If you like your travels interesting and your books the best kind of slow, then ramble on out to find a copy of Roads to Quoz: An American Mosey. William Least Heat-Moon, who’s driven back roads and side roads and everything but Interstate roads for decades, may be the best traveling companion one could want. What could be better on a mosey than the company of a well-read, curious, funny and brilliant raconteur?
A mosey, as you know, is a leisurely walk, and even though Heat-Moon travels mostly by car, the thing is, he’s not in a hurry. Instead, he’s in search of quoz, defined as anything “strange, incongruous or peculiar.” Quoz-finding comes easy if you know where to look, and Heat-Moon knows: off the main roads and in places that haven’t been mowed down by the uniformity, as he puts it, of “crapulent consumerism.” In short, he seeks out locales with character. And characters.
This mosey comprises six different adventures, including down the Ouchita Valley through Arkansas and Louisiana (in the tracks of William Clark’s “Forgotten Expedition”); into northern Florida (south of the black-eyed-pea line); through the Maine woods (in the footsteps of Thoreau); and down the eastern seaboard’s Inter-coastal Waterway (by boat). It would be a mistake, though, to think these journeys move tout de suite from A to B. Instead, we follow a meandering road of digressions—a most serendipitous route. We may, while looking at the scenery, veer off to a side track devoted to the letter Q, for example, or the story of a childhood quilt, the history of a local bird—or one of a thousand other paths through the underbrush. Heat-Moon celebrates his method, and rightly so; he travels in the spirit of discovery and of Sterne, and the fun often turns meta. For example, readers often encounter warning signs: “DIGRESSION ALERT,” or instructions: “TO BE READ PRESTISSIMO.”
As we travel alongside, Heat-Moon gathers up a very cabinet of wonders. Among them, a recipe for pickle pie, a catalogue of regional cuisines, and people worth knowing and remembering. For example: Arkansas muralist Indigo Rocket who’s made himself a house so bedazzling it leaves the usually voluble Heat-Moon momentarily tongue-tied; and Jean Ingold, who “walked away from a pampered life” and took up a simple life in a small trailer in Alamagordo, New Mexico, with the “carbon footprint…of a house cat.” We hear tales of local legends like the Goat Woman of Smackover Creek; and the Road to Nowhere in Florida, whose story takes some sleuthing to find, and ends with a whole town, practically, put on trial. We also hear “A Poetical History of Satan,” the story of a 19th-century murder in which Heat-Moon claims to be a participant. He turns out to be right, and it’s a page-turner, that one.
Among the book’s greatest pleasures is the character of Heat-Moon’s wife and traveling companion, Q (short for Quintana Roo, the name she chose for herself). Wit, master sleuth, and Queen of the bon mot, Q’s comments fall like punch-lines into nearly every scene. Delighted by travel and game for anything, she, as my friend Annee would say, is a pisser.
A darker undercurrent runs through the mosey, a gentle prodding at the ruin that the American Way has made of local cultures, local places and the global climate. Yet Heat-Moon never hectors us or waxes nostalgic about what’s lost. Instead, he shows us what treasure looks like and how to find it. And in those goody-bags of quoz, one hopes, we find things worth savoring—and saving. In this way, a mosey becomes more than a walk, but a way to live.
What’s new in your quoz collection?