WITH THE ARRIVAL of the first hints of spring a few years back, a 38-year-old man named William Least Heat Moon, a.k.a. William Trogdon, decided to "chuck routine" and "live the real jeopardy of circumstance." His job teaching English at the University of Missouri had vanished and his marriage was in a state of terminal disrepair. A person of mixed blood--part Anglo, part Sioux--he decided to set out on an uncharted journey through America, a journey that he hoped would tell him important things about himself, his heritage and the country in which he lived; he decided also to follow what he calls the "blue highways," the smaller roads that used to be colored blue on gas-station roadmaps.
His vehicle was a van that he nicknamed Ghost Dancing, "a heavy-handed symbol alluding to ceremonies of the 1890s in which the Plains Indians, wearing cloth shirts they believed rendered them indestructible, danced for the return of warriors, bison, and the fervor of the old life that would sweep away the new." He wanted to get away from the interstates and the franchises, into an older and more rooted America:
"Franchisers don't sell many of their thirty-three billion hamburgers per year in blue highway towns where chophouses must draw customers through continuing quality rather than national advertising. I had nothing to lose but the chains, and I hoped to find down the county roads Ma in her beanery and Pap over his barbecue pit, both still serving slow food from the same place they did thirty years ago. Where-you-from-buddy restaurants."
His journey lasted from the beginning of one spring to the end of the next. Leaving his Missouri college town of Columbia he headed east to North Carolina in search of a memorial to his English ancestor, also named William Trogdon, who "supplied sundry items to the Carolina militia for several years during the Revolutionary War" and for his pains was summarily executed by a band of Tory vigilantes. He then drove southwest to Louisiana and Texas, worked his way northwest through the Utah desert, and made a straight run across the country, due east from Oregon to Maine. The last leg took him home by way of New Jersey, Maryland's Eastern Shore and the West Virginia hills.
As all of the above suggests, Least Heat Moon is an indefatigable romantic; although he makes occasional gestures in the course of his narrative to the brutalities inflicted on Indians by whites, and though he muses from time to time about what it means to be of mixed blood and thus mixed heritage, Blue Highways makes clear that more than anything else he is passionately, somewhat blindly in love with small-town America and with places where "things live on . . . in the only way the past ever lives -- by not dying." His past is a real past, not something Disneyfied and sentimentalized. As he writes after visiting a town in New Jersey:
"Greenwich was a Williamsburg with a difference: it wasn't dug out of the ground and rebuilt. There was another difference too: it didn't have that unnaturally genteel, sanitized look of the Virginia village that turns it into a museum. Surely, the first Williamsburg must have been a knockabout frontier town, a place of skullduggery and war, where the laundry got hung out and . . . the scent of dung and wet horses was strong. To resurrect that town and playact the past is a good thing for Williamsburg. But it wasn't the way of Greenwich. Hidden in the tall marsh grass of the coastal lowland, the whilom seaport that once rivaled Philadelphia was remarkable."
Least Heat Moon found many such places, and discovering them with him is the greatest pleasure that his journal offers: places with funny names like Nameless and Liberty Bond and Dime Box, places with roots deep into the American past, places with delightful and surprising histories of their own. He found diners and cafes and taverns that served regional foods and beers. He found sights that provoked him to observations that, if somewhat obvious, are nonetheless close to the truth: "Nothing has done more to take a sense of civic identity, a feeling of community, from small-town America than the loss of old hotels to the motel business. The hotel was once where things coalesced, where you could meet both townspeople and travelers. Not so in a motel. No matter how you build it, the motel remains a haunt of the quick and dirty, where the only locals are Chamber of Commerce boys every fourth Thursday. Who ever heard the returning traveler exclaim over one of the great motels of the world he stayed in? Motels can be big, but never grand."
He found towns and cafes and taverns, but for the most part he did not find people. To be sure, there were men and women and children everywhere he looked; many were exceptionally kind to him, some were quite indifferent to his presence, a few took and gave offense. But though all were quite certifiably "American" and therefore helped him see his country more acutely, almost none were of the sort that prompted Paul Theroux to say in The Great Railway Bazaar: "I sought trains; I found passengers." Few of his chats with them are unduly interesting or provocative, perhaps because he is himself an oblique conversationalist with a distinct taste for stylized folksiness and mannered colloquialisms, perhaps because there just aren't all that many wildly fascinating people lurking around out there in hopes of being discovered by a prospective author. The one genuine exception was a vagrant man of God named Arthur O. Bakke, who accompanied the author for a while in the Northwest:
"Yet the word he carried to me wasn't of the City of God; it was of simplicity, spareness, courage, directness, trust and 'charity' in Paul's sense. He lived clean: mind, body, way of life. Hegel believed that freedom is knowledge of one's necessity, and Arthur O. Bakke, I.M.V., was a free man hindered only by his love and conviction. And that was just as he wanted it. I don't know whether he had been chosen to beat the highways and hedges, but clearly he had chosen to. Despite doctrinal differences, he reminded me of a Trappist monk or a Hopi shaman. I liked Arthur. I liked him very much."
That's a handsome tribute, and it would be a lot more handsome without those two final sentences, self-serving and self-conscious as they are. As happens too often, Least Heat Moon insinuates himself into this passage quite unnecessarily; it's perfectly obvious that he liked Bakke, and to state as much not once but twice somehow trivializes rather than intensifies that admiration. Throughout, Least Heat Moon is simply too self-infatuated: too determined to show the reader what a decent, soulful fellow he is, too insistent upon making himself rather than the journey the center of the book. In the end he writes: "In my own country, I had gone out, had met, had shared. I had stood as witness." But he gives us too much of the "I," too little of the country; Blue Highways is an agreeable and occasionally an interesting book, but there is less to it than the author seems to believe.