Sunday, February 19, 2012

Why Blue Highway?

William Least Heat-Moon, in the forward of his epic travelogue  Blue Highways - A Journey Into America answers the question:
William Least Heat-Moon sets off on a 13,000 journey
around America and learns what he didn't know he wanted to know
On the old highway maps of America, the main routes were red and the back roads blue.  Now even the colors are changing.  But in those brevities just before dawn and a little after dusk - times neither day nor night - the old roads return to the sky some of its color.  Then, in truth, they carry a mysterious cast of blue, and it's that time when the pull of the blue highway is strongest, when the open road is a beckoning, a strangeness, a place where a man can lose himself.

They are also known as state routes, frontage roads, bypass, truck routes or the old road.  These highways wind around geographical features instead of over, under, through or passing miles away from them.  They typically go right down Main Street of small towns instead of ignoring them as if they hadn't been there already serving the needs of locals and travelers alike for decades. The 2006 Disney/Pixar movie Cars, along with  loud and humorous NASCAR like race scenes is a poignant tale of a small town bypassed by the new freeway and the struggles and relationships there.

Back in the early 1960's there was a Little Golden Book called Make Way for the Thruway by Caroline Emerson. The story was that people in cars were busy and didn't want to have to slow down to get where they are going so the new thruway had to go straight though, no matter the obstacle.  The book pictured forests toppling and woodland creatures running for their lives before the mighty bulldozer's blade.

The builders did eventually allow a curve in the thruway to save an elderly woman's home along with her tall trees, her cat, chickens and roses.  It created a fuss with the Big Boss and the Bigger Boss but "what the bulldozer does, can't be undozed".  And when the new thruway opened, the cars and truck slowed down a little to look at her quaint house and smell the roses.  I guess that book left a deep impression on me.

Like Heat-Moon and his van Ghost Rider, Westly and I prefer the blue highways. Westly is most comfortable cruising along at 45-55 miles per hour (mph) with his engine turning around 3,000 to 3,600 revolutions per minute (rpm); right about where it's producing maximum horsepower and torque.  65 is his top speed, winding out close to red-line at 4,500 rpm - I reserve that for emergencies only and in fact have never yet reached that blinding speed, even downhill.  Taking it easy has other benefits for Westly; less strain on the engine, transmission and other mechanical parts.  Better fuel efficiency - Westly will return close to 30 miles per gallon at 50 mph which you have to admit is pretty good for a two ton refrigerator box on wheels.  OK, so it's a little unnerving to look in my mirror and see the front of a semi tractor right there in my own personal space, but that's just as likely to happen when I'm driving in my Subaru at 70.

I like putting a little distance between myself and the mad rush to get somewhere, anywhere as quickly as possible.  There is so much more to see, hear, smell and experience on the secondary roads, and it's much easier to pull off  to investigate some promising side trip or view.  I'm certainly not as adept as Heat-Moon at drawing strangers into deep personal conversations, but I have met some interesting folk.  I look at the journey itself as being of equal or sometimes even more importance than the final destination.  If it takes three hours instead of two and a half to get to a camp ground, it's all good.  I didn't just decide I could live with driving more slowly when I purchased Westly.  Rather, Westly's speed limitation was not a big drawback to me because I already enjoyed the slower pace (with the exception of a brief period in my late boyhood when I owned a Sunbeam Tiger).

On the road - in the right lane of course.
Sometimes though, the interstate is the best or even the only choice to get from where you've been to where you want to be.  Then, we keep to the right and make sure to pull off the road to allow faster (i.e. - just about everyone else) traffic to pass when necessary. Funny how often we see the same people that flew by earlier again at the next rest area or truck stop.

Robert Waldmire
Robert Waldmire, an artist and environmental & political activist and his 1972 Volkswagen camper were a familiar sight on and around old Route 66 for many years.  You may have seen postcards of detailed sketches he made of sights around the area.  Fillmore, the organic fuel sipping microbus in the movie Cars was inspired by Robert and his van.

Robert passed away December 16, 2009.

Ace Jackalope recollects meeting him on the road in his blog  - The Lope.   It has some great pictures of Robert, his van, and some of the mementos this veteran of the road collected.

This sticker was in the window of Robert's van
Courtesy of  Ace Jackalope 
Thank you Robert.  I couldn't have said it any better.


  1. Hi there. I was reading your post about the windshields being easy to get from China. Is there a site you can recommend to me. I really need a front windshield


    1. Greg - I found around the Seattle area that any glass company that does windshields could order a new one. All Vanagons from late '79 through '91 use the same glass.