Thursday, August 19, 2010


Somewhere in the Loire Valley of France.  Don't ask me where because I was completely 
lost at this point

There are two kinds of people in this world – highway people and blue highway people.  Whoever designed the mind-numbing, butt-numbing stretch of I-70 between Indianapolis (or anyplace in Indiana, for that matter) and St. Louis were highway people to the extreme.  It’s strictly Point A to Point B driving.  The engineers forbade deviation on this path by erasing even the most gentle curves, making it 250 miles of Indianapolis 500 straightaways.  They built bridges where the road might feel an inclination to dip down with the natural undulations of the Midwestern landscape  and glance sideways at a creek.  They put up small signs in green just so you’ll know you’re passing over the Kaskaskia River or Big Walnut Creek since you’re too high above and passing by too fast to notice the riches of this land.

More and more I desire to get off the highway.  I’m not in a William Least Heat Moon kind of blue highway mood, but some days the destination just has to wait a bit so that I can enjoy the drive.  There’s that certain road.  You round a curve that opens to a sea of sunflowers.  You need to stop and you need to pull the car over.  It doesn’t matter if you should have been someplace an hour ago.  And it doesn’t matter that you really have no idea where you are right now or how to get where you want to be.  All you know is that you need to stop and you need to look.

Maybe you’re the first person who ever saw this curve in exactly this light.  Maybe a thousand people have stopped in this exact spot to fill their eyes and absorb the million little suns that exuded so much energy in that field – awakening the senses more than three cans of Red Bull.  Like you, they then drove on, certain now that the detour (intentional or not) was worth it.

The blue highway moments don’t have to be about jaw-dropping vistas.  I’m only ninety minutes from home after my visit to the Indiana State Fair with friends, but I know that if I don’t get off I-70 right now I’ll never survive this last stretch stuck in a tunnel of corn stalks and big rig trailers where the scenery never changes, just the truck stop chains promoted on the mud flaps and the bumper stickers explaining just who is and who isn’t an American.  So for no particular reason I exit to see what Altamont, IL has to offer besides relief from the hum of the highway.

A hand-lettered sign taped to the pole of a stop sign points me toward the antique stores along Main Street.  Stretching my legs in the aisles of one, I visit American history among the shelves lined with heavy depression glass of ruby reds and cobalt blues, well-used Boy Scout manuals, handmade lace doilies that adorned a grandmother’s dressing table, and the playful Shawnee pottery of Midwest corn stalks, pigs, and watering cans.  My reward for taking a break in my rush from Point A to Point B is a Blue Ridge Southern Pottery maple leaf-shaped cake tray painted with pastel flowers the color of spring – something to cool me off on this sizzling August afternoon.

The large man at the counter, sweating in the heat of the unair-conditioned antique mall, chats about his shop’s singular honor of having the cleanest bathrooms out of the five antique stores in town and his longing for a small refrigerator in the back to stock with cool drinks for these dog days of summer.  I tell him I hope Martha Stewart never discovers Blue Ridge pottery and puts it in her magazine or I won’t be able to afford it ever again.  He laughs, saying places like his live and die by Martha whims (a modern circle of life?).  I celebrate my find on the way out of town with a chocolate soft-serve cone at the Altamont Dairy Bar.  Sitting at the picnic tables between the walk-up window and the gravel lot, slowing sweeping my tongue around the mound of cold, chocolatey goodness, I count two cars driving by and three yellowjackets checking out the ice cream drips that coat the brown tabletop.  It’s now time to hit the road and make my destination before dinner.

The trick, of course, is finding the balance between highways and blue highways every day.  Charging through from morning to night might seem like moving closer to a goal, but I always have to remind myself doesn’t matter how fast I go if I’m going in the wrong direction.  On the other hand, watching a youTube video of a dog doing the samba – that’s not a blue highway moment.  That too easily becomes an endless loop of hitting the road with no map and no plan of ever getting anywhere.  Reading a bit of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird or chatting with my husband about our days or pulling a few weeds – these are definitely detours that invigorate and set me up to keep moving toward my destination.  It’s on those backroads that I find many of my treasures.  I just can’t forget, though, to point myself toward the on-ramp eventually.

My Blue Ridge pottery cake plate treasure

What is your favorite detour -- literal or figurative?  Please share it in the comments.
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