The American West discussion

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

For my Senior Project at Fairhaven College in Bellingham, WA, I'm taking an 18-month expedition into the American West. Our RV will run on veggie oil and solar, while we'll run on delicious gluten-free food.

Washington, Idaho, Oregon, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana. (Lots of Montana, if I have my way.)

What books should I read to prepare myself for this expedition? Thanks.

message 2: by Dixie Diamond (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:47PM) (new)

Dixie Diamond (DixieDiamond) Steinbeck. And nonfiction.

message 3: by Trisha (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:55PM) (new)

Trisha | 1 comments pre-Montana: Ivan Doig. "Dancing at the Rascal Fair" is my favorite (about early settlers). I've just discovered him within the last year and fallen in love.

What a sweet trip, by the way! What is your major?

message 4: by Renee (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:57PM) (new)

Renee (Suncoyote) | 1 comments Cormac McCarthy, most notably All the Pretty Horses and the entire Border trilogy.

message 5: by Pam (last edited Aug 25, 2016 02:15PM) (new)

Pam ☼Because Someone Must Be a Thorn☼ Tee (Pam_T) I would suggest you might look at the following non-fiction books to see if they'd be of interest:

The Secret Knowledge of Water - by Craig Childs

Dakota Cowboy - by Ike Blasingame

Forty Years a Fur Trader - by Larpenteur

1491 - by Mann

Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey - L.Schlissel (sp?)

A book on Lewis and Clarke's adventures...


The Larpenteur book and Dakota cowboy are autobiographies. Larpenteur is available for Free online at

Hope this helps. Have fun.

message 6: by Patrick (last edited Aug 25, 2016 02:16PM) (new)

Patrick | 8 comments I'd recommend at least skimming a book on the transcontinental railroads, like EMPIRE EXPRESS (forgot the author, sorry) or Stephen Ambrose's NOTHING LIKE IT IN THE WORLD.

Also, maybe some good books on the experiences of American Indian tribes in the areas you'll be visiting. I'll add some titles here to this post when I get a chance to look in my personal library.

Last note, consider skimming a book about how water has affected the development of the West. Marc Reisner's CADILLAC DESERT is the best known of these, I think.

message 7: by Patrick (last edited Dec 19, 2007 12:30AM) (new)

Patrick | 8 comments Bully4you,

I know Texas is not in your itinerary but I would also like to recommend some Larry McMurtry to you. I have read a lot of his non-fiction essays on the west and found them pretty enjoyable. My #1 McMurtry pick for your trip would be to get a books-on-tape version of his book Walter Benjamin At The Dairy Queen.

This would be a very funny and relevant book to listen to at some point during your trip, as for a good part of the book he mades some very interesting observations about what it means to grow up in the Western United States, and why literary culture out there has developed the way that it has. These observations are interspersed with some very funny stories about McMurtry's boyhood as kid who loved to read living among a family who raised cattle on a ranch near remote Archer City, Texas. The latter essays in the book have a lot to do with his reading and book collecting habits, and I think anyone who loves books would enjoy those, too.

Other McMurtry recommendations for you:

- his short Penguin Lives book on Crazy Horse (also a great audiobook, narrated by Scott Brick),

- his book called ROADS, a short volume about what the great interstate highways mean for America (this is better than it sounds, and these interstates are critical to the economy of the modern West...not available on CD as far as I can tell)

- his brief and humorous histories on Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, Calamity Jane, and other western characters...the only one I can think of by title is THE COLONEL AND LITTLE MISSIE, I think.

None of his books are heavy reading, but I think he does a good job on research and his writing is informative yet light hearted.

(edited later for typos, not content)

message 8: by Patrick (new)

Patrick | 8 comments Another author in the same vein as McMurtry:

- Ian Frazier.

I especially recommend his books GREAT PLAINS and ON THE REZ. Non-fiction that mixes general history, a touch of autobiography, and some personal adventures the author encounters while researching the books.

Humorous yet informative.

message 9: by [deleted user] (last edited Dec 17, 2007 10:01AM) (new)

Trisha: I'm getting my degree in Natural History Writing...mostly the writing of, but also the reading of. It's a college where you invent your own major, then create the class list required to obtain it.

The trip should be fun!

To all: Thanks so much for the advice. I'll put some books here I've been thinking of as well. Take care.

message 10: by Pam (last edited Dec 17, 2007 05:19PM) (new)

Pam ☼Because Someone Must Be a Thorn☼ Tee (Pam_T) Evening Patrick :)

Thought you were moving, buddy.

