Women’s Road Trips in Literature

Reese Witherspoon in

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.

von arnim the caravaners 11407011. 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…

mona simpson Anywhere_But_Here_book_cover2.  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?

Nevada Imogen Binnie3.  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.

towers of trebizond macaualy 51xRuH-4gLL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_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.

mary morris nothing to declare 5179G9elPbL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_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!

Mara and Dann Lessing 5125ZTWXP0L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_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!

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Okay, what are your favorite women’s travel/road trip books?  And are the trips always rugged?

12 thoughts on “Women’s Road Trips in Literature

  1. I recommend the Mona Simpson and Macaulay books to all bystanders; the others I haven’t read (yet). For female road books, think of all the novels where a young woman goes to Europe and travels from place to place, as in Trollope and Henry James. Not quite road trips, but still a shock to the system.

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    • It’s amazing how much travel there is in Trollope and James! I was trying also to think of road trip books by women,and having a tougher time, though there really is lot of travel lit by women.

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  2. I’ve always liked the idea of road trips a la Kerouac though it’s not quite the same in small, rainy Britain. But I think I’d prefer a hotel at night…

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  3. Dervla Murphy, now 83, is still travelling, though she no longer cycles everywhere. Isabella Bird, author of A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains among others, is only one of the Victorian English ladies who were all the more Victorian, English and lady-like for their strange adventures.

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    • Murphy is such a great writer, and she did inspire me to take a long-distance biking trip (well, long by my standards) but I discovered I am not very good at such road trips. I was always trying to get everyone to go to a motel, though we carried our camping equipment:) I’ve read bits of Isabella Bird in anthologies and really should read about the Rocky Mountains, where I’ve also never traveled.

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  4. I agree on Strayd and know I would very much enjoy the Von Armin. I like some modern travel books by women, not fictionalized at all; Patricia Hampl’s A romantic education (about a time in Prague); Elizabeth Bowen, A Time in Rome, Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antartica, George Sand’s Voyages and her novella on her time with Chopin on an island. It’s the inner journey of the person that counts. So Margaret Atwood’s series of poem enacting Susannah Moodie’s trajectory. I also enjoy the kind of story which shows a woman living elsewhere — on the periphery of societies — and surviving — like Susannah Moodie’s classic book, Roughing It in the Bush. There are a number of 19th century spinster types who take off — one is a top Girl in Cheryl Churchil; Isabel Bird’s memoir is fascinating — strong. I like interludes in a autobiography or novel where the character travels too. Among novels a classic beautiful book is Stael’s famous Corinne.

    Another paradigm is the mother-daughter story but often these are unhappy. How about the idea by Strayd going off on her own she can come to terms with her mother. Diski came to terms with her background by her trips.

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    • The von Arnim is utterly charming!

      There are many women’s travel classics. I recommend Mary Morris, who has written several intense travel books, and I agree about Jenny Diski’s Skating to Antarctica. I also enjoyed Diski’s Stranger on a Train, about taking AmTrak, smoking cigarettes, and more. Oddly, I don’t remember her getting off the train much, but it has been a while since i read it!

      Thank you for the recommendations! I have never heard of Cheryl Churchil.

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  5. If you are into birding, there’s the amazing: Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds, by Olivia Gentile. Diagnosed with cancer with just a few months to live she decided to go on long trips to find exotic birds, and was healed of her cancer. but faced other dangers…

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    • Now this one sounds fascinating! I never seem to be able to see anything through binoculars, but have gone on nature walks with serious birders and enjoyed them.

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