Author Bill Bryson, who I met when he lived in Hanover, told me he accepted the title “travel writer” mostly as a convenience for bookstore shelves. He did write about rides in the family car and hiking the A.T. but he also summed up pretty much the entire known universe in his “A Short History of Nearly Everything.”
Of course you could say that all writing is travel writing in a sense. After all, if a book or article never takes you anywhere you haven’t been, it’s probably not worth reading.
The first piece of my own writing that I ever felt proud of was my chronicle of a trip in the mid-1970s from Florida to Monterey, Calif., in my brother’s red Dodge Dart Swinger. The engine of his muscle car began to run rough somewhere in Mississippi. We kept cool by constantly replaying a brand-new cassette tape of Paul McCartney & Wings’ “Band on the Run.” Every journey should have a soundtrack and to this day that title song reminds me of driving through a cold night in the desert, emerging from darkness into the bright knot of a small town and then plunging back into blackness with just a glowing rearview mirror to prove we were there.
The college essay I wrote about the trip was full of such observations — the color of the light on distant hills, snatches of dialogue from the capsule of the car, travel fatigue-induced hallucinations and such. As I said, I was proud of it.
It was just a few years later that a book titled “Blue Highways” appeared and re-framed everything I knew about writing. The author was on a soul-searching exploration of America. He vividly described the places he stopped as he crisscrossed the nation on its back roads but those descriptions were just to set the stage for his most curious discoveries: the people he met along the way.
“Blue Highways” just turned 30 and is not nearly as well-remembered as it should be (at least not according to my own informal survey of well-read colleagues here at McLean Communications). A brand-new edition of the book coming out this year should revive interest. But you never really forget people who teach you something important, so I’ve always remembered the author — and not just because of his memorable name: William Least Heat-Moon.
Our cover story this month provided me with the chance to connect with Heat-Moon and thank him. He then put me further in his debt by writing up a short set of rules for the road for anyone exploring New Hampshire’s Blue Highways this summer. But my favorite lesson remains the one I learned from his book: The most fascinating journeys you’ll ever take are journeys into the lives of the people around you. And you don’t need to travel cross country in a muscle car to get started.