Beware thoughts that come in the night. They aren't turned properly;
they come in askew, free of sense and restriction, deriving from the
most remote of sources. Take the idea of February 17, a day of canceled
expectations, the day I learned my job teaching English was finished
because of declining enrollment at the college, the day I called my wife
from whom I'd been separated for nine months to give her the news, the
day she let slip about her "friend"—Rick or Dick or Chick.
Something like that.
That morning, before all the news started hitting the fan, Eddie Short
Leaf, who worked a bottomland section of the Missouri River and plowed
snow off campus sidewalks, told me if the deep cold didn't break soon
the trees would freeze straight through and explode. Indeed.
That night, as I lay wondering whether I would get sleep or explosion, I
got the idea instead. A man who couldn't make things go right could at
least go. He could quit trying to get out of the way of life. Chuck
routine. Live the real jeopardy of circumstance. It was a question of
The result: on March 19, the last night of winter, I again lay awake in
the tangled bed, this time doubting the madness of just walking out on
things, doubting the whole plan that would begin at daybreak—to
set out on a long (equivalent to half the circumference of the earth),
circular trip over the back roads of the United States. Following a
circle would give a purpose—to come around again—where
taking a straight line would not. And I was going to do it by living out
of the back end of a truck. But how to begin a beginning?
A strange sound interrupted my tossing. I went to the window, the cold
air against my eyes. At first I saw only starlight. Then they were
there. Up in the March blackness, two entwined skeins of snow and blue
geese honking north, an undulating W-shaped configuration across the
deep sky, white bellies glowing eerily with the reflected light from
town, necks stretched northward. Then another flock pulled by who knows
what out of the south to breed and remake itself. A new season. Answer:
begin by following spring as they did—darkly, with neck stuck out.
The vernal equinox came on gray and quiet, a curiously still morning not
winter and not spring, as if the cycle paused. Because things go their
own way, my daybreak departure turned to a morning departure, then to an
afternoon departure. Finally, I climbed into the van, rolled down the
window, looked a last time at the rented apartment. From a dead elm
sparrow hawks used each year came a high whee as the nestlings
squealed for more grub. I started the engine. When I returned a season
from now—if I did return—those squabs would be gone from the
Accompanied only by a small, gray spider crawling the dashboard (kill a
spider and it will rain), I drove into the street, around the corner,
through the intersection, over the bridge, onto the highway. I was
heading toward those little towns that get on the map—if they get
on at all—only because some cartographer has a blank space to
fill: Remote, Oregon; Simplicity, Virginia; New Freedom, Pennsylvania;
New Hope, Tennessee; Why, Arizona; Whynot, Mississippi. Igo, California
(just down the road from Ono), here I come.
A pledge: I give this chapter to myself. When done with it, I will shut
up about that topic.
Call me Least Heat-Moon. My father calls himself Heat-Moon, my elder
brother Little Heat-Moon. I, coming last, am therefore Least. It has
been a long lesson of a name to learn.
To the Siouan peoples, the Moon of Heat is the seventh month, a time
also known as the Blood Moon—I think because of its dusky
I have other names: Buck, once a slur—never mind the predominant
Anglo features. Also Bill Trogdon. The Christian names come from a
grandfather eight generations back, one William Trogdon, an immigrant
Lancashireman living in North Carolina, who was killed by the Tories for
providing food to rebel patriots and thereby got his name in volume four
of Makers of America. Yet to the red way of thinking, a man who
makes peace with the new by destroying the old is not to be honored. So
One summer when Heat-Moon and I were walking the ancestral grounds of
the Osage near the river of that name in western Missouri, we talked
about bloodlines. He said, "Each of the people from anywhere, when you
see in them far enough, you find red blood and a red heart. There's a
Nevertheless, a mixed-blood—let his heart be where it may—is
a contaminated man who will be trusted by neither red nor white. The
attitude goes back to a long history of "perfidious" half-breeds, men
who, by their nature, had to choose against one of their bloodlines. As
for me, I will choose for heart, for spirit, but never will I choose for
One last word about bloodlines. My wife, a woman of striking mixed-blood
features, came from the Cherokee. Our battles, my Cherokee and I, we
called the "Indian wars."
For these reasons I named my truck Ghost Dancing, a heavy-handed symbol
alluding to ceremonies of the 1890s in which the Plains Indians, wearing
cloth shirts they believed rendered them indestructible, danced for the
return of warriors, bison, and the fervor of the old life that would
sweep away the new. Ghost dances, desperate resurrection rituals, were
the dying rattles of a people whose last defense was
delusion—about all that remained to them in their futility.
