Traveling America with William Least Heat-Moon
I like to poke around second-hand book stores hunting for bargains that might contain information I may have missed, when that information was new. Recently on the hunt, I discovered a 1983 edition of William Least Heat-Moon’s 1978 Blue Highways, paid the money and took it home to be added to my pile of books to read.
When Blue Highways found its way to the top of the pile, I was in for an entertaining and informative time. In the opening pages, I discovered that Heat-Moon’s name is not as peculiar as it sounds. He has a mixture of Irish, English and Midwest native blood.
|Author William Least Heat-Moon|
Following family traditions, his father was Heat-Moon, his older brother was First Heat Moon and so he had to be Least Heat-Moon. It makes perfect sense, but they added a William too so he could be called Bill for short, which also makes perfect sense.
But this Bill is no ordinary Bill. He was born in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1939, and has a Ph.D. in English and a bachelor’s degree in photojournalism from the University of Missouri. To compliment his academic qualifications, he has an extraordinary sense of humor, a keen eye for detail and a love of traveling the back-blocks. Added together and you have a writer of exceptional talent.
When his marriage broke up and his Missouri teaching job disappeared, Heat-Moon took to the blue roads of America, living in a small truck and parking overnight where ever the road of the day found him.
The blue highways of 1978 are now the red highways in current editions of the Rand McNally Road Atlas, which means that the author traveled the secondary roads, avoiding the interstates and big cities, while searching out the obscure, fascinating, humorous and historic sites. During his travels, Heat-Moon rubbed shoulders with local bar patrons, café owners, residents, rebels and other real-life characters and comics. His portrayal of local accents and customs is epic.
From Missouri, Heat-Moon circled America by headed east to the Atlantic coast, to the Deep South, across the southern United States to the Pacific coast, retracing some of Lewis and Clark’s travels and returning to the Atlantic through the northern states before turning for home.
Blue Highways takes the reader to peculiar or unpronounceable places like Wequetequock, Connecticut; Bad Axe, Michigan; Lookingglass, Oregon; Hog Heaven, Idaho; Defeated, Tennessee; Woonasquatucket, Rhode Island; Left Hand, West Virginia; Burnt Store, Maryland; Dime Box, Texas; Our Town, Alabama; Simplicity, Virginia; Only, Tennessee; Kennebunkport, Maine; Scratch Ankle, Alabama; Boreing, Kentucky; Dull, Tennessee; Mud Lick, Kentucky; Whynot, Mississippi, and many more fascinating places.
Heat-Moon is much more than a traveler with a yearn for odd and unusual places. He interviews the local identities, describing them and their surrounding with his unique mastery of the English language and a wit unsurpassed.
On Page 398 I came upon this tidbit of history:
At the bottom of Morris Street, across from the Tred Avon ferry slip, sat the Robert Morris Inn, the 1710 portion of which, built by a shipwright, was once the home of Robert Morris – Senior and Junior – a family of fortune and misfortune. The father died when wadding from a cannon fired in his honor struck him in the arm. The son, one of the wealthiest men in eighteenth-century America and a financier of the Revolution, was sentenced to three years in a Philadelphia debtor’s prison after a spell of reverses, one of which was the failure of the new government to repay his loan to the Continental Army.
Finding my old copy of Blue Highways was indeed a literary bonanza and I recommend it anyone interested in American travel, humor and history. But please don’t ask to borrow my dog-eared copy. It’s mine forever.