Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is the ultimate 20th century road novel, a quest in which the story is the journey, not the destination. It’s full of men being inspired, irresponsible, tender, wild. Women appear, but as sirens calling or anchors to be left. It’s all about the boys.
Kerouac didn’t start this. Blame Homer, who set a man on a men’s journey in “The Odyssey” way back in the 3rd century BC. More recently, blame Geoffrey Chaucer, whose circa-1480 “The Canterbury Tales” consisted of a traveler going from one place to the next; Miguel de Certanvtes, whose epic satiric journey “Don Quixote” was published in Spain in 1605; Voltaire’s “Candide,” the 1759 cause célèbre in France.
Basically, Western literary history is built of road trips, and readers are accustomed to these road trip stories being written by and about men.
At Bookslut, Jessa Crispin laments the lack of ladies in the genre. Crispin herself has been on a trip: She’s been a nomad for a year while working on a book about expatriate writers and artists. She thinks of a few travel writers, but we decided to expand on her list.
Here are 12 road trip stories written by women, starring women, both fictional and real.
1. “Around the World in 72 Days” by Nellie Bly. It was 1889 when 25-year-old journalist Nellie Bly set out to circumnavigate the world in less time than it took fictional Phineas Fogg in “Around the World in 80 Days,” Jules Verne’s international hit novel. She made it; this is her story.
2. “A Motor Flight Through France” by Edith Wharton. Best known for her novels about the mannered worlds of upper-class New Yorkers, Wharton was a surprisingly enthusiastic road tripper. She wrote that she had “an incurable passion for the road,” which she chronicled in this 1908 book about her experiences driving, as you might guess, through France.
3. “Anywhere But Here” by Mona Simpson. Simpson’s 1987 novel, her debut, is about a single mother moving her daughter Ann from Wisconsin to Los Angeles. “Ann is a new Huck Finn, a tough, funny, resourceful love of a girl,” Walker Percy wrote, while finding her mother “at once deplorable and admirable -- and altogether believable.”
4. “Rules of the Road” by Joan Bauer. Winner of the 1998 LA Times Book Prize in Young Adult literature, this YA novel tells the story of awkward teenager Jenna, who is hired by her shoe store maven boss to drive her from California to Texas. Possibly the most shoe-oriented road trip ever written.
5. “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed. Thanks to Kerouac, cars are the dominant conveyance in road trip stories. Cheryl Strayed stepped away from that in her bestselling emotional memoir “Wild,” telling the story of her months-long hike along the length of the Pacific Coast Trail. Reese Witherspoon stars in the upcoming film.
6. “Tracks” by Robyn Davidson. It was 1977 when Davidson hitched up four camels and set off to cross the 1,700 miles of the Australian outback; the memoir she wrote after her return became a bestseller. A film version will be released in the U.S. in May.
7. “America Day by Day” by Simone De Beauvoir. The French writer traveled from New York City to Hollywood and back again in 1947 by train, bus and car, sampling life as it came. In Los Angeles, she writes, “I watch the Mexican dances and eat chili con carne, which takes the roof off my mouth, I drink the tequila and I’m utterly dazed with pleasure.”
8. “Flaming Iguanas: An Illustrated All-Girl Road Novel Thing” by Erika Lopez. A graphic novel about a girl on a motorcycle traveling across the U.S. that is rebellious, tasteless and hilarious.
9. “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert. The memoir of a broken-hearted women finding solace and delight in Italy, India and Bali as she seeks to balance the physical and spiritual. The surprise success of Gilbert’s book spurred many imitative memoirs, not to mention literary tourists.
10. “Stranger on a Train: Daydreaming and Smoking Around America with Interruptions” by Jenny Diski. Uneasy British writer Jenny Diski’s memoir about traversing America by train, watching the landscape pass by and talking to fellow travelers also banished to the smoking section.
11. “Assassination Vacation” by Sarah Vowell. A desire to understand the U.S. and a morbid curiosity about the deaths of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley lead humorist Vowell to historic sites, statues, and the museum where Lincoln’s skull fragments are on display.
12. “The Last Days of California” by Mary Miller. Miller’s debut novel, published this year, features a family driving from the South to California for what they believe is The Rapture, told from the point of view of one of the two daughters.