This was originally published in The Dallas Morning News, October 2017.
I’m about to embark on the trip of a lifetime and I’d like your help in enriching the experience.
My husband and I are prepping for a yearlong trip around the perimeter of the United States in our 17-foot Texas-made Casita travel trailer. We’ll start in South Texas in March and head counter-clockwise around the country, spending a year on the edges of America. We expect to return home, via Big Bend National Park, in March 2019.
It will be an adventure, full of new experiences, interesting people and lots of hiking and cycling. And ample time for pleasure reading!
That’s where you, dear reader, come in.
I love to be in the places I’m reading about. For example, I was actually in France years ago as I was reading John Adams by David McCullough. This made the portions of the book about Adams’ experiences as a diplomat there in the 1770s especially poignant. In my imagination, I could actually see Adams shaping history in these places right before my eyes.
More recently, somebody gave me Nevada Barr’s fictional murder mystery, Borderline, as my husband and I were headed to Big Bend for a hiking vacation. I didn’t just read about that raft lost in the rapids, I experienced the trauma of the grisly discovery in the Rio Grande.
So what should I be reading next year that is specific to a location on (or near) the perimeter of the United States when I’m on the road? Tell me in the comments section below. I’ll make a list of the best and share them in an upcoming column in The Dallas Morning News.
(Animation by Michael Hogue/The Dallas Morning News)
For the record, I enjoy both fiction and non-fiction, especially history and biography. I’m not much into bodice-rippers, space aliens or stuffy textbooks, but pretty much anything else is a contender.
One book already on my list: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt. I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve not read it, nor have I seen the movie. We’ll be puttering up the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina sometime in May, so that’s when I’ll be swiping its pages.
There are so many stories set along the Atlantic coast and in New York. Yes, I’ll reread F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby sometime in June, but don’t expect me to revisit Robert Caro’s monstrous The Power Broker. I’m hungry for some more off-the-beaten path suggestions to expand my horizons.
I’ve already read Barkskins by Annie Proulx — I ached with the cold over those 300 years of brutal winters — so I’ll need to come up with something else as we’re rambling along the Maine-New Brunswick border next July.
Ditto regarding Erik Larson’s non-fiction The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America and Louise Erdich’s fictional Plague of Doves. I’ll need to come up with great reads other than these as we meander across the Great Lakes and along the North Dakota-Manitoba border in August.
Then there’s the Pacific Northwest, the California coast and the deserts of southern Arizona and New Mexico. What are the best books set in key places I’ll be visiting that I should read next year?
Several books have already stoked my enthusiasm for this trip. These books are less about place and more about setting the stage for travel adventure.
In The Great Railway Bazaar, Paul Theroux recounts his four-month adventure by train from London, across Europe and the Middle East and through Southeast Asia and back via the Trans-Siberian Railway. I heard him speak a few years ago at a UNT Mayborn Literary Non-Fiction Conference and bought his book on the spot.
Theroux wrote Bazaar in the 1970s. But his description of the people, the places, the food and the cultures he encountered along the way — and the stories he wove about them — made me want to engage in the same sort of serendipitous experience. I couldn’t put the book down. No wonder it sold 1.5 million copies when it was released.
I enjoyed his 2006 reprise of the transcontinental train trip, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, almost as much.
To prep in a different sort of way, Katherine Boo, whose Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity I devoured in 2012, recommended I read The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits. It’s a fresh, lyrical meditation on the passages of life; I found its organized unorganization unexpectedly captivating.
I just finished No Baggage: A Minimalist Tale of Love and Wondering by budding Austin author Clara Bensen. It’s a combination confessional love story/travelogue about her spontaneous three-week trek across eight Eastern European countries without any luggage — literally! — and with a boyfriend she barely knew.
My husband, a restaurateur-turned-travel-guide, prides himself on baggage economy, but he doesn’t hold a candle in the go-light department to Bensen and her minimalist, science prof beau.
I’ve still a good deal of additional reading prep to do. I’m eager to inhale Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon, for example, about his three-month, 13,000 mile circumnavigation of the country in his minimally outfitted van. The book is named for the small roadways that used to be marked as blue lines on those old-fashioned pre-GPS road atlases. (You know, back when maps were on paper.)
And to savor the more current The Wander Year: One Couple’s Journey Around the World by Mike McIntyre, about an adventure involving camels in the Sahara, clamoring up a New Zealand glacier, trekking across the Andes and exploring Cambodian temples.
We won’t be hiking the Himalayas or kayaking in Kazakhstan, but I’m sure we’ll develop our own stories to tell.
So I think I’ve got this, the prep reading. Where I need your help is collecting a list of great reads set in specific places we’ll be visiting along the edges of America next year.
Tell me here; tell me now. I can’t wait to browse — and share — your recommendations.