Reese Witherspoon in “Wild”
I don’t take many road trips.
Nothing could compel me to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, as Cheryl Strayd did in Wild (played by Reese Witherspoon in the movie).
Nor am I eager to bicycle across the Himalayas, as Dervla Murphy wrote about in her inspiring book, Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle.
I would rather take the train or fly. And I like a nice hotel at the end of the day
I do not drive, and I generally pass on road trips with the goal-oriented men in my family
The guys are all about getting there, taking the interstate rather than back roads, and know the words “coffee” and “camping” but not “motel.”
There was the time we were on the New York thruway in a blizzard and I had to stick my arm out the window and wipe snow off the windshield with my mitten. I was never so happy as when the Highway Patrol closed the road.
During an 11-day bicycle trip, the only way to get the guys to take a break was to pretend I was yearning to heat up Dinty Moore stew (yum yum) at a campground.
But I do like reading about travel.
At Atlas Obscura, Richard Kreitner has written a very clever article about literary road trips, “The Obsessively Detailed Map of American Literature’s Most Epic Road Trips.” A good list and a great map, but where are the women?
Only one woman has made the list, and that is Cheryl Strayd, whose beautifully-written book, Wild, a memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail from Southern California to Portland, is a literary page-turner. The poor woman was mourning her mother, did not work out or hike before her trip, and had just shot some heroin, so could she have hiked in that kind of shape? Well, yes: she was raised in the country and is outdoorsy. (And she is a fantastic writer.)
Surely there must be some less extreme women travelers, I thought. And so I decided to list a few other women’s road trip books. Guess what? All the trips are demanding.
1. In Elizabeth von Arnim’s charming comic novel, The Caravaners, a young woman blooms during a caravan trip in England. Edelgarde has persuaded her much older husband, the narrator, Baron Otto von Ottringe, that the trip will be cheap and healthy. He has envisioned himself sitting cozily inside the caravan, but it rains all the time, and he must tramp in the muddy road beside the horse, guide it through narrow gateways, and hold umbrellas over cooking pots.
Edelgarde loves the outdoor life. She shortens her dresses and stops taking the Baron’s orders. She refuses to wait on him. She points out that he can do everything she does if he puts his mind to it. She is inspired by the companionship with the politically radical German woman who suggested the trip, her sister, Mrs. Menzies-Legh, who has lived in England for many years, and Jellaby, a socialist, whom Otto refuses to acknowledge until finds out that Jellaby is “Lord Sigismund.”
I hope I could behave so well as Edelgarde on a caravan trip in the rain! But actually it’s quite a bit like Wild when I think about it…
2. Mona Simpson’s Anywhere But Here. I loved this novel when I read it in the ’80s. The narrator, Ann, and her mother, Adele, take a road trip to California from Wisconsin on Adele’s ex-husband’s credit card. Adele has a dream that Ann can be a child star in Hollywood. It’s actually a novel about a mother-daughter relationship, but there is a road trip.
The first line is two words: “We fought.”
Typical of mothers and daughters, yes?
3. In Imogen Binnie’s bold, if wildly uneven, novel, Nevada , the heroine, Maria, a transgender woman, works at a bookstore in New York. After she breaks up with her girlfriend, she takes a road trip west in her girlfriend’s car (reported stolen, of course). In Nevada, she meets a boy, James, who works at WalMart, who she believes is trans without knowing it. And then there is much discussion with him about what it means to be trans. Maria’s road trip in a broken-down car is something most of us can relate to, and Maria is an intelligent source of information about transgender women–much better than interviews with Cait Jenner, who, in my wry womanly view, stands for money, Kardashian reality, and hair extensions.
4. Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond. I read this wonderful novel years ago.
The following description is from the jacket copy: it is :
the gleefully absurd story of Aunt Dot, Father Chantry-Pigg, Aunt Dot’s deranged camel, and our narrator, Laurie, who are traveling from Istanbul to legendary Trebizond on a convoluted mission. Along the way they will encounter spies, a Greek sorcerer, a precocious ape, and Billy Graham with a busload of evangelists. Part travelogue, part comedy, it is also a meditation on love, faith, doubt, and the difficulties, moral and intellectual, of being a Christian in the modern world.
5. Mary Morris’s Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone is a remarkable travel memoir. I read it in the ’80s so it isn’t fresh, but here is a quote from the writer Wendy Smith’s Amazon review:
…Mary Morris’s category-defying 1988 memoir was an instant classic as much for its candid revelation of the author’s turbulent emotions as for its sensitive, unglamorous portrait of a Latin America most tourists never see.”
And, yes, that’s how I remember it!
6. Doris Lessing’s Mara and Dann, a stunning science fiction novel about the odyssey of a brother and sister during a dystopian future. After a palace coup, the children Mara and Dann flee to a primitive rural village. Eventually, during a drought, they join a great human migration northwards. They survive war, enslavement, and famine. They grow up. At one point, they are fighting on opposite sides of a war. They escape. Mara especially is articulate about their experiences. She wants to remember.
In 1999 Michael Upchurch wrote in the New York Times:
”Mara and Dann” has the shape of a myth or a folk tale in which a humble foundling’s illustrious origins are eventually revealed after much hardship. But the book’s proportions are those of an epic; at more than 400 pages, it feels inflated, repetitious and strangely devoid of surprise. All the necessary elements are here, often dazzling in their invention, but only intermittently do they coalesce into tension-filled narrative. Mara herself describes her ”adventure” as a ”slog of endurance,” and those same words, unfortunately, sometimes apply to the book itself.
I obviously admired this much more than Upchurch did, but you get the drift!
Okay, what are your favorite women’s travel/road trip books? And are the trips always rugged?