“I don’t know.”
“Cain’t get lost then.”
quoted in Blue Highways
Guest Essay By Susan Caba
My first journey was by car as a bundled infant, through the Yukon, from Fairbanks, Alaska, to the Lower 48, on the roughly paved Alaska-Canada highway. The roadway had been constructed for the military during WWII in a frenetic eight months. The AlCan, as it was known, was still considered a pioneer road ten years later, open to only the most adventurous drivers.
My parents had been married for just about 18 months, with my father stationed at Ladd Air Force Base near Fairbanks since shortly after their wedding in a Philadelphia church in April 1954. She wore a fitted grey suit and a clamshell hat with a teaser veil. They were a perfect match, according to my mother, since my father loved to fly and she yearned to travel. Both of them realized their ambitions, and imprinted them — to varying degrees — on their children.
It was in high school that each of us began independently flexing the wings that our father’s job as a TWA captain afforded us. I accompanied a neighbor’s son to Ireland to visit his relatives. A brother, faced with an important test on Monday, flew to France on Friday to see the Paris Air Show. He studied on the flight, toured the airshow and flew home on Sunday, finishing up his test prep. We moved a lot, too, as my father transferred from one TWA hub to another.
Maybe it was my peripatetic youth that drew me to William Least Heat Moon’s now-iconic travel journal, Blue Highways: A Journey into America. Published in 1978 and ensconced on the New York Times’ best seller list for 42 weeks, the book details his 14,000-mile, 38-states road trip on secondary highways in a van he called Ghost Dancing.
As a reporter living in Iowa, I had driven many of that state’s blue highways — so called because they were marked in blue on (gasp) paper road maps. Least Heat Moon’s depictions of small towns, with their cafes and diners and denizens and peculiar charms and charming peculiarities ignited daydreams of embarking on such an adventure myself.
Thirty years later, Least Heat Moon (also known as William Trogdon) revisited the book that transformed him from a not-so-successful college professor into the published author of a half dozen books. In 2014, he published Writing Blue Highways, The Story of How a Book Happened.
While the original is definitely about an extended road trip, Writing Blue Highways is neither a travel diary nor a guide to writing.
This second book, too, tells the tale of a journey, the four-plus years Least Heat Moon struggled to write his first book. This journey is internal, his recollection of what it took to write Blue Highways, and how the process clarified both the meaning of his adventure and his perception of what it means to be a writer. Writing Blue Highways illustrates how writing and travel, alone or in combination, can be tools for self-discovery.
Writing Blue Highways resonated with me even more than his first book. Like Least Heat Moon at the time, I had gone through a divorce. My son was grown and in the Army. I was at loose ends, having followed a job trajectory, then marriage, then motherhood, then divorce — and found myself living in St. Louis, a city to which I had moved reluctantly and for which I felt little affection. I struggled, too, to write anything meaningful since I had been freed from the deadlines of a regular newspaper job. In my early 60s, I yearned to escape.
Least Heat Moon was under-employed and living in a cheap apartment, when — prompted by a mass-produced painting of a country road, with a car disappearing into the wooded hills — he realized how pinched his life had become. The painting hung in a display window over a furniture store couch.
“There it was, a question with only two answers: What would it be? An asylum of a couch going nowhere or a road leading to places not drawn on any known map. … Stasis, continuance, passivity, abeyance, the sedentary? Or kinesis, disruption, motility, passage?”
That’s exactly what I was thinking! I wanted to choose where to spend the third trimester of my life, rather than drift aimlessly or, worse, stay put in a city to which I never felt connected. I didn’t have to follow a job — not mine, or anyone else’s — and I didn’t feel any obligation to live near relatives. There were no pre-set boundaries limiting my choices.
So, with my son out of college, I sold my house and set off on an adventure of my own. I’ve spent the last four or five years house-sitting across the country, staying in comfortable homes from San Francisco to Washington, D.C.
My plan was never to just perch in a new location. I would join writing groups, identify a favorite coffee shop, exercise regularly at a gym (ha!) and entertain newfound friends. I envisioned developing a community in these new, varied locations.
And guess what? Just like Least Heat Moon, I’ve found out that the trip is not the journey.
I thought I was looking for adventure. It turns out I was seeking answers to the same questions Least Heat Moon addresses in Writing Blue Highways. Namely, how do I derive meaning from my life, how do I define myself, and what are the passions or interests that will drive the rest of my days? Like him, I am finding answers, or at least insights, through writing.
Sociologists, psychologists and the nebulous “they” say that we can rewrite our life narratives and, in the process, change our neural pathways. So, in my search to make sense of my life, I’ve been writing a memoir, of sorts. In the process I’ve found that, while travel can be glamorous and exciting, what I’m actually seeking is stability, security and serenity.
The writing is not an easy task. It’s uncovered some truths I’ve spent a lifetime repressing. A family anecdote I once considered hilarious, I now see as a picture of turmoil bordering on the violent. There’s a ribbon of abandonment running through my narrative. I suspect it explains my unwillingness to connect deeply to people, though connection is certainly the root of stability, security and serenity. The manuscript is all over the place, disjointed and lacking structure.
In this second Blue Highways book, Least Heat Moon, too, suffered from writer’s despair. He gave himself advice I find valuable:
“I remind myself that what’s going down is nothing but a try, an essay, and my task is to tap into a source, follow its flow, ride a current when one happens to surface, always keeping in mind temporariness.”
I’ve said Writing Blue Highways isn’t a book on how to write. But there are, here and there some tips and guidelines. They rarely touch on sentence structure, word choice or how to build tension in a scene. Rather, they address — and try to sooth — the angst that threatens to overwhelm this writer, at least, when I am awash in a sea of words.
“Behind every sentence in the road journal lay a writer’s most fearsome question: So what? What’s the point of all this bother? Pursue, and meaning may dart out like a hare from a hedge.”
As I cull and cut and compress the words, trying to tease truth from the tangle of anecdotes and details, I hope — but am not sure — that the end result will be clarity. When the knots seem just too knotty to unravel, I take to heart a final piece of Least Heat Moon’s advice:
“To keep writing is to live in hope and possibility.”