Sunday, November 14, 1999

Roads scholar

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It was paved in old blacktop like any ordinary country road, framed with arching, lush July trees that leaned their heads together to whisper in a conspiracy with the breeze. The white lines down the middle rose gently to a soft horizon that emptied into a deep blue sky.

        For some reason, it beckoned.

        Unlike hundreds of nameless roads that pass like the repeating background scenery in a cartoon chase, this one promised to wind through places of mystery and discovery, just over that seductive, curved hill.

        I passed it twice and never made the easy turn to find out what was on the other side of that hill. Even on vacation, I was in a hurry. “I'll come back when I have more time,” I lied to myself.

        But sometimes, when I think of that vacation, I think of the place I didn't go. Down that road.

        For all of us who are locked on the white lines ahead of us, too busy getting from Point A to Point B in a ruler-straight line to go down that beckoning country road, there is someone who does — and lucky for us, he takes us along by writing about his discoveries with Rand McNally's attention to detail and Huck Finn's innocent wonder.

        William Least Heat-Moon takes the road less traveled. While the rest of us won't stop without a farmhouse near, he explores blank spots on the map.

        “At home I have an old highway atlas, worn and rebound, the pages so soft from a thousand thumbings they whisper as I turn them,” he writes at the beginning of his new book, River Horse. “Every road I've ever driven I've marked in yellow, the pages densely highlighted, and I can now say I've visited every county in the contiguous states except for a handful in the Deep South, and those I'll get to soon.”

        That's 3,200 counties: 2,900 highlighted, about 300 to go.

        “I've been interested since I was about 10 years old to find another way to see America,” Mr. Heat-Moon said on Monday at the Mercantile Library, during a visit to Cincinnati.

        In his first book, Blue Highways, he explored America from the back roads — the little blue lines on the map that the rest of us do our best to avoid.

        This time, he crossed the country by water: 5,000 miles and 506 pages of rivers from the Atlantic to the Pacific, in a boat “the size of a 1957 Cadillac.”

        Big car. Small boat. Lake Erie was “six hours of unrelieved terror,” he said.

        He stood under the tall windows and high ceilings of the historic Mercantile, surrounded by old books on China and Peru and the North Pole like so many ancient cave paintings by long-dead explorers, and told us there is still an unexplored America.

        All the yellow plastic franchise playpens on all the interstates haven't killed it yet. There are rivers and streams and mountains that still remember Lewis and Clark.

        Boxed and packaged in a 19-inch picture tube, America looks homogenized, a Dockers nation that talks like an anchorman, with no detectable accent. We think alike, look alike and act alike, hurtling down the highways in colored jelly beans from the same bowl, stopping to refuel at brightly lit anthills of plastic, glass and steel, as seen on TV, each exactly like the others at every convenient exit.

        Mr. Heat-Moon, whose name comes from his Osage Indian grandfather, was here to tell us that is the mythical America. The Huck Finn nation lives, just over a hill. The sanitized, two-dimensional life on the ruler's edge is a dream that is dreaming us.

        Someone asked him how America looks from its rivers, compared to the view from meandering blue highways. “The answer is the book itself,” he replied.

        I can't wait to read it, but that's not why I was there.

        When my father died, he left me two antique, cane-bottomed kitchen chairs and his beloved copy of Blue Highways. I never knew if it was by design or default. It doesn't matter.

        They make perfect bookends.

        At one end of our quest is where we live, gathered with our loved ones around the hearth of our kitchen. We have “living rooms” and “family rooms,” but real families do their living in their kitchens — sharing meals, setbacks and victories, welcoming friends, planning the future, working out problems.

        At the other end are all the blue highways, the roads that take us off the beaten path to our dreams and discoveries — just over that hill.

        Peter Bronson is editorial page editor of The Enquirer. If you have questions or comments, call 768-8301, or write to 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.