William Least Heat-Moon finds his Kansas City, Kansas ‘Quoz’
During visit to promote his new book, author takes a side trip to Kansas City, Kansas, and discovers lost childhood memories
By MATT KELSEY
Published November 13, 2008
Published November 13, 2008
Kansas City Kansan
The funny thing about searching is that even if you don’t find what you were looking for, you almost always find something else. And oftentimes, that “something else” is even more valuable than what you were searching for in the first place.
William Least Heat-Moon has spent a lifetime searching.
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In his world-renowned travel memoir “Blue Highways,” the writer search for a route around the edges of the continental United States on back roads, which are marked in blue on old road maps. In “PrairyErth,” he searched for a deeper knowledge of one Kansas county at the center of America. And in “River-Horse,” he searched for a path from coast to coast using only America’s rivers and waterways. Each time, he found an extra special “something else.”
In his new book, “Roads to Quoz: An American Mosey,” the Kansas City, Mo., native searches even more. In fact, “something else” could be an apt alternate definition for the abstract word “Quoz,” which means something strange or peculiar.
In the book, Least Heat-Moon sets out to travel some forgotten pathways in America; for example, the Oachita River valley all the way from the river’s source in Arkansas to eastern Louisiana, where it enters the Mississippi River. But during his travels, Least Heat-Moon encounters countless oddities, strange and unusual sightings and people along the way. He finds “something else.” He finds “Quoz.”
During a recent trip to Kansas City, Mo., to promote his new book, William Least Heat-Moon took a side trip to Kansas City, Kan., in search of a lost childhood memory. But along the way, he found his own personal Quoz, something else even more valuable than what he was looking for in the first place.
My hands were trembling as I pulled up to the front entrance of the Intercontinental Hotel on the Country Club Plaza on October 29. The classiness of the place got to me: the Intercontinental is by far the nicest hotel I’d ever been in (at most of the lodging places I’ve stayed, you could park in front of your room). But I was mostly nervous because waiting for me inside was one of my literary idols.
It was back in college when I first discovered William Least Heat-Moon’s writing for myself. I was working on a journalism degree at Park University - where Least Heat-Moon once worked as a processor. In one writing class, my great journalism teacher and mentor, John Lofflin, assigned the book “Blue Highways” as a form of New Journalism, a narrative, more free-flowing journalism movement that started in the 1960s and ‘70s with writers like Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson, Gay Talese, and Norman Mailer.
Lofflin gave us several weeks to read the book at our leisure, but I flew threw it, enthralled. Between classes I’d walk to Riverfront Park in downtown Parkville and read “Blue Highways” sitting on the north bank of the Missouri River, a waterway so important to Least Heat-Moon’s writing. Or in the back row of a tedious history class on the top floor of Mackay Hall, next to a window overlooking that same river, I’d pull out the book and read.
(Let me pause for a brief summary of “Blue Highways,” which doesn’t do it justice at all. In 2978, Least Heat-Moon, a 38-year-old professor at the University of Missouri in Columbia, got fired from his job. On top of that, Least Heat-Moon separated from his first wife. In a matter of just a few months, his life had been turned upside down. So he packed his van with a few books, some basic living supplies, a couple gas credit cards, and the remaining $428 from his bank account, and took a journey he had planned in his dreams for years: a circuitous trip around the edges of the continental U.S. The book is a chronicle of that journey, an in-depth examination of the places he visits, and a journal of the people he meets along the way.)
After I finished “Blue Highways,” I couldn’t wait to get my hands on “PrairyErth,” published in 1991, and “River-Horse,” printed in 1999.
On the day I was to meet Least Heat-Moon at the Intercontinental, his fourth travel book, “Roads to Quoz,” was released. I had received an advance copy, and was 150 pages in by that time.
Least Heat-Moon met me in the lobby, flanked by his wife, Jo Ann. She plays a major supporting role in “Roads to Quoz” as Least Heat-Moon’s traveling companion and is known in the pages of the book as “Q.”
I was to conduct a quick interview with Least Heat-Moon over lunch. Here’s where I encountered a problem: Least Heat-Moon was visiting Kansas City, Missouri, for his press tour stop, and this newspaper covers only Kansas City, Kansas. I needed a local angle. Grasping for straws, I offered to take Least Heat-Moon and Q across the state line to KCK for lunch. I suggested a few places, and Least Heat-Moon perked up at the mention of Rosedale Barbecue. He had eaten there years before, and was excited to go back now.
