Often when I stand up in front of audiences and discuss my trilogy of American travel memoirs, some curious soul in the crowd asks me about my process. Do I write while I’m in the road? (Not usually.) Do I tell people exactly what I’m doing when I sit down to extract their story? (Always.) Do I conduct preliminary research on the places I’ll be going and the concepts I’ll be mining? (Gobs of it.)
I tell them that I bring along a digital recorder, not only for the interviews, but for my own commentary as I’m strolling through a small-town or rumbling along a ribbon of highway beneath an endless sky. And I always marvel at the fact that some of my favorite passages from my books are nearly word for word what I spoke into my recorder—because I’m in the moment, and the words come out with a lyrical quality inspired by a flash of epiphany. A dollop of description will often finds its way from my mouth to the pages virtually verbatim.
So, for instance, in my first travel narrative States of Mind, I described a foray from the coast to the desert in Southern California thusly:
Trees shrank, mountains grew, and the land became harsh, the naked earth exposing itself. Blemishes of outcroppings, pock-marked hillsides, bald peaks, wrinkled valleys, a rash of red here, a gash of rock there, as if the forest had been sheared away by a razor.
And in my second installment, Small World, I portrayed the landscape around the little city of Paris, Kentucky in this way:
Like the streets radiating from the Arc de Triomphe, quiet roads fan out in all directions from Paris, winding their way through the countryside, past stately trees and verdant pastures. What one notices most, however, are the fences, miles and miles of them, made of wood or stone, undulating with the hills.
Finally, in my third travel memoir, Turn Left at the Trojan Horse, I rolled through north-central Montana:
Here, for the first time, I notice the big sky for which Montana is famous. More than that, it is big space. The pale green landscape, speckled with ink-black Angus cows on each side of the highway, looks like a massive bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream.
But while the landscape itself always inspires me, people inspire me, too. Writers, that is. I collect classic descriptions of places—sometimes on paper, often in the recesses of my mind—and they motivate me to try to match the evocative and intriguing qualities of such passages. Sort of like the way an aspiring basketball player watches old video of Allen Iverson’s crossover dribble. Yep, just like that.
So I practice my literary dribbles by recalling that Joseph Conrad portrayed “a sea the colour of lead, a sky the colour of smoke” and Henry Miller described “a riot of changing color patterns” and Bill Bryson commented on how “a pink dawn was pilled across the sky.” These, I remember.
With that in mind, and as summer travel season is about to begin, here is a list that will take you places—29 great writers describing 29 American locales:
1. John Steinbeck on California’s Cannery Row:
Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, 'whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,' by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, 'Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,' and he would have meant the same thing.
2. Harper Lee on small-town Alabama:
Maycomb was an old town, but it was a tired old town when I first knew it. In rainy weather the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then; a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine in the morning.
3. Jack London on Alaska:
They went across divides in summer blizzards, shivered under the midnight sun or naked mountains between the timber line and the eternal snows, dropped into summer valleys amid swarming gnats and flies, and in the shadows of glaciers picked strawberries and flowers as ripe and far as any the Southland could boast. In the fall of the year they penetrated a weird lake country, sad and silent, where wild fowl had been, but where then there was no life nor sign of life—only the blowing of chill winds, the forming of ice in sheltered places, and the melancholy rippling of waves on lonely beaches.
4. Tracy Kidder on Northampton, Massachusetts:
From the summit, the cornfields are a dream of perfect order, and the town seems entirely coherent, self-contained, a place where a person might live a whole life and consider it complete; a tiny civilization all its own. Forget the messiness of years and days—every work of human artifice has a proper viewing distance. The town below fits in the palm of your hand. Shake it and it snows.
5. Edward Abbey on Utah’s desert:
Not until the afternoon does the wind begin to blow, raising dust and sand in funnelshaped twisters that spin across the desert briefly, like dancers, and then collapse—whirlwinds form which issue no voice or word except the forlorn moan of the elements under stress. After the reconnoitering dust-devils comes the real, the serious wind, the voice of the desert rising to a demented howl and blotting out sky and sun behind yellow clouds of dust, sand, confusion, embattled birds, last year’s scrub-oak leaves, pollen, the husks of locusts, bark of juniper…
6. William Least Heat Moon on New Mexico:
Walking back to the highway, I saw a coil of sand loosen and bend itself into a grainy S and warp across the slope. I stood dead still. A sidewinder so matched to the grit only its undulating shadow gave it away. And that’s something else about the desert: deception. It can make heat look like water, living plants seem dead, mountains miles away appear close, and turn scaly tubes of venom into ropes of warm sand. So open, so concealed.
