A Boy’s Blue Highways

My blog friend Keith Spillett has posted a well-written little memoir about car trips in the twenty-first century, noting the boring sameness of the experience as he and his family traveled the interstate diagonal from the Southeast to the upper Midwest.  His prose knocked some dust out of my mental attic, memories reviving like long-stored tinsel finding new light.  My, how times have changed.

Author William Least Heat-Moon speaking in the...

William Least-Heat Moon, via Wikipedia

Blue highways.  A Native American author, William Least-Heat Moon had coined the term in a book to refer to small, forgotten, out-of-the-way roads connecting rural America, roads that were drawn in blue on the old style Rand McNally road atlas.  It is a story of the variegated human experience that can be found beyond the franchise-sameness of America’s Interstate highways.

I remember my own blue highways.  When I was a boy in the 1940’s I recall many car trips, moving and visiting family.   This was before MacDonald’s, before Holiday Inns.  Motels were tiny cottages, when you could find them.  My dad would always inspect the room before agreeing to the rent, and with good reason because there were no franchises and no standards.   No TV, no A/C, no free breakfast.

We would drive 12 or more hours a day to save money on a long trip.  It was boredom punctuated by stress.  No video games then, but we would get the news on the car radio. The roads were all two-lane and in those days the driver ignored the highway markings of dotted and double lines at his peril.  A flash of memory, lying on my back in the backseat, watching the utility poles endlessly speed past and thinking the trip would never end.  No seat belts in those days, we were human projectiles trusting in providence.

Dad was a fairly aggressive driver, so he routinely passed cars in front of us.  Mother was a white-knuckle passenger.  She seldom commented but I knew she contemplated death on each passing and I secretly did too.  Driving at night was even more terrifying.  Dad was constantly changing from high to low-beam headlights and would occasionally curse under his breath when on-coming traffic failed to dim theirs in time.  And onward into the blackness we would plunge.


Image via Wikipedia

Meals on the road were a real treat for me – we would go to “cafe’s”, places catering to truckers and tourists.  Remember, this was before fast-food, so eating out was very unusual for a little boy in a blue-collar family.  I was transported to a different world.  Occasionally I could buy a trinket.  Once I got my picture taken astride a mangy stuffed buffalo.  Funny, the cobwebs in my brain-attic.

About Jim Wheeler

U. S. Naval Academy, BS, Engineering, 1959; Naval line officer and submariner, 1959 -1981, Commander, USN; The George Washington U., MSA, Management Eng.; Aerospace Engineer, 1981-1999; Resident Gadfly, 1999 - present. Political affiliation: Democratic.
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6 Responses to A Boy’s Blue Highways

  1. It was quite wonderful to read your experiences traveling back then. I often wonder what it would have been like to travel in the 1940s. Beautifully written stuff.


  2. sandiemorgan says:

    Jim: I greatly enjoyed washing in the nostalgia that your trip into the past created. I, too, remember the war years vividly. I remember that all auto trips involved two extra spare tires and three quarts of oil, for tires were rationed, and the inevitable flats meant patching the tire, and cars, which were not available, were driven until they fell apart, and then they were put back together and driven again. I remember Greyhound bus trips where sailors lef me sit on their seabags in the aisle because there were no seats. I remember two or three men, strangers, sharing a room at the few hotels close enough to train stations to allow passengers to use them. I remember Pullman cars with berths behind which curtains people undressed and slept, without embarassment. I also remember my mother taking me with her to the post office in 1944 when I was nine years old. While she conducted her business, I perused the bulletin board on which was a poster put out by the Federal Government to show us Americans, assuming that we needed to know, how to distinguish between our mortal enemies, the “Japs,” and our valiant allies, the Chinese. There were two drawings on the poster; the one showing the “Jap” involved every sterotype of that race: the steel rimmed glasses, the buck teeth, the slits for eyes, etc.; the drawing of the Chinese man looked a great deal like a Hollywoodized Henry Fonda, gazing off into the firmament, strong chin full of resolve. Four years later, in 1948, the godless, Communist Chinese were our mortal enemies, and the Japanese our valiat allies, struggling mightlily to hold off the onslaught of evil Communist forces. A hard thing to grasp in a 9 to 13 year old boy. I have often wondered since then what the poster in the PO looked like in 1948,
    Henry Morgan


    • Jim Wheeler says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Henry. You know, I almost put in something about flat tires, but decided they didn’t happen often enough to evoke others’ memories. I may have been wrong because happen they did. Tires didn’t have the same quality of course, and they had inner tubes. And they were rationed, hence were run until the fiber showed through.

      Many thanks for the comments. They helped flesh out the memories.



  3. G-LO says:

    Yo Jim!
    Isn’t it wonderful when one well written article leads to yet another? I will be attempting my first road trip with the wife and kids (two boys. ages 6 and 3) this summer. There will be lots of sameness on Interstate 95 until we reach our final destination, i.e. somewhere between Kennebunkport and Portland, Maine. From what I remember, there is a general lack of sameness in the home of the black fly. Lobster shacks, corner stores, and numerous Mom + Pop establishments. Hope to fall off the grid for a week!


    • Jim Wheeler says:


      You know, there was a blogger in me for a long time, struggling to get out. I do enjoy it.

      For many years Mollie and I had a favorite place in Maine, the Ocean Point Inn near Boothbay Harbor. It is out on a peninsula, at some distance from the more touristy sameness. It also had one of the area’s best restaurants, but don’t know if it still does. There is a web site. Have a great vacation, and thanks for commenting.



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