Interstates, Blue Highways and Taking the Road Less Traveled

I can make a metaphor out of anything, and road trips are my best fodder.

Most places that you go in this country are reached fastest through the interstate system.  Our vast system handles more than “one trillion person miles” per year. So suffice it to say that we USE our interstates here in the land of free and the home of the brave. But they don’t yield much adventure, actually. Or novelty. Things look the same in many ways from that big, multi-lane strip of pavement.

I am a big fan of the book Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon. Walker Percy was a fan too, I take it; he wrote a book-jacket blurb. So you don’t have to take my word for it. But I found the book way back when, soon after it was first published in 1982, and it inspired me to take to the back roads, which were — way back when — colored blue on the maps. That’s not true any more, but I still think of them as “blue highways.” And Heat-Moon pushes me onward, knowing that others have found the untraveled path more interesting.

Roadfood is another delight to me. Originally a book by my heroes Jane and Michael Stern, it’s now an empire, or at least a boudin-eating behemoth, with food tours, a website, and multiple iterations of the book, all designed to help you get away from the chain restaurants and into the mom-and-pop establishments that pepper our country, often unable to fork out the big dollars that would advertise them on the highway signs that let you choose between Exxon and Shell, Wendy’s and Mickey D’s. There you encounter the original, the unusual, the green chile cheeseburger.

So to me, all of travel is a trade-off between speed (“Where’s the interstate?  I’ve got to get to Kadoka, South Dakota fast!”) and leisure (“The ‘mosey hour’ doesn’t bother me; I’m just looking around.”).  It’s a trade-off between homogeneity (brown signs for attractions, green for roads) and adventure (“Who knew there was a giant lake here?”).

It’s a fact of life that most people stay on the main road. Of course!  Many people want safety and sameness. Many travelers want an Olive Garden salad. You know what it tastes like; you can predict the cost, manage the experience, and get back on the road fast. No mess, no fuss, no unexpected mystery ingredients. No weird, otherwise-unemployable uncle waiting on your table. Corporate standards. Sameness. Safeness. Almost makes me blame the letter S.

We live such bland lives, staying safe. We try not to be vulnerable. We project competence. We dress alike, look for the people like ourselves, listen to news sources that perpetuate the point of view we already have.

We don’t want potholes, detours, roundabouts, speed bumps. We want to stay fast and furiously moving in our hermetically sealed cars, keeping ourselves and our families away from the blight of the inner-city, the requests of the poor, the problems of the world.

We want to stay on the flat roads that take us SOMEWHERE, fast.  But when we get there, we zoom on or around on a “beltway,” “beltline,” “perimeter,” “ring road.” We eschew the route that runs through the heart of the reality of  a place. And that’s much like we live.

On the back roads, though, there isn’t every guarantee of convenience; there isn’t every amenity; there aren’t guaranteed brand-names on every street.

Few will choose that narrow road, the blue highway. But it’s more interesting there.

The rewards for getting off the vast interstate of what most people choose, of where our culture is going, are great.

Come on.  Come with me.


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