Twenty years after "Blue Highways," William Least Heat-Moon crisscrosses America once again, by back roads and small towns.
The opening pages of William Least Heat-Moon's new book, "Roads to Quoz," make plain what his readers already know: He's going to ramble. The first chapter is an extended riff on words that start with the letter "q," followed by a definition of "quoz": "anything strange, incongruous, or peculiar; at its heart is the unknown, the mysterious." That's the book's polestar: What follows is Heat-Moon's effort to locate strangeness in an increasingly dull, big-box America.
The strategy is similar to that of his classic 1983 travel book, "Blue Highways," though his ambition has since slackened a bit. For the previous book he covered 42,500 miles in a matter of months, driving solo; this time around he clocks a mere 16,000 on the odometer across three years, usually accompanied by his wife, Jo Ann. What hasn't changed is his taste for back roads, taverns (that's where you find the talkers) and history. He warms to men who live to document and preserve, dedicating entire chapters to folks like Glenn Gore, who's shot 6,000 photographs and 120 hours of video of the Ouachita River running through Arkansas and Louisiana; Frank Xavier Brusca, who's spent three decades tracking milestones on Hwy. 40, America's Ur-highway; and James Canary, the caretaker of the "scroll" manuscript of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road."
Heat-Moon obviously has a kindred spirit in Kerouac, and his prose, like Kerouac's, has its exasperating, logorrheal moments. It's almost comic when he inserts a boldfaced "Digression Alert" into a book that is nearly all digression, built on scraps of history, boxes of archives, personal memories and stuff he overheard. But "Roads to Quoz" isn't disorganized, exactly. It's simply a product of his belief that making a case for the road less taken means writing in a winding path, as well. That demands a patient reader who'll be rewarded, at least a few times, with a writer who's done his research and is willing to take a few risks.
In Idaho he hops onto a Railcycle, a contraption that allows bicyclists to use railroad tracks. It's hard to keep stable, but inventor Richard Smart gets a unique perspective on the world: "He'd come up on dozing coyote pups, sitting bears, and even rattlesnakes coiling to strike at his front tire."
Better still are his peeks into the past. Heat-Moon spends 40-some compelling pages investigating the life of William Grayston, who was murdered in 1902 for peering too closely into corruption at the waterworks in Joplin, Mo.; another passage describes the slow destruction of a Louisiana Indian burial mound, once eight stories high and now essentially flat. He's outraged, naturally, but Heat-Moon sublimates his urge to complain into a redoubled effort to find a new path less taken. In Maine he explores a wild region known as the Unorganized Territory -- a Heat-Moon-ian kind of place if there ever was one. However frustrating his rambles might be, the bulk of "Roads to Quoz," and the enthusiasm with which he fills its pages, argues that there are still a few reassuringly messy places in this country left.
Mark Athitakis is a writer in Washington, D.C. He blogs at americanfiction.wordpress.com.