Blue Highways / River-Horse

Read in 2013, Reviewed in March 2016

Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least-Heat MoonBlueHighways
Blue Highways Revisited by Edgar I. Ailor III
River-Horse; A Voyage Across America by William Least-Heat Moon

Several Years ago, I planned an epic drive across the United States with my friend Kevin Hamrick. I planned a great loop that would begin and end at his father’s house in Mobile, AL and would take us to the Atlantic coast in South Carolina, across America to Pikes Peak, Bonneville, San Francisco to touch the Pacific, down the Pacific Coast Highway, from LA to the Grand Canyon, then across the west, returning through Lubbock, Texas and on I-10 to Mobile. We were going to do it in my Fiat 500. In a week.

It was going to be crazy, frantic and exhausting. We were clearly biting off more than we could chew. I’d plan for at least a week and a half these days. The point of it was…well, there really wasn’t a point, was there? Just to do it, to see the things, to have fun together with one of my lifelong friends.

We did not get to take the journey because he had a major job change that took away all of his vacation time and my father’s health was failing. If we had gone, I would not have gotten to spend the last week with Dad. So, some journeys must be delayed. I hope we get to do the trip someday.

Kevin’s father, Russell Hamrick, is the man responsible for my lifelong love of cars and vintage racing. He is the reason that I love Fiats instead of some other brand. And Russell is one of the most interesting people I know. He shared with me some years ago that his favorite book is On The Road by Jack Kerouac. He said, “That is the book that made us all want to climb mountains.” Truthfully, it was that book that also was the impetus for my crazy idea.

When we were discussing the trip initially, Russell suggested that I should read Blue Highways, as it was similar to what we were planning. I immediately got a copy and savored it for about a month or so, being more and more excited about our own journey.

William Least-Heat Moon was a college professor whose marriage was ending and in the moment of his crisis, he planned a year-long trip to visit most states in the Continental US and write about the trip. Somewhere along the way, he hoped to find some clarity in the lives of others.

This was in the late 1970s and the interstates were well-established enough that his intent was to avoid them unless absolutely necessary. He planned to follow the “blue highways”, blue being the color used by map makers for the older highways that criss-crossed the US on the oldest routes. US highways, State routes, etc.

Along the way, Moon slept in the van most nights and travelled a circuitous route that took him around the US, making a general outline of the country. Taking a year to visit along this route gave him many hours to spend with local people that he would meet and record their stories. It is a fantastic and true story of an epic journey.

It was also a very influential book on people for many years, who were inspired to take on their own journeys. Two of those people are the father and son photographers who decided to travel the same route 30 years later and attempt to photograph the changes that had taken place since Moon’s original journey. Their work, Blue Highways Revisited is their contribution to the story.

Surprisingly, they found many of the sites along the way were still in existence and they were able to find some of the people as well. There are places where the landscape has remained almost untouched for eons, much less 30 years. The photography is stunning and gives you a real sense of what Moon saw so long before and what you will see now in those places. The book is a large coffee-table format book, which is necessary to appreciate the stunning work within.

William Least-Heat Moon took a very different kind of journey in the mid-1990s, which he chronicles in River-Horse. “River-Horse” is the English equivalent of the name of his boat “Nikawa”, which he used for most of the Journey from Atlantic to Pacific, traveling almost the entire route by water. There is only a small section of the Rockies that he had to traverse via automobile.

The route for this journey is also not a straight line, but a winding path from Hudson Bay in New York to Bouy 8, west of Astoria, Washington. They crossed New York via the Erie canal to Lake Erie, portage and canoe back to Nikawa for the trip down the Ohio River to the MIssissippi, thence to St.Louis and the ascent up the Missouri River to a point near its source high in the Rockies. The descent to the Pacific began with the dangerous rafting trip down the Salmon River, then on Nikawa down the Snake and Columbia Rivers to the Pacific.

The difference between the journeys is stark and necessary. In order to make the trip by river in a single season, they had to travel at the rhythm of the river, which dictated a very tight schedule so that they could hit the descent when the water was flowing useably. There were several days of great peril and the journey was nearly wrecked on multiple occassions due to problems with the boat, the crew and the weather.

This was actually much closer to the kind of journey that I was planning across the US in an insanely short time frame. And to be honest, after reading River-Horse, there were several nights where I actually shopped for a boat like the Nikawa. My wife was becoming interested in some outdoor activities and I thought that if we could take some trips in the boat, it might be worth having. Sanity really did reign that back in. I have no business on a boat.

I love a good road trip. And all of these books put me in the mood to travel. I was fortunate that my family were able to take a big trip out to Yellowstone/Tetons and sights along the way about a year ago. As I looked over the route from Blue Highways, I realize that we travelled on some of the same roads across northern Montana that Moon did in 1978. Long drives in lonely places where the desolation just feeds the wanderlust. Despite our tight schedule on that trip, we were able to feel just a little part of the grand journey that awaits those willing to make it.