Another good McMurtry book is "Oh What a Slaughter".

He takes a look at six different bloody massacres, but his approach is not to detail the battle, but rather to look at how psychology and physiology enter into the equation.

McMurtry sort of asks the question of what happens that allows men to go 'berserk' during times of high stress. Very interesting, short work.

message 11: by Patrick (last edited Dec 17, 2007 07:34PM) (new)

Patrick | 8 comments Thepam,

I was moving, but the situation changed over the weekend. I'll update you via private GR e-mail. Glad to hear you like McMurtry, though. I haven't seen that book, but I've generally liked all of his non-fiction. He always brings a unique perspective to whatever he's writing about, and they're usually short books.

Bully4you, Your class sounds interesting. What books have you selected as your curriculum for your course? Also, do you have a general itinerary for your 18 month trip yet? Since you'll be exploring the West, and since most of us probably live now or have lived in the American West, perhaps we could make some suggestions for historical sites, natural wonders, off-the-beaten path museums, pleasant campsites, and of course all of the great non-chain bookstores that you can visit during your travels.

If nothing else, I'd be interested in hearing about what you're planning on checking out along the way...

message 12: by [deleted user] (last edited Dec 18, 2007 10:46AM) (new)

Books, actually, are a bit of a problem. They take up a lot of space when you've got two people in a 26' foot by 8' by 6'4 high house. In Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, I can check things out from college libraries (all part of "summit"), but otherwise, for book exchanging, we're going to have to buy and sell from used book stores I guess.

So far, prior to departure, I have slated to read:

"Under an Open Sky" by William Cronon (examines the Frontier Thesis critically, develops a theory more of a frontier process which plays out differently based on location/terrain/migration patterns, etc.

"Frontiers of Historical Imagination" by Kerwin Lee Klein. This is a historiography of the American Weest - how have historians viewed the west, how has that changed, and how have those views colored other critical and social theory trends.

As far as my 'concentration' is concerned, those are the only ones I have as HAVE TO read. The "work" for my degree is mostly keeping a natural history blog, and perhaps some longer natural history pieces for future publication.

I am taking "American Literature of Nature and Place" next quarter and we are reading:

"Under the Sea-Wind" (Rachel Carson)
"Riverwalking" (Kathleen Dean Moore)
"Winter Creek" (John Daniel)
"The Meadow" (James Galvin)
"The Secret Knowledge of Water" (Craig Childs)

I did some bibliography work for potential readings last quarter, and split it into three categories to make it workable (otherwise just too huge): Yellowstone National Park, Native American Environmental/Land Use issues, and Road Trip books. My sponsor couldn't get his head around a more abstract idea of the west, so we narrowed it down and brought it back to earth for him.

It would take a lot of space here to list them. I've got some Tim Cahill, Gary Ferguson, Barry Lopez, Terry Tempest-Williams. The road books include Steinbeck's "Travels with Charley in Search of America" and a few by Kerouac (we'll see if I like him or not). Also had Larry McMurtry's "Roads", and Homer's "Odyssey".

As to itinerary for the trip, it depends on when we sell our house. If we sell early enough in Spring/Summer, we will leave here (about 60 minutes south of Vancouver BC in Bellingham, WA) and head north into Canada to the Jasper Area, then head down the Rockies into Montana, then follow the mountains south from there, branching out into eastern Montana here and there, ending up in Yellowstone right after labor day hopefully, to avoid the crowds but beat the weather. Last year we were in Bozeman in early September and got caught in snow; Montana weather's a bit hard to predict. If we leave in the late summer, we'll probably go out to the coast and to California.

Beyond that, we're leaving it pretty open. Things I'm especially interested in:

box canyons and other canyons
birds of all ilk, especially raptors
Native American historical sites
wolves, bison, salmon
trees, especially Ponderosa pine for some reason
trails and migratory routes
desert and water issues
railroad history and logging history

I'm going to focus on experiencing things, photography, tea (one of my few luxuries), reading, and writing.

Anyway, long post. Thanks for all your reading advice - I am adding things to my list quite rapidly...probably should be reading instead!

message 13: by Patrick (new)

Patrick | 8 comments Bully4you,

Your comment about needing to limit the amount of books you take on your journey is very interesting...Larry McMurty made exactly the same point about that when discussing the lack of books that the pioneer families took with them in their covered wagons on their migrations out west. They took up space and they weighed a lot, so except for familiy Bibles and maybe a Shakespeare collection, most books didn't make it out west, even though many of the European immigrant families who headed to the American West after reaching our shores came from a literate tradition back in their old countries.

