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Story Archives: Heat-Moon's quest for 'Quoz' in the Ouachita Valley
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|Heat-Moon's quest for 'Quoz' in the Ouachita Valley|
'BLUE HIGHWAYS,' AUTHOR WRITES ABOUT THE RARE AND CURIOUS ON THE ROAD
"I found the (Ouachita) Valley a fascinating 600 miles; especially rewarding were the people who were generous and full of good Southern stories," says William Least Heat-Moon concerning his new book, "Roads to Quoz: An American Mosey" (Little, Brown and Company, 581 pages).
Plus, Heat-Moon says he and his wife, Jan Trogdon, "also took a liking to Sonny's Italian Burrito in Jonesville." They also enjoyed John Ed Bartmess' catfish and hush puppies at Enterprise.
Thank Quoz they stopped at Sonny's for an article on the wall there led them to the Concordia Sentinel and initiated what has become a long-distance friendship nurtured through emails and a shared interest in the people of the past and present who travel through or live in the quiet backroads of America.
For those who, like me, are unfamiliar with the word "Quoz," Jan says it was a "rather popular word two centuries ago; it could indicate things rare, singular, or curious." The word takes on larger meanings in Heat-Moon's book and also refers to "some of the places, things, and people encountered on the road."
Of Osage, Irish and English ancestry, Heat-Moon is the author of the widely popular 1982 book, "Blue Highways," which spent 34 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and chronicled his 13,000-mile journey along backroads through small towns and communities.
At an Historic Natchez Foundation gathering in February, I mentioned that Heat-Moon and Jan traveled through this area in 2007 and that he had a new book coming out in the fall of 2008. His name drew immediate recognition.
"Blue Highways," someone said instantly. Others were fans, too.
"Quoz," is a sequel of sorts.
"In many ways," said Heat-Moon, "I think 'Roads to Quoz' is a richer book than 'Blue Highways.' It's bigger for one thing. I see 'Road to Quoz' as a fulfillment of a certain promise inherent in 'Blue Highways.' And, it's a picture of America a generation later."
The inspiration for the book, he said, was a "desire to see how America is doing as we enter the 21st century. I wanted to try to find people who are living wise and creative and sustaining lives." And he points out that "those three adjectives are key."
Part of the book covers Heat-Moon's travels along the roads from the headwaters of the Ouachita River to Jonesville.
Why the Ouachita, we wondered?
"The inspiration for traveling your part of the country was a wish by Q and me to follow the valley of the Ouachita from source to mouth, a wish partly inspired by reading (William) Dunbar and (George) Hunter, research helped by Trey Berry's account of the 'Lost Expedition' that had recently appeared."
As you recall, the 1804-05 Dunbar-Hunter Expedition up the Ouachita River to the hot springs in Arkansas was one of four such explorations following the Louisiana Purchase authorized by Congress at the request of President Thomas Jefferson.
CONNECTING TO WILLIAM DUNBAR
We've followed Dunbar's life and the Ouachita Expedition throughout the years of this column. He owned the Forest Plantation at Natchez and was a scientist, astronomer, planter, public servant and as Justice of the Peace married the great horse hunter Philip Nolan to the beautiful Fanny Lintot, perhaps the most celebrated marriage for the ages in Natchez. He also broke the news of Nolan's death at the hands of the Spanish to President Jefferson with whom he had a steady correspondence for about a decade.
No man was more active in this region than Dunbar was 200 years ago and few men left such a vivid snapshot of the times through his journals and letters. Dunbar walked the shores of the Ouachita, met hunters and trappers, described the plants and animals and charted the river. And while Heat-Moon has not written a history book, his book touches on the men, like Dunbar, who traveled the Ouachita many seasons ago and on the men and women who live along it today.
Heat-Moon, in the wonderful Chapter 9 of the book entitled "Dunbar's Spectacles," describes a moment when he, while on his journey through the Ouachita Valley, touched the spirit of Dunbar, still lingering in the mist and sunlight of time: "I felt I was seeing the tracks the man had left behind for us to follow, and his reality expanded from ghostly to an actual physical presence."
It's connections like this in which Heat-Moon excels in "Quoz." He writes: "Where is the American who has not had the urge to touch the sandal of the Statue of Liberty or buy a wooden seat when the old ballpark got torn down? Isn't there within us a basic urge to verify the past by tactilely connecting with it?"
The Hunter-Dunbar journals drew dust on Heat-Moon's bookshelf until Trey Berry gave the expedition new life in 2006. Berry edited the journals in a book released by LSU Press. A professor of history at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Ark., he was also the project director of a documentary released along with the book entitled, "The Forgotten Expedition: The Journey of Dunbar and Hunter."
But with his eye partly on history, Heat-Moon's mission was to see not only how we've changed in the generation since he wrote "Blue Highways," but also in the past 200 years of American life.
"The Ouachita Valley passes through a lot of miles I've traveled before but had never written about," said Heat-Moon, adding that "writing about a region gives it a depth and richness that can reshape a traveler."