(Although he most often writes about Kansas City on the east side of the state line, he wrote this passage in his first book: “My family lives two hundred feet from where [the border between the two states] runs through Kansas City. I’ve hit numerous home runs from the East into the West. Kansas City, Missouri, is the last Eastern city, and Kansas City, Kansas - the two divided only by hedges, a street, a piece of river - the first Western one.”)
Once inside Rosedale Barbecue, I ordered two-meat combos for each of us, plus a grape soda for William, a root beer for Q, and an RC Cola for myself.
Shortly after we sat down and started eating the beef-and-ham sandwiches with Rosedale’s homemade spicy sauce, I discovered that I shouldn’t have worried about a local connection. Least Heat-Moon’s mind was chock-full of memories about childhood days spent in KCK.
“In those days, Johnson County was all farms,” Least Heat-Moon said. “We didn’t go into Johnson County because there wasn’t anything there. If you were gonna do something in Kansas, you went to Kansas City, Kansas, across the viaduct. I remember taking the streetcar down from Kansas City, Missouri, down the bluff, down that rickety bridge, into the West Bottoms, and then on across. It was a great streetcar ride. Oh, I’d love to be able to take that today.”
Least Heat-Moon would come to KCK in the footsteps of his older brother, to visit the Gauntier Theater at 13th and Quindaro. He said one good reason to go to the movies was to beat the heat before the era of home air conditioning.
“Air-cooled theaters,” he said. “I spent a lot of time on the first row of that theater, in the days of newsreels, cartoons, double features. Whenever a movie came to the Gauntier Theater, by the time it got there, it had probably been out for about three years. But nobody around here had seen it, so it was all new to us.”
I offered to drive Least Heat-Moon and Q to that area after lunch, and they accepted. So with stomachs full of great local barbecue, the three of us - aptly, riding in my Ford Explorer - set out in search of a relic from Least Heat-Moon’s youth.
Names mean a lot to William Least Heat-Moon, who has a mountful of a name himself.
“Call me Least Heat-Moon,” he wrote in the opening pages of “Blue Highways.” “My father calls himself Heat-Moon, my elder brother Little Heat-Moon. I, coming last, am therefore Least.”
Born William Trogdon, the Heat-Moon name is in honor of his Native American ancestry.
Symbols, too, are critical in Least Heat-Moon’s writing. And sometimes, names and symbols are one-in-the-same for his family.
In the book “River-Horse,” Least Heat-Moon tells the story of a time he searched for ancient writing on the bluff walls of the Missouri River in central Missouri:
“When I turned to take a last look at the rocky bluff in the failing light of that July evening, my gaze, as if it were an arrow put in flight by an unseen archer, landed directly on a rust-colored image, and I froze in disbelief, my skin crawling. There was a pictograph, but not just any pictograph - that one was the precise image Plains Indians drew to indicate the seventh lunar month, the Blood Moon, or the Moon of the Heat. On that eroded limestone wall was a drawing of my name.”
In a way, the Gauntier Theater and the neighborhood around 13th and Quindaro is a pictogram representing Least Heat-Moon’s childhood.
But as we approached the area, we quickly realized it was a different place now than it was a half-century ago.
We searched the neighborhood for the building, but Least Heat-Moon didn’t remember the exact cross street. He phoned his brother, who reminded him of the spot.
We drove to where the building should have been. But the theater was gone.
Now it’s a Family Dollar store. I pulled into the parking lot. “We’re driving through the lobby of the Gauntier Theater,” Least Heat-Moon said, dejected.
Later, I discovered that the building is not the only thing that’s gone. The Gauntier Theater has almost been lost to history altogether. The theater closed in the 1950s. After searching online databases and archives, I couldn’t find a photo of the place, and even the Wyandotte County Museum knows very little about it.
But I did learn that the theater was probably named after Gene Gauntier, a Kansas City, Mo., native, and one of the pioneering women of the movie industry in the early 20th Century.
And I uncovered this anecdote from Kansas City Kansan columnist Carole Diehl, a lifelong KCK resident:
“I was at the Gauntier Theater the day World War II was declared over,” she said, referring to August 15, 1945, when Japan surrendered to Allied forces.
“I can’t remember the movie. It was probably something like ‘Robinson Crusoe.’ Right in the middle of hte movie, they announced that the war was over. We all went outside. It was still light out, and it was pandemonium. Absolute pandemonium.”
Parked in front of the Family Dollar, Least Heat-Moon reminisced about his childhood. He remembered dining at a small restaurant that used to be nearby.
“It was a classic greasy spoon, a little, teeny six-stool cafe,” he said.
