Rediscovering the World of ‘Blue Highways’

I’ve been carrying “Blue Highways” around for months, toting it with some embarrassment, the sort you feel when wearing a tasseled suede coat. It’s a product of a particular time. Yet I have been absorbed in the narrative, which now offers the same sort of hope it did readers the first time around.

Mr. Heat-Moon starts on Interstate 70, touches the Atlantic and then heads West, following the trajectory of the quintessential American journey, which is always from night to day, forest to big sky. He had no detailed route, but merely followed his whim, summoned by oddities of the atlas, beautiful-sounding valleys, towns with interesting names: Kremlin, Mont., Monastery of the Holy Spirit, Va., and Dime Box, Tex., where a man says, “‘City people don’t think anything important happens in a place like Dime Box.”

This method strands him on occasion, but he meets people wherever he stops, and he stops constantly — for food and diversion, in search of whatever it is that drew him to the road. If anything, that was the country itself, which he glimpses at truck stops and in faces of people he meets. He includes photos of these faces, taken with an Instamatic, that feature poor lighting, bad clothes and a crudeness that seems to prove that these people and these places actually exist, or did exist in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan declared it Morning in America.

The country is not the land, Mr. Heat-Moon discovered. It’s the people, who act as one because they share an improbable idea. Hence the scrapbook structure of the text: A scrapbook is the way to capture America, which is less narrative than episodes arranged around a theme. America is a collage — it’s only the notions that hold us together, thus the perpetual fear of flying apart.

Mr. Heat-Moon crossed the country twice. When he heads home for the Midwest, with the towns increasingly more familiar, he sees his hometown as if for the first time. “I can’t say, over the miles, that I had learned what I had wanted to know because I hadn’t known what I wanted to know,” he writes, “but I did learn what I didn’t know I wanted to know.”

“Blue Highways” resonates for at least two reasons. First, though the events takes place more than 40 years ago, the book reads like a search for what currently ails us, because what ailed us then ails us now. It also reads as if it was written a hundred years ago. The country he described is gone. It might have to do with population, a nation that grows by nearly 100 million is an altogether new nation. That other America — the country as it existed when I was 10 — is what the book captures. It’s like the snapshot that accidentally got the movie star weeping in the background. I read it and recognize it as home.

Of course, the biggest change is GPS, with its satellites tracking our every move. No more vanishing into the vastness. No more fear of that vanishing. Sure, you can shut it off and guide yourself by astrolabe, but there is no escape. Even if you’re not using it, you know it’ll be there in a pinch. Even if you’re not using it now, you will later, when gridlock becomes intolerable. Even if you’re not using it, everyone else is, meaning you’re tracing a pattern created by GPS. Not only does the technology map the world — it remakes the world by mapping it.

Rich Cohen is the author of “The Last Pirate of New York,” the true story of the underworld legend Albert Hicks and his final road-trip getaway along what is now, approximately, Interstate 95. The book is due out in June.

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