The Native American Road Trip Perspective
“Blue Highways” is a brand new type of text for this class, for many reasons. The first being that it is written by a Native American. The texts we have read so far have been interesting and of varying perspectives. We’ve heard from American men from many different generations and walks of life, we have heard from foreigners, we have heard from women (or a woman). But there has been no voice from the people to whom this country right belonged/belongs. How would Native Americans enter into the conversation of American’s road trip wanderlust; what conversation would Native Americans have about Whitman’s Song of the Open Road
, or about Kerouac’s helter-skelter careening throughout the American Midwest? What would their own “song” of the open road be like? The democratic destiny, the boundless highways and limitless land that Whitman romanticizes and champions in his work, might not feel the same to Native Americans as it did or does, still, to a white American. “Manifest Destiny,” an idea that seems to be at the heart, even when it is not explicitly stated, of most American travel writing, is dependent upon the idea that the vast American landscape was uninhabited and “ours” for the taking. How does Least Heat-Moon’s work read differently, then, than those works by white American men we have read this semester?
One of the first things I noticed that differentiated him was the circular nature of his trip. From the very first page, from the very first moment he thinks up the trip, he is talking about it not linearly, but circular. A beginning, and an end, yes, but a full journey, a “circular trip over the back roads of the United States. Following a circle would give a purpose—to come round again—where taking a straight line would not” (3). This an interesting perspective to have, and an interesting way to begin a road trip narrative. So many of the works we have read so far have really only been focused on the journey outwards
, WEST (usually)—with little concern or attention paid to the getting back, the return. If there is one. Kerouac’s Sal spends chapters and chapters getting out to Denver, California, Mexico, but his returns home are not recorded, are not stories in themselves: he ends up back in New York or New Jersey, inconsequentially, unimportantly, and the story gains speed again the next time he journeys away again. Least Heat-Moon, on the other hand, points to a circle to give a journey purpose. A straight line only leads one away. A straight line is an attempt to flee, perhaps, while a circle brings one back again, with new knowledge, new experiences, new insights, to the place they left. This is a significant distinction, I think, though I am not sure how much of it has to do with anything inherently Native American, and how much of it is Least Heat-Moon’s attitude towards the classic American road trip.
Least Heat-Moon’s journey starts, however, and it isn’t all that different than Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley
. He wants to find the tiny towns that are doing all they can not to fall off the map; he wants to talk to all the people from those tiny towns and figure out what their lives are like, what they do, where they want to go. Similar to Steinbeck, he encounters numerous people with that desire to travel, with that desire to be anywhere but here, people who are always saying, “If I could, I would go with you.” But his interviews also lead him to slightly different places than Steinbeck’s would have, particularly, I believe, because of his heritage. One man he interviews while Southern Utah State College starts talking to him all about “the Hopi way,” and answers all of Least Heat-Moon’s questions about the relationships between white men and Indians out there. “Do you—yourself—think that most whites are prejudiced against Indians?” Least-Heat Moon asks. The Hopi, Kendrick Fritz, answers, “About fifty-fifty. Half show contempt because they saw a drunk squaw at the Circle K. Another half think we’re noble savages . . .” (182). The two go on to have a conversation about the divisions between white America and Indian America. For Kendrick, and, I’m sure, for many, many other Native Americans, the land, and the road, mean entirely different things to them than they do to white Americans. Least Heat-Moon’s book gets this conversation going in an interesting way, and provides us with a perspective we did not have before.