Heat-Moon (née William Trogdon) has been a chronicler of small-town America since his Blue Highways: A Journey into America(1982). He has a gift for seeing beauty and mystery in even the remotest areas of the country. In his new book, he and his wife, Jo Ann (who refers to herself as "Q"), set out to explore the Ouachita River, which begins in Mena, AK, and ends in Louisiana. The reason for this journey is as fascinating as the book itself: Thomas Jefferson is famous for initiating the Lewis and Clark Expedition, but few people know of the Dunbar-Hunter Expedition of 1804, referred to by Jefferson as second only to Lewis and Clark's in importance. After discovering Hunter's Journal of an Excursion From Natchez on the Mississippi Up the River Ouachita, he and Q set out to see this largely still remote area of the South. Along the way, they ruminate on Grapette, Jesus Trees, the Goat Woman of Smackover Creek, the Quapaw Ghost Light-as you can see, this is not your typical travel guide. Heat-Moon's journey is as meandering as the Ouachita itself, and readers will relish the experiences he and Q describe along their trip. He has not lost his skills in painting unforgettable portraits of places and people few of us will ever encounter. And, yes, "Quoz" is a word, and its definition sums up the reason for recommending this book to all libraries: "strange, incongruous, unknown, and mysterious."
Joseph L. Carlson
An amiable, literate tour of America's byways, in the company of the poet laureate of the back road. Heat-Moon (River-Horse, 1999, etc.), as if channeling Kerouac, whom he writes about here at some length, announces early on a rationale for his wanderings and writings over the last quarter-century or so: "to break those long silent miles, I must stop and hunt stories and only later set down my gatherings in order to release them one day to wander on their own." In this instance, grown suddenly fond of the letter Q, he ponders the word quoz ("rhymes with Oz"), a quizzical, questioning quest in search of who knows what, so long as it's wonderful. So he heads at first west by way of the wondrous Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas, which are really ancient worn-down hills separated by a broad valley full of colorful characters, some with teeth, some with stills. Heat-Moon, naturally enough, turns to suitable pondering, reflecting that many years before he had found himself "wondering how many people I'd meet if I lived to be four score and ten," and reckoning that the total might be 100,000, almost all of them pleasant "or at least neutral" encounters. Here, as the author steers into the dark hearts of Maine, Pennsylvania, Idaho, New Mexico, Louisiana, Florida and other corners of this wide land, he turns up plenty of nice folk who serve him fried chicken, scrod or tacos and tell him tales of their lives. Heat-Moon's travels have a Steinbeckian air, but with a decidedly countercultural twist, as when he pronounces, "To live more otherly is to live more lastingly. It's a fundamental law of biology."Residents of states not mentioned will surely wish that Heat-Moon's quozzical travels had taken himthere as well-a pleasure for his fans, who are deservingly many.