Still searching for something to search for
October 10, 2008
It’s been a big year for aging adventurers; first, Rambo comes out of retirement, then Indiana Jones takes up another crusade. Now, road warrior William Least Heat-Moon returns to the nation’s back roads, seeking out the hidden histories, chitchat memoirs and other nuggets of roadside nostalgia and mystery that he calls quoz, from a rarely used word meaning “something strange or absurd.”
Heat-Moon’s latest journey inevitably invites comparisons with the cross-country ramble documented in his 1982 bestseller “Blue Highways,” a work consistently counted among the great American road books. But unlike, say, Indy’s physique or Sly’s delivery, Heat-Moon’s prose has grown neither soft-in-the-middle nor self-parodying over the last few decades. The world-wise author of “Roads to Quoz” is still quick-witted and keenly observant, if a little grandfatherly, and his notes from the American road still contain equal parts humor and wisdom.
What one might expect out of Heat-Moon in 2008, here at the apex of the Big-Box Era, is a requiem for the golden age of Americana, those presumably long-gone days of mom-and-pop pie stands and chatty locals on porch swings. But while Heat-Moon mourns the occasional Burma-Shave billboard, he’s not awash in nostalgia for simpler times. “Times are never simpler,” he writes, “and the complexities of life don’t increase, they just change. …”
In fact, if the quasi-Rockwellian landscape Heat-Moon traveled in “Blue Highways” has been catastrophically diminished, you wouldn’t know it from his encounters with white-jacketed waiters in small-town taverns and domino-playing old-timers in country stores. Sure, the open road has changed some in 30 years. Heat-Moon’s musings, particularly as he passes through the Mountain West, are on distinctly 21st-century topics: coal-mining and climate change; technology, self-reliance, and alienation. But the author still encounters the kind of rural Western iconoclasm he documented 30 years ago, but no one in “Blue Highways” speaks as eloquently about overpopulation and overconsumption as the New Mexican eco-hermit grandma who commandeers two chapters of “Roads to Quoz.”
It’s interesting to watch Heat-Moon roll through a place like Steinhatchee, Fla., until recently, a near ghost town ” “unincorporated, unplanned, unpretentious, and for years unwanted. …” In “Blue Highways,” Heat-Moon might’ve mourned the impending economic collapse of just this sort of town. Today, he finds in Steinhatchee a scenario familiar to Western readers: a hamlet hanging on with some help from a tourist economy, developers at the door. Heat-Moon faithfully depicts the battle lines as fishermen, conservationists and real-estate pushers square off, but again, he pines not for yesteryear. Instead, the author holds out hope for communities ” condos or no ” that integrate new economies with old traditions, ones that opt “not to continue fighting to resurrect doomed ways but to shape a future to honor and enhance the most salubrious aspects of their past.” In general, “Roads to Quoz” reads like a ledger of impending hurdles for small-town USA. But it is definitely not a swan song; Heat-Moon suggests that the dominance of the strip mall is not yet final.
Where “Roads to Quoz” departs from its predecessor is primarily in structure and tone. The book isn’t a true travelogue in the manner of “Blue Highways,” but rather a collection of loosely affiliated essays, as Heat-Moon and his wife set out on a series of “moseys” from their home near Columbia, Mo. The author is less a reporter than a raconteur, spinning a few more yarns and holding forth a bit more than in the often dialogue-driven “Blue Highways.” Heat-Moon still paints vivid portraits of the characters he encounters, but now his own biography frequently entwines with those of his subjects, merging and departing in the way that an old county road might join and abandon a newer thoroughfare.
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Each of the book’s segments has its own vague premise, each mosey a hazy destination, but the essays drift freely into tangents and asides ” mimicking the journeys themselves, as the author explains in wink-and-nod “apologies” to the reader. One quoz frequently leads to another, as when research about roadside “ghost lights” opens the door to a dark family secret, or when a trip along a storied Idaho rail line prompts an encounter with a charismatic squatter. This topical hopscotching prevents “Roads to Quoz” from reading like a manifesto, as “Blue Highways” sometimes does, a declaration on the state of the union and the sad march of progress. The new book, however, may offer a truer depiction of how we come to understand the world through travel: one thorny lesson at a time, with frequent detours. If the young wanderer of “Blue Highways” was searching for things broad and indefinable ” America, home, renewal ” then the Heat-Moon of these pages is seeking only the nearest detour, nursing fervent hope it will lead to yet another.