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Dec 15, 2003

"Blue Highways -- a journey into America" by William Least Heat Moon | review

Tonight, my friend Emily and I ate dinner at Verde, the new George Baktasias restaurant next door to the long-standing Parizade. Dinner was good and I thought I might review the restaurant in today's log. But better yet to tell you that Emily and I talked about travel, the joy of creative work, and the importance of old friends. And these things prompted me to write -- instead of a restaurant review -- some thoughts on one of the finest books I own, Blue Highways -- a journey into America, by William Least Heat Moon (alt. William Trogdon). Written in 1982, the book contains the conversations, encounters, and reflections of Trogdon's 13,000 mile solo trip on the back roads of the US. I hope you'll read it. But even if you don't, here's an excerpt written from Trogdon's late-in-the-trip stay with his friend Scott Chisholm, who takes him to a creek where they collect stones to build a wall:

"The pulling and hoisting and sweating stretched out the knots of sitting behind a steering wheel. I couldn't recall labor feeling so good. Chisholm rolled a fat, round stone out of the trees. I grabbed and pulled. I was capable of lifting it, but it was so close to the limits of my strength, I didn't want to try. Working with someone I knew less well, I would have picked it up, but with this old friend I could concede my limit and the let the boulder take my measure. Nothing showed our friendship better than that rock I walked away from. Chisholm picked it up, tottered, and bounced it in the Fiat. Then he dragged an even bigger hunk out of the creek. He was getting curious about what size stone he could lift. This one was too risky. 'Don't pull that Atlas routine again. Let me help.' But he bent around the granite like a question mark and put it in.


Later, lying in bed, I was glad I'd stopped to see him. I had needed work and familiar faces around a dinner table; I needed stories that embarrass because they are undeniable, stories that only old friends can tell because only they know them. And it appeared then as though I wouldn't have been able to travel another mile had it not been for these people. I suppose that wasn't true, but it seemed so."

I first tried to read Blue Highways when I was a senior in college, but it made no sense at all, and I put it down in favor of more accessible solo-travel books like A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins. Five years later, on a solo vacation for nine days in the North Carolina mountains, I tried Blue Highways again and the pages flew. I thought the book was perfect, and wondered how anyone could ever be as smart and insightful as William Least Heat Moon.

Ten years later, at age thirty-six, I've come to realize that the author had the benefit not only of a tape recorder to capture his conversations, but also several months (if not years) to compose his thoughts about the trip. This new knowledge makes me no less impressed with the book, but rather makes me more hopeful that William Least Heat Moon's process of understanding-over-time may be a little bit accessible to me, as well.

11:51 PM in Reviews | Permalink


I love Blue Highways. I've recommended it to dozens of people. And he visited Chapel Hill, which, as I recall, he described as "leafy." A perfect companion book is "Kingdom by the Sea" by Paul Theroux, which details his walk around the coast of Great Britain.

Posted by: dbt | Dec 16, 2003 4:02:25 PM

For whatever reason, the thing I think of first when I think of Blue Highways is that when a mean cop asked him for his name, Least Heat Moon replied, "Sparkle Plenty."

Posted by: dbt | Dec 16, 2003 4:03:19 PM

Hey, I thought that was you in the Brightleaf Square photo!

Posted by: rebecca | Dec 16, 2003 4:19:32 PM

I read Blue Highways in the summer of '87 when I was working in North Carolina and spending most of my free time with Phil. Least Heat Moon started his journey in Missouri, drove through my home region in Kentucky and then through North Carolina. It was fun reading the first few chapters since I felt like I was travelling in the author's footsteps.

Posted by: Tim Edwards | Dec 22, 2003 7:00:25 PM

heat-moon is definatley my inspiration to get out and travel...blue highways was a great book and i recommend it to anyone who would like a good adventure

Posted by: becky | May 24, 2004 4:05:23 PM

I guess, for your summer reading, it's good to read the books with the "Least Heat" in them.

Posted by: Elrond Hubbard | Jun 2, 2007 10:39:58 AM

Scott Chisholm is my uncle and he passed away this summer. It's nice to find glimpses of him in the world. He wrote his own book - Following the Wrong God Home - about walking the Mormon trail over three months... Another tale of regular folk in places rich with history.

Posted by: Lauren Carter | Aug 24, 2007 10:54:15 AM

So now, let me stretch four years of comments out to seven, and say, "Thanks, Phil, for sharing." I'll have to pick up Blue Highways at some point. Between the rocks and the labor of that passage, I can't decide which Frost poem comes more to mind--"Mending Wall" or "Two Tramps in Mud Time." Stones, honest labor enjoyed, friendship. I hope we'll have a chance to share a meal in person some day soon. About time, I think, for that blogger's first union (as opposed to reunion) of old friends never met. I nominate Barry as host. :-) We won't tell him--just all show up one day. You, me, Chap, Jay, John, and Jack--Daniels of course--and the many more you all know that I've yet to know. Maybe we can goad Barry into writing again. Microblogging is to blogging as texting is to letter writing. IMHO. ;-)

Posted by: Doc | Dec 8, 2010 11:01:56 PM