Facing Main

Blue Highways

Rural routes still exist and are worth hitting the road for

By Maggie Doherty

Decades ago, when I was in my early 20s, I read William Least Heat-Moon’s 1979 classic, “Blue Highways,” about traveling America on the nation’s backroads – marked blue on his old road atlas – after he lost his job and his wife left him.

“Blue Highways” was a bestseller, another classic travelogue like John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charlie” that favored driving America’s backroads and state highways instead of the hurried blur of the traffic funneling interstate. Beyond his meditations on the places he stopped on his rambling drive or whom he met along the way, it was the route he took – eschewing any road that was marked with an “I” followed by a number. It’s my preferred way to drive, too.

Luckily, no heartache or the dissolution of marriage has inspired my cross-country travels and each summer, along with my young family, we load into our camper van (a Dodge, whereas Heat-Moon traveled in a Ford) and we drive eastward, mostly along U.S. 2, until we reach my heart-home of Michigan’s Les Cheneaux Islands. Our route varies little each year, avoiding the interstate except for North Dakota because of our desire to camp in Theodore Roosevelt National Park along I-94. With two young children, our days on the road are short, and we camp at state parks in the states of the Rockies, Great Plains, and Great Lakes.

We live in a nation rich in public lands, and we love returning each summer to our favorites like Fort Peck in northeastern Montana and the Porcupines Mountains towering over the edge of Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We try to visit a new park in the states in between, this year along the Mississippi River in northern Minnesota where narrow roads led us along the points of interest that interstates and contemporary America like to swallow. Hardly a chain or box store resides along these rural routes, and we glimpse into parts of America that try to hold their own against the tide of bland homogenization. Bait and tackle shops, community playgrounds and summer festivals, and roadside fruit stands – a joyful welcome come August in the fertile Midwest – punctuate our trip, giving us a brief taste of the town, much more of an indication of its heart than what you normally experience off an interstate exit that hands you the same three fast food joints as it did 300 miles ago.

State parks also offer a unique experience and the best bang for your buck. I’ve also come to learn so much about America after staying, summer after summer, in campgrounds where so many different people, from all over, gather and take part in the nature experience that each park offers. For some, these campgrounds are the wildest places they’ve ventured. Others are well-seasoned travelers, as indicated by the little personalized flags planted outside their camper or trailer. For less than what it costs for dinner in the Flathead Valley, you can score yourself a place to sleep with electricity if your rig requires, flush toilets, warm showers, and typically a naturalist or ranger on hand to share their knowledge about the local flora and fauna. Kids roam the campground loops on their bikes, and our kids make fast friends at the playground with other kids who’ve also been squished into cramped quarters with their siblings for hundreds of miles for days on end.

So much has changed about America, especially travel since “Blue Highways,” but those rural routes still exist and are worth hitting the road for.