Books to Inspire the Traveler in All of Us

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Long before travel blogs existed, outstanding writers told tales of faraway places for the general populace who could not afford travel on their own. These books continue to inspire travelers to seek new places and I am no exception. Growing up, I always perused the travel section of the local bookstore for travelogues to inspire me. 

These days, I primarily read on my iPad Mini using the Kindle app. I know many of you prefer the feel of a paper book, but for traveling, carrying that many books can be onerous. We also make good use of the site Bookbub.com to get numerous free and marked-down books.

These are some of my favorite all time travel books or books that inspired me to travel. I hope you find a few to add to your own library and inspire your wanderlust.

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Following the Equator

by Mark Twain

I always like to start a list of suggested travel books with the classic travelogue Following the Equator by Mark Twain. It was one of the first travel books I read back in college. It highlights travel to India and the South Pacific. While not Twain’s only travelogue, as a young man, I thoroughly enjoyed Twain’s style and I eagerly consumed the tails of the exotic South Pacific and India. I am still hankering to visit Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand and India. 

Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.

Mark Twain

Leaves of Grass

by Walt Whitman

If there is only one book of American poetry you should own as an American traveler, it is Leaves of Grass. While there many great volumes of American poetry, Whitman’s seminal work contains one of the greatest travel poems ever written: “Song of the Open Road.”

Click here to read my take on “Song of the Open Road.”

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,

Healthy, free, the world before me,

The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.

Walt Whitman

What more could you ask for in terms of inspiration at the start of a great journey? This poem has not only inspired me in my travels but also in how I teach my American Literature classes. Whitman’s easy, relatable style makes for a great read and a great companion on the road.


A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

by Norman Maclean

Between the movie and this excellent novel, there is plenty of inspiration in A River Runs Through It to visit Montana. Norman Maclean’s three stories tell the story of Maclean’s life and family, as well as his experiences in the woods of Montana.

Indeed, it was Maclean’s text which inspired me to go on my first road trip in college. We traveled to Montana, specifically to Glacier National Park. In all, I spent 17 days on the road and it opened my eyes to the wonder of the American West. Along the way, I fell in love with Montana and Wyoming, a love that continues today.

At sunrise everything is luminous but not clear. It is those we live with and love and should know who elude us. You can love completely without complete understanding.

Norman Maclean

Lonesome Dove

By Larry McMurtry

My father always told me there are two kinds of Texans: those who have read Lonesome Dove and those who would read Lonesome Dove. This epic Western tells the fictional tale of two former rangers leading a cattle drive to Montana. Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel paints a vivid picture of the land from the Rio Grande all the way to Montana. The Emmy Award-winning miniseries is truly a work of art as well.

Lonesome Dove grabs hold of you with brilliant characters faced with a Homeric journey disguised as a cattle drive. This novel inspired the teenager in me an unabiding love of Texas and a desire to see Montana someday.

The eastern sky was red as coals in a forge, lighting up the flats along the river. Dew had wet the million needles of the chaparral, and when the rim of the sun edged over the horizon the chaparral seemed to be spotted with diamonds. A bush in the backyard was filled with little rainbows as the sun touched the dew.

Larry McMurtry

Don’t Stop the Carnival

by Herman Wouk

My other love in my college days was the Caribbean. Like many, I fantasized about running off to the Islands to live a simple life in the sun. Herman Wouk’s seminal text, Don’t Stop the Carnival,  on an American expatriate owning a hotel in the islands, gave my dream a quick dash of reality. Still, it is a must-read for anyone who spends time in the Caribbean.

The West Indian is not exactly hostile to change, but he is not much inclined to believe in it. This comes from a piece of wisdom that his climate of eternal summer teaches him. It is that, under all the parade of human effort and noise, today is like yesterday, and tomorrow will be like today; that existence is a wheel of recurring patterns from which no one escapes; that all anybody does in this life is live for a while and then die for good, without finding out much; and that therefore the idea is to take things easy and enjoy the passing time under the sun.

Herman Wouk

A Walk in the Woods

By Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson’s botched attempt to through-hike the Appalachian Trail makes for one of the most poignant and funny tales I have ever read. Bryson comes from a journalistic tradition but still manages to inject A Walk in the Woods with absolute levity and humor. Still, the book educated me, someone, who spent every summer in the Appalachians, about the mountains in ways I did not think possible.

That’s the trouble with losing your mind; by the time it’s gone, it’s too late to get it back.

Bill Bryson

Wild

By Cheryl Strayed

A perfect companion and foil for A Walk in the Woods, Cheryl Strayed’s emotional hike on the Pacific Crest Trail could not be a more different text. Strayed’s Wild tells the story of the healing found in a journey. While Bryson’s affable narrative is like listening to a rambling friend on a hike, Strayed’s story is as much a journey into her soul as a trek through parts of the PCT. While the movie is fantastic, the book is a piece of art.

I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me.

Cheryl Strayed

Under the Tuscan Sun

By Frances Mayes

The movie with Diane Lane inspired me long ago to visit Italy. When we went in 2013, I read Under the Tuscan Sun before visiting Cortona. While the movie shares some elements of the book, it is a very different story. Frances Mayes’ work is a love note told through her experiences and her recipes. Like Mayes, we, too, fell in love with Cortona and one of her dining recommendations, Dardano’s, was fantastic.

