When I travel to a new place, especially somewhere I’ll be for a few days or an area I’m exploring in detail, I like to bring along a book about that area to help me get to know it better or just get myself more deeply situated in the place. Sometimes it’s history, like in the pic above, reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s Bunker Hill while visiting Boston. But just as often it’s a novel set in the place I’m visiting, like reading Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove on my recent trip through Texas. I’m interested in what makes a place unique, or how it got the way it is, and fiction can often do that just as well as fact.
Books on the natural history of an area have been my favorites lately and work well for a road trip across a state or region. This is especially true for the American West, with its vast sparsely populated landscapes and the visible mix of geologic and human forces on the terrain. The next big trip I’m planning is through the northern Rocky Mountain area of the U.S., and I’ve already begun to set aside the titles that will carry me through the region. Here’s what I’ll be packing:
Montana: Ivan Doig’s This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind – Though he lived most of his life in Seattle, this memoir tells of Doig’s early life in Montana in the 1940s and 1950s, and the stories passed down from his father and grandmother. Finalist for the National Book Award when it was released, and usually near the top of any list of best books of, by, or about the American West.
Wyoming: Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces – this caught my eye at the local used bookstore and I’m excited to dive in. She writes of the weather and light and wind in her adopted home of Wyoming. “In a league with Annie Dillard and even Thoreau,” according to the SF Chronicle review.
Idaho: Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn – the story of the Great Fire of 1910, a wildland fire that burned 3 million acres mostly in northern Idaho and western Montana and is likely the largest fire in U.S. history. Egan describes its century-long impact on firefighting policy, conservation, and public lands.
Saskatchewan: Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow – Like Ivan Doig, Stegner lived most of his life in the city (Salt Lake City and the San Francisco Bay Area), but was deeply imprinted by his more rural upbringing. He and his writing bounced all across the west, but this book is a fictionalized account of his childhood in the 1910s, homesteading near the Cypress Hills in southern Saskatchewan. Arguably the best writer we’ve had on the American West. And yes: the American West includes Canada :).
If you don’t feel the need to own any of these titles, check your local library – most of these should be available. If, like me, you’re trying to keep down the cost of your reading habit then keep an eye out for used bookstores on your travels, which is where I found most of these treasures (shout out to Verbatim Books in San Diego!). Online, my favorite source for used books is Better World Books, who sell library discards and donate to global literacy campaigns.
What are you reading on the road? Do you have any favorite books that could fit on this list (not just about the West, but any place)? If so, let me know in the comments below!