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Writing Blue Highways
The Story of How a Book Happened
By William Least Heat-Moon
University of Missouri Press Copyright © 2014 William Least Heat-Moon
All rights reserved.
The winter of 1977 began the day before Thanksgiving and lasted nearly to the first week of spring. Even in the middle latitudes where I lived in central Missouri, snow falling on the second of December took months to turn, glacially, into sooty heaps melting just enough to change into a dirty ice that remained until a week beyond the vernal equinox, and only then did the remnants soften into gray honeycombs before at last turning to slush promising the end of the long and hard season.
At age thirty-eight, overdegreed and undereducated, living a life that could be represented by the twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet, I was iced in by failed expectations and a cold logic suggesting I should expect no interior spring thaw. Wearied of waiting for some sort of change to the obstacles I saw before me, I decided to try the ice-ax method of hacking and hewing a way through debilities of stasis and into movement that might find a path out of the frozen fields of Missouri.
If you've read the opening chapter of Blue Highways, you know what happened next: On the first day of spring I boarded my small three-year-old Ford van, called Ghost Dancing, and with its dicey water pump lit out for some other, and warmer, territory that could be termed Any Damn Place Else. That act may be the most American undertaking I've ever tried: an embracing of our storied, historied, ineluctable, continuing, kit-bag-over-your-shoulder solution to finding a new life or, if not quite another existence, at least something offering differences.
Now, a third of a century later, this little book is not about the ensuing three-month journey. All of that is in Blue Highways. Rather, this one is about what happened in the following four years, the fifty-five months, the sixteen hundred days after I returned near the summer solstice to the same place—topographically but hardly otherwise—and began trying to make sense of what I had encountered over thirteen thousand miles of back roads, and to discover where they might lead. The idea is to relate events in a narrative serviceable to other travelers and writers regardless of whether they use roads, rails, computers, or means simply of mind. (Where's the traveler who doesn't also gallivant about from time to time in the arms of a favorite easy chair?)
I want to set down how the second journey—the one emerging from the end of a pencil or issuing out of the interior of a portable typewriter—went. This trip is an exploration into the myriad routes of heart and mind that led to the making of a book from the initial sorry and now vanished paragraph to the last words that came not from a stick of graphite but from a letterpress in Tennessee. I want this journey to escape me and reach someone who dreams of writing for an audience beyond self or family or friends, someone looking to offer stories to strangers, and to send them traveling beyond cyberspace and into the deepest chamber of the human heart. I hope this little chronicle is an analogue of larger undertakings.
Autobiography is a poorly named genre. After all, when we tell stories about ourselves, we're speaking not of who we are but of who we have been, somebody we once were, one who no longer exists except in memory, that mental function more attractive to errors, distortions, and fantasies than the myths of the American West or Sasquatch or cavity probes by aliens. Although I hope it is otherwise, this story might be termed an inadvertent autobiography written not by the traveler who took Ghost Dancing in 1978 over the byroads of America but by a man only listening to him. That blue-roadman hasn't been seen in more than a third of a century, and over the last many weeks as I sketched in these pages, I've regretted his inevitable departure. I wish I could have heard directly from him about the scent and flavor of those years when he was trying to tell the story of a long journey. As if foreseeing this day and realizing he would know things I don't, he left behind notes and pictures and documents for me to puzzle out in hope of writing accurately. Surely, though, he would shake his head over some of what's about to happen in this narrative that I want to escape the bounds of autobiography.
* * *
I've tried to make Writing Blue Highways the kind of book I looked for when I began comprehending what Blue Highways would require, when I started to see what the devil I was getting into. Although writers have been writing about writing almost from the beginning, I still haven't found anything containing what I was in search of. Had I anticipated the four years of travails following the three months of travels, and had I understood the impediments and encumbrances and barriers inescapably coupled with any serious writing, I could have lived less labored in mind and body. Writer Henry Miller said the most hazardous voyages "are made without moving." Despite the three millennia of authors experiencing the bugaboos native to literary creation, I was little aware of their universality, and so, week after week, I blindly reinvented old means to kindle and stoke creative fires. When I mentioned the title of this book to a friend, he said, "You're calling it Riding Blue Highways?" I thought about it a moment until remembering it was the book that rode me.
