The US highway is a familiar backdrop to self-discovery in American art. No matter what the reason you’re going out to find, be it adventure, escape, or yourself, these books make great companions. They’re smart, funny, insightful, and (best of all) quiet when you want them to be.
Note to the Carsick: A lot of people get car sickness from reading in a car. I’ve never suffered from this, but it makes me sad because reading on roadtrips is an excellent way to pass the time. Car sickness while reading is caused by confusion between your eyes focusing on a stationary object, and your inner ear’s awareness of motion from bumps and turns in the road. Here’s a great Wikihow article on how to avoid getting sick while reading in the car. If all else fails, you can find many of these books on tape.
1. Wild-Cheryl Strayed
This journey happens on foot. Cheryl Strayed begins the Pacific Crest Trail, which starts in the Mojave Desert and ends in Washington. She starts the trail because, “I was living alone in a studio apartment in Minneapolis, separated from my husband and working as a waitress, as low and mixed-up as I’d ever been”. The book is heartbreaking, hilarious, and ultimately triumphant.
2. Killing Yourself to Live– Chuck Klosterman
Music critic Chuck Klosterman rents a Ford Taurus and nicknames it “Tauntaun”, and drives on a epic journey to visit the death sites of American rock stars like Kurt Cobain, Jeff Buckley, and Duane Allman, in an attempt to find some kind of meaning in these culturally significant events. Klosterman is a funny, self-deprecating narrator who knows way too much about music. In other words, the perfect road-trip buddy.
3. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance- Robert Pirsig
This influential modern classic follows a motorcycle journey of a father and son through the American Northwest. As the narrator explores the backroads and highways of America, he also explores the wild and winding roads of his own mind. This is a book about life, Zen Buddhism, and (as you might guess) motorcycle maintenance.
4. The Dharma Bums– Jack Kerouac
The most obvious Kerouac choice for any road-book list is On the Road, so I thought I’d give some love to this less popular, but just as excellent novel. The semi-autobiographical book is another exploration of Eastern religion against the American Landscape. The language is everything you’d expect from Kerouac: fast and bright and full of beauty.
5. Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas– Hunter S. Thompson
A wild, strange odyssey called “The Best Book of the Dope Decade”, Fear and Loathing is the story of hippe-era journalist Hunter Thompson’s trip to cover the Mint 400–a dirt biking race–in the Las Vegas desert. In true gonzo spirit, Thompson comes armed with enough drugs to hospitalize a woolly mammoth and barely covers the race, instead going in search of “The American Dream”. What follows is equal parts madness, hilarity, and illumination.
6. Another Roadside Attraction- Tom Robbins
Here’s the highway from a different perspective. This cult-classic tells the story of a married couple in rural Washington with a baby named Thor and a baboon named Moc Cul, they start a combination zoo/hot dog stand called “The Capt. Kendrick Memorial Hot Dog Wildlife Preserve”. That is not the most crazy stuff in this book.
7. Blue Highways– William Least Heat-Moon
The term “blue highway” refers to small, out of the way back roads–so called because they were marked in blue on old maps. In 1978, Following a separation from his wife and loss of his job, author Heat-Moon travels these roads to go deep into the heart of unknown America.
A quote from the book: “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.”
8. American Nomads: Travels with Lost Conquistadors, Mountain Men, Cowboys, Indians, Hoboes, Truckers, and Bullriders-Richard Grant
This book was actually written by a British man who lived a nomadic life in the United States for 15 years. It is partly the personal account of the realities of the wandering life, along with the strange individuals he meets along the way (the title should give that away). It also tells history of US wanderers, from Native Americans to conquistadors, united by the belief that true freedom is the open road. After this book was published, the BBC made a documentary following Grant as he interviews modern hitchhikers, train hoppers, cowboys, and other free spirits of the American West. You can watch the whole thing on youtube. I recommend it to any wandering heart in America today.