“Roads to Quoz: An American Mosey” by William Least-Heat Moon
Reviewed by Richard West
I didn’t know what it meant either. Quoz: “referring to anything strange, incongruous, or particular; at its heart is the unknown, the mysterious. It rhymes with Oz,” writes the author, adding 378 pages later, “The highest form of travel for me is a wandering into a quoz and the subsequent search for its quintessence and a try at elucidating its mysteries.”
William Least-Heat Moon, the pen name of William Trogdon, first quozed around America 26 years ago in “Blue Highways”, which with Paul Theroux’s “The Great Railway Bazaar,” jump-started the modern American travel writing genre. In both books he avoids large cities and interstate highways, nosing about villages weathered as old stumps and wambling over backroad landscapes that on earlier maps would be labeled “Homoni Caudati Hic,” Here Live Men With Tails.
For “Quoz,” three years spent driving 16,000 miles, generally, in four U.S. quadrants: Idaho in the northwest, Maine in the northeast, New Mexico in the southwest, and Florida in the southeast. But first he puts the pedal to the metal to follow the Quachita (WASH-uh-taw) River from its beginning trickle in northwest Arkansas to its confluence 600 miles later in southeast Louisiana. This was a route followed in 1804, precisely two centuries before Least-Heat Moon’s moseying, by the “Forgotten Expedition,” another exploration of the new Louisiana Territory ordered by Thomas Jefferson, and led by two amateur scientists, fated to be forgotten thanks to Lewis and Clark’s better known journey.
In this first rambling we encounter some of the author’s idiosyncracies found during the other journeys that make this such a charming book:
…Grub joints. Least-Heat Moon knows how to pass by the burp-‘n-urp spots and find modest gems like the Mohawk Tavern in Monroe (La.) where waiters still wear dark pants, ironed white jackets, and don’t tell you their names. Oh yes, the food: delicious gumbo and boiled Gulf shrimp.
…Eccentric characters: Indigo Rocket, outdoor muralist in Camden, Arkansas, whose country house stuns the author and his wife: “Cross a hydroplane with a jet fighter, add a few details from a Formula # 1 race car, paint it in harmonious metallic pastels, tip the nose with small nodules of stained glass, and you’d have Indigo Rocket’s rocket ship.”
…Road Neologisms: what seems to be Least-Heat Moon familect, words known only to his tribe: “sprawl-marts” and sprawl-velopments”…”unincorptons” (ugly, free-of-charm villages)…”Anywhereica” and” Nightmareica” describing hideous fast-food-pawn shop–junkyard-strip center crassitudes surrounding many small towns.
…Road Lore: America’s only town with two hyphens? Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey…grow up near St. Louis, it’s Muh-zoo-ree, grow up in the western part, it’s Muh-zoo-rah…”as black Angus is to a bison, so slash pine is to longleaf, as utility is to nobility.”
Occasionally Least-Heat Moon rests between trips by tom peeking across the hedge of time to describe “the Goat Woman of Smackover Creek” (Ark.); a slightly creepy way a Wyoming man raised money from older women for a kid’s school; and a century-old Missouri murder case that after 50 pages you don’t think will pass your “Why?” test until the O. Henry-ish last sentence.
After moseying down the Quachita River, Least-Heat Moon and wife ramble along “Floridorable”’s Panhandle with a college chum who’s researching a book on old commercial fishermen’s taverns. They find smoked mullet fish-dip at Posey’s Oyster Bar and delectables at Eastpoint Oysterhouse and Raw Bar–-two Joycesters on the half-Shelleys. To outside Alamogordo, New Mexico, to visit with almost-70-year-old Jean (“I’m poor at owning”) Ingold, the green-living champ of the book who lives in 117 square feet, owns two lightbulbs, no car or bicycle, and saves $400 of her $600 monthly check. No mystery “her carbon footprint was that of a house cat.”
Moseying on: To Antioch College, Ohio, to chat up Frank Brusca, obsessed with photographing and documenting transcontinental U.S. 40; William Young in western Pennsylvania who knows all about the remarkable ten-story-high, 1000-feet-long Starrucca (Star-RUCK-ah) Bridge; Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to ride Richard Smart’s Railcycle on the abandoned Orofino Creek section of the Camas Prairie Railroad.
I quaddled (grumbled) at the absent quoz in some journeys: searching for the Quapaw Ghost Light which, of course, wasn’t; driving the bewilderness of Maine’s Unorganized Territory, an area the size of New Hampshire largely owned by lumber companies with nothing but trees and lakes; the road to nowhere in western Florida which was merely a ‘70's-era dope smuggling runway.
These rambles brought to mind Dr. Sam Johnson’s mot after moseying over to Wales:”I am glad that I have seen it, though I have seen nothing, because now I know there’s nothing to be seen.”
Finally, Least-Heat Moon and wife joined a small boat in Baltimore to cruise the 900-mile Intracoastal Waterway to Fernandina Beach, Amelia Island, Florida. As always he’s sharp as a packet of needles, noting the wildlife along with the beachside resorts whose streets are lined with the affluent effluent of condos and souvenir shops.
“Roads to Quoz” is an exhilarating ride, a textravaganza urging us all to follow the poet Coleridge when he wrote:
“ Keep moving! Steam, or gas, or stage,
Hold, cabin, steerage, hencoop’s cage–
Tour, journey, voyage, lounge, ride, walk,
Skim, sketch, excursion, travel–talk–
For move you must!”