View of a road going through lush woods and fields.
June 5, 2024

Six Books that Inspire Travel on the Open Road

Road trips are inherently suspenseful. Will the protagonist reach their destination? What inevitable detours will they take? What if something terrible—or wonderful—happens?

On the open road, everyone is vulnerable. Steven Spielberg explored this reality in his 1971 thriller Duel, a movie that follows the increasingly tense relationship between two drivers, each traveling alone on Californian roadways. This vulnerability can be frightening, but it can also be cathartic. Sometimes, it can even be exciting.

View of Leah Sava Jeffries as Annabeth Chase in Episode 103 of Percy Jackson and the Olympians. In this scene she is standing in front of a name plate carousel holding snacks while looking back with concern.

photo by: Disney/David Bukach

Leah Sava Jeffries as Annabeth Chase “Percy Jackson and the Olympians.” In this episode, adapted from Rick Riordan's, "The Lightening Thief,” Annabeth, Percy, and Grover make a quintessential road trip stop for snacks.

Crucial to the road trip story are the roads themselves. Highways hold stories. Next time you’re traveling on U.S. 101, remember that it was the road of choice for Octavia Butler’s protagonist in her dystopian novel, Parable of the Sower. Remember who played the titular role in Amor Towles’ novel The Lincoln Highway. Thank the gods you can travel on the road—any road—rather than in the sky to avoid the wrath of sky god Zeus, like Percy Jackson was forced to do in The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan.

If you’re in the mood for a fresh new road trip story, read ahead for recommendations. And if you have a road trip story of your own, specifically related to Route 66, consider sharing your story with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

View of three book covers one a white background with a road and red lettering, the second a colorful image with cartoon characters, and the third a yellow vehicle on the center of a blue and brown background.

photo by: Penguin Random House

On-the-Road Drama in 1950s America

In The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles, four boys set out on a ten-day journey from Nebraska to New York City. However, things don’t quite go to plan; when two of the boys steal off without the others, a heady pursuit ensues. Set in 1954, this novel is a great option for those who love character studies, historical fiction, and conversations around race, class, and gender.

Roadside Attractions and a Mystical Lake

Next Stop by Debbie Fong centers around Pia Xing, a middle-schooler who is grieving the death of her younger brother. Pia embarks on a bus trip across the desert to reach the mystical Cessarine Lake, which she secretly believes may be her family’s salvation. Humor, kindness, and roadside attractions abound in this graphic novel, which is accessible to all readers aged eight and up.

Traversing the United States

Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of Life Interrupted is an autobiography by Suleika Jaouad. Cured of leukemia after four years in hospitals and treatment centers, Jaouad embarked on a journey across the country. She visits people she got to know during her years of treatment. Through these meetings, she analyzes the divide between those who are sick versus those who are well. If you’re looking for a book about recovery, ruminations on life, and new beginnings, this is for you.

View of three book covers the first a multicolored abstract design, the second a blue tinted cover with a road in the center, the third a magical cover with yellows and green with a boy standing on the top of a statue of Poseidon.

photo by: Seven Stories Press/Hatchette Book Group/Disney

Surviving in a Dystopian California

Set during 2024–2027, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower takes place in an alternate reality where climate change and social inequality have deeply altered the United States. Readers follow Lauren Olamina, a hyper-empath who, after her neighborhood in California is destroyed, must survive on the road. Considered a science fiction classic, this novel is a key read for anyone who is interested in science fiction and dystopian works, as well as topics around climate change, race, class, and gender.

Meditations on the Open Road

Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon, published in 1982, is often regarded as a quintessential American travelogue. In his memoir, Heat-Moon chronicles the journey he took in 1978 in his camper van, which he named Ghost Dancing. Curious to explore small towns and forgotten places, he traveled via the blue roads on his road atlases. What results is a thoughtful reflection on his experience. This is a recommended read for those who enjoy musings about people, culture, and nature, as well as anyone who enjoys memoirs or the craft of writing.

Diners, Casinos, and Mythological Monsters

The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan chronicles the journey of Percy Jackson, son of Poseidon, who is tasked with catching the thief who stole Zeus’ master bolt. While traveling across the country with two friends, Percy must confront a multitude of fears—from physical altercations with mythological beings to his own trust issues—all while remaining focused on his quest. If you enjoy mythology and humor, this is a fun read for all readers aged eight and up. And, in addition to reading the book, you can also watch the series adaptation that was released on Disney+ in 2023.

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Emma Peters is the Associate Manager to the Chief Marketing Officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A history graduate, she is constantly humbled by the way past lives and societies can alter the way we consume the present.

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