7. Mark Twain on the Mississippi River:
If there had been a conspicuous dead tree standing upon the very point of the cape, I would find that tree inconspicuously merged into the general forest, and occupying the middle of a straight shore, when I got abreast of it! No prominent hill would stick to its shape long enough for me to make up my mind what its form really was, but it was as dissolving and changeful as if it had been a mountain of butter in the hottest corner of the tropics. Nothing ever had the same shape when I was coming down-stream that it had borne when I went up.
8. Barbara Kingsolver on Arizona:
June is the cruelest month in Tucson, especially when it lasts till the end of July. This is the season when every living thing in the desert swoons south toward some faint salt dream of the Gulf of Mexico: tasting the horizon, waiting for the summer storms. This year they are late. The birds are pacing the ground stiff-legged, panting, and so am I. Waiting. In this blind, bright still-June weather the shrill of the cicadas hurts your eyes. Every plant looks pitiful and, when you walk past it, moans a little, envious because you can walk yourself to a drink and it can’t.
9. James Michener on Texas:
He was staring at a spread of flowers along the banks of the Colorado River, so many and in such dazzling array that they almost blinded him. Here rose the wonderful bluebonnets of Texas, each stem ending in a sturdy pyramid of delightful blue flowers. Intermixed with them was the only other flower that could make the blue stand out, the Indian paintbrush in burnt orange. Blue and red-orange, what a surprising combination, made even more vibrant by the fact that both flowers bore at their apex a fleck of white, so that the field pulsated with beauty.
10. Norman Maclean on Montana:
On the Big Blackfoot River above the mouth of Belmont Creek the banks are fringed by large Ponderosa pines. In the slanting sun of late afternoon the shadows of great branches reached from across the river, and the trees took the river in their arms. The shadows continued up the bank, until they included us.
11. Michael Perry on Wisconsin:
Summer here comes on like a zaftig hippie chick, jazzed on chlorophyll and flinging fistfuls of butterflies to the sun. The swamps grow spongy and pungent. Standing water goes warm and soupy, clotted with frog eggs and twitching with larvae. Along the ditches, heron-legged stalks of canary grass shoot six feet high and unfurl seed plumes. In the fields, the clover pops its blooms and corn trembles for the sky.
12. Kent Haruf on Colorado:
When they were in front of the empty house at the end of the road they stopped to study it and everything around it. The broken-down neglected locust trees, shaggy barked, the overgrown yard, the dead sunflowers grown up everywhere with their heads loaded and drooping, everything dry and brown now in the late fall, dust-coated, and the sunken house itself diminished and weathered, with the front door swung open carelessly and the windows broken out over the years, and the sole square intact window in the attic bearing a fly screen that was turned down loose from one corner in a way that looked peculiar, like it was sleepy-eyed.
13. Thomas Wolfe on North Carolina:
They flattened noses against the dirty windows, and watched the vast structure of the earth sweep past—clumped woodlands, the bending sweep of the fields, the huge flowing lift of the earth-waves, cyclic intersections bewildering—the American earth—rude, immeasurable, formless, mighty.
14. Truman Capote on Kansas:
The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.” Some seventy miles east of the Colorado border, the countryside, with its hard blue skies and desert-clear air, has an atmosphere that is rather more Far West than Middle West. The local accent is barbed with a prairie twang, a ranch-hand nasalness, and the man, many of them, wear narrow frontier trousers, Stetsons, and high-heeled boots with pointed toes. The land is flat, and the views are awesomely extensive; horses, herds of cattle, a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples are visible long before a traveler reaches them.
15. Jack Kerouac on Louisiana:
The air was so sweet in New Orleans it seemed to come in soft bandannas; and you could smell the river and really smell the people, and mud, and molasses, and every kind of tropical exhalation with your nose suddenly removed from the dry ices of a Northern winter.
16. Sherwood Anderson on Ohio:
The fruition of the year had come and the night should have been fine with a moon in the sky and the crisp sharp promise of frost in the air, but it wasn’t that way. It rained and little puddles of water shone under the street lamps on Main Street. In the woods in the darkness beyond the Fair Ground water dripped from the black trees. Beneath the trees wet leaves were pasted against tree roots that protruded from the ground.
17. F. Scott Fitzgerald on New York:
About half way between West Egg and New York the motor road hastily joins the railroad and runs beside it for a quarter of a mile, so as to shrink away from a certain desolate area of land. This is a valley of ashes—a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air.
18. Walt Whitman on a Midwestern prairie sunset:
Shot gold, maroon and violet, dazzling silver, emerald fawn,
The earth’s whole amplitude and Nature’s multiform power consigned
for once to colors
19. Peter Orner on Chicago cicadas:
Summer and chaos in the trees. Carcasses rain from branches. Lawns wear coats of brittle, crunchable bodies. Pebbles of eyes stare up at the sky. Over breakfast, Miriam explains their sudden appearance: “These harmless insects emerge out of the ground every seventeen years in order to have intercourse. That’s enough sugar in your cereal, honey. Then they die. In Mexico, people consider them a delicacy.”