A final detail: on the morning of my departure, I had seen thirty-eight
Blood Moons, an age that carries its own madness and futility. With a
nearly desperate sense of isolation and a growing suspicion that I lived
in an alien land, I took to the open road in search of places where
change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected.
The first highway: Interstate 70 eastbound out of Columbia, Missouri.
The road here follows, more or less, the Booneslick Trail, the initial
leg of the Oregon Trail; it also parallels both the southern latitude of
the last great glacier in central Missouri as well as the northern
boundary of the Osage Nation. The Cherokee and I had skirmished its
length in Missouri and Illinois for ten years, and memory made for hard
driving that first day of spring. But it was the fastest route east out
of the homeland. When memory is too much, turn to the eye. So I watched
Item: a green and grainy and corrupted ice over the ponds.
Item: blackbirds, passing like storm-borne leaves, sweeping just above
the treetops, moving as if invisibly tethered to one will.
Item: barn roofs painted VISIT ROCK CITY—SEE SEVEN STATES. Seven
at one fell swoop. People loved it.
Item: uprooted fencerows of Osage orange (so-called hedge apples
although they are in the mulberry family). The Osage made bows and war
clubs from the limbs; the trunks, with a natural fungicide, carried the
first telegraph lines; and roots furnished dye to make doughboy uniforms
olive drab. Now the Osage orange were going so bigger tractors could
work longer rows.
At High Hill, two boys were flying gaudy butterfly kites that pulled
hard against their leashes. No strings, no flight. A town of surprising
flatness on a single main street of turn-of-the-century buildings
paralleling the interstate, High Hill sat golden in a piece of sunlight
that broke through. No one moved along the street, and things held so
still and old, the town looked like a museum diorama.
Eighty miles out, rain started popping the windshield, and the road
became blobby headlights and green interstate signs for this exit, that
exit. LAST EXIT TO ELSEWHERE. I crossed the Missouri River not far
upstream from where Lewis and Clark on another wet spring afternoon set
out for Mr. Jefferson's "terra incognita." Then, to the southeast
under a glowing skullcap of fouled sky, lay St. Louis. I crossed the
Mississippi as it carried its forty hourly tons of topsoil to the
The tumult of St. Louis behind, the Illinois superwide quiet but for the
rain, I turned south onto state 4, a shortcut to I-64. After that, the
42,500 miles of straight and wide could lead to hell for all I cared; I
was going to stay on the three million miles of bent and narrow rural
American two-lane, the roads to Podunk and Toonerville. Into the sticks,
the boondocks, the burgs, backwaters, jerkwaters, the
wide-spots-in-the-road, the don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it towns. Into
those places where you say, "My god! What if you lived here!" The Middle
The early darkness came on. My headlamps cut only a forty-foot trail
through the rain, and the dashboard lights cast a spectral glowing.
Sheet lightning behind the horizon of trees made the sky look like a
great faded orange cloth being blown about; then darkness soaked up the
light, and, for a moment, I was blinder than before.
In the approaching car beams, raindrops spattering the road became
little beacons. I bent over the wheel to steer along the divider
stripes. A frog, long-leggedy and green, belly-flopped across the road
to the side where the puddles would be better. The land, still cold and
wintery, was alive with creatures that trusted in the coming of spring.
On through Lebanon, a brick-street village where Charles Dickens spent a
night in the Mermaid Inn; on down the Illinois roads—roads that
leave you ill and annoyed, the joke went—all the way dodging
chuckholes that Time magazine said Americans would spend 626
million dollars in extra fuel swerving around. Then onto I-64, a new
interstate that cuts across southern Illinois and Indiana without going
through a single town. If a world lay out there, it was far from me. On
and on. Behind, only a red wash of taillights.
At Grayville, Illinois, on the Wabash River, I pulled up for the night
on North Street and parked in front of the old picture show. The marquee
said TRAVELOGUE TODAY, or it would have if the O's had been
there. I should have gone to a cafe and struck up a conversation;
instead I stumbled to the bunk in the back of my rig, undressed, zipped
into the sleeping bag, and watched things go dark. I fought desolation
and wrestled memories of the Indian wars.
First night on the road. I've read that fawns have no scent so that
predators cannot track them down. For me, I heard the past snuffling
about somewhere close.
The rain came again in the night and moved on east to leave a morning of
cool overcast. In Well's Restaurant I said to a man whose cap told me
what fertilizer he used, "You've got a clean little town here."
"Grayville's bigger than a whale, but the oil riggers get us a mite
dirty around the ears," he said. "I've got no oil myself, not that I
haven't drilled up a sieve." He jerked his thumb heavenward. "Gave me
beans, but if I'da got my rightful druthers, I'da took oil." He adjusted
his cap. "So what's your line?"
