Last May, the two of us set out on the road to work on “America by Night.” Funded in part by a National Geographic Young Explorers grant, the project aimed to explore and document what some Americans do while most others sleep.
At this point, we’ve spent more than 100 days and nights on the road, driving more than 20,000 miles through 36 states.
Before we embarked, we assembled a little library of books about rambles and adventures in America that we hoped would help us prepare for life on the road and get us excited about the prospect of living in our car for months on end.
During our trip, these books traveled with us in a shoebox. We’d flip through them for sections relevant to where we were traveling. Often one of us read aloud while the other drove.
Some books were better than the others. The best of them reminded us to be open and curious and to see wonder in the world even when we were tired, cranky, and homesick–or when the car’s A/C conked out during a Vegas heat wave. They showed us the possibilities of the road, and instilled the sense that we were on a grand adventure–even in the moments when our trip didn’t feel like one.
Here are five of our favorite books on wandering in America to inspire your next journey, big or small:
“Anyone who has fallen under the spell of this country, or any big wild place, knows the temptation. We have all wondered, if only in passing, what it would be like to go further out there, deeper into the wilderness; to cut the ties to civilization and turn trips and expeditions into a permanent state of being.”
Finding happiness in transience, British writer Richard Grant moves to America and spends several years on the road. Armed with a fearless form of immersion journalism, Grant traces the history–and mystique–of wandering in America, blending with it tales of his own journey and those of the fellow nomads–from drug-crazed cowboys on the rodeo circuit to retiree RVers convening in Quartzsite, Arizona–he meets along the way.
2. Travels with Charley: In Search of America, by John Steinbeck
“A journey is a person in itself; no two are alike. And all plans, safeguards, policing, and coercion are fruitless. We find after years of struggle that we do not take a trip; a trip takes us.”
To cure the itch of restlessness, Steinbeck takes to the road in 1960 with his poodle, Charley, and his truck camper, Rocinante. The book chronicles his journey around the U.S., one which takes him through cities, small towns, and national parks. Despite the recent controversy regarding its veracity, the book is enduringly powerful, an observant and deeply reflective work that gives us at once a portrait of a changing mid-century America and of the man himself.
3. Blue Highways: A Journey into America, by William Least Heat Moon
“What you’ve done becomes the judge of what you’re going to do — especially in other people’s minds. When you’re traveling, you are what you are right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road.”
After losing his job and separating from his wife, Heat Moon seeks escape and reconnection in the country. His account of his three-month quest to explore America by way of its back roads is as expansive, meandering, and contemplative as the 13,000-mile route itself. The book details the author’s encounters and observations as he dodges interstates and big cities in search of small-town America. In the end, Heat Moon reminds us of the value of people and places unsung, and produces a portrait of America that is deeply authentic–and surprising.
4. Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America, by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca
“This land, in short, lacks nothing to be regarded as blest.”
Sent to conquer Florida in 1527, Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca is one of four survivors when his ship wrecks off the coast of Texas. This account, written as an official report to the King of Spain and first published in 1542, chronicles Cabeza de Vaca’s experience wandering in America’s borderlands, largely on foot, in the eight years before he was able to reconnect with Spanish colonials. Unsurprisingly, his trials along the way drastically alter his perspective–but it is precisely these changes that make the book so relevant to modern readers.
5. Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed
“It had nothing to do with gear or footwear or the backpacking fads or philosophies of any particular era or even with getting from point A to point B. It had to do with how it felt to be in the wild…It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.”
Though this journey happens on foot, it still provides inspiration for the wandering soul. In 1995, in the wake of a divorce and her own mother’s death, Strayed, then 26, strikes out alone to hike 1,100 miles of Pacific Crest Trail wilderness, from the Mojave Desert to the Oregon-Washington border. Feeling “loose in the world,” Strayed begins her trek with no backpacking experience, woefully unprepared. The book, which weaves the myriad physical challenges, pitfalls, and accomplishment Strayed encounters on the trail with details of her previous life, is ultimately a paean to the renewal that comes from sloughing off the familiar in search of solitude.
When they’re not documenting what Americans do at night, Nat Geo Young Explorer Annie Agnone is a candidate for an MFA in creative writing and Kevin Weidner works as a writer, editor, and educator in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.