8 Trips Across America Inspired By Great Literature
In summer 2013, author Ted Conover set out to ride the rails across several Western states. This wasn't his first-train hopping experience but a repeat of a yearlong solo journey he took in 1980, when he rode freight trains back and forth across the American West with some of the last remaining "hobos."
This time, 34 years later, he wasn't alone — his 18-year-old son Asa, captivated by his father's first book, initiated the journey.
Inspired by Conover's repeat journey, this is a literary collection of adventures across America worth reading (or rereading) this summer. These eight travelogues will take you from the Pacific coast, the Great Plains and the Mississippi Valley to Louisiana's bayous, New England's mountains and the Atlantic shore.
Each recommendation stretches our idea of exploration, redefines our options for transportation and finds more than just travel inside its covers. While Jack Kerouac's On the Road and Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test illustrate classic literary road trips across America, this short list pushes boundaries, like Conover does, and invites repeating, in new and identical ways.
Maybe, like Asa, you too will seek to follow these journeys on the road, on water or on foot.
1. 'Blue Highways' by William Least Heat-Moon
Transportation: A green van with a bunk, a camping stove and a portable toilet
Map pins: Remote, Ore.; Simplicity, Va.; New Freedom, Penn.; New Hope, Tenn.; Why, Ariz.; Whynot, Miss., and many other blue highway towns
Blue Highways is a journey through America's backroads. Armed with copies of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass and John Neihardt's Black Elk Speaks, Heat-Moon set out with little more than the need to put home behind him and a sense of curiosity about "those little towns that get on the map — if they get on at all — only because some cartographer has a blank space to fill." His adventures, his discoveries and his recollections of the extraordinary people he encounters along the way, along the blue highways and from inside his van named "Ghost Dancer," amount to a revelation of the true American experience.
2. 'Great Plains' by Ian Frazier
Transportation: A Chevy van (also often where he slept)
Map pins: Blufork, Mont.; Fort Union, N.D.; Strasburg, N.D.; the Crazy Horse Monument and Pine Ridge, S.D.; McCook, Neb.; Dodge City, Kan.; Liberal, Kan.; Turkey, Texas; Fort Stockton, Texas; Lincoln, N.M.; Last Chance, Colo.; Register Cliffs, Wyo.; Miles City, Mont.; and many other points, meandering and zigzagging through the Great Plains states.
Frazier's Great Plains takes us up, down and across the vast and myth-inspiring Great Plains on a journey of more than 25,000 miles. In his historical travelogue, Frazier takes us to Sitting Bull's cabin, the Clutter house (made infamous in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood) and a house visited by Bonnie and Clyde, a rock shop made of dinosaur bones, cattle ranches, strip-mined lands and state parks. It is an expedition that reveals the past and present of middle America and the heart of the Plains states.
3. 'Walking with Thoreau' by Henry David Thoreau
Transportation: Boats, coaches and his own legs
Map pins: Wachusett Mountain, Mass.; Fall Mountain, N.H.; Monadnock Mountain, Vt.; Kineo Mountain, Maine, and others
Walking with Thoreau is a collection of Thoreau's poetry and prose set on or around nine New England mountains. Printed alongside Thoreau's writing, editor William Howarth's commentary allows the reader and a hiker today to retrace Thoreau's footsteps up some of New England's most popular mountain destinations. Camping in a way that, in the mid-1800s, was far from the norm for a college graduate, Thoreau often relied on the contents of his knapsack for survival and shelter: food, tools, a blanket and a sheet of canvas.
"To his friends, Thoreau seemed an expert camper, but many of his skills now look primitive," writes Howarth. "The experience of climbing mountains tempered some of his imagination, for traveling there was hard work."
4. 'A Walk Across America' by Peter Jenkins
Transportation: On foot
Map pins: From Alfred, N.Y.; to Blue Field, W. Va.; and Orville, Ala. (book one); Mobile, Ala.; to Berger, Texas; and Salt Lake City, Utah (book two); then on to Boise, Idaho; Nyssa, Ore.; and Florence, Ore. (book three).