Where you are is who you are. The further inside you the place moves, the more your identity is intertwined with it. Never casual, the choice of place is the choice of something you crave.

Frances Mayes

If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name

By Heather Lende

Heather Lende’s book on living in a small town in coastal Alaska captured my imagination. She, herself, was seduced by the town after visiting on her honeymoon. It inspired our own honeymoon to Alaska. The beauty and harshness of the land are every bit as amazing in person as it is in her account.

We went to Haines on a cruise in 2018 and it is easy to see why she fell in love with the small town and the surrounding wilderness.

Only adults weep with joy. Children don’t. They haven’t learned how rare moments of true happiness are.

Heather Lende

The World’s Most Dangerous Places

By Robert Young Pelton

This is Robert Young Pelton’s guide to traveling the world’s not so friendly places. A common sense guide by a journalist who has literally been there and done that all over the world, this text has not been updated in 15 or so years. While the pertinent information on individual countries is out of date, the tips and guidance he offers on dealing with these kinds of places are outstanding and are told with Pelton’s outstanding sense of humor.

There is a point when smarmy travel-safety advice and brutal reality collide, like taking your malaria pill faithfully while walking through a minefield or using a condom when boffing a rebel commander’s ‘socio.’

Robert Young Pelton

Wild Stories

This collection of short stories from Men’s Journal includes some of the seminal writers of the time. Men’s Journal has long been a source of inspiration for my travels and this collects the best works of 10 years of the publication. One of my favorites, P.J. O’Rourke’s  ‘Weird Karma” is one of the best narratives of a road trip I have ever read.

The first time I looked out the windshield at this melee, I thought, India really is magical. How can they drive like this without killing people? They can’t.

P.J. O’Rourke

Dear Bob and Sue

by Matt and Karen Smith

Dear Bob and Sue is the quirky tale of one couple’s quest to visit all of the US National Parks. They actually wrote this as a set of e-mails to their friends Bob and Sue. What makes this so compelling is the missteps the couple encounters along the way.

For us, it is sage advice on visiting some of the least talked about National Parks sites, like the National Park of American Samoa. Plus, it is really funny. Both of us often to break out into laughter at the antics of this couple which are so like our own interactions.

‘I hope it isn’t a Saskatchewan.’ I think she meant Sasquatch, but even so, I assured her there were no large Canadian provinces lurking in the woods. 

Matt Smith

Final Thoughts

I hope you enjoyed this trip through a small part of my library. I have always said you can judge a lot about a person by the books on their shelf. While this list is by no means exhaustive of good travel books I have read, these are the books that have inspired me the most. I hope you find inspiration as well.

Travel Resources
What do you use to find a flight?

We use Skyscanner to find deals on flights. Skyscanner has a great interface and compares tons of airlines for the best pricing and routing. That said, it does not always have every airline and some airlines will have better deals on their website. Still, Skyscanner is a great place to start.
Click here to search for a flight.

What do you use to find a hotel?

We typically stay at Hilton properties, so we use the Hilton website. We can find good Hilton Honors discounts or AAA discounts for a hotel there. We make great use of our free night certificates from our Hilton Honors American Express.
Click here to book a Hilton property.

If there are no Hilton properties available, we use TripAdvisor to read reviews and book the hotel. We find we can get the best price that way.
Click here to search for a hotel.

What if I need more space than I can get at a hotel?

We use Vrbo for the times when we have rented a cabin for a weekend getaway, like this cabin in Townsend, TN, or needed to rent a house for a large family vacation. We had a great experience with them in terms of refunding deposits when COVID hit and will continue to use them.
Click here to search for a vacation rental.

Who do you use for rental cars?

As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
Click here to book a rental car.

How about booking a cruise?

We have found some amazing prices booking a cruise through Cruise Direct. We have saved a lot of money on our cruises compared to what we found elsewhere, making a last-minute Bahamas cruise even cheaper.
Click here to book a cruise.

What if I want to rent an RV?

We highly recommend Outdoorsy for RV rentals. We rented a camper van for a week to visit Rocky Mountain National Park for the elk rut and Custer State Park for the Buffalo Round-Up and had a blast. The program was easy to use and we really enjoyed the freedom of having a camper van for that trip.
Click here to rent an RV.

What do you use for booking tours?

We don’t often book tours. Typically, we like to do stuff on our own. That said, there are some experiences you just can’t have any other way. So, when we do want to book a tour, we always check Viatour first.
Click here to book a tour.

Do you use anything to get discounts on the road?

We make extensive use of both Good Sam and AAA on the road. Good Sam is normally regarded as a discount card for RVers at campgrounds and Camping World but anyone can use the 5 cents off a gallon at the pump at both Pilot and Flying J.
Click here to get a Good Sam membership.

We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.

These are some of my favorite travel books, even though some of them aren't about travel. Each one of these books has impacted me personally and I hope you find some worthy additions to your own library.
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2 thoughts on “Books to Inspire the Traveler in All of Us”

  1. The Heather Lende book sounds like a wonderful summer book. Last year I read The Everglades: River of Grass by Marjory Stoneman Douglas, which inspired my long weekend trip to South Florida. I highly recommend it. Thanks for the great ideas!

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