Sunday, May 31, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Take a Blue Highway Tour

Who among us hasn't daydreamed about taking off and just driving wherever we felt like at the moment - no itinerary, no schedule, no list of must-see sites or must-visit relatives, no rushing from one to the next.

One guy who actually did this was William Least Heat Moon. About 30 years ago, having lost both his job and his marriage, he set out in his van to just drive around America. In three months, he covered 13,000 miles, starting from and returning to Columbia, Missouri. His trip took him from coast to coast, as far south as the Louisiana Gulf Coast and as far north as Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota, just shy of the Canadian border.

He documented his trip, and the many conversations and personal musings that occurred as he traveled, in a best-selling 1982 book entitled Blue Highways - A Journey into America. I recall reading the book when it had just appeared in paperback and it is sitting next to me on the desk as I type this.

The "Blue Highways" of the title refers to the maps and atlases of the day that frequently used the color blue to denote secondary roads, while the "important roads" were black or red. In his trip, Mr. Moon (or should it be Mr. Least Heat Moon?) decided to stick to the blue roads, those minor state highways and county trunks that wound through the scenic parts of America and were populated with colorful characters.

Mr. Moon was clearly not a shrinking violet kind of guy. He sought out the country stores and small-town cafes and became adept at striking up conversations with the waitresses (who I'm betting were never referred to as "wait staff"), their patrons and various other hangers-on. Needless to say, there were no fast food chain restaurants on his agenda.

The book is a striking narrative of a personal journey on America's side roads. There have been a lot of changes in the U.S. since 1982, but I'm sure we can still create a blue highways tour in the age of Mapquest, GPS and Garmin and enjoy experiences not too different from the author's.

There is still plenty of American countryside best seen from winding two-lane highways and plenty of small towns with locally-run cafes and bars. There are still folks who gather at the same time every morning for coffee to share the local gossip and opine on the events of the last 24 hours, folks who have known each other for 60, 70 or 80 years and can all recall the day the furniture store burned down or the new highway bypass opened.

Even if they are now meeting in a fast food restaurant. A few years ago, I was driving to meet with a prospective client in Peshtigo, Wisconsin, about four hours from my home. Having allowed plenty of time, I was driving into Oconto, the last burg before Peshtigo and realized that I had about a half hour to spare before my 10 AM meeting at the paper mill. I noticed a Hardee's restaurant ahead on the main drag and decided to stop for a cup of coffee.

As I ordered at the counter, I was vaguely aware that a couple dozen people - all of retirement age - were scattered about the restaurant, but thought nothing of it until after I'd selected a table roughly in the geographical center of the room. Within minutes, I became acutely aware that all the other patrons knew each other, met there every day at the same time, and, although seated in a seemingly random arrangement, were in fact conducting one conversation. The one stranger in the room had just taken a seat right in the middle of this conversation, the news of the day ricocheting past his head from one corner of the restaurant to another.

It was an uncomfortable 15 minutes as I downed my coffee and biscuit a bit faster than anticipated. But it was also a glimpse of local culture - since these people all knew each other, there was no point in crowding around the same table - everything they had to say was meant to be shared with everyone in the room anyway. Each probably had his or her favorite table and wasn't about to move just to get closer to the next-door neighbor seated across the restaurant. I imagined as I drove away the next conversational topic - "Who was that guy wearing a suit and tie who sat right smack-dab in the middle of our group? Didn't his mother teach him any manners?!"

I envision my blue highways trip being full of experiences like that one, although I would first seek out a local cafe instead of a Hardee's and I might even join in the conversation. If the cafe had a counter, I would sit there and engage the owner or waitress in a dialogue, ask them what to see in town, what's unique about the place, how did they come to live here. I'd be sure to visit the local museum - even small towns these days seem to have some sort of public building housing some sort of collection - whose proprietor is also sure to have some interesting stories to tell. (By the way, to illustrate this point, there's a Fire Museum in Peshtigo dedicated to the Great Peshtigo Fire of 1871, the deadliest fire in U.S. history. It is largely unknown because it occurred on the same day as the Chicago Fire, which got all the press.)

If you're into camping, as William Least Heat Moon was, that would certainly enhance the experience as well as reduce your expenses. Otherwise, I'd recommend trying the local hotels, motels and B&B's. I'd also recommend keeping a diary and having a camera at the ready. You could retrace Moon's journey or simply go wherever you feel like each day.

You may not create a best seller like Mr. Moon, but your words and photographs will be documents you'll enjoy reviewing for the rest of your life - and will, of course, qualify as the required "deliverable" for this particular HarvilleQuarter.

Note: The photograph shows the Oconto, Wisconsin, Christian Science Church, the oldest structure built as a Christian Science Church in the world. Weekly services have been held there since the building was completed in 1884.

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