That sort of travelogue isn't the sort of thing that can be repeated ad nauseum, though there will be some who'd be inclined to try, and Heat-Moon followed it with an ecological and historical account of Chase County, Kansas in PrairyErth (A Deep Map): An Epic History of the Tallgrass Prairie Country

He's writing about a place where towns have populations under a thousand, and there's not much more than the odd creek running through prairie grassland, though it's rather close to the geographic centre of the continental United States. You'd expect an author would be pushing the proverbial uphill with a forked stick to get anything much out of such a subject, but this rather hefty tome weighs in at over six hundred pages. 

Not something you're likely to devour in a single rushed read, but worth exploring for those who find that sort of thing intriguing.

PrairyErth appeared in 1991, and was followed eight years later by River Horse: A Voyage Across America, at around five hundred pages a slightly lighter effort, though readers who've been aboard from the start would know what to expect as the author takes four months to travel from coast to coast by boat trip in a flat-hulled twenty-two foot C-Dory he named Nikawa (in Osage, that's River Horse). He doesn't quite manage to get all the way by water, but the reader will be surprised how close he actually gets…

Then, another nine years later, with a side excursion into history with 2002's Columbus in the Americas, Roads to Quoz:An American Mosey sort of takes up where Blue Highways left off. This time, rather than starting here and proceeding on a single journey till he arrives there he's detailing a number of shorter journeys over a number of years in the company of his lawyer/historian wife Jo Ann, referred to throughout as Q.

The assumed destination, Quoz, in case you're wondering, is an 18th-century word that can be defined as anything strange, incongruous, or peculiar.

I'd add obscure to that little definition. 

Readers with an interest in world exploration may have heard of the Lewis and Clark expedition, commissioned by Thomas Jefferson to find a direct & practicable water communication to the north-west Pacific coast of the United States, study the plants and animal life along the way and discover how the region could be exploited. Heat-Moon covers some of the same territory in River Horse close to two centuries later.

Lewis and Clark examined the upper portion of territory added to the United States through the Louisiana Purchase, and even if the reader is aware of them, you've probably never heard of the Dunbar-Hunter Expedition of 1804 which travelled through  the lower part of the Purchase, following the course of the Ouachita River from its source in Arkansas to its confluence with the Mississippi and provides one of the starting points for Down an Ancient Valley, the first of half a dozen journeys chronicled in Roads to Quoz that covered around  twenty-five thousand kilometres of wanderings over three years.

Along the way he takes the reader to the Great Mound, the second-highest pre-Columbian earthworks in America, erected by a remarkable civilization a thousand years before Civil War soldiers built a gun emplacement on the top and Louisiana Governor Huey Long's highway department reduced the rest of it to almost street level in 1931, removing a significant archeological feature for use as road fill.

From there, it's off to meet a friend from university who wants to investigate the vanishing waterman’s taverns along Florida’s Gulf Coast. That's a trip for the boys, with the wives off on a side trip as the husbands travel through the state's panhandle, searching for the lost Florida that's maybe a step ahead of extinction through development, and finding the Road to Nowhere which turns out to be a landing strip for the local drug running fraternity. 

As you may have gathered the narrative ranges widely across the landscape, tracking down the Quapaw Ghost Light in Missouri, delving into the case of freethinker William Grayson, shot down on the street in Joplin, Missouri, in 1901, and tasting Oklahoma spring water that locals use to kill ticks on dogs.

As you'd expect, the pages abound with characters, a long term correspondent whose carbon footprint was that of a house cat, a man who set out to raise the funds to establish a school for disadvantaged children by massaging lonely widows with special massages, the guy who looks after the thirty-something metre original scroll manuscript of Jack Kerouac's On the Road and men who've set out to photograph every mile of the Ouachita and US highway Route 40, allegedly more significant than the better known Route 66).

That last task is rendered marginally more difficult by the fact that Route 40 no longer exists as an identifiable entity and various sections need to be rediscovered. Whether there's much else out there to be discovered would be at consideration when it comes to writing a sequel. 


© Ian Hughes 2012