"Don't have one."
"How's that work?"
"It doesn't and isn't."
He grunted and went back to his coffee. The man took me for a
bindlestiff. Next time I'd say I sold ventilated aluminum awnings or
repaired long-rinse cycles on Whirlpools. Now my presence disturbed him.
After the third tilt of his empty cup, he tried to make sense of me by
asking where I was from and why I was so far from home. I hadn't
traveled even three hundred miles yet. I told him I planned to drive
around the country on the smallest roads I could find.
"Goddamn," he said, "if screwball things don't happen every day even in
this town. The country's all alike now." On that second day of the new
season, I guess I was his screwball thing.
Along the road: old snow hidden from the sun lay in sooty heaps, but the
interstate ran clear of cinders and salt deposits, the culverts gushed
with splash and slosh, and the streams, covering the low cornfields,
filled the old soil with richness gathered in their meanderings.
Driving through the washed land in my small self-propelled box—a
"wheel estate," a mechanic had called it—I felt clean and almost
disentangled. I had what I needed for now, much of it stowed under the
1 sleeping bag and blanket;
1 Coleman cooler (empty but for a can of chopped liver a friend
had given me so there would always be something to eat);
1 Rubbermaid basin and a plastic gallon jug (the sink);
1 Sears, Roebuck portable toilet;
1 Optimus 8R white gas cook stove (hardly bigger than a can of
1 knapsack of utensils, a pot, a skillet;
1 U.S. Navy seabag of clothes;
1 tool kit;
1 satchel of notebooks, pens, road atlas, and a microcassette
2 Nikon F2 35mm cameras and five lenses;
2 vade mecums: Whitman's Leaves of Grass and Neihardt's
Black Elk Speaks.
In my billfold were four gasoline credit cards and twenty-six dollars.
Hidden under the dash were the remnants of my savings account: $428.
Ghost Dancing, a 1975 half-ton Econoline (the smallest van Ford then
made), rode self-contained but not self-containing. So I hoped. It had
two worn rear tires and an ominous knocking in the waterpump. I had
converted the van from a clangy tin box into a place at once a
six-by-ten bedroom, kitchen, bathroom, parlor. Everything simple and
lightweight—no crushed velvet upholstery, no wine racks, no
built-in television. It came equipped with power nothing and drove like
what it was: a truck. Your basic plumber's model.
The Wabash divides southern Illinois from Indiana. East of the fluvial
flood plain, a sense of the unknown, the addiction of the traveler,
began seeping in. Abruptly, Pokeberry Creek came and went before I could
see it. The interstate afforded easy passage over the Hoosierland, so
easy it gave no sense of the up and down of the country; worse, it hid
away the people. Life doesn't happen along interstates. It's against the
At the Huntingburg exit, I turned off and headed for the Ohio River.
Indiana 66, a road so crooked it could run for the legislature, took me
into the hilly fields of CHEW MAIL POUCH barns, past Christ-of-the-Ohio
Catholic Church, through the Swiss town of Tell City with its statue of
William and his crossbow and nervous son. On past the old stone
riverfront houses in Cannelton, on up along the Ohio, the muddy banks
sometimes not ten feet from the road. The brown water rolled and roiled.
Under wooded bluffs I stopped to stretch among the periwinkle. At the
edge of a field, Sulphur Spring bubbled up beneath a cover of dead
leaves. Shawnees once believed in the curative power of the water, and
settlers even bottled it. I cleared the small spring for a taste. Bad
enough to cure something.
I crossed into the Eastern Time Zone and then over the Blue River, which
was a brown creek. Blue, Green, Red: yes—yet who ever heard of a
Brown River? For some reason, the farther west the river and the scarcer
the water, the more honest the names become: Stinking Water Branch, Dead
Horse Fork, Cutthroat Gulch, Damnation Creek. Perhaps the old trailmen
and prospectors figured settlers would be slower to build along a river
On through what was left of White Cloud, through the old statehouse town
of Corydon, I drove to get the miles between me and home. Daniel Boone
moved on at the sight of smoke from a new neighbor's chimney; I was
moving from the sight of my own. Although the past may not repeat
itself, it does rhyme, Mark Twain said. As soon as my worries became
only the old immediate worries of the road—When's the rain going
to stop? Who can you trust to fix a waterpump around here? Where's the
best pie in town?—then I would slow down.
I took the nearest Ohio River bridge at Louisville and whipped around
the city and went into Pewee Valley and on to La Grange, where seven
daily Louisville & Nashville freight trains ran right down Main
Street. Then southeast.
Excerpted from "Blue Highways: A Journey into America" by William Least Heat Moon. Copyright © 2013 by William Least Heat Moon. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.