QUINCY -- In 1978, William Least Heat-Moon traveled 13,000 miles across America using only the nation's blue highways, or highways that were drawn in blue on former Rand McNally road maps. Heat-Moon's expedition across America later served as the inspiration of his New York Times best-selling book, "Blue Highways." The book was published in 1983.
Forty-one years after Heat-Moon's trip, Bernie Harberts is traversing a similar path, using the nation's blue highways to take him from his home in Lenoir, N.C., to Idaho.
"This speaks to the heart and soul of who I am," said Harberts, who previously worked as a jockey at Iroquois Steeplechase, a derby in Nashville, Tenn. He also worked for Weining, a German lumber manufacturing company.
Harbert's trek across America -- his third such expedition -- is a nine-month trip. Unlike Heat-Moon, who used a Volkswagon van, Harberts is traveling with a pair of mules, Brick and Cracker, as his primary mode of transportation. The unusual traveling trio is averaging 12 miles per day.
The mules and Harberts are well-traveled as they have previously gone from Canada to Mexico, traveling through 10 states on a 14-month expedition that was filmed for a docu-series on Rocky Mountain PBS. The docu-series titled "Lost Sea Expedition," researches the different origin stories of various American cultures regarding the prehistoric sea that once covered the Great Plains. The series recently was picked up by Amazon Prime, an online video streaming service.
His current trek across America is not being filmed. Instead, Harberts said he is looking for patterns in America.
"The one that fascinates me right now is the trash you see along the road," Harberts said.
He added that in Illinois, he frequently found gloves strewn across the state. In Indiana, it was liquor bottles. In Kentucky, it was roadkill.
Harberts, 51, said his treks across the continent help him rediscover the wonder of America, its people and its natural beauty.
"What I have learned on this trip so far is that the divide between the reality of what we see on our screens -- and notice I said screens, not television -- is not real," said Harberts, who reached Quincy on Wednesday from Meredosia. A self-described "conventional free spirit," Harberts said his trip through America's heartland has been inspiring.
"If people were to believe everything that they would read or see on their screens, then they would likely think that this country was in the middle of a new civil war," Harberts said.
He remained in Quincy as he awaited the assistance of area resident Todd Curry, who agreed to loan him a trailer to take his mules across the Mississippi River via the Quincy Bayview Bridge.
"The complete strangers that I have met along the way have really knocked the bumpy peaks off of this voyage," said Harberts, who is keeping a journal detailing the names and details of how he has been helped by others along the way. "They have provided me pasture, with shelter, with food, with encouragement. The incredible trust that these people have really just knocks the fearful edges that I may have about this trip right off."
Harberts said his trip through America's heartland has helped restore his and other's faith in the American people.
"I have never lost faith in our country, but I did kind of lose faith in the people," Harberts said. "A lot of people are cynical right now, and often for good reason, but this trip, though, has changed all of that, and I know I am not the only one."
He pointed to a poem that he received from a 93-year-old man in Shelbyville, who thanked him for taking such a trip. While he appreciates the letters, emails and messages that he receives on his website, RiverEarth.com, Harberts said he has no intention of cultivating a following. He said he will be content if the sight of him and his trusty mules, Brick and Cracker, bring a smile to someone's face at least once a day.
"Those unscripted moments is what is propelling me forward through this tangled mess we call America," Harberts said.