LuAnn and I take the Blue Highways.
Have you heard of Blue Highways? I hadn’t until after we began this journey. It’s kind of a big deal. There are books, travelogues, websites, and apps dedicated to Blue Highways. So, what are they?
Blue Highways refer to “the roads less taken.” They are the back roads. They are the roads that are not freeways, four-or-more-lane super highways, toll roads, or any road marked Interstate or Turnpike. On all maps and atlases, they are literally the blue-colored highways.
Except that they’re not. And what, I ask, is up with that? Something must have changed. On all our maps—on our trusty road atlas—all the “back roads” are red.
So, let me start again.
LuAnn and I take the Red Roads. In particular, we look for red roads with green dots running alongside. The green dots, in our road atlas, are Scenic Drives.
I realize this kind of travel isn’t for everyone nor is it for every time we hit the road. But for us and for now, there are many advantages to a pilgrimage that stays off the beaten path. Along the Red Roads we meet the people who call those roads, home. We eat regional food at local cafes and drink great coffee in some of the most unique coffee shops you can imagine. Along the Red Roads we encounter the diverse culture and character of this nation and of our countrymen, women, and children. We are able to behold the beauty of every hill and dale, placid lake and babbling brook up close and personal and, if we want, we can stop at any time and any place to drink it in.
Our journey seems more real and meaningful when it’s up close and gentle.
Our nation’s highway system has, for good reason, done everything it can to straighten and level the roads. And sometimes, that’s a good thing. It makes for smooth and speedy travel. On the Red Roads, however, we’re not looking for smooth or speedy. On the Red Roads, we’re looking for the texture and couture of the land. We want to feel the ground rise and fall beneath us. We want to see everything we miss on the straight and level roads. On those convoluted back roads, turning a tight corner to discover a hidden treasure is a typical but never tiring occurrence.
Most of the red roads with green dots don’t allow room for speed. Oftentimes they’re rough and in need of repair. Sometimes they’re made of gravel. One road was mostly mud. Red mud. (Hey, a red road.) Sometimes, we find ourselves, for long stretches, ambling along at 45mph or even 35. (Or even less on the road pictured above.) At times I drive so slowly that when I approach a sharp turn in the road with a recommended speed posted, I have to speed up to match it. It takes twice as long to get anywhere at that rate but there’s a decisive advantage. At 40 mph we can have all the windows down. We can feel the air and smell the earth. And oh, the smells. The sweet aroma of someone’s fireplace. A wistful whiff of burning leaves. Burgers on a charcoal grill. The fragrance of freshly cut grass, lilacs in bloom, or an ancient pine grove. Or, for me, the nostalgic scent of a working farm. There’s nothing quite like it.
When we stop to fill gas at a Super Station along the Interstate, the guy next to us is another somebody like us from some other place on his way to somewhere else. In contrast, when we stop to fill gas at a small-town station along the Red Roads, the guy next to us is more than likely a hometown boy on his way to work or to pick up his girl to catch a movie at the local Drive-In. (Yes, there are still Drive-In movie theaters peppered across the nation.)
As we pass through countless small towns we are constantly aware of the reality that, like LuAnn’s and my home town in Northern Minnesota (population 350), this is home to everyone we see. This is where they live and breathe and laugh and cry. This is where they’ve raised generations of children and celebrated every Christmas since the homesteaders built the first hearth and home. With that perspective, every town, no matter how small or remote, teems with life. It becomes obvious there are no bit players on the human stage. Everyone holds the lead role in their own story. With that perspective, as we pass through everyone’s home town, we study the architecture of their houses, survey the contours of their yards, and, as often as possible, stop and pray at their churches. We watch out for their children, wave at the old-timers sitting on their porches, and witness the simple truth; we are all so very much alike.
Such are the red roads with the green dots. Such is our life just off the beaten path.