Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain
The author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn is known as a great humourist, but before he became a successful writer he was a river-boat pilot on the Mississippi River. Though a little slow to start, with a history of the river, this 1883 book leads into an entertaining account of Twain’s career as a steamboat pilot. The final section is an even more entertaining account of a trip he made down the river many years after he stopped being a pilot and had become the most famous writer in America.
Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck is my all-time favourite writer, as discovering his novels like Cannery Row and The Grapes of Wrath as a teenager turned reading for me into a pleasure not a chore. It was also through him and Hemingway that I discovered a love for America. In Travels with Charley Steinbeck took to the road with his French poodle Charley in an old camper van. He does a circuit of the country, talking to people, and musing, and produced an insightful look at his country at a pivotal time, as the 1950s gave way to the 1960s.
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
My wife gave me this book as a gift when we were planning our first American road trip together, from Denver through the Rocky Mountains to Salt Lake City – and back again by a different route. Desert Solitaire is an evocative account of the author’s time as a park ranger in Arches National Monument (now a National Park) near Moab, which we visited. It is one of the finest pieces of nature writing about the USA, and about the deserts of the American South-West, which we now call home.
Coming into the Country by John McPhee
John McPhee writes about the natural world with an acute observation, in lovely, lyrical prose. I bought this book as background reading for a visit to Alaska, and it was one of those wonderful chance buys that turned me on to both a fine writer and a fascinating part of the USA. It captures the history, landscapes, wildlife, and people of that remarkable state, from the Native Americans to the settlers and hunters, the bush pilots, and those scrabbling to make a living from this tough land.
A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins
In 1973 Peter Jenkins, a 22-year-old graduate, decided to take his dog for a walk. The walk was from New York to Oregon, and to make it more interesting he went the long way round – via New Orleans. This first book describes the section of the walk from New York to New Orleans, and what makes it so special are the encounters with the wonderfully varied American people he meets. When you’re travelling in the States, you do meet a marvellously diverse range of people, who for the most part are overwhelmingly hospitable and entertaining, if not downright eccentric. A Walk Across America: The Walk West is the second part of the author’s epic trek.
Old Glory: An American Voyage by Jonathan Raban
One of the finest observers of American life and land is an Englishman, Jonathan Raban. He eventually made the American North-West his home and you could pick any one of his US books in your top choices. Hunting Mr Heartbreak, Bad Land, Passage to Juneau, and Driving Home are all entertaining and beautifully-written. My real favourite, though, is the award-winning Old Glory, in which the author takes a small boat down the Mississippi with his friend: Jack Daniels. There are as many misadventures as adventures in an insightful book about the South from this highly talented writer.
Blue Highways: A Journey into America by William Least Heat-Moon
William Least Heat-Moon, who has a mixed Osage-English-Irish ancestry, set off on a 3-month road trip in 1978, after he lost both his job and his marriage. He went to find himself, and to discover his America, living in the back of a van and sticking to what he called the ‘blue highways’, the back roads coloured blue in old Rand McNally atlases. He was drawn to places with names like Remote, New Hope, Simplicity, and Nameless, and his questing book rightly became a huge best-seller.
The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson
‘I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.’ Those are the opening words of Bill Bryson’s first travel book, and he went on to become one of the best-selling travel writers of all time. I find his writing both hilarious and acutely-observed – it’s hard to be funny unless you are observant, but this account of two journeys made after the death of his father is touching too. For all its scathing humour, it’s a fond account of life in the MidWest and the innate goodness of the people who live there. I married someone from Iowa, so the truth and funniness of the book came through all the more on a recent re-reading.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
In 1992 the emaciated body of a young man, Chris McCandless, was found inside an abandoned bus in the Alaskan wilderness. The writer Jon Krakauer was drawn to the haunting story, and went to Alaska to try to trace the man’s journey, and find out what happened to him. Growing out of a magazine article, the book combines strong journalism with sensitivity, evoking as it does the harsh life of Alaska, and exploring why people are drawn to it. Anyone who’s ever been to Alaska will understand the book all the more.
Through Painted Deserts by Donald Miller
First published in 2000 as Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance, this book sank without trace. On its republication five years later under a more appropriate title it became a road trip classic. The book is imbued with Miller’s Christian faith, and through it he describes an America that is spiritual, uplifting, and also great fun, as he journeys around in a camper van with his friend Paul. As with some of the other books on my list, like Travels with Charley or A Walk Across America, it is the people of America who make the book special.
Selection of ten great American Travel Book - Nikola M.