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Book review: “Roads to Quoz” November 23, 2008

Posted by Ron Warnick in bicycling, Books, Ghosts and Mysteries, Highways, History, Road trips.

After losing his job and marriage, William Least Heat-Moon and his Ford Econoline van (dubbed Ghost Dancing) embarked on a 13,000-mile journey around America. He avoided the interstates and drove  two-lane highways and country roads. He eschewed chain restaurants for mom-and-pop eateries. And he met a lot of interesting people.

“Blue Highways: A Journey into America” sprung from those experiences. The literate and detailed book became a monster best-seller in 1982-83 and inspired countless Americans to seek their own two-lane adventures, including future Route 66ers.

A quarter-century later, Heat-Moon has released “Roads to Quoz: An American Mosey” (576 pages, $27.99, Little Brown & Co.). Heat-Moon has written other books in the interim, but he finally returns to what made him famous — writing stories about his two-lane adventures.

The “quoz” (rhymes with Oz) in the title means “anything strange, incongruous or peculiar; at its heart is the unknown, the mysterious.” It also reflects his fondness for words that start with Q, one of the least-used letters of the alphabet. His new wife shares this inclination and is nicknamed “Q” in the book.

And Heat-Moon’s search for quirky stories from the road is largely successful. In the book, he:

  • Spends a memorable night at a talented mural painter’s home.
  • Traces the length of the Ouachita River in Arkansas and Louisiana.
  • Ventures into the amazingly remote North Woods of Maine.
  • Talks to the caretaker of Jack Kerouac’s original scroll of “On the Road.”
  • Investigates the murder of a prominent lawyer in downtown Joplin, Mo., in 1901 — upon which the reader eventually discovers a shocking twist.
  • Teases out secretive details of the “Road to Nowhere” in Steinhatchee, Fla.
  • Tells the odd tale of the “Goat Woman of Smackover Creek.”
  • Visits a women who lives in a 117-square-foot dwelling, lives on $1,500 a year and has “the carbon footprint of a house cat.”
  • Discovers the tragic fate of the Great Mound of Jonesville, La., an American Indian earthen structure that was even bigger than the enormous Monk’s Mound at Cahokia Mounds State Historic Site in Illinois.

Heat-Moon and Q also pilot a Railcycle on abandoned railroad tracks and take a boat trip down the Intracoastal Waterway. But most of “Roads to Quoz” take place behind the wheel of four-wheeled vehicles.

What should be of particular interest to Route 66 aficionados is a segment about Heat-Moon and Q’s quest to find the Hornet Ghost Light, aka the Spook Light, a few miles off the Mother Road near the Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri borders. To their surprise, they see the apparition for several hours in the darkness, describing it as a UFO — an “Unexplained Flickering Orb.” Without revealing too much here, Heat-Moon explains the phenomenon, using detective work that would do Route 66 researcher Jim Ross proud.

(As an aside, Ross and fellow roadie Kip Welborn are listed in the acknowledgments of the book.)

Also, roadies should be intrigued by a lengthy segment devoted to Frank Brusca, who has spent virtually all of his adult life obsessively but quite happily researching U.S. 40, aka the National Road.

Heat-Moon’s writing in “Roads to Quoz” contains a lot of tangents that veer off the subject, and his proclivity for using obscure words will have some readers reaching for their dictionaries. But these minor shortcomings are leavened by his humility and gentle humor. He’s also a great storyteller, and has a knack of getting even the most taciturn stranger to open up to him.

And Heat-Moon has the right sensibility. His explanation of his use of the word “mosey” is illustrative:

… [Y]ou’ll note I’ve turned it into a noun about jogging along literally and figuratively, the destinations little places in the nation or in a motion. It’s a mosey because roads to quoz everywhere are posted “reduced speed ahead.” To hurry, in a space or idea, is to miss obscured signposts, hidden turnoffs, or an exit to Sublimity City (Kentucky), or Surprise Valley (California), or even Dull Center (Wyoming). To go leisurely today is almost un-American, so putting mosey, a pure Americanism, into the title of a book about American verges on illogic and invites mocking from any citizen carrying a fastport issued by the Department of Speed in a nation hell-bent for destination if not destiny in the Posthaste Era …

Let them mock. Heat-Moon is a roadie. He gets it.

Highly recommended.


1. Laurel - November 23, 2008

I just started it. So far, so good!

2. Trevor Hilton - November 24, 2008

I have “Blue Highways”. Everytime I read it, I want to pack up and hit the road.

Let’s face it. My dream job would be to have the late, great Charles Kuralt’s old job!

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