TRAVEL LITERATURE is usually described as being about places and the process of getting or being there. Paul Theroux is one of the most prolific writers of travel literature. His travel series it is mostly about the journey itself – with the history, geography and cultural realities of passing scenes serving as colorful background. I love that; he’s one of my writer-heroes. However, there’s another kind of travel literature that’s equally interesting and important—where history and geography, busy with political, cultural, social, and economic details, are the focus and the minutia of the writer’s physical journey is inconsequential.
Great travel writers always include enough about themselves so the reader has a real live companion. In Theroux’s case, the cynical cranky guy is also smart, observant, funny and compassionate (sometimes) so you do like to share his railway compartment. While the author, Theroux, is his own main character, that’s not the case in the books I’m writing about today. In each of them the writer is more like a knowledgeable friendly acquaintance who hangs out with you but manages to remain an unobtrusive presence as you move about the countryside and the towns, or explore an abandoned schoolhouse; immerse yourself in the history and topography; or get to know the locals, past and present.
In the final analysis though, travel literature is whatever enriches your experiences on the journey. Here are the books that made my Epic Summer Road Trip of 2013 richer and more interesting – and connected me to the geography, history, and cultures of the land and towns through which we passed. Of course I intended to read all of them before traveling but that never happens. So here they are: the pre-travel reads, the companions each night on the road, the ones I’m reading now that I wish I had read before or during the trip and even some acquired from random book and gift shops along the way!
“The Worst Hard Time” by Timothy Egan is an in-depth account of the dustbowl that I read a few summers ago prior to traveling through the Panhandle territory of Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico—in other words the heart of dustbowl country. It is a grim land, although a colleague from there says if you just get away from the primary through-routes you’ll find pleasant and interesting places. I’ll read this book along with “Grapes of Wrath” again in preparation for yet another road trip that takes me home to Minnesota that way. Egan’s book is my favorite kind of read: geography, history and sociology underlying horror stories of bureaucratic blindness and personal tragedy, played out in a natural world gone mad and black and revengeful. Be sure and read before taking US 54 and/or 56 through Panhandle territory.
“Great Plains” by Ian Frazier was a road trip read last summer intended to give my granddaughter some background knowledge before our ‘epic journey’ this summer. Alas, my original copy was with a friend and the one I hurriedly ordered from B&N didn’t arrive in time, but I still highly recommend it as preparation for all trips through that big beautiful country. “Great Plains” is the perfect companion read to “Bad Land: An American Romance” by Jonathan Raban which I just finished. Neither of these books is new but they are classics of the genre called travel literature.
“Great Plains” is sweeping in its geographical and cultural breadth, encompassing eastern Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico and western North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. It includes some of Texas and parts of Canada. Frazier says the Great Plains sometimes go all the way to the Continental Divide in the west, but their eastern edge is harder to define. You will know it when you see it though. Driving west to east in the Dakotas, Nebraska or Kansas, at some midpoint the wide open spaces get hilly and greenish, trees and barns and cows appear; there’s a little more traffic, then quite a bit more traffic, the towns move closer together…and you’ve left the great plains.
I did not realize how much I loved this country until a few summers ago, although I had been driving through it for over thirty years. I realized that after not too many hours of majestic mountains or deep dark forests you’re bored and feel claustrophobic. Out there on the plains there’s always that loneliest of broken down shacks and corrals, or seven black cattle grazing on brown grass silhouetted on the one low hill in sight, or a narrow dry riverbed named something forlorn that grabs your eye and your attention. There are things to look for whereas in that other more crowded geography you can’t see the forest for the trees or the mountain range for the mountains!
Ian Frazier populates these spaces with wild Indians and wild horses…sure there are pioneers and outlaws and ranchers and characters too numerous to list but it is in indigenous America where he spends much of his story time. Even if I don’t reread his book before every trip through the Great Plains I always see the braves on their pintos galloping just overhead and if I strain my eyes an encampment, tent poles poking the horizon, will appear just over there. I brought Frazier’s tales of Crazy Horse along in my memory when we visited the Memorial in the Black Hills and it made it all the better an experience. “Great Plains” is another masterpiece of travel/history/geography writing.
“Bad Land” by Jonathan Raban is the book I should absolutely have read before traveling back and forth across eastern Montana. Like Frazier and Egan, Raban is a ‘spellbinding’ writer. We usually see that word used to describe novels or biographies; but, in my opinion, brilliantly written history has far more capacity to hold your attention completely than either of these. “Bad Land” is really the personal story of a territory so obscure to most of the world as to be unbelievable as a locale of even mild interest, except possibly to the few people who live there or a dry didactic historian.
Let me tell you that the towns of Mildred, Ismay, Plevna and Terry are as captivating characters as any you’ll meet in real life. If only I had read this book before the summer’s trip we would have spent a day and a night roaming around this very small spot of land in a very big space (remember Montana is Big Sky Country). Raban either already had friends or made new connections among the descendants of the original settlers so that his visits always connected generations. Their stories of how they came here from all over Europe and the eastern seaboard, how they survived or did not, of how they kept on westward or managed to hang on to their homestead are personal history at its best. “Bad Land” is about the settlers of the American West AND it is a tale of such appalling government and corporate connivance that one readily sees how a generational mistrust of elected and unelected officials grew into decades of conservative Republican ascendancy and worse. Never mind that both parties were equal opportunity scammers of the little guy; the Republicans learned early on how to talk a better anti-government game.
I’ve just looked for these towns in a Montana travel guide and of Raban’s main characters only Terry is mentioned. Mostly too obscure for a travel guide—now I really want to go there.
“Montana 1948,” a novel by Larry Watson is also a worthwhile read in preparation for eastern Montana. It is fiction that captures the reality of the Great Plains in all their scary openness, the dogged determination of the people who live in such places, and the conflict between the cowboys and the Indians that played out in ways more subtle, but sometimes meaner than the movie’s rifle versus bow and arrow battles.
While writing this I’ve torn eastern Montana’s page from my Atlas (don’t worry I buy new ones for each trip), used an orange highlighter to draw a big circle over Raban’s territory and vowed to reread the aforementioned books before a trip back there in the summer of 2015.
I have a few more books connected to the epic journey of the summer to recommend but this is enough for now.