A couple very different books completed over the past week.
Blue Highways: A Journey Into America – William Least Heat Moon
I came across this in an odd way. In Nick Offerman’s Paddle Your Own Canoe, the actor/comedian/writer mentioned this book as having had a large influence on his life. He offered a blurb that it was about traveling across the backroads of the US and that was enough for me to place it on my reading list.
Offerman pretty much nailed it with that brief description.
William Least Heat Moon was a professor at the University of Missouri. In the early spring of 1978 he was told that his position was being eliminated because of decreasing enrollment. He was also separated from his wife. Since his whole life seemed to be falling apart, he decided to jump into his Ford van and start driving. The gimmick was that he was sticking to the so-called Blue Highways – the smaller state and county roads that show as blue on maps. Unless he absolutely had to, he would spend no time on the broad interstates and four-lane state highways that make crossing our country easy.
Over the next four months he made a slow circle of the US. The highways he traveled were often so blue you could call them black. At times the road that showed on the map completely disappeared and he followed an unpaved path through woods, mountains, and countryside that had first been cut by Native Americans or animals centuries earlier. He did his best to avoid chain restaurants and frequented small, locally owned diners, picking up regional gossip and travel tips in the process. He only used hotels or rooms offered by friendly people often enough to get an occasional shower. The rest of the time he would park his van in a safe spot and spend the night in it. He talked to folks that were becoming more disconnected from the core American culture: life-long residents of the deep woods who clung to their unique ways of life; Native Americans who resisted assimilation; and groups like the true Cajuns of Louisiana who were the final reminders of a blended culture that was disappearing.
What I found most fascinating about the book was how it sits right on the edge of my own clearest memories. I have these vague memories of what life in the US was like in the 1970s, no doubt jaded both by selective memory and the images of that era that have been pushed by pop culture in the decades since. My mental picture of Least Heat Moon’s stories were all drawn in muted, Kodachrome colors, because that’s what the 70s looked like, right?
That fading culture aspect of the book really appealed to me, too. The rise of cable TV in the 80s and the media conglomerates of the 90s made our country much smaller, culturally. As pop culture spreads from coast-to-coast almost instantly, many of our regional variations have faded. People from opposite corners of the map have far more in common today than they did 40 years ago. It was interesting to read about the final years of that old era, when folks who lived in the valleys that are tucked into the Smokey Mountains still made trips to the locally owned general store not just to buy the necessities of life, but also to learn about what was going on across the county line, in the state capital, and around the world. The people who live in those same locations today sit in their living rooms watching Fox News, drive 40 miles down paved highways to Wal-Mart, and are less tied to local gathering points than ever before.
Least Heat Moon did not make any great discoveries about himself or life on his trip. In fact, there’s a section where he becomes depressed when he realizes there have been no epiphanies on the road and that the problems he left behind in Columbia will still be there when he returns. In some ways, the book reminds me of my favorite travel book, Paul Theroux’s The Happy Isles of Oceania. Theroux was also in the midst of an unraveling marriage and the first Gulf War was about to begin when he started paddling through the Pacific. Unlike Theroux, who is famously cantankerous and not always sympathetic to the people he meets, Least Heat Moon treasured his encounters with the locals he met. Only when their redneck-ism careened into overt racism did he have any sharp words for the people he interacted with.
Because of that warmth, this ranks right up there with The Happy Isles as one of my favorite travel books I’ve read.
Don’t Put Me In, Coach: My Incredible NCAA Journey from the End of the Bench to the End of the Bench – Mark Titus
I have no idea why it took me so long to read this. I read Titus’ weekly college basketball columns on The Ringer every week, listen to his podcast most weeks, and have been following him since he first launched The Most Important Rankings in College Basketball on Grantland five or six years ago. This book was his second or third step down a path that led to that gig.
In it he tells how he went from a token shooter on one of the best AAU teams of all time to walk-on at Ohio State to cult favorite based on the blog he wrote about being a walk-on.
His stories about Greg Oden, Evan Turner, and other guys he played with at Ohio State are often hilarious. His coach Thad Motta comes off as one of the best guys to play for ever. I found the book to be way more Bro-ish than his columns are. But he also wrote the book when he was younger and, arguably, aimed it at a different audience than his columns are aimed at. It’s a quick, fun read if you’re into college hoops.
- Starting five: Michael Conley, Eric Gordon, Daquan Cook, Josh McRoberts, Greg Oden. Yeah, they won a few games. All but Cook were from Indianapolis, too. ↩