What's here is not a manual on ways to write—although there are chips of counsel; rather, it's a compact guide on ways to survive the demands of real writing, and perhaps a dispelling of a few popular illusions. This is the story of how Blue Highways began, repeatedly slipped toward the pit of failed dreams, only to clamber up and creep onward toward a rainy day in December 1982. As you'll see, in your hands, this biography of a book ultimately is not so much about struggles as it is about where struggles can lead, and in that way, like its progenitor, it too is a road book about traveling a strange and poorly charted land. If I can set down things aright, then for a writer striking out into new territory, perhaps I can lay down a few flagstones, hang a rope bridge or two, and maybe even put up a couple of signs warning of dead ends.CHAPTER 2
The Journey Contemplated
In the weeks leading to my setting forth on the road, I saw my ten-year marriage collapse and my part-time job teaching English at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, disappear because of declining enrollment. Underlying those changes was the memory of six hundred letters from colleges and universities saying they had no openings in my area; in a drawer was an unframed, unhung diploma commemorating five years lost in earning the legal right to attach to my name three, now useless letters, PhD. At commencement, a fellow graduate passed a note: "Welcome, doc, you're now Ph.uckeD." Bumping bottom, dragging port and starboard anchors, I responded to the rejections with seeming illogic by returning to Missouri University for yet another degree, this one in photojournalism, something I'd started out for two decades earlier before waylaying myself into professordom. I'd heard that newsrooms were offering a few jobs, even if ones of limited promise.
When I moved out of a split-level home I'd substantially rebuilt, and into an apartment about the size of my former living room, I was forced to shed possessions (books aren't possessions) and ended up with a load lightened into simplified quarters a Zen master might respect. The remaining encumbrances, like presumed-necessary duties or expectations of others, I cast off as best I could in hopes of leaving only fundamentals facilitating an improved clarity of mind able to perceive a new course. It began unexpectedly and almost immediately.
One afternoon I happened past a furniture-store window displaying a small couch and a reading lamp, and behind it on the wall hung not a framed diploma but a mass reproduction of a landscape painting depicting a country lane with a roadster following it into wooded hills. 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 down on any known map?
Stasis, continuance, passivity, abeyance, the sedentary? Or kinesis, disruption, motility, passage? A kitchen sink of dishes or the kit bag over the shoulder? It was a question of exercising one's motorium.
Why not turn Ghost Dancing into a monk's cell on wheels where the goal could be the ancient quest for ways to escape the limitations of self and the ruinous barriers between it and otherness? How about a chance for disconnection from deleterious habits and a petrified existence no longer much linked with life? Why not a try at reconnecting with the unforeseen and opening to unfamiliar presences? Go out and acknowledge the inexplicable, leave exclusion for inclusion. Have a run at escaping the greatest cage of all—the interior of the human skull. Free the gerbil from its wheel! Shake the terrarium to see if the turtle will move!
After all, I lived in the most unfixed nation the earth has ever seen, a country conceived and populated by wanderers, wayfarers, migrants, immigrants, voyagers, vagabonds, most of them believing in the far side of the rainbow, in the possibilities of elsewhere, optimists for whom a road is an enticement beyond resistance and almost any there is preferable to a here. Movement is in our bloodstream in actuality and in metaphor. Is there an American who has never muttered, "What if I just quit? Just said fuggum and took off?" We, so our ancestors prove, run away from home better than anybody else on the planet, and we've built a nation that draws in runaways as a black hole does stellar dust.
I would write several months later, "A man who couldn't make things go right, could at least go."
A few days after passing the couch in the store window, my final class in the university photojournalism sequence began with deployment to the Missouri River town of Glasgow, Missouri, where we nine cub reporters were to engage the people, photograph them, write brief accompanying texts to reveal the living place. As I walked about town and met residents on the streets, in cafés and taverns, and even one in a trench he was digging, I realized I'd refound a forgotten calling. Before wandering into teaching, my plan had been to become a journalist-with-a-camera who would not, as was the common practice, slight words for pictures. (I had no notion then how different were the mental requirements for each, despite shared goals.)
Entering an unknown place to get adults to open their lives, I discovered, could be a richer pursuit than getting eighteen-year-olds to open books. I wanted conversations with people who had a good story or two earned with their days. In professing themselves, they were unchallenged authorities, masters of their tales and their idiosyncratic philosophies, people needing no footnotes and no bibliographies to explain what they knew. Life at firsthand.
