Reading for the Road

10th Anniversary edition (1985) from Dream Gar...

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I think it was 1994 when I first began a concerted effort to structure a reading list that fit the geography of my travels. We were heading from our home in northern Utah to the Santa Fe opera, car-camping much of the way and stopping at archaeological sites en route as planned by my Anthropology professor spouse. I’m a Professor of English so making book lists for classes is not uncommon; however, this was the first time to construct a list that would fill about a two weeks of travel time.

So, first, Utah. I knew immediately that I finally would be able to crack open Edward Abbey‘s Desert Solitaire, a book that had grown in importance for me as I listened to undergrad student Jared Farmer talk about his own writing project on Glen Canyon Dam(med/ned).  Wonderfully evocative book! And that was followed by his The Monkey Wrench Gang, alternately laugh-out-loud funny and sad. When Doc carries with him to his trial at the novel’s end The Book of Mormon, it was superb satire.

Abbey is a slam dunk, easily recognizable, but a lesser-known work is Levi Peterson‘s The Back Slider, a novel set in southern Utah about a young cowboy, who is concerned about his ever-present lust (which would seem natural but is forbidden in local culture) and his brother, who is so affected by the strictures to avoid sex that he mutilates himself. Perhaps one has to live in Utah to understand this novel entirely, but what is a book if it’s not to take us “worlds away”?

As we moved from the petroglyphs of Sand Island near Bluff, Utah to Hovenweep and Mesa Verde, the literary landscape changed to a mystery by Nevada Barr set in the ruins of the National Park: Ill Wind. It won’t be surprising that has we continued south to Chaco Canyon and Bandelier that Tony Hillerman came on the scene with his Sacred Clowns. The Indian Country map that AAA publishes is a great resource for reading the Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn stories. Believe me, the sacred clown black and white figurines made a whole lot more sense after reading this novel.

We arrived in Santa Fe, which is a natural for Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, a novel that I had read as an undergrad (when we debated the important choice of the preposition “for” as opposed to “to” in the title). The primary point of the trip was to attend the fabulous opera produced in the outdoors, and certainly The Barber of Seville (with the title character cleverly outfitted in a red and white striped costume reminiscent of a barber pole!) exceeded expectations. But the main take-away message of the trip for me was how much richer the experience when augmented by literature set in the landscape where we traveled.

Since that time, we’ve been to a lot of places, domestic and foreign, and each time, I’ve done the research in advance to pack a small library of books that fit the territory, keeping a journal about them and the local territory. I’ll be writing about these Road Works–books for the road–that have enhanced my travel and may be helpful to others who also like a good read set in the locale.


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