Small-Town Blues

Blue Highways: A Journey Into America By William Least Heat Moon Atlantic-Little Brown: 412 pp.: $17.50

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 night nor day--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 highway is strongest, when the open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself. preface to Blue Highways

THE SMALL TOWN in every city-dweller's mind lies just beyond the horizon of possibility. Somewhere past the dense cloud of Urbanity, past subways and corporations, past designer jeans and city cowboys, past Dan Rather, issues and answers, terrorists, rallies, sold-out Rolling Stones tours and French Maitred's, beyond all that a sleepy town of backroad America lies waiting. Ah, to chuck the city life forever--Green Acres. We Are There! Dream though they may of the Great Adventure, few people ever take the risk.

Perhaps calamity provides the only incentive for such a journey. In the space of a single day, William Least Heat Moon (William Trogden) lost his job as a college English teacher and found out that his wife--from whom he was separated--had a new boyfriend. That was calamity enough for him, so he peaked up his old van with a small cache of supplies and the modest remains of his savings account, and rolled out of his Columbia, Mo., home in search of the forgotten land. Life's desperate moments are terrifying but also exhilarating, for they open up the vast possibilities of reckless abandon. Jobless, wifeless, and 38 years old--"an age that carries its own madness and futility"--Least Heat Moon "took to the open road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected."

His idea was simple--to travel around the country in a circular route, stopping at any town that sounded interesting, and avoiding at all costs the multi-lane interstates that transform the landscape around them into identical blurry lines of trees from Boston to Seattle. He would stick to the back roads, the blue highway, and find towns as yet unmolested by the Howard Johnson convenience pitstop of the American superhighway. By the time he returned to Columbia, he had traversed some 11,000 miles in three months on the road

TRAVELOGUES are as old as literature itself, but Blue Highways is more than anything an American work. A feat like Least Heat Moon's would be almost inconceivable anywhere else--to travel thousands and thousands of miles, from Nameless, Tenn., to Dime Box, Tex., to Bagley., Mon., to Cape Porpoise. Maine, and never pass outside the U.S. border, except for a small stretch of southern Canada. The faces of small-town America are as varied as their climates and geographies, from the Creoles of Louisiana to the Navajos of Nevada to the Yankees of Vermont. Yet if Blue Highways shows us the wide variation between these people, it makes their similarities even more striking--above all their fierce pride and sense of individuality.

Least Heat Moon, whose name pays homage to his partly Indian ancestry, does not attempt to romanticize small-town life. Where he sees ignorance and hypocrisy he points it out and some traditions are not all good; as James Walker, a Black in Selma, Ala., tells him. "Ain't nothing changed." Nevertheless, throughout the book, we sense that small-town America, the way it was once known, is suffering its last gasp. Beyond each tree-lined ridge, across each mountain river, it seems, a dreaded red highway--an interstate carrying carloads of sightseers from New York and Ohio --stretches out, threatening to flatten the land, fill the towns with Burger Kings, and turn us all into Dacron-clad clones.

Least Heat Moon supplements his ample conversations with inhabitants of the various towns with the generous amounts of history he has culled from local libraries. The people he talks to, though usually reserved at first in the presence of a stranger, are almost uniformly generous with their time. We have come to think of our country as a dangerous place. Ironically, Least Heat Moon writes toward the end of his travels, "I'd traveled 10,000 miles and not encountered a single hoodlum. But I'd been taken for one several times." The observation at once seems to reflect Americans' fear of one another and their underlying good nature.

Least Heat Moon writes so well it is difficult to believe that this is his first book. His accounts are fast-paced, his descriptions clear and precise, his inevitable dips into philosophical analysis on the nature of travel well-spaced and not cumbersome. The book is a joy to read: like all good travel books it affords us the luxury of adventure without ever leaving our chair to retrace those miles.