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  • On the Road
    On the Road
    by Jack Kerouac
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    Blue Highways: A Journey into America
    by William Least Heat-Moon

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Entries in William Least-Heat Moon (63)


Blue Highways: St. Louis, Missouri

Click on Thumbnail for MapUnfolding the Map

Heading east with William Least-Heat Moon, we cross the Missouri, then the Mississippi at St. Louis.  We also have a cross-reference (I'll call it an intersection) with Jack Kerouac.  If you want to see where we are, click on the map.

Book Quote

"Eighty miles out, rain started popping the windshield, and the road became blobby headlights and green interstate signs for this exit, that exit.  LAST EXIT TO ELSEWHERE.  I crossed the Missouri River not far upstream from where Lewis and Clark on another wet spring afternoon set out for Mr. Jefferson's 'terra incognita.'  Then, to the southeast under a glowing skull-cap of fouled sky, lay St. Louis.  I crossed the Mississippi as it carried its forty hourly tons of topsoil to the Louisiana delta."

Blue Highways: Part 1, Chapter 4

Littourati Intersection

On the Road: St. Louis, Missouri

St. Louis, Missouri

In my last post on St. Louis, I focused on the Gateway Arch, which wasn't built when Jack Kerouac went through, but was by the time Least-Heat Moon heads through town.  But Least-Heat Moon's (I'm going to refer to him as LHM for short now) passage about St. Louis is very similar to Kerouac's.  Both were heading in the same direction - east.  Both remark on the air above St. Louis.  For Kerouac, it was "great clouds of afternoon overtopping...".  But LHM describes it more ominously, giving us more of modern, polluted big city feel when he writes of St. Louis with a "glowing skull-cap of a fouled sky."  Both authors also point out the Mississippi River.  Kerouac writes of logs carried down the current from Montana past steamboats, mud and rats, while LHM makes reference to the tremendous amounts of topsoil that washes into the Mississippi and is carried its length to fan out into the Gulf.

Electricity Building at 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis

One interesting aspect of St. Louis, besides the Arch, is the fact that it was once home of a huge World's Fair, the grounds of which are still open as a park, and its Catholic cathedral has some amazing mosaic work throughout its edifice.  Kerouac didn't stop to take the sights in St. Louis, so focused was he on getting back to the East Coast, and I assume that LHM was probably familiar with all these aspects of St. Louis.  But both of these attractions were for me extremely interesting.  The Fair evidently popularized a lot of American food staples that we think of as essential American food today: ice cream cones, hamburgers, hot dogs, peanut butter, ice tea, and cotton candy, to name a few.  A number of buildings from the Fair still exist on the Washington University of St. Louis campus.  Many of the buildings were eye-poppers for their day.  One building was devoted entirely to electricity, still a novelty in many areas, and was lit up with thousands of electric lights at night.  The Fair was dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase, the "terra incognita" that LHM cites above, and which Kerouac alludes to in On the Road when he mentions the logs floating down the river connected with our "continental dream."  The Fair is also somewhat infamous for its "human zoos" in which aboriginal peoples from newly conquered American territories in the Philippines and Guam, as well as some Native Americans, were on display for the public to gawk at their "primitive" nature.

The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis made a huge impression on me when I visited.  The mosaics were started in 1912, not long after the cathedral was built, and not finished until 1988.  The mosaics were designed by Albert Oerken and, on the sides, Tiffany Studios.  They cover the entire cathedral and depict the life of King Louis the IX of France, the namesake of St. Louis, events in the archdiocese, and Old and New Testament stories.  It is one of the largest collections of mosaics in the world.  I like mosaics because the idea of taking bits of colored glass which by themselves are unremarkable and assembling them into something beautiful that tells a story is so symbolic.  Our entire existences are really mosaics.  Individual, unremarkable stars coalesce to form galaxies, which themselves, coalesce within the universe.  Individual cells, each performing one function on its own, combines with other cells doing each doing their own duties to create a living being, and individual atoms combine in a mosaic to form those cells.  Each individual person combines his or her actions and lives with others and forms a civilization.  The words I write here, each individual in itself, combine to create this blog post in a mosaic of ideas.  Finally, individual parts of us, including our strengths and flaws, combine in a mosaic to make us the people we are.