Least Heat-Moon didn’t remember the name of the place. But according to the Wyandotte County Museum, the restaurant was called Al’s Cafe until the mid-1940s. By 1945, it carried the name Lang’s Tavern, then by the 1950s, Mack’s Tavern. One final name pops up in the historical record from the 1960s: Woody’s Tavern.
For fans of Least Heat-Moon’s writing, the little cafe holds great significance: it instilled in him a sense of dining adventure, which still exists in his journeys. He often tries to find tiny, off-the-beaten-path restaurants that haven’t been run out of business by fast-food joints.
“I’m sure that place, that little cafe, put into my head a certain definition of what a cafe is,” Least Heat-Moon said. “The food wasn’t all that good, but it was cafe food, and it was cheap. But it had a real feel to it.”
I like to think the Gauntier also played a part in shaping Least Heat-Moon as an adventurer. Sitting in the front row, staring up at cowboys and Indians on the silver screen and imagining, imagining what else was out there, must have influenced the young boy to become a searcher of lost treasures - a search for Quoz.
But alas, the Gauntier was gone.
The three of us prepared to head back across the state line to the couple’s hotel. But then, a glimmer from the past: Least Heat-Moon remembered something else.
Something else. We had stumbled upon a Quoz.
The something else was a house owned by relatives of Least Heat-Moon, specifically his aunt and uncle and their children, who were young William’s age.
He could picture the house in his mind, but couldn’t quite place it in relation to the Gauntier. Then this came to him - the name of the street the house was on. Rowland. Just a block south of Quindaro Boulevard.
We found the street. Least Heat-Moon grabbed a cell phone to call his brother for the exact address.
Before long, we were parked in front of the place.
“I used to stay there all the time,” Least Heat-Moon said, his head hanging out the window like a dog trying to feel the wind on its face. He stared at the house, wide-eyed, reminiscing, pointing out little details. “I remember that side door. That’s where we’d come and go from.” Q was just as interested, craving details about her husband’s youth.
I offered Least Heat-Moon my camera. He poked it through the window and snapped a single photo.
Circumstances forced the reminiscing to end. The current residents began to get curious when a carload of strangers pulled up to stare at their house, and they got downright suspicious when one of those strangers pulled out a camera.
I suggested a more extensive driving tour of KCK, the 2008 version, and they agreed - but then we happened to look down at the clock in the dashboard. Nearly three hours had passed since I picked them up for what was supposed to be a brief interview. Least Heat-Moon had to prepare for a lecture and book-signing event that night.
I pointed the Explored toward the interstate. We crossed the state line. We turned south and drove to the Country Club Plaza. The drive took only a few minutes, but our arrival point at the Intercontinental Hotel was about as far away from present-day Quindaro as one could possibly imagine.
I pulled to the curb and shook hands with Q and with William. I handed Least Heat-Moon his leftover bottle of grape soda, the remainder of our meal hours earlier at Rosedale Barbecue.
Our journey had come to an end.
The beauty of the word “Quoz,” is that it can have many meanings. In a recent interview with the Christian Science Monitor, Least Heat-Moon described Quoz as “something that has potential to link one thing with another.”
A few days after my excursion with William and Q, I began to wonder about that aunt and uncle who had owned the house on Rowland during Least Heat-Moon’s childhood. I contacted Least Heat-Moon’s publicist, who gave me the phone number to a hotel in Denver, the next stop on the book tour for “Roads to Quoz.” I reached Q over the phone and asked her the names of the aunt and uncle. She covered her hand over the receiver and asked William.
“Paul and Doris Milberger,” she said.
Milberger. It’s a well-known name in KCK. I called Ed Milburger, the owner of a local pest control company. Turns out, Ed is related to Paul and Doris.
In addition to owning Milberger Pest Control, Ed also owns the Alpine shopping center at 78th and Washington in KCK.
Just a few months ago, the Kansas City Kansan, the newspaper of which I am the editor, moved its offices into the Alpine shopping center. I’m sitting inside the building now, in my office, writing these words.
Ed Milberger, who shares a family tree with William Least Heat-Moon, is the Kansas City Kansan’s landlord.
That definition of “Quoz” comes back to me now: “Something that has potential to link one thing with another.”
Maybe I’m reaching here, but in a tiny, insignificant way, I feel a connection to William Least Heat-Moon, this writer I’ve been a fan of for years.
It’s a small world, they say.
And maybe that’s what “Quoz” really is: the assuredness that no matter how out-of-control our lives become, we’re all connected.