I wanted paragraphs and pictures and books still to be at the core of my life but now to derive from words spoken rather than printed, from common and artless talk rather than studied, academic lucubrations. I hoped to reverse things: transform such talking into a book rather than translating a book into talking. Primary sources rather than secondary.
It was as if I, like Alice, had poked my head through a looking glass into a land where the logic of an opposite side seemed clear: If looking inward had gotten me nowhere I wished to be, then looking outward, looking in a direction opposite, might reveal a road to another place where left was right and what had seemed right was wrong. A shift from enervating introspection to the promise of extrospection. If the premise of reversals behind the mirror proved true, then the road was indeed an opportunity to lose oneself.
The stories and photographs I found along the streets of Glasgow created a sense of having a last chance, one not likely to come again. Here was an opening to follow something I could believe in and try before having to admit to another failure and sign up for that class on repairing long-rinse cycles or actually read that booklet on my shelf, Welding for Fun and Profit.
A week before the hard winter of 1977-'78 began, a few signs of recovery from the discomposures of the marital split and job rejections began appearing, and I noticed that even if my idea for the open road was driven by desperation, I was no longer despondent, and a recent apprehension of aging changed to a notion of simple maturity. Unevaluated presumptions of failure shifted slightly to a belief that some failures are better than others: Once in a while they come equipped not with a twelfth-floor open window but an unlocked ground-level exit.
If my emotional balances were still tenuous, an imagined bleak future became shot through with possibilities, and I talked to friends and family about just walking away from my smudge of a life to get into a van I could convert for subsistence on the road and follow yellow highway stripes and hold to no plan other than making a long ramble not so much around as into America, a route able to shape who would return: he who he was or he who he might become.
The responses from friends were unanimously incredulous: You're just quitting? You're running away at age thirty-eight? What'll you have to show for it? Why keep compounding mistake upon mistake? It'll all be waiting for you when you return. I know a good counselor. Come on, man! You're just down on your luck.
When luck becomes synonymous with life, the time has come to reconsider something. The only person to say, in so many words, "So what's holding you back?" was she from whom I'd been separated for more than a year.
The man living on the front side of the looking glass was a listener to the counsel of others, always weighing it, measuring it, checking its logic with common sense, bringing himself to a place only the daft would wish for. Perhaps a better reasoning was this: When trying to shake loose from bad habits and lose a past, the byword ought to be, Nothing ventured, nothing lost.
On the other side of the glass, the new logic and its law of opposites confirmed the time had come to turn about: If deliberation led nowhere, then ignoring counsel, spontaneity might lead somewhere. If in was out, then no was yes. If the right way was wrong, then the wrong way was right.
When does it become too late to become what you might become?
I packed my duffel.CHAPTER 3
Onto the Blue Roads
This chapter really lies within Blue Highways, but a few elements (what we've come to know as a "backstory") will help account for the book that fetched up so distant from the place of its embarkation. Once the road had carried me into new lands, I felt old constraints and constrictions with their worn and numbing familiarities fall away one by one as if I were a bird molting into spring feather, and I began to awaken to a new season and, to push the metaphor to the edge, found myself trying to sing a new song.
A sense of being in an elsewhere drew me out of Ghost Dancing (a symbolic name I hoped the journey would render as mere cultural history) and onto little Broadways and Main and High streets where I walked or just idled to see what might turn up. Such an approach may work in a city, but it's certain to elicit a response in places dismissed as Podunk where people can't escape their own curiosity about an apparently disengaged stranger: What's he up to? Is he lost? To get an answer—even if the loiterer looks suspicious—they ask whether they can be of help. That offer became an open sesame for a return question, something plain, say: Where's the best breakfast? or I can't find the library. With a couple of sentences, a guard was dropped, a possibility rose, and, while I didn't see it immediately, a book began to happen.
Although I went forth with the simple intention of finding people who would sit for a portrait and maybe say a few words about their life, I discovered expansive responses arising from deep landscapes calling for something more than a simple album. Small or large, a good story lies within almost everybody, and the challenge for a reporter is to uncover those willing and capable of telling it. After all, good writing begins with reporting, with the transporting of a story from its source—whether actual or imagined—to a listener, a reader: report, "to carry back."
Excerpted from Writing Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon. Copyright © 2014 William Least Heat-Moon. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press.
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