If you want to know more about St. Louis, the 1904 World's Fair, or the Cathedral Basilica

1904 World's Fair
1904 World's Fair Society
1904 World's Fair Virtual Tour
Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis
Explore St. Louis
Terry Laupp's 1904 World's Fair Page
Wikipedia: Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis
Wikipedia: Louisiana Purchase Exposition
Wikipedia: St. Louis

Next up: Lebanon, Illinois


Blue Highways: High Hill, Missouri

Click on Thumbnail for MapUnfolding the Map

William Least-Heat Moon sets out in his Ford Econoline van, which he has named Ghost Dancing, on a 13,000 mile trip around America.  We are following along, right to High Hill, Missouri.  Click on the map to follow our progress.  And, Littourati, comments are always welcome if you have things to share.

Book Quote

"At High Hill, two boys were flying gaudy butterfly kites that pulled hard against their leashes.  No strings, no flight.  A town of surprising flatness on a single main street of turn-of-the-century buildings paralleling the interstate, High Hill sat golden in a piece of sunlight that broke through.  No one moved along the street, and things held so still and old, the town looked like a museum diorama."

Blue Highways: Part 1, Chapter 4


A street view of High Hill, Missouri, from Hilary's (curioush) photostream on Flickr.

High Hill, Missouri

I like town names that are descriptive, like High Hill.  I can't decide whether it shows a lack of imagination to name a town based on its feature, or whether the description is essential to the place, but there's something in a descriptive name that says something to me more than a name like Lincoln, or another place that is named for someone.  My hometown, Fort Bragg, gives absolutely no clue as to its features, and is even misleading.  There isn't even a fort there (there used to be) and because of that we often get mistaken for Fort Bragg, North Carolina, which is an actual military base.

The exception to this is exotic names.  Jack Kerouac traveled through Salome, Arizona and I find that exotic, mysterious and almost dangerous.  But you don't find many exotic names of towns or cities around America.  We either have named our towns and cities after older models in Europe (New York, New Orleans, etc.), after people in our history, or after physical features in the area around.

And it sounds like, from the description in the quote, that High Hill is misleading too, as it has "surprising" flatness.  The image of kite-flying boys is very evocative of my failed Cub Scout years.  I shouldn't say "failed" but I only got to Webelos, which was a step up from Cub Scout but not quite to Boy Scout.  In hindsight, I can't say that I lose much sleep about it, as I think my values today and those of the Scouts are not quite in synch.  But I remember one activity, a kite flying contest for Scouts from all over the region, that I participated in.  We had to make and fly our own kites.  Mine didn't work very well, and we couldn't really get it in the air.  My dad was probably more frustrated than I was, because he spent a good amount of time making the kite.  The contest took place in a grassy meadow along the bluffs overlooking the ocean in Mendocino, California.  A few people got their kites way up in the air, and I think they got some kind of badge or something for it.  Mine just wouldn't go.

I grew up in a town like High Hill (not on flat plains but next to the ocean), and I associate them with these types of activities -- kite flying, kids riding bikes everywhere, hanging out in nature and exploring the natural wonder.  All the businesses in such towns seem to be small businesses catering specifically and personally to the needs of the townspeople.  At night, the town sits empty and quiet after business hours are over and people are at home.  It's a romantic vision, and one that ignores the alcoholism, the drug use, and the dysfunction that I also experienced in my home town and which often occurs in these isolated pockets of America.  But sometimes, I need such bucolic memories.

If you want to know more about High Hill

It's a really small town, so there's not many links to share.

Tinsley's Amusements: Ferris Wheel picture
Wikipedia: High Hill

Next up: St. Louis, Missouri


Blue Highways: The Beginning

Click on Thumbnail for MapUnfolding the Map

I am going to take on another book that involves a trip around America.  This time, the author is William Least-Heat Moon, also known as William Trogdon.  Blue Highways chronicles his circular 13,000 mile journey around the United States on local and back roads.  Wherever his journey coincides with Jack Kerouac, I will certainly point out connections, if any, as well as put my own feelings and thoughts down.  I also plan to map a less journey-oriented and more place-oriented book, so I'll eventually be doing two sets of entries.  But for this journey, click on the map to see where we will start, and follow along!

