America travel inspiration: Blue Highways

For many Americans, dream trips involve far-flung international destinations. Traveling thousands of miles from home to a foreign land just seems more exciting. You get to experience a new culture, sample unfamiliar cuisine, and of course, get that all-important passport stamp to add to your collection.

A trip within your own country just can’t compete with that. The food is the same, the history is shared, the language is (usually) easily understood and you don’t even have to exchange money. There’s nothing exciting or exotic about that. Or so you may think.

But travel around your own country with open eyes and an open mind and you may realize that the good old US of A isn’t as homogeneous as you thought. Approach your homeland with the same anthropological curiosity and cultural hunger than you do to foreign lands and you’ll see that there may be as much to learn about different regions in your own country as there is places on the other side of the world.

One of my favorite sources for inspiration to explore more of the U.S. is William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways: A Journey into America. Down on his luck Heat-Moon takes off on an epic journey around the country, sticking only to the two-lane country roads called blue highways. Along the way, he finds solace in the road and in the characters he meets on his journey. He explores the cultural differences that can exist between people of the same country and paints a captivating picture of life in rural and small town America. If you’ve never had much interest in traveling the lesser-known routes of the U.S., just wait until you see the country through Heat-Moon’s eyes. I know that I can’t read the book without feeling an urge to hit the open road and discover my own America.

Out-living a small town in Appalachia

This Sunday I went to my great-uncle’s funeral in Hindman, Kentucky. He was the youngest of 11 children and the last one living. Good-bye to that generation. It’s weird to have one layer of family gone. But, even more unsettling is a comment made by one of the people who gave a eulogy. He said that he moved to Hindman in 1956 and since then there are only two businesses still remaining. One is the Bank of Hindman. The other is the funeral home. As he said, my uncle, at age 82, had outlived his town.

I am sure that this is not an uncommon story. Drive through the rural parts of the U.S. and you’ll be met up with towns that do not resemble in the least what they once were. I saw several while driving through North Dakota on my way to Regent, a town that is also struggling.

Still, there’s Hindman and my uncle’s tale. He was the post master there for years and he owned the movie theater that doesn’t exist any more. He also ran the drive-in that hasn’t been around for a few decades. I’m not even sure where it was. It’s startling how fast change can occur to the point that much of a place is no longer recognizable. The vibrancy of life that existed in Hindman that my uncle captured with a movie camera back when my mother was a child is no where to be seen. Places like Hindman, as seen through the years of my uncle’s life, remind me of the line “Nothing gold can stay.”

In an interesting twist of irony, my uncle is not buried in the family cemetery that could very well be covered over by woods one day. Instead, he opted for the manicured perpetual care cemetery next door. I guess by watching his town dwindle over his lifetime, he decided to not take any more chances.