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Back-road adventurer on America's 'Blue Highways'

  • Best-selling author William Least Heat-Moon comments on America's back roads
  • Says human congestion is rising; towns "swallowed by inoperable cancer"
  • Overall, accommodations have improved, racial harmony is better, he says
  • Travel tip: "Try to move reasonably slowly ... speed is anathema to deep travel

(CNN) -- William Least Heat-Moon, best-selling author of "Blue Highways," "River-Horse," and most recently "Roads to Quoz," shared his insights on the American road with CNN. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation.

CNN: How have things changed from the time when you took your "Blue Highways" road trip to today?

Heat-Moon: Let me name four different changes that I notice overwhelmingly: two on the positive side and two darker changes.

Let me start with the darker side.

Almost everywhere I travel, I see an increase in human congestion.

Not just automobiles, although that's mostly what I'm speaking of, but also the sheer number of people milling about.

A quarter of a century ago, towns that still had limits -- discernible edges -- now can look like they're getting swallowed by an inoperable cancer.

Sprawl is endemic today, and we've shown little interest in controlling it and what it does to our lives and to our minds.

The influence of mega-corporations has changed the face of the country, both for better and too often for worse.

Corporate-logo franchises have done in so many of what I call Bert and Betty eateries.

Regional food has taken a real hit, and today I have to look harder to find a good and genuine cafe.

On the other hand, a lot of so-called greasy spoons have been wiped off the map by franchises where a traveler can often depend on a chain to serve a similar whatever across the country.

Yes, it's likely ordinary and undistinguished, but it'll be consistent. But why travel if consistency is all you want?

'Sleep map'

I'm the kind of traveler, though, who would rather take chances -- to hell with consistency -- and hunt down a place that just might serve up a good original regional meal that I'll remember for years to come.

Food like that is one of my motivations for traveling. Take away regional foods, and staying home can look like a smart decision.

On the positive side, it's clear that racial harmony is better than it was 25 years ago.

Over the last 10 years or so, I've stopped hearing racial epithets that used to scotch conversations.

We may talk more vulgarly these days, but we use certain derogatory terms far less -- at least openly, publicly. I suppose hearing the f-word is better than hearing the n-word.

Accommodations have improved, although today a traveler can roll into many small towns at dusk and be unable to find a place for the night.

Not too long ago, any town of a thousand people or more would have at least one place where a traveler could buy a bed for the night.

Now, I can't be sure even the county seat will have a hotel or motel. And the days of the reasonably priced tourist-home have vanished in the face of expensive bed-and-breakfasts.

We need both.

Often, travelers have to get to an interstate exit ramp to find lodging, and there they find themselves remote from the heart of a community and segregated with other travelers.

The heart of the town is somewhere else, and being able to share in it becomes more difficult.

CNN: What do you think it is that draws us to the road?

Heat-Moon: Everybody in this nation, in the Americas, we all are descendants of people who came from the other hemisphere, each of us a descendant of travelers. Movement is in our blood. To speak metaphorically, we seem to carry a travel gene that makes us want to move. And a lot of us also carry an active curiosity gene. We're bears that go over the mountain to see what we can see.

The second aspect to your question is that we inhabit a large land topographically hospitable to long-distance travel.

The great middle of America is generally open terrain that, by comparison with many other countries, lends itself to human movement.

Our rivers often run in fortuitous directions for our shufflings, and our mountains tend toward the edges.

The horizons of America are often quite distant, and horizons are visual invitations to the curious, the restless, the unsatisfied.

CNN: Do you think that Americans, with the advent of interstates, are missing out on the "Blue Highways"? Is that experience still out there to be had?

Heat-Moon: There are still miles and miles of two-lane roads to take a traveler into recesses of America, where delights and amazements await.

The problem with an interstate is not the interstate itself but the speed at which one can move on an interstate.

Oh, sure, if you're crossing Kansas or Nebraska or half a dozen other states, a four-lane can let you see the territory about as well as a two-lane, but you won't encounter much of the life within that territory.

For that, you've got to stop and get out from behind the damn windshield. Otherwise, you're moving, but let's not conflate moving with traveling.

CNN: How do you find the places where you want to pull over? Do you research your destinations?

Heat-Moon: I seldom do research beforehand. Typically, I proceed by feel, moving along, looking at the territory until something -- person, place, or thing -- suggests a stop for a deeper look.

Traveling a two-lane road, it's easy, because towns and villages slow you. And I look for reasons to stop.

When I can't find one, I'll come to a halt anyway to see WHY I can't find one.

Sometimes it works.

Ice-cream parlors, I might add, give a jolly reason, as does a bookshop. In the evening, when my road-work is finished for the day, a local tavern may suffice.

Movement is in our blood.
--William Least Heat-Moon

In my most recent book, "Roads to Quoz," while I was idling around Camden, Arkansas, I saw a man painting an exterior wall mural.

He was up on a ladder, and I started talking to him from the sidewalk.

By the time our conversation ended, he had invited me to spend the night at his cabin, a place that turned out to be the former home of his uncle, the founder of Grapette, the soft drink.

We had a delightful evening together over a couple of bottles of soda pop.

The encounter was richly memorable, and if building memories isn't the purpose of most of my travels, then they tend to be irrelevant.

CNN: What are the things that catch your attention when you're on the road?

Heat-Moon: The first thing that usually catches my eye is its commercial, downtown architecture.

I'm not sure why that is, but I do love architecture. If I'm often horrified by what the World War II generation did to our great 19th- and early 20th-century architecture.

I'm happy when I find buildings that have been restored or left alone to show their time, their honored age.

Certain longevities are beautiful. And encouraging.

A number of conversations, over the years, have resulted from my simply standing in front of building and studying it.

In Galveston [Texas], a few years ago, the owner saw me looking at his historic hotel, and he came out to talk, and I ended up that night inside his place in a complimentary room. But it was the conversation with him that was important.

CNN: What advice do you have to the American family setting out on the road?

Heat-Moon: Go with a loose sense of destination.

Don't go farther than your time easily allows, and try to move reasonably slowly.

We're a nation of speeders: speeders in all sorts of things; we invented fast food.

But speed and good travel aren't comfortable or useful companions.

Speed is anathema to deep travel.

If you want to learn the territory between your place of departure and where you end up, you have to have time and use it wisely.

Speed corrupts travel far more than bad Chinese food.