Book Quote

"Beware thoughts that come in the night...

"That night, as I lay wondering whether I would get sleep...I got the idea instead.  A man who couldn't make things go right could at least go.  He could quit trying to get out of the way of life....Live the real jeopardy of circumstance.

"The result: on March 19, the last night of winter, I again lay awake in the tangled bed, this time doubting the madness of just walking out on things, doubting the whole plan would begin at daybreak - to set out on a long (equivalent to half the circumference of the earth), circular trip over the back roads of the United States.  Following a circle would have a purpose - to come around again - where taking a straight line would not.  And I was going to do it by living out of the back end of a truck.

"Accompanied only by a small, gray spider crawling the dashboard (kill a spider and it will rain), I drove into the street, around the corner, through the intersection, over the bridge, onto the highway.  I was heading toward those little towns that get on the map - if they get on at all - only because some cartographer has a blank space to fill: Remote, Oregon; Simplicity, Virginia; New Freedom, Pennsylvania; New Hope, Tennessee; Why, Arizona; Whynot, Mississippi.  Igo, California (just down the road from Ono), here I come."

Blue Highways:  Part1, Chapter 1

Downtown Columbia, MissouriColumbia, Missouri

The call of the open road starts out this travelogue adventure, precipitated by life change.  In the brief first chapter, Least-Heat Moon describes how, in the space of one day, he learns that his position as an English professor was terminated because of declining enrollment, and that the wife from whom he was separated had been seeing someone new.

Unlike Kerouac, who went off across America in search of his friend Dean Moriarty, in essence running after adventure that he perceives is out there, Least-Heat Moon is running from something.  He sets off because he wants to escape his life, which has turned sad and difficult, and hopefully by coming full-circle back to the beginning, be able to pick up and begin anew.  He's afraid that if he doesn't complete a circle, he might not come back, at least that's how I read it.

This past year has been one of those years for me.  I finished a PhD, supposedly the crowning achievement in academia, only to enter the job market in the worst possible economy for academics.  I did a stint for a year in Lubbock, Texas as a visiting professor, and could have gone back for a second year, but I was lonely and missed my wife and friends back in Albuquerque.  Upon getting back to Albuquerque, I found that the loneliness did not dissipate.  At least I had a reason for loneliness in Lubbock, but I didn't in Albuquerque in the middle of a city I knew.  I began a relationship with a person that I thought might become a friend, but which veered into dangerous territory.  She now hates me, not only because our relationship went sour, but paradoxically because I was so positive about her.  So, I'm still in Albuquerque, with a dearth of friendships (I have 2-3 here who are close, but besides my wife, nobody else), with a job that I didn't intend to have that is not in my chosen field, still dealing with some emotional fallout over the relationship gone bad, and wondering where my life will go.  If anyone wanted to get into a vehicle and just travel, it was me.

However, my life is not as desperate as Least-Heat Moon's was at that time.  I have a job, I have a wife, and though I don't have the numbers of friends I would like, I have some who care about me.  In other words, I don't have the clean slate that is needed to just chuck everything and head out into the unknown.  I think that one must create that clean slate, or let life make it happen, before the space and freedom can be made to undertake such a journey and be open to the possibilities it brings.  I have obligations that must be satisfied, deadlines that must be met.  Being unhappy or less-than-satisfied doesn't free one up to make, what in essence, amounts to a spiritual journey.  There's something extra, a real desire to just leave it all behind.  I have not reached that point, and while it is romantic to fantasize about the road, a piece of me hopes that at my age, I don't ever get to such a place in my life.

But I certainly enjoy reading this process in others' lives, especially if they write as well as Least-Heat Moon.  He starts from Columbia, Missouri so I'll put some links below about the town.

If you want to know more about Columbia

Capturing CoMo (blog)
Co Mo Whine and Dine (blog)
Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau
Columbia Daily Tribune (Newspaper)
The Columbia Heartbeat (blog)
Columbia Missourian (Newspaper) (blog)
MidMoRestaurants (blog)
Show Me Eats (blog)
Slow Food Katy Trail (blog)
University of Missouri
Wikipedia: Columbia

Next up: High Hill, Missouri

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