Once upon a time, we traveled by map. In the United States, the map, whether it be a Conquistador sketch, a Rand McNally atlas or a foldout picked up at a Union 76 station, the sort you never fold the same way twice, is holy.
Maps are the only way we know our country is a country, a unified thing instead of a series of fields, forests and cities that go forever. Maps are mystery. You cannot look at the names of the towns and ranges without imagining yourself absorbed in experience — the jagged line of the Sawtooths, the peak of which you know is approached by roads lined with motor courts, or the vein of California’s Highway 1. Along that road, I see myself visiting San Simeon to see where William Randolph Hearst and Marion Davies entertained Charlie Chaplin, or that fingernail of coast where William Finnegan still waits for the wave that will carry him to God. An hour with an atlas just makes me want to go.
I have welcomed, used and even relied on GPS, knowing it’s changed the nature of the map and my beloved road trip. It’s harder to get lost, more difficult to look out the window and feel scared. In fact, you do not have to do much thinking at all — just hang onto the wheel and let your mind drift, knowing the machine will do the anticipating and worrying, knowing too that any wrong turn, even one that takes you along a clover leaf and onto a strange, swift-moving highway, can be righted by the algorithm.
Traveling with GPS has changed the way I look at life. In such a world, there is no mistake recalculation can’t fix. You failed out of college? No worries. Recalculating. Only the final destination remains the same, the rest is improvisation, flux. GPS has been a salve for my emotional life. And yet, I miss the old road trip and the way it could make you feel lost between here and the rest of your life. With a map you believed the world was large and the car was small and every possibility was open. With GPS you know when you will leave and when you will arrive and what will happen along the way. Or you believe you do, which is even worse.
Perhaps people still plot road trips in the way my friends and I did in the 1980s, but I doubt it. We used to game everything out beforehand, laying in supplies in the manner of the ancient explorers. Music, food, places to stop: Everything had to be pre-assembled via mixtape, ballpoint pen and map. Entire books were dedicated to the process, a genre made obsolete by technology. It’s a tradition that goes back to the earliest American travel journals, like “The Journals of Lewis and Clark” or Francis Parkman’s “The Oregon Trail,” reports from trappers and surveyors determined to show people what it’s like out there.
Recently, while preparing for a trip down Interstate 95, the most dreaded American road, I picked up “Blue Highways,” the autobiographical tale of a trip taken by William Least Heat-Moon in 1978. The author, having lost his job and wife, packed a van he calls Ghost Dancing and set off from Columbia, Mo., to circumnavigate the nation, “a long (equivalent to half of the circumference of the earth), circular trip over the back roads of the United States.” He called the book “Blue Highways” because that was the color, on the old maps, of the roads he followed, the secondaries made obsolete by the construction of the interstate.
As is the case with most ambitious travel narratives, the book is less about the road than about the country it passes through, the towns and people along the way. A best-seller in 1982, “Blue Highways” was part of a flowering of similar books like the “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which were at once travel and self-help, and most were memoirs, as no one is in more need of self-help than the writer of self-help. Such books are a cry of pain and fear, a terrified person whistling past the graveyard.
It’s no accident that these books came in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, amid the embers of the hippie age. That was the period of my childhood and that was my home: In my mind, the years in which you come of age are your native land, in which you feel most comfortable and will always, in a sense, live. I know how people felt sad and lost in 1978. The United States had meant something after the Second World War. It had a righteous mission, but that mission had washed-out by the time Jimmy Carter was elected president — that was why Jimmy Carter was elected president. The mid-1970s was a hung-over ruin, a bleak time. Yet, beneath the bleakness, questions were being asked, hence the books: What is America? Is it good or bad? Is it even a country at all?
Then the books and questions went away, along with the moment that summoned them. Because the search was over, the questions answered. By 1981, we knew what America was about: The election of Ronald Reagan meant we chose to be big and bold, the best missiles and the best war machines. In pop culture, we had pumped-up heroes like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jane Fonda of the workout tape. This country had no place for books that celebrated the quaint, the homely, the small. But now, after all that military spending, the steroids and those hours in the gym, the old feels new again. We are right back to the old questions: What is America? Is it good or bad? Is it even a country at all?
I’ve been carrying “Blue Highways” around for months, toting it with some embarrassment, the sort you feel when wearing a tasseled suede coat. It’s a product of a particular time. Yet I have been absorbed in the narrative, which now offers the same sort of hope it did readers the first time around.
Mr. Heat-Moon starts on Interstate 70, touches the Atlantic and then heads West, following the trajectory of the quintessential American journey, which is always from night to day, forest to big sky. He had no detailed route, but merely followed his whim, summoned by oddities of the atlas, beautiful-sounding valleys, towns with interesting names: Kremlin, Mont., Monastery of the Holy Spirit, Va., and Dime Box, Tex., where a man says, “‘City people don’t think anything important happens in a place like Dime Box.”
This method strands him on occasion, but he meets people wherever he stops, and he stops constantly — for food and diversion, in search of whatever it is that drew him to the road. If anything, that was the country itself, which he glimpses at truck stops and in faces of people he meets. He includes photos of these faces, taken with an Instamatic, that feature poor lighting, bad clothes and a crudeness that seems to prove that these people and these places actually exist, or did exist in the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan declared it Morning in America.
The country is not the land, Mr. Heat-Moon discovered. It’s the people, who act as one because they share an improbable idea. Hence the scrapbook structure of the text: A scrapbook is the way to capture America, which is less narrative than episodes arranged around a theme. America is a collage — it’s only the notions that hold us together, thus the perpetual fear of flying apart.
Mr. Heat-Moon crossed the country twice. When he heads home for the Midwest, with the towns increasingly more familiar, he sees his hometown as if for the first time. “I can’t say, over the miles, that I had learned what I had wanted to know because I hadn’t known what I wanted to know,” he writes, “but I did learn what I didn’t know I wanted to know.”
“Blue Highways” resonates for at least two reasons. First, though the events takes place more than 40 years ago, the book reads like a search for what currently ails us, because what ailed us then ails us now. It also reads as if it was written a hundred years ago. The country he described is gone. It might have to do with population, a nation that grows by nearly 100 million is an altogether new nation. That other America — the country as it existed when I was 10 — is what the book captures. It’s like the snapshot that accidentally got the movie star weeping in the background. I read it and recognize it as home.
Of course, the biggest change is GPS, with its satellites tracking our every move. No more vanishing into the vastness. No more fear of that vanishing. Sure, you can shut it off and guide yourself by astrolabe, but there is no escape. Even if you’re not using it, you know it’ll be there in a pinch. Even if you’re not using it now, you will later, when gridlock becomes intolerable. Even if you’re not using it, everyone else is, meaning you’re tracing a pattern created by GPS. Not only does the technology map the world — it remakes the world by mapping it.
Rich Cohen is the author of “The Last Pirate of New York,” the true story of the underworld legend Albert Hicks and his final road-trip getaway along what is now, approximately, Interstate 95. The book is due out in June.
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