(Sorry if this post is overdosing anyone on McMurtry this week...I just thought this idea interesting...for those interested, his comments on this subject can be found in the Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen book.)

message 14: by Pam (new)

Pam ☼Because Someone Must Be a Thorn☼ Tee (Pam_T) Bully4you,

Assuming you are taking a laptop with you, Don't forget that there are alot of resources available on-line.

There's Gutenberg, of course, but I really like and Xmissions. [Xmissions deals strictly with mountain men-explorers, but Archive has a wide variety.]

message 15: by [deleted user] (new)

Thanks again everyone! This is really so helpful; I'm glad I started this group!

I hadn't really thought about the number of books folks probably left behind when coming out west. Fascinating really. There probably weren't too many bookstores around either. That would be great to see in 'western' - a hardware store, a dried goods store, a borthel, a saloon, and a bookstore. Hmmm. Maybe I should get into making films.

I'm really excited about the "Talking to the Ground...." because I'm very interested in Native American sacred ground, migration/trade trails, and general history. I'm planning on hitting a bit of the Nez Perce Trail first thing on our trip, though much of it is not walkable at this point (private property or highway).

On Sacred Ground sounds great too, and I am wondering how I've missed this one. Thanks to all!

message 16: by Patrick (last edited Dec 21, 2007 06:49PM) (new)

Patrick | 8 comments B4U,

I am very interested in the Chief Joseph and Nex perce trail story...I have two books about that but I haven't read them there a specific historical site or museum that you know of or have been to which is dedicated to that episode of western history?

I love reading about all this, but I also like to "walk the gorund" whenever possible.


message 17: by [deleted user] (new)

Kent Nerburn's book on Chief Joseph is amazing. There are a couple places to see as to the Nez Perce - I forget what they are right this instant. There's a book called "Following the Nez Perce Trail" that takes you through it step by step by car or off-road vehicle. Unfortunately, it is not really a walking trail at this point. Anyway, I think if you type in Nez Perce Trail in google, you'll find the couple historical spots. I'm also interested in checking out their presence in Yellowstone.

message 18: by Pam (new)

Pam ☼Because Someone Must Be a Thorn☼ Tee (Pam_T) Patrick,

Don't know if this will help but this page popped up when I was researching Indian slavery. Go figure.

Many of the references deal with linguistics and oration, but there might be some ideas for reading amongst the others.

message 19: by Lauri (new)

Lauri | 1 comments Journal of the Dead. Non-fiction about two friends who get lost in the desert. Have a great trip and be safe!

message 20: by Peter (new)

Peter (peterlachapelle) | 1 comments To truly begin to understand the history of the West, I recommend four nonfiction works:

Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner

Legacy of Conquest by Patricia Limerick

City of Quartz by Mike Davis

The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction by Linda Gordon

message 21: by chelsea (last edited Jun 08, 2008 10:33AM) (new)

chelsea pennick (chelseaspring) | 1 comments I just joined and would like to add my two cents as a montanan:

Definitely Ivan Doig (as already mentioned)
Winter Wheat by MIldred Walker
Check out A.B. Guthrie (stereotypical and kind of cliche, but still worthwhile as a period piece)
Anything by James Welch
Breaking Clean by Judy Blunt
A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean (don't pass up the short stories at the end)
William Kittredge

Many Wests: place, culture and regional identity
Living in the runaway west (put out by High Country News)

message 22: by Alie (new)

Alie | 1 comments Solace of Open Spaces Gretel Ehrlich
Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams re: Utah
Anything by Rick Bass, but for Texas, Oil Notes and Wild to the Heart (my favorite) are good
Letters of a Woman Homesteader by Elinore Pruitt Stewart (a classic) re: Wyoming
Women of the West by Cathy Luchetti
Home on the Range by Cathy Luchetti
The Children's Blizzard by David Laskin
Young Men and Fire by Norman McClean
The Adventures of Lewis & Clark

Fiction: Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey, William Kittredge, Ivan Doig

message 23: by [deleted user] (new)


I can think of about 100 suggestions I could give you (no lie) but I am traveling and have only very limited computer time at the moment. This weekend, I'll be in Santa Fe for Spanish Market...staying in an actual hotel, maybe with possibly more then! Or at least soon. In the meantime, I want to recommend an excellent resource-for you, and perhaps for others reading this thread. My sister's blog, Bookpaths, is all about literature and place. She has a world-wide focus, but once you get on her homepage, you can click on many western states and get some great ideas for your trip. You can find the blog at

More soon (and I'd very much like to follow your it already up and running? Will you kindly tell us where to find it?)


message 24: by [deleted user] (new)

okay, here are some books to consider (a bit disorganized....I'm away from my home library)...

