In the mid-1970s America’s highways were apparently lonely places. Or at least they were a place where lonely people hoped to repair their fractured lives.
Gordon Lightfoot’s tenth album, Sundown, was his most successful. The 36-year-old Canadian folk singer laid down the tracks in Toronto in November 1973. The record was out by January 1974 and it topped the charts by late June. On the cover an unshaven Lightfoot stares wearily back at the camera, cigarette in hand and a Gibson 12-string at his side. The album opens with a song of wandering and displacement, “Somewhere U.S.A.” The narrator is “Out on the road like a low-down Joe.” He keeps pushing his rental car down the highway, but “with each passing mile one more dream has turned to clay.” Meeting a teary-eyed woman in some random town, he offers to grab his guitar and play her a song “in this hotel in Somewhere U.S.A.”
The album’s biggest single was the title track. A syncopated tale of infidelity and paranoia, “Sundown” also reached #1 in June 1974. The song alluded to Lightfoot’s volatile affair with Cathy Smith, a notorious groupie and drug dealer (she reportedly injected the speedball that killed John Belushi in 1982) who was cited in Lightfoot’s 1973 divorce settlement.
The next hit from Sundown was “Carefree Highway,” a nostalgic reflection upon a failed love affair. Lightfoot sings about “turnin’ back the pages to the times I love best” and wondering “if she’ll ever do the same.” Up-tempo and relatively bright, the top-ten charting song was filled with an ascending and descending acoustic guitar solo, a sonic drive up and down rolling hills.
The title of this song was taken from Arizona Route 74, also known as the “Carefree Highway,” which passes through the Phoenix suburb of Peoria. (Not to be confused with its namesake city of Peoria, Illinois—the downtown of which is bisected by Interstate 74.) Lightfoot kicks off the song by singing, “Pickin’ up the pieces of my sweet shattered dream….” In the refrain, he implores the road to take away his troubles:
“Carefree highway, let me slip away on you
Carefree highway, you seen better days
The mornin’ after blues from my head down to my shoes
Carefree highway, let me slip away, slip away on you”
Lightfoot released Sundown at a less-than-stellar time in American history. As Jimmy Carter famously put it in 1979, years of social and political turmoil had caused Americans to lose self-confidence. Although Carter never actually used the word, many subsequently characterized this 1970s trough as a time of “malaise.” The United States had all but lost the war in Vietnam by 1973 and was suffering an epic oil crisis. The nation was mired in a major recession. The Watergate scandal prompted Richard Nixon’s inglorious resignation in August 1974, the same month that “Carefree Highway” began its ascent up the charts. The divorce rate would climb to an all-time high by decade’s end.
Around this time a 38-year-old writer of Native American ancestry lost his job teaching English at a small college in central Missouri. His wife left after a decade of marriage. Not knowing whether to withdraw or expand, the Ph.D. did both. In 1978 William Trogdon outfitted his green Ford Econoline with a bed and portable cook stove—as well as copies of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and the Native American classic Black Elk Speaks. Naming the van “Ghost Dancing” to invoke a late-19th-century Indian spiritual ritual, he set out on a 13,000-mile trip around the perimeter of the United States.
Avoiding the homogeneous interstates as much as possible, Trogdon visited out-of-the-way places with interesting names, traveling the state and county routes formerly marked in blue on old Rand McNally road maps. During his trek, he encountered Americans of all stripes and reflected on the changes modernity had wrought upon a once-native land. Occasional introspection led him to ponder his estranged wife, a mixed-race woman whom he dubbed “the Cherokee.”
Trogdon published a book about his sojourn in 1982 under the nom de plume William Least Heat-Moon. Although initially rejected by several publishers, the aptly titled Blue Highways—like Gordon Lightfoot’s Sundown—was a huge success. It spent 42 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and has sold over four million copies. In a 1983 People magazine interview, the author explained that he was inspired by “failure, emptiness, [and] desire for renewal.” He was, in short, “running away” from his own personal malaise.
Deep into his voyage, William Least Heat-Moon passed through Phoenix. Then he turned to the northeast, where he and Ghost Dancing drove through the Tonto National Forest. Had the self-proclaimed “blue roadman” instead turned the Econoline to the northwest, in a mere 30 miles he would have encountered Arizona 74. There he could have driven the same “Carefree Highway” that inspired Gordon Lightfoot’s hit single released less than four years earlier.
In the 1970s, North America’s highways provided solace for lonely people searching for meaning in a world that seemed to be taking away so much of what it had given in the postwar decades. More than likely, Gordon Lightfoot and William Least Heat-Moon were not the only people taking to the blue highways, looking to free themselves of their cares—and hoping to rediscover authentic people, places, and relationships somewhere in the U.S.A.