reading Blue Highways

What is your greatest fear?

I have two: 1) I won’t live my true life but will settle for a reasonable facsimile; and, 2) My children will make all the same mistakes I made, rendering the facsimile an exquisitely ironic exercise in crushing futility.

So actually, that’s still just one terrible, double-edged fear.

I’m re-reading my dad’s battered paperback copy of Blue Highways, the very first book William Least Heat Moon ever published. At 38, having lost his wife and his job simultaneously, he left town to see what he could learn along the small back roads of America, traveling a wobbling loop around the country in an old white van he named Ghost Dancing. By the time he had gone 10,000 miles and was looping back toward home, he started to realize he was actually running, avoiding the issues. Avoiding the feelings. Drinking beer instead.

Except he had asked a lot of people a lot of questions. He fearlessly struck up conversations everywhere he went. He asked strangers he met about their towns, about regional history and historical characters, and got unexpected answers about the character of a man’s heart and about what anonymous people living deep in nowhere deeply believed in.

As he drove along through a wooded area of Maine, windshield wipers beating against drizzle and fog, he described how his journey was affecting him:

I lost myself to the monotonous rhythm and darkness as past and present fused and dim things came and went in a staccato of moments separated by miles of darkness. On the road, where change is continuous and visible, time is not; rather it is something the rider only infers. Time is not the traveler’s fourth dimension – change is.

Hard lessons come this way, losing oneself in a monotonous rhythm of confusion and foggy avoidance, where dim images and feelings come and go, disjointed moments you notice but don’t understand separated by miles of heavy darkness.

What’s so difficult for me, now having entered my 54th year on the long and winding road, is to have some familiarity with some of the foggy parts of these old highways, but not be able to give directions or travel advice to the people I love most. Not because they don’t want it; I think they actually might, these grown children of mine. It’s because, when marking the signposts of significant change looming ahead, time is not a viable dimension for my struggling travelers. Time is not visible. Speaking to them from my experiences in the past, I’m just a voice on the wind as they speed by.

This is about men who won’t see causes and therefore can’t predict effects.

Least Heat Moon gathered a lot of pithy quotes and pearls of wisdom along the old blue highways. A good life, a harmonious life, is a prayer. Hardships are good; they prepare a man. The biggest hindrance to learning is fear of showing one’s self a fool.

But he didn’t gather those quotes from his parents. They came from his own experiences and travels. A man’s work is doing what he’s supposed to do, and that’s why he needs a catastrophe now and again to show him a bad turn isn’t the end.

This is a truth I know. Time has never been my fourth dimension. I struggle to follow its lengthy ordered flow, except as those signposts of directional change: Here is when I left home. Here is when babies were born. Here is when my father died. Just like on those blue highways, the noticeable signage is few and far between. It’s the journey itself that makes you look for the guidance and meaning.

I wish I could tell them, “Don’t ignore the mile markers.” Tiny little numbers on unassuming poles, they are easy to overlook. They are your reminders, as you stare unfocused and exhausted out the car window of your frustrating situation: life is rolling by.

Mile by mile. Year by year.

The problem of what we’re doing lies in deciding what’s the benefit of history and what’s the burden.

You learn a thing or two after all those miles. What you need, and what you don’t. Who to trust, who not. Why ignoring inconvenient, uncomfortable feelings is as pointless as shooting bullet holes in the road signs.

Those feelings ARE your road signs. Read them. Read them well. And talk about them, with people you meet along your travels. Go ahead and ask, if you’re unsure, for directions, for guidance, for the best bridge to get you over troubled waters…for any small piece of advice. For wisdom, hard-earned, that might be shared.

If your highway doesn’t lead toward wisdom, why are you on it?

To be wise is to have learned life lessons. Not to be holy or magical or special in any way. It is a part of maturity. It is a sign, often seen in conjunction with gray hair and a wrinkled smile, that you might be someone who’s been around, seen a thing or two, and could point me in the right direction.

Travel your own roads, and I will, too. May they cross in my favorite place, the middle of nowhere. On occasion, I have been known to stand smack dab in the crossroads with my arms open wide, turning and looking at the wide, unbroken sky in all directions. There’s always room for two in that crossroads. And nothing but time once you get there.

Then he was told:
remember what you have seen
because everything forgotten
returns to the circling winds.