Basin and Range (John McPhee)
The Meadow( James Galvin)
Ten Little Indians (or other books by Sherman Alexie)
It’s Your Misfortune and None of our Own (Richard White-a history)
Books by Cormac McCarthy Blood Meridian), All the Pretty Horses…)
Land of Little Rain (Mary Austin)
Land Circle (Linda Hasselstrom)
Who Owns the West (William Kittredge)
Anthropology of Turquoise (Ellen Meloy)
What Wildness is This: Women Write About the Southwest (U of Texas Press)
Cadillac Desert (Marc Reisner)
Savage Dreams (and other books by Rebecca Solnit)

Blue Horses Rush In (Luci Tapahonso)
Wisdom Sits in Places (Keith Basso)
Desert Smells like Rain (Gary Nabhan)
Gathering the Desert (Gary Nabhan)
Ceremony( Leslie Marmon Silko)
Ganado Red (Susan Lowell)
The Wind Won’t Know Me (Emily Benedek)
A River No More (Philip L. Fradkin)
Chiricahua Mountains: Bridging the Borders of Wildness (Ken Lamberton)
Going Back to Bisbee (Richard Shelton)

Mountains and Rivers Without End (Gary Snyder)
Book of Dead Birds (Gayle Brandeis-novel that takes place in the Salton Sea)
Salt Dreams by (William DeBuys… also about the Salton Sea)
Place Last Seen (Charlotte McGuinn Freeman)
Nature Noir (Jordan Fisher Smith)
My First Summer in the Sierra (John Muir)
Holy Land (D.J Waldie …if you’re going to urban Southern California)
Epitaph for a Peach (David Mas Masumoto)

Desert Solitaire (Edward Abbey)
Red Water ( a novel about the Mountain Meadows Massacre by Judith Freeman)
Refuge (Terry Tempest Williams)

Book of Yaak (or other books by Rick Bass)
Books by Ivan Doig and Thomas McGuane

New Mexico
River of Traps (William DeBuys)
Milagro Beanfield War (John Nichols)
Red Sky at Morning (Richard Bradford)
Healing Earthquakes (Jimmy Santiago Baca)

Flora and Fauna, Earth and Sky (Trudy Dittmar)
Solace of Open Spaces (Gretel Ehrlich)
Annie Proulx’s Wyoming Books

Oregon and Washington
Winter Brothers (Ivan Doig)
The River Why (David James Duncan)
The Highest Tide (Jim Lynch)

message 25: by Coalbanks (last edited Oct 29, 2008 03:59PM) (new)

Coalbanks | 4 comments What to read?

Basin & Range - John McPhee

Montana 1948 by Larry Watson.

The Englishman's Boy by Guy Vanderhaege

Outlaw: The True Story of Claude Dalls by Jeff Long

books by Rudy Wiebe

for old-fashioned cowboy/Indian yarns: Ross Santee, Will James, Zane Gray, Marie Sandoz.

Extend your trip into southern Alberta & british Columbia for the Canadian experience of the Old West.

message 26: by John (new)

John I recently finishedSon of the Morning Star and would highly recommend it. For my favorite western location novel it would have to be Winter Range: A Novel.

message 27: by Susan (new)

Susan Eubank | 2 comments We are just starting on the next 6 months for the Reading the Western Landscape book club. Here is the link with the choices. Tonight we discuss Mary Austin's Land of Little Rain.

message 28: by Christa (new)

Christa | 2 comments For anyone traveling across the upper Rocky Mountain rest, Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, Vino's Custer Died for Your Sins, and Peter Matthieson's long band, but back in publication In the Spirit of Crazy Horse, plus an excellent American history book that talks in depth about the Louisiana Purchase, the War of 1812, the Trail of Tears, and the Mexican intrusions into the Southwest, and the differences it made in American Indians (note the Hopi, Navajo, and Utes have never lost any of their reservations to government troops. . . )

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