These are the stories that make you want to hit the road and see what happens.
By Jessica Dukes
When you imagine a book that encompasses a marathon road trip, Kerouac’s On the Road is probably the first title that comes to mind. Published in 1957, it set a new standard for freewheeling, adventure travel stories. The longing to leave home and wander is a story as old as time, though. The lessons we learn from stepping outside of our routine – the many ways a journey can change us – are probably what inspired Robert Louis Stevenson to say, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.”
A good road trip requires a good book to read (or listen to) while traveling, so here are a few titles to consider – stories that unfold on highways and back roads, and adventures that will keep you entertained during those long stretches between rest stops.
Charley is Steinbeck’s French poodle and sidekick for the trip of a lifetime. Near the end of his years, at age 58, Steinbeck set off to rediscover the country he had been writing about his whole career. Published in 1962, the book is an unapologetic snapshot of late 20th-century America, but it’s also Steinbeck’s story of a revived self-reliance after 20 years of comfortable excess. With his dog, his truck named Rocinante (named after Don Quixote's horse), and enough camping equipment to survive, Steinbeck completes his 10,000 mile drive and, he reports, isn’t recognized even once.
Gilbert’s bestselling Eat Pray Love could easily stand on its own in this list, but we’d rather escape to the raucous world she creates in her latest novel. At 89 years old, Vivian has quite a few stories to tell, and the juiciest ones happened in the theaters and nightclubs of 1940s New York City. It wasn’t easy to be a strong-willed young woman then, but discovering untold pleasures and finding the love of her life proved to be worth whatever risks she took with her reputation.
Leonie is having a hard time being a good mother to her two children, Jojo and Kayla. When Jojo and Kayla’s uninvolved father is released from prison, they are packed into the car along with Leonie’s drug-using friend to bring him home. But there are others in the car. Ghosts of the past hover on the floorboards and materialize across parking lots, trying desperately to guide them down a better road.
Flaming Iguanas: An Illustrated All-Girl Road Novel Thing by Erika Lopez
Tomato Rodriguez and her girlfriends have hit the highways with this promise: “We’ll be riding the cheapest motorcycles we can find / stopping every 45 minutes for gas … We’ll live off the fumes from our estrogen.” Although this cross-country trek is fictional, it has a decidedly anti-Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance vibe – less life lessons, more laughing your chassis off. Short chapters and funny illustrations make it easy to take turns reading in the car.
Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World by Jeff Gordinier; audio book (6 hours, 47 minutes) read by the author
Gordinier is a successful food critic, and Chef René Redzepi runs one of the most famous restaurants in the world. When they both feel the pull of the road and the need for a deeper understanding of their professions, they team up and hit the globe. For four years, they travel from the Arctic Circle to Australia, wherever new ingredients and cooking styles are found, describing them as only a chef and a critic can. If you love new cuisines, you’ll be happy to be along for the ride.
Re-entry into domestic life is difficult for Ernt Allbright, a Vietnam POW. To cope, he makes the bold decision to move his wife and 13-year-old daughter to rural Alaska. They quickly find a welcoming community, and life is simple … until Vietnam catches up with Ernt, and no amount of American wilderness will save him. Very much alone, his wife and daughter need to survive the winter and try to find a way home.
Stuck in the back seat of the family car, Jess and Elise are like any other bored teenagers on a summer road trip … with one exception. Their family has left home for good to witness the Second Coming. Over a few short days, in the cheap motels and greasy diners between Alabama and California, Jess mourns a future her parents say she’ll never see. First kisses, Elise’s secret pregnancy, and the end of the world fill her thoughts, along with serious doubts that the rapture is upon them.
America’s indigenous people have been relocated and assimilated, but as Orange defiantly explains, “We did not move to cities to die.” They’ve adapted, and the urban powwow is a cornerstone from which it continues to grow. Twelve characters, each carrying their anger and pride, travel toward the Big Oakland Powwow where everyone has their own hard-earned answer to a central question: “What are we?”
A chaotic summer for the nation is an equally chaotic summer for the Levin family. This is the story of an annual family vacation that didn’t happen. Three of the Levin siblings are out of reach – deployed in Vietnam, pregnant and stuck at home, or protesting in the streets – while the youngest is shipped off to the grandparents’ beach house in Nantucket. They can put a man on the moon this summer, but can the Levins survive without each other as family secrets are spilled?
The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West by David McCullough; audio book (10 hours, 23 minutes) read by John Bedford Lloyd
Through McCullough’s research, we meet the men and women who migrated to the Northwest Territory – the land west of the Ohio River that would become Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. New Englanders were eager to settle here after the Revolution, as it came with the promise of free education, freedom of religion, and a slavery ban. Moving to the newest lands in a newborn country was seen as daring, but also necessary to the survival of the nation. McCullough’s storytelling chops are as fine-tuned as ever, capturing the details and struggles of everyone on the scene – pioneers, native tribes, and the founding fathers alike.