Disillusioned with society in the 1970s, 20-something Peter Jenkins sought answers on the road and set out to Walk Across America. On foot, he gathered life lessons from those he encountered and the obstacles he faced, from the distrust of Southern cops and moonshiners alike, to working in a sawmill as a tree surgeon and on an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Jenkins walked for nearly six years. Like Andrew Forsthoefel's recent "Walking to Listen" project, Jenkin's Walk is a portrait of America.
5. 'Grandma Gatewood’s Walk' by Ben Montgomery
Transportation: On foot, wearing a pair of Keds
Map pins: Blood Mountain, Ga.; Standing Indian Mountain, N.C.; Clingman's Dome, Tenn.; Blue Ridge Parkway, Va.; Harpers Ferry, W.Va.; Highrock, Md.; Susquehanna River, Penn.; Kittatinny Ridge, N.J.; Bear Mountain Bridge, N.Y.; Housatonic River Valley, Conn.; Mount Everett, Mass.; Killington Peak, Vt.; Mount Washington, N.H.; Baxter Peak, Maine, and many other trail markers on the 14-state Appalachian trail
In 1955, Emma Gatewood, a 67-year-old great-grandmother from small-town Ohio, embarked on a 2,180-mile journey from Mount Oglethorpe to Mount Katahdin, the entirety of the Appalachian Trail. She carried an army blanket, a raincoat and a plastic curtain in a homemade sling bag. She was the first female hiker to complete the trail and later become the first hiker to complete it three times. Although many reach for Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods when thinking about the Appalachian Trail, Grandma Gatewood is likely the reason the trail exists at all today, saved from extinction by the notoriety and publicity she created.
Through interviews and exclusive access to Gatewood's diaries, Montgomery set out to answer the question so many ask: Why did she do it? Grandma Gatewood's Walk is a story of human spirit and determination.
6. 'Mississippi Solo' by Eddy L. Harris
Transportation: His first and newly purchased canoe
Map pins: The Mississippi Valley (Minn., Wis., Iowa, Ill., Mo., Ky., Tenn., Ark., Miss., La.)
In October 1985, Harris embarked on a lifelong dream of canoeing the length of the mighty Mississippi, from Minnesota to New Orleans, to find America and himself. Mississippi Solo chronicles his "confrontation with the Strong Brown God," quoting T.S. Eliot early on. Harris paddles the river, encounters obstacles on its waters and shores and faces his own inferiority.
Along the way, hundreds of people reach out to "share a small piece of his challenge." Sharing the same muddy waters of classic literature like Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets, this is a story of past and present, race and river, and the testing of limits.
7. 'The Survival of the Bark Canoe' by John McPhee
Transportation: A birch bark canoe, carved by Henri Vaillancourt
Map pins: The Maine woods (New Hampshire and Maine)
The Survival of the Bark Canoe is the story of this ancient craft and of a 150-mile trip through the Maine woods. Inspired by and in the tradition of Thoreau, who embarked on a similar voyage through The Maine Woods, McPhee describes the expedition he made with a birch bark canoe maker, while tracing "the evolution of the bark canoe, from its beginnings through the development of the huge canoes used by the fur traders of the Canadian North Woods, where the bark canoe played the key role in opening up the wilderness."
8. 'Life Is a Wheel' by Bruce Weber
Transportation: A shiny red, custom-made titanium bicycle
Map pins: Astoria, Ore.; Lake Koocanusa in Libby, Mont.; Medina, N.D.; Muskegon, Mich.; Maumee River in Waterville, Ohio; the Susquehanna River in Sunbury, Pa.; to the George Washington Bridge, N.Y.
In 2011, 57-year-old Weber, an obituary writer for the New York Times, embarked on a self-powered journey from the Oregon coast to New York City's George Washington Bridge — 4,122 miles. From Going-to-the-Sun Road in the northern Rockies to the headwaters of the Mississippi and through the cityscapes of Chicago and Pittsburgh, his encounters with people and places provide an intimate patchwork of America.
Part memoir, part travelogue, part homage to the bicycle, Life Is a Wheel chronicles a solo journey on two wheels.