Line One
Dashboard Confidential
Returning to Blue Highways

By Dave Sweetman
columnist

 

Back when I was a much younger lad in the ’70s, I was afflicted with the disease of wanderlust. I had a need to travel. To anywhere, it did not matter the destination or the direction. For me it was not the arrival, but the journey.

I had vintage motorcycles that I would fire up and ride from northern Delaware to Pittsburgh, PA, because someone told me about a really good diner. I found a few. Or I’d be off on my ’47 Harley Knucklehead and sidecar to the Eastern Shore of Maryland in search of the best steamed crabs. I found a few of those, too.

I also discovered a book, “Blue Highways: A Journey into America,” by author William Least Heat-Moon, who chronicled his journeys around America on non-interstate roads.

These Blue Highways were the smaller secondary roads on maps and the routes of choice for author Moon. A rediscovery of America, it struck a major chord with me. Parts of America that you cannot see from the interstate were my destination.

And being a truck driver, then as now, I had several opportunities to run on the old highways – sometimes by choice, sometimes by routing to the pickup and delivery points.

Over the years, it seems we have all become more focused on getting the freight there in a hurry, having little time for the Blue Highways, having only enough time to pop in to the automated card-lock fuel stop and fast food joint. Very little human contact is involved and we have lost a lot along the way.

In these hectic, hurried times we don’t even look the waiter in the eye, as the order goes through a call box, as we ease up to a window to get a bag of fried grease and watered down cola. Many of us never have to see a fuel desk clerk, as the card reader takes care of billing transactions at the pump. America has lost much of its personality and ability to relate and communicate.

Author Moon had a wonderful, if rather eccentric method of rating diners and cafes. The numbers of calendars were the key to the rating system. Calendars from auto garages, banks and farm supply houses were tallied and the food quality and service rated accordingly. If no calendars were visible, the place was the same as an interstate pit stop. If five calendars were present, the food and service was so good, Moon proclaimed, “Keep it under your hat or they’ll franchise.”

I have to admit, these 29 years later, I still scan the walls of a diner and scope out the space behind the cash register to count the calendars. More often than not, the rating system is still a good indicator and I pay homage to writer Moon.

Perhaps the best and most important factor of Moon’s journeys is the ability to chat with real Americans, talk with perfect strangers, and sample some of that small-town goodness we have left behind. In the ’70s and ’80s, life was simpler; we lived and played and worked at a slower pace, it seems.

Could that Blue Highway mentality be found again? Is it possible to appreciate the small towns and the people there? The greatest and most basic truths in traveling are the people. We seem to have forgotten much of that, but I try not to.

Granted, many places have restrictions on truck size and weight and being able to plan for them is important, but there is much to be said for getting off the interstates. Stocking up on local fruits from a roadside farm stand has to rate as one of my favorite ways to see real America … and meet real Americans. If you want to get a feel for the local economy and share the stories with those who work as hard for their dollar as we do, talk with a farmer and his wife.

Traveling through small towns, another of my favorites is to visit the local church fish fry or firehouse BBQ fundraiser. The food is always great, the locals appreciate the support, and it is just some good ol’ fun.

Author Moon stated, “I took to the open road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected.”

 And so have I, and I still do search for those Blue Highways.

Happy trails. LL

 

Dave Sweetman can be reached at deeseldave@aol.com.

Aug/Sept Digital Edition