Roads to Quoz
An American Mosey
William Least Heat-Moon
Little, Brown: 582 pp., $27.99
For the moment, disregard the woman who, in the midst of her baptism in an Arkansas river, began hollering about the hand of God when a catfish swam between her legs. Pay no mind either to the caretaker of the 120-foot scroll manuscript of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" (worth $1,400 per inch), who travels the country with it and calls it "Jack in the Box"; or to the goat-keeper resident of an old medicine-show truck near a place called Smackover Creek, who has lived cloistered behind a stockade for years but was once musically trained at the Juilliard School; or even to Dorothy Parker, bygone wit of the Algonquin Round Table, whose ashes are at the NAACP national headquarters in Baltimore, marked by her requested epitaph, "Excuse My Dust."
Those are details from what is, in some respects, a Great American Gothic, William Least Heat-Moon's "Roads to Quoz," a book that -- once the problem of its title is surmounted -- is a lucid if looping account of three years of wanderings that covered some 16,000 miles, mostly in the company of the author's wife (referred to as "Q"), a witness whose favorite Parker saying -- "What fresh hell is this?" -- is invoked more than once.
Heat-Moon is best known for his 1982 book "Blue Highways," in which, at 38, having lost a job and separated from a wife, he toured the country in a 1975 Econoline van he named Ghost Dancing. Abetted by what little remained of his savings ($428), he stuck to two-lane roads, and the account that emerged, quoting Walt Whitman and citing liberally from history, contained uncannily good portraiture of American lives and the social and material texture of places he visited. (His other work includes the earlier "River-Horse," the log of a cross-continental journey by boat, and "PrairyErth," an ecological and historical examination of a county in central Kansas.)
"Blue Highways" was marked by a strong sense of contingency -- its days unfolded as if by temporal accident -- which does not exhibit itself in "Roads to Quoz." Rather, this is a far more directed work involving a series of planned trips: tracing the route of the Ouachita River from Arkansas into Louisiana, paralleling a "Forgotten Expedition" sent out by Thomas Jefferson; searching for the lost Florida in the state's panhandle, perhaps a step ahead of its extinction through development; tracking down ghostly lights in Missouri while investigating an early 20th century murder; examining Route 40, a series of linked roads that were "the Ur-Mother of American transcontinental highways," precursor to the interstate system (and more significant than the much-touted Route 66); venturing into the great north woods of Maine, loosely in the steps of Henry David Thoreau; and motoring by ship down the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, whose continued existence may be, by Heat-Moon's report, an open question.
Mark Twain, in remarks prefacing "Roughing It," suggested that his road book of the West was the result of years of "variegated vagabondizing." This neatly sums up the character of much travel writing that appears in collected form. Heat-Moon, who doesn't fit easily into that tradition, describes his own approach as "investigative journeying," borne out in his style of reporting, which integrates quotations from previous travelers (prominences such as Thoreau, Audubon and the naturalist Edwin Way Teale, as well as obscure but pertinent minor sources) and compacts the deeper history of the terrain he traverses -- "to consider our place in our place" is his telling phrase.
Wherever he is, Heat-Moon's thought is often tethered to questions of sustainability and equitability, concerns roughly according with what the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess calls "deep ecology." One of the more interesting characters to appear in "Roads to Quoz" is a longtime correspondent of Heat-Moon's whom he discovers living so spartanly in New Mexico that he marvels, "Her carbon footprint was that of a house cat."
"Day in and day out," Heat-Moon writes, "whether we perceive them or not, we continually pass through human shadows, ghostly presences that depend not at all on the supernatural but, rather, upon our openness to move in the deeps of time." Perhaps the starkest example he presents is in Louisiana, where the Ouachita vanishes rather than ends, "lopped and chopped as if it were in fact a snake daring to startle the gardener." This area was passed by the Forgotten Expedition in 1804. It then included the Great Mound, the second-highest native earthworks in America, which stood for 1,000 years before Civil War soldiers lopped off the top for a gun emplacement. In 1931, Gov. Huey Long's highway department used most of the remainder for road fill, reducing it nearly to street level.
"If you've ever driven U.S. 84 in eastern Louisiana and crossed the Huey Long Bridge, your wheels have rolled directly over the soil of what once was one of the great monuments of ancient America," Heat-Moon observes.
Despite his vision of a society that has depleted far too much (forests, aquifers, coastlines) through its excesses, Heat-Moon's sense of humor remains intact. Before entering the vastness of Maine's north woods, he watches as a man uses a wetted finger to draw a map on the top of a bar, only to see his directions evaporate.
That's very much within his probabilistic idea of travel -- a quoz is anything "strange, incongruous, or peculiar," which offers Heat-Moon great latitude. For him, the journey includes the nation's largest gated community (chopped into an Arkansas mountaintop), a publicly financed road to nowhere (a drug smugglers' landing strip in Florida), "worship centers" with "the architectural lines of an auto-body shop" (Oklahoma) and, in the stretches between churches, "miles of abandoned buildings, of decaying house trailers steadily vanishing under glomerations of cast-off appliances," including "one remarkable stack of refrigerators topped by a ragged American flag flapping a conqueror's tired glory over the rummage."