20. Hunter S. Thompson on Las Vegas:
So once you get blacklisted on the Strip, for any reason at all, you either get out of town or retire to nurse your act along, on the cheap, in the shoddy limbo of North Vegas… out there with the gunsels, the hustlers, the drug cripples and all the other losers. North Vegas, for instance, is where you go if you need to score smack before midnight with no references.
21. Henry Miller on southern California:
For twenty miles outside of Barstow you ride over a washboard amidst sand dunes reminiscent of Bergen Beach or Canarsie. After a while you notice farms and trees, heavy green trees waving in the breeze. Suddenly the world has grown human again—because of the trees. Slowly, gradually, you begin climbing. And the trees and the farms and the houses climb with you. Every thousand feet there is a big sign indicating the altitude. The landscape becomes thermometric. Around you rugged, towering mountain ranges fading almost to extinction in the dancing heat waves of mid-afternoon.
22. Sinclair Lewis on Minnesota:
Beyond the undeviating barbed-wire fences were clumps of golden rod. Only this thin hedge shut them off from the plains—shorn wheat-lands of autumn, a hundred acres to a field, prickly and gray near-by but in the blurred distance like tawny velvet stretched over dipping hillocks. The long rows of wheat-shocks marched like soldiers in worn yellow tabards. The newly plowed fields were black banners fallen on the distant slope. It was a martial immensity, vigorous, a little harsh, unsoftened by kindly gardens.
23. Charles Kuralt on Maine:
I lay there imagining all the ways I could see again the coves and points and islands of that infinite, indented coast—from a lobster boat, maybe, or a windjammer, or a fishing smack. In Maine, it’s fun to glimpse the sea from the land, but to survey the dark forests and rocky headlands from the sea with a fair wind and a running tide is a glory to last you all your life.
24. Eric Weiner on Miami:
Miami is associated with happiness, if not paradise itself. Beaches. Palm trees. Sunshine. But paradise comes with its own inherent pressures. It screams: “Be happy, God damn it!” I remember driving by a billboard on the way to work one day. There was a photo of a yellow convertible VW Beetle and, underneath, the words, “Woe isn’t you. Dare to be happy.” What is that ad saying? It’s saying, I think, that at the dawn of the twenty-first century, American happiness isn’t left to the gods or to fortune, as was the case for most of human history. No, happiness is there for the taking.
25. Stephen G. Bloom on Iowa:
Iowa, we discovered, was a rural canvas of extremes. From 110-degree summer days to -16 degree winter nights, there was no moderation in the seasons. The in-between times were short and transitory. By mid-October, fall was over, and we had to brace for bone-chilling cold that lasted until the end of April. For weeks, the winter skies would be pewter-colored without even a tentative ray of sun. Formerly light and fluffy banks of vestal snow turned into cold, hard, blackish gray ice mounds. The days were short.
26. William McKeen on Arkansas:
We slip out of Missouri through the boot heel, crossing into Arkansas just north of Blytheville, taking a turn like something out of the Indianapolis 500 and driving under a replica natural bridge. Irrigation tractors span the fields like huge mutant insects from an old science-fiction film. We’re eager to get to Memphis, and this two-lane stretch is slowgoing. Over a ridge, we narrowly avoid hitting tractors using the highway while switching fields. One rusted John Deere has a Confederate-flag sticker on the wheel cover.
27. Roy Blount, Jr. on Georgia:
“Georgia is a place you get sent to or you come from or you march through or you drive through. Convicts settled it. It’s got some fine red dirt, hills, vegetables, and folks, but I don’t believe anybody has ever dreamed of growing up and moving to Georgia.”
28. Kathleen Norris on the Dakotas:
The silence of the Plains, this great unpeopled landscape of earth and sky, is much like the silence one finds in a monastery, an unfathomable silence that has the power to re-form you. And the Plains have changed me. I was a New Yorker for nearly six years and still love to visit my friends in the city. But now I am conscious of carrying a Plains silence within me into cities, and of carrying my city experiences back to the Plains so that they may be absorbed again back into silence, the fruitful silence that produces poems and essays.
29. Dayton Duncan on the Oregon coast:
But it’s as good a spot as any to sit and watch the sun sink into the water, a Farewell Sunset. The ocean, at low tide, hisses rather than roars. A thick mist clings to the hills to the south. Cloud banks out to sea look like yet another mountain range across a liquid plain… The gold sun has touched the horizon now, distorting like a hot egg yolk dropped on water. It lingers for a moment, allowing one last look from the continent it has crossed in a day, and sinks from sight.