During the pandemic I’ve watched one after another of my favorite travel YouTube channels turn to #VanLife, and I’d be lying if I said I haven’t contemplated travel by van myself. It does seem the best way to travel right now in order to stay socially distanced from strangers as it allows you to be self-sufficient and go way off the beaten track. Unfortunately, I literally can’t drive out of my city any time soon, so naturally instead, I’ve turned to books. I’ve picked up a number of novels inspired by American road tripping that are at the same time soothing the travel itch but also have me wanting to put wheels to pavement. I’ve put these novels, plus two books to aid in planning a literary USA road trip into the following Book List for American #VanLife.
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Book List for American #VanLife
Travels with Charley: In Search of America by John Steinbeck
Steinbeck’s American road trip with his large French poodle Charley is the closest to today’s type of van life. He kits out a custom van which contains a bed and a small kitchen and table (under which Charley loves to sleep). As a writer, Steinbeck is familiar with the way people shift their attitude when talking to a known writer, so he feels he’s lost touch with the real American. So he sets out to see the country while trying to remain largely anonymous to those he meets. He often uses Charley as a means of connecting with new people because not many people can resist wanting to pet the large goofy dog. The tale that ensues is one of heartwarming meetings with migrants, funny interactions with small-town locals, and sarcastic commentary on bureaucracy (Specifically an incidence with US border guards who don’t want to let the driver and dog back in the country although the van never actually went through the Canadian border and left the country.)
Steinbeck’s way of travel is how I imagine wanting to travel at this point in my life, with a self-sufficient van and a dog. And the occasional stop at a motel for a good bubble bath.
The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America by Bill Bryson
Fueled by the desire to recapture the feelings of his childhood vacations of the 1950’s, Bill Bryson drives solo through small towns of America. His father used to pile the family in the car and drive, stopping at all the small, bizarre roadside attractions. Bryson similarly, chooses to travel in his car and spend the nights in accommodations he finds along the way. Bryson recounts his journey and the people he meets and places he sees with his dry, sarcastic humor, similar to Steinbeck. In the end, he pulls into his own driveway to discover no matter where you go, there’s really no place like home.
Being forced to use restaurants and accommodations because your means of travel isn’t self-sufficient will definitely cause you to interact with strangers as you travel. Before the pandemic I would have said this is not a bad way to travel. This is perhaps not quite the way I’d choose to travel at the moment, but if you’re looking for a travel log that will remind you of the before-times, this is a good one.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Kerouac, during University, spends his school breaks zooming around America at top speeds with friends or hitchhiking alongside hobos, migrant workers, and other hitchhikers. This Beat Generation writer weaves into his novel his memories of the drugs, sex, jazz, and “philosophical” conversations that either provoked or were the result of his criss crossing the country multiple times.
There are two versions of this book, one in which aliases have been used rather than the names of Kerouac and his friends, and the original. Kerouac typed On The Road in a three week period in one long single spaced paragraph on 8 long sheets of tracing paper that he then taped into an 120 foot scroll (check out this video of the original scroll on display at the British Library in 2012). He used the real names of his friends and I can only assume that much of the text comes directly from the drug fueled conversations he remembered having.
While not exactly a tale of van life, this is probably the most famous American road trip book, so I would be remiss if I left if off the list. I would recommend listening to the audio version of this book because, in my opinion, much of the novel is made up of nonsensical sentences that are much easier to understand when listening to a narrator read them as they might have been originally said- at quick speed while high and full of ideas all trying to get out at once. And the laid back “ya maaaaaaaan” isn’t quite the same reading it as hearing it.
The Kindness of Strangers: Penniless Across America by Mike McIntyre
Mike McIntyre, like Kerouac, hitchhiked his way across the United States, with one big difference. It’s not that he didn’t have the means, he decided not to use them. Rather than providing his own transportation or paying for any, he wanted to see how far he could get by relying on others. What he found was that it was the people with the least to give that gave the most. Those with means and money didn’t stop to pick up hitchhikers or invite them in for meals. McIntyre ended up in cars with some unsavory characters and eating at meal centers meant for those most in need.
I was frustrated by this book because of McIntyre’s use of services meant for those who need them and would have felt better if he’d at least left a donation as he had the means to do so. McIntyre seems to me a modern day Kerouac in that both hitchhikers traveled just as thoughtlessly as one another. I don’t know if in this way these authors saw “the real America” by rubbing shoulders with the most in need individuals of America, but perhaps these stories are the reminder we need of what we’re zooming by in our self-sufficient vans.
Plan Your Own Literary Inspired American Road Trip
Whether you set out on an American road trip to find yourself, reclaim a happy childhood feeling, or reacquaint yourself with whatever the “real America” is, as the authors attempted in the books above, it seems useful to have at least a few destinations in mind to provide a driving direction. Use the travel guides below to find literary inspired destinations.
Traveling Literary America: A Complete Guide to Literary Landmarks by B. J. Welborn
Buy now on: Amazon
More American Literary Road Trip Resources
Like hiking and want to add some hikes into your road trip? Check out this post about New England hikes inspired by literature.
Want to follow directly in the footsteps/wheel tracks of an American road tripping author? Check out Atlas Obscura’s Obsessively Detailed Map of American Literature’s Most Epic Road Trips