose an alternative course of therapy, a sort of extended vision quest, that would take him along the back roads (blue highways) of the United States for 13,000 miles. Along the way, he explored forgotten towns (often picked for their whimsical names) and struck up conversations with their inhabitants.

From his starting place in Columbia, Missouri, he worked his way to the East Coast, then explored, the South, the South West, the North West, and continued clockwise across the northern border of the United States before returning home once again.

Some of the characters he encountered include:

  1. The Wattses of Nameless, Tennessee and their old-time Country Store.
  2. Brother Patrick Duffy who used to be a Brooklyn cop before he joined a Trappist Monastery near Conyers, Georgia.
  3. Al Bartholomew and his friends hang-gliding near Pitt, Washington.

These are just a few. There are dozens more. And for some of them, Heat-Moon has great photographs to accompany their stories.

In the end, though, Heat Moon sums up his journey with:

“If the circle had come full turn, I hadn’t. I can’t say over the miles, that I had learned
what I had wanted to know because I hadn’t known what I wanted to know. But I did
learn what I didn’t know I wanted to know.”

Read this book. It may not be what you had been expecting or even craving, but you will
meet characters and learn about places in the United States that will stay with you for a
long long time.