CATFISH, TOASTS, FALL OF GREAT MOUND
On his journey along the Ouachita through Catahoula Parish, he stopped at Enterprise, Harrisonburg, Trinity and Jonesville.
Heat-Moon visited with John Ed Bartmess, the former principal of Enterprise High School, a school that exists today only in memories. Years ago, Bartmess led me on a walk through the thickly-wooded hills around his home and hinted of future plans. Those ideas resulted not that long ago in Jim Bowie's Relay Station, a restaurant which emphasizes the history of the area but draws crowds every weekend for fried catfish, hushpuppies, and bluegrass and gospel bands.
Heat-Moon loved the catfish and hushpuppies. As Bartmess bade HeatMoon and Jan good-bye with a gift, he also gave them a "pail full of stories that spilled out the front door onto the porch and on into the dark land of dewberries and possum hunts where, just beyond his words, flowed the Ouachita."
Heat-Moon also met Tuffy and Ginger Parish in Trinity just at the mouth of the Ouachita where the author and his wife's long journey was winding down. Heat-Moon learned about the days of the Civil War when canon shot flew through the air, one landing in a Trinity home.
Heat-Moon raised his glass and apologized for Admiral Porter's "uncivil action," adding, "To that grand old Ouachita and all the wandering feet that reached her shores, long may she wave up."
But across Little River in Jonesville, Heat-Moon's heart sank. There he learned the story of The Great Mound and the mysterious Indian nation of moundbuilders who erected the once-magnificent 82-ft. high pyramid-shaped mass of dirt. What remained of the mound was leveled years ago to build the approach to the old Black River Bridge, soon to be detonated and scraped to make way for the massive new bridge recently opened just to the south.
"In Jonesville the obvious poverty and dislocated economy stood out," he told us, "even though I was more interested in the distant past once apparent in the mounds. It was deeply disturbing, heart-breaking, to see what Louisianans did to a magnificent and unmatched cultural resource right within their town limits.
"The short-term thinking, the short-term greed of a few people who robbed their descendants! Those mounds could have served today as a healthy -- perhaps even robust -- economic base."
"Still," Heat-Moon says, "that pre-historic past could help bring the Mound Street area back to life and help shore up the local economy." He thinks Jonesville resident Bill Atkins' idea to build a museum showcasing the moundbuilders is a good idea.
"Bill Atkins has some excellent ideas for renewal, ideas I hope townspeople will consider and act upon," Heat-Moon said.
One idea is to reclaim the sacred dirt from the bridge approach and build a replica of The Great Mound. For those who think dirt is dirt, you really should take a moment and think again.
These moundbuilders didn't build any mound to stand above high water or as a lookout tower. Something inside their souls led them to voluntarily do this back-breaking work for reasons that were certainly spiritual in nature.
Imagine the labor of a single moundbuilder, who of his own free will filled his basket time after time with the rich bottom soil, slung it across his back, walked a distance and then dumped his heavy cargo where others shaped and engineered the growing structure. Many spent a lifetime laboring to build The Great Mound, leaving behind evidence of their existence through a pottery shard or an arrowhead.
Heat-Moon has hope for the small town which sits on a site William Dunbar said 200 years ago held such promise for settlement.
"If New Orleans can rebuild, so can Jonesville," says Heat-Moon.
A LIFE SAVED ON OUACHITA
Stories from along the Ouachita represent only about a fourth of "Quoz." What a wonderful writer, this man!
Heat-Moon spent four and one-half years and traveled 16,000 miles researching and writing "Quoz."
His book filled my head with the stories we've heard about the Ouachita through the years, particularly one told to us not too long ago.
Leon Doles of Ferriday died last week at the age of 86. He loved history and on occasion would call to discuss a topic dear to his heart -- rivers. He made a list of every river in United States, recorded its length, location of its headwaters and its watershed. He was fascinated by flood control and loved to question -- and bash -- the decisions of the Corps of Engineers. He gave me a map he drew entitled, "Drainage Divides of the United States."
It was Doles who donated a copy of the Dunbar-Hunter
"Forgotten Expedition" documentary to the Concordia Parish Library.
Doles told me a story once about fishing on the remnants of the old locks and dam on the Ouachita at Harrisonburg during his childhood in the late 1930s. The fishing there was said to be outstanding.
Encamped with his father and other men atop Fort Beauregard, Doles recalled one fishing trip in late summer when the Ouachita was low but carried a swift current. In those days, sportsmen from throughout the region traveled to Harrisonburg just to fish the river.
While standing on a "big chunk of concrete," which was covered with scum, he lost his balance and fell into the water. The fall stunned him. Down stream, Doles caught a glimpse of a man on shore, who quickly waded into the river and held out his hand.
"I grabbed it," Doles said of the hand and the man who probably saved his life. He never saw his rescuer again.
"I was just a 75 to 80-pound kid, and I remember he said his last name was Johnson," said Doles. "I never forgot that."
Neither will we.
"Quoz," which is drawing praise from reviewers across the country, is not available locally -- yet -- but can be ordered online on any of the standard Internet book sites.
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