“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.” — William Least Heat-Moon in “Blue Highways: a Journey into America.”
In the early 1960s when gasoline was 31 cents a gallon, my decrepit 1954 Chevrolet knew every unpaved national forest road in Florida between Tallahassee, St. Marks, Woodville, Sopchoppy, Carrabelle, Sumatra and Chattahoochee. Almost nightly, I drove late into the night and all the graveyard shift fry cooks and waitresses knew my name.
The car at night was a sanctuary and such guidance as I received from the universe was both welcome and askew.
In the early 1970s when gasoline as 35 cents a gallon, my 1970 Kaiser Jeep knew the secondary roads across northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin from Waukegan to Fox Lake to Lake Geneva to Kenosha. I’d take the doors off and make the Jeep’s noisy, nighttime world into a place of meditation where the best of wisdom was free of sense and restriction.
In time, the Jeep also learned the beauty of the empty daylight highways that led through Minnesota and North Dakota to the Rocky Mountains following the route of the old Great Northern Railway. The “sweet highway,” as author Linda Niemann once called it, was the best route to the most remote sources my mind sought out in those days.
I have always understood why some people like repetitive factory jobs, sitting in the right-hand seat of a freight locomotive, or sailing for days with no sight of land. The widgets passing by on the line, the sound of steel wheels on steel rails, and the rhythmic movement of a boat in mid-ocean are the perfect mantras for unlimited thought.
For a young writer trying either to hide from the world or to find his place in it, unlimted thought behind the wheel of a Bellaire or a CJ5 was perfect escape and therapy. Quite literally, driving saved my life and most of my sanity while giving me a first look at the plots and themes of the novels I would one day write.
Driving blue highways at night isn’t for everyone, and thank goodness, because it was the roads would be too crowded to be of any value. The real world expects those who enter the workplace to have the validation that comes from a high school diploma and a college degree. There’s value in a formal education.
The Cost of a Good Education
Yet, I learned more about myself and about writing on Forest Road 13 in Florida and Heart Butte Road in Montana than I did in high school or college. Today, when I compare the tuition costs with the gasoline prices nearing $4 per gallon, I can’t help but wonder if Blue Highways at Night are still a better value.
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