That Girl’s Blog: Leon and Blue Highways

10390282_10202044097279772_6740659059656600072_nHave you ever heard the term “blue highways”?

If you have a bit of an adventurous spirit, or regularly travel by car or motorcycle and remember looking up towns and directions on the old Rand-McNally atlas, you know.

These are the back roads — not the major throughways through towns, states and across the country that simply take you from point A to point B. These are the roads that inspire country songs and great American novels. There is something special about taking the back roads that has a romanticism, drawing people away from home and out into the world.

“Blue Highways” is also the name of a book written by William Least Heat-Moon and published in 1982. I had to look the book up this morning after a chance encounter with a very interesting man yesterday afternoon.

My boyfriend and I decided to take advantage of the rare combination of a vacation day and beautiful weather to pull our Harleys out of the garage and take a ride to Provincetown. I love riding with Shawn because he knows the winding back roads of the Cape, which keeps us off the Mid-Cape and Rte 28, and away from traffic for most of the trip. We wind along marshes and through wooded roads and near cranberry bogs and large houses overlooking the Bay and small ponds.

13509602_10206545833060353_1313587016_oAfter about an hour of twists and turns and a near collision with a turkey and her poults, we pulled into the parking lot at Rock Harbor in Olreans. This is the new home for the now famous Coast Guard boat featured in the new movie “Finest Hours”. I snapped some pictures (like any good tourist) and we watched a few fishing boats and a scallop trawler power by. We decided to keep the stop short and headed back to our bikes. While Shawn was wiping bug or two off his windshield, a car pulled into the space behind our bikes. It was an older gentleman and his window was rolled down.

After a moment, he gestured to us, “Ever take those things out to that rally in South Dakota?” He was talking about the famous Sturgis Bike Rally that takes place every August.
“Nope. Not yet,” Shawn said, “But I did just get back from Laconia Bike Week.”

“A lot of bikers go to that rally in South Dakota,” the old man said.

One of the things I have learned about riding a Harley is that people love to talk about their bikes and their adventures. I guessed this man was in his 70’s and by the way he was gazing at our bikes, I figured he used to have his own.

“Do you ride?” I asked.

13493239_10206545826820197_636300970_o“No… Not me.” And then one side of his mouth turned into a grin, “But I did drive the four corners of the country in a van from New York. I took only ‘blue highways’. Have you ever heard that term? It comes from a book called ‘Blue Highway’.”

I had not heard of the book, but I wanted to hear his story. I introduced myself and took off my riding glove to shake his hand. His name was Leon, and he talked with enough New York in his words, that I had him pegged as a wash-ashore.

He told me how the book was written by a Native American who was going through a rough time in his life. He was going through a divorce and lost his job, so he packed up a van and drove the perimeter of the country stopping at to each corner of the United States. He took only back roads the entire way. Leon said he took mostly the same route. He even loaded his van onto a ferry from Bellevue, Washington to get to Alaska! “The food on the ferry wouldn’t have even lasted in a prison, it was so bad!”

There was such earnestness in his story, that I couldn’t help but imagine what it must have been like to travel around the country in a van. He said “I’d eat and sleep in the van for a few days until I stunk, and then I’d check into a hotel”. He also said that he had reached out to the author of the book and corresponded with him a few times. Leon was very proud of out-driving Mr. Heat-Moon by a few hundred miles in his own trip!

We chatted a little while longer. Leon wanted to get away from New York, so he had settled on the Cape. He didn’t really have family here, but he waters the lawn at his ex-wife’s house in Brewster while she lives in New York. Then he told me his age: “I am 90 years old.” I asked what he likes to do and he said he mostly draws and listens to classical music. (WFCC is his favorite radio station, by the way).

Wow.

13509525_10206545820460038_620363501_o“I want to give you a present. Do you mind?” He got out of the front seat of his car and walked to the tailgate. “You don’t mind, do you?”

Shawn and I looked at each other and followed him. “I have always tied my own flies for fishing,” he told us as he pulled out a board with several fly-fish hooks. They were brightly colored with metallic string and feathers. “But recently, I started sending them out to be made into ladies pins. Please, pick any one you want.”

“Really? They are beautiful!” I picked a green one with a long swooping feather for a tail and carefully placed it in my saddle bag.

When I told him I would love the chance to hear more stories, he scribbled down his phone number on a piece of paper from a small notebook. “I’ll be happy to tell you more stories. Some of them might even be true!” There was an impish twinkle in his eye that made me smile.

We shook hands and said our good byes. Leon sat back down in the front of his car and called out for us to be safe. We waved and fired up the bikes. As we pulled away I looked in my mirror at Leon sitting in his car. There was something wistful as he watched us pull away. I am sure he was thinking about driving to the four corners of the country, or maybe he was just wondering which back roads he might take to drive home this afternoon.

There are a handful of traveling books I have read. It seems there is one great one every decade or so. There is John Steinbeck’s “My Travels with Charley” written in 1962; “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” written by Robert Persig in 1974; and now I am looking forward to reading “Blue Highway” written by William Least Heat-Moon in 1982. All of these books were written before cell phone and GPS. There are stories about people and places and conversations and adventures.
Maybe, before the summer is over, we can all find a blue highway to travel… Even for a short adventure.

About Cat Wilson

Cat Wilson is "That Girl" on Cape Country 104 – a Cape Cod native and longtime Cape radio personality. She is a passionate supporter of Military and Veteran causes on the Cape and also hosts local music spotlight program, “The Cheap Seats” on Ocean 104.7.

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