Back in 1982, William Least Heat Moon ,jobless and newly divorced , fitted his camper with a bunk bed and set out to explore America, Sticking to the backroads , meeting interesting people and listening to their stories, he distilled his experiences into his first book, Blue Highways, which became an instant best seller. I remember reading and enjoying it though I somehow missed his later efforts , Prairyerth and River Horse , both of which were well received. His latest tome (562 pages) is Roads to Quoz : An American Mosey and it is well worth reading ,though I do have some caveats.
The title needs some explanation. The word ” Quoz ” means anything strange , incongruous or peculiar and ,at it’s heart, mysterious. ” Mosey”, of course, means a leisurely ramble though it is normally used in the verb form rather than as a noun. The book then is about several trips that Least Heat Moon made across the length and breadth of America in the company of his second wife “Q” ( real name Jo Ann). These rambles, all of which started out from his home state of Missouri, occurred over a period of years and only sometimes had a definite objective.On their first trip Least Heat Moon and his wife followed the course of the Ouachita River through Arkansas and Louisiana into Mississippi. The second took them southeast to the upper part of the Gulf Coast of Florida in an abortive search for watermen’s taverns , places where people who made their living from the sea might congregate of an evening.They may not have found many of those but they did gain some fascinating insights into the drug smuggling and the political corruption that is rife in that region.Their third journey was into the Plains States , southwest through Kansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico as they looked into the mystery of his greatgrandfather’s murder in 1901 and went in search of the Quapaw Ghost Lights.Following that they went NorthEast through Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Massachussetts all the way toNew Hampshire and Maine.For their fifth jaunt, they struck out northwest through Colorado, Wyoming , Utah and Idaho .The last chapter in the book describes a journey by sloop starting out in Baltimore, MD. and ending up at Fernandina Beach FL.
Least Heat Moon does not confine himself just to describing the countryside he passes through. His descriptions are larded with riffs on Americana, history, flora and fauna, geology and ecology and his conversations with the authentic Americans that he meets on these journeys. All of these, taken together, give a more complete picture of the country than a mere travelogue would. Some of the subjects he touches on include Indian burial mounds, the expeditions of William Dunbar and George Hunter,Florida’s Road to Nowhere, magpies, Railcycles, and the Gullah people of South Carolina. There are many others.
For me, the most enjoyable parts of the book are the descriptions of these chance acquaintances and the stories that Moon is able to elicit from them.: “Mrs Weatherford” a sprightly lady of 80 who relates an incident in her childhood in northern Arkansas when her pious mother mistook a chance appearance of the Northern Lights for a sign that the end of the world was nigh and destroyed her husband’s still so that they might be cleansed of their sins and received into Heaven; and what happened the next morning when it turned out to have been a false alarm.”Indigo Rocket”, a mural painter in Camden Arkansas, who tells him about the time he was beamed up into a UFO and the effect it had on the course of his life. Jean Ingold , a woman in her 70’s who lives all alone in a house trailer in Alamogordo , New Mexico on less than $5,000 a year and whose efforts at conservation are a salutary lesson for the rest of us.”Max Dwightman”, the wounded Korean War vet who tried so hard to make something of his life and chose an unusual way to do it.I’ll remember these unique characters and their stories for a long time to come.Moon’s wife, “Q”, trained as a lawyer but now a historian,is an entertaining companion always ready with a tart , pithy comment . One of them : “”Why not call a state penetentiary a gated community ?” (LOL)
Least Heat Moon has a Ph.D in English Literature and started out in life as a professor. His love of the English language unfortunately marred this readers’ enjoyment of the book. I have a good vocabulary and I like words as much as the next man but I fail to see the purpose of using obscure words such as “adytum” and “retrorse” and “quodlibectic” and dozens of others like them. There isn’t even any point in my looking them up in the dictionary because I’ll never run across them again and no way that I’ll remember their meaning. Their only purpose seems to be to make the writer look smart and the reader look dumb.
Least Heat Moon also has a habit of going off on tangents , breaking off from his narrative to expound on anything that takesw his fancy. Initially, this is charming and his sidelights are thought provoking and entertaining . Unfortunately, he carries this tactic to extremes and his digressions become annoying . He attempts to justify this style of his but his explanation is condescending rather than convincing.
One of the recurring themes in the book is the mindless destruction of our natural resources by developers and others pursuing the “American Dream” of ever bigger houses. He waxes eloquent on the effect this has on the environment and what it will mean for future generations. I am fully in sympathy with his sentiments but , while his nostalgia for the past is understandable, it is unrealistic to expect that things will remain the way they were.
I don’t want to give a wrong impression of the book. Roads to Quoz is a book well worth reading for the picture it paints of our wonderful country and its people.One of my ambitions had been to travel across the country ,experiencing it’s awesome wonders and the diversity of its inhabitants. It looks unlikely that I will do so but reading Least Heat Moon’s books will at least help me experience these pleasures vicariously. It’s just that Roads to Quoz could have been so much better if the author had not been so self indulgent. If he had kept the reader’s interests in mind, this book would have been a hundred pages shorter and much more enjoyable.
Roads to Quoz: An American Mosey. Little , Brown and Co. ( October 2008).New York. $ 27.99.