Blue Highways

The examined life is fractal in structure: each element is complex, all the way down to the minute decisions and tiny interactions that make up our days, and all the way up to the shape of our entire biography. I’m thinking about this as I begin the trips I’m taking in preparation for writing my book: I’m traveling by car to various sites, not taking the shortest routes between point A and point B, and relying on the kindness of friends for places to stay. In fact, just short of the beginning of my journey across country, I still don’t have 100% of my schedule set up, thanks to maintenance and staff troubles and other random factors at the places I’m visiting. This means both requiring flexibility for myself—which I kind of prefer anyway—and asking my friends to be accommodating, which I hope they don’t mind.

Being me, I’ve been thinking about what books I’m taking on the trip, almost more than the food I’m bringing and the specific roads I’m following. (I don’t have a GPS device, so route planning is still something I do using a combination of Google Maps and an actual paper road atlas.) One book I’m bringing is one of my essential nonfiction reads: Blue Highways by William Least Heat Moon. Not only is this a great travel book and a wonderful snapshot of its time, but it’s the direct inspiration for my own planned book.

That may sound odd. My book is about cosmology, and I’m not just wandering without a particular destination, as Heat Moon does. I’ll be visiting observatories and laboratories, universities and detectors deep under ground—but I hope some common themes still will be evident between our work. One is fairly superficial: Heat Moon began his trip after losing his university teaching job, and I first began thinking about this trip when I lost my own professorship. I didn’t leave right away, though, and I don’t have a van like Ghost Dancing to carry me. (I wish I did!)

The theme that’s more appropriate than loss is one of learning to see.

New ways of seeing can disclose new things: the radio telescope revealed quasars and pulsars, and the scanning electron microscope showed the whiskers of the dust mite. But turn the question around: Do new things make for new ways of seeing?
–William Least Heat Moon

To quote myself, “every new way to see reveals something new to be seen”. However, as Heat Moon points out, discovery changes the way we see too. I suspect it’s possible even for scientists to take the way we work for granted, at least other people’s work; in our own labors we tend to get embroiled in details and lose the larger view. So, as I travel around the country, I will be exploring as well as researching. The new things to see are in some sense familiar: my country, where I’ve lived all my life, but also my science. But those familiar things are new as well: I will be seeing them in a new way, as a writer hoping to share them with people who may not have discovered those things.

On a related note, here’s a song I love, writte by singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn. I apologize for the sound quality—I have a very primitive recording setup, and so getting the balance right between the mandolin, vocal, and harmonica was challenging.

Child of the Wind – Bruce Cockburn

The relevant stanza is this:

Little round planet in a big universe
Sometimes it looks blessed, sometimes it looks cursed
Depends on what you look at obviously
But even more it depends on the way that you see.
–Bruce Cockburn

One response to “Blue Highways”

  1. […] to get over that feeling soon: today I begin my tour of various sites around the United States that hopefully will culminate in the book tentatively titled Back Roads, Dark Skies: a Cosmological […]

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