The Best Road Trip Nonfiction to Get You in the Mood for Summer

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Jaime Herndon


Jaime Herndon finished her MFA in nonfiction writing at Columbia, after leaving a life of psychosocial oncology and maternal-child health work. She is a writer, editor, and book reviewer who drinks way too much coffee. She is a new-ish mom, so the coffee comes in extra handy. Twitter: @IvyTarHeelJaime

Summer is almost here: the days are getting steadily longer, the weather’s warmer, and at least for me, sometimes this causes those feelings of needing to go somewhere. There’s something about the sunshine, warm breezes, and the potential promise of long, warm, lazy days that makes me want to drop everything, pack some bags, get in the car and just go. Where? I don’t know.

But alas, I have a job (granted, one that I can do remotely) and a young child, so that’s not quite in the cards for me right now. Whenever I do get the wanderlust urge, though, reading about a road trip is a decent panacea.

But I would be remiss if I didn’t point some things out: for a long time, road trip novels were very On the Road-ish. And don’t get me wrong: I loved that book, just like I loved Dharma Bums. But traveling around the country as a white man is much different than traveling around the country — especially solo — as someone who isn’t a cis male, or non-white person. There are some things you just don’t have to think about, and so the genre has traditionally looked very white and very male.

The books that I’ve chosen for this list may not look like traditional road trip books, but they’re all about hitting the road, searching for something larger than yourself, and connecting with others. They’re the perfect read for a sunny, warm day. Let’s take a look!

cover of America the Beautiful? by Blythe Roberson

America the Beautiful?: One Woman in a Borrowed Prius on the Road Most Traveled by Blythe Roberson

In this funny but insightful book, Roberson quit her job and decided to go on a road trip to visit some national parks. She was tired of reading travel narratives by white men, and thought about how different road trips can be for women, and all the things she needed to consider while planning. What follows is a thoughtful look at what travel can do for a person, and her reflections about politics, America, and the environment are highly self-aware but also entertaining. She writes about the issues the parks face and why, and the intersections between tourism, conservation, and politics, while also documenting the highs and lows of road tripping.

cover of the american dream

The American Dream?: A Journey on Route 66 Discovering Dinosaur Statues, Muffler Men, and the Perfect Breakfast Burrito by Shing Yin Khor

A road trip graphic memoir? Yes please! Growing up in Malaysia, Khor had certain images of what America was like: one was the sunny, beautiful movie-like ideal, and the other was Depression-era bad. In this book, she takes a road trip along the iconic Route 66 to see the ever-changing setting of America, starting in Santa Monica and ending in Chicago. She explores the people living in these landscapes, meeting queer people and immigrants who’ve made their homes in places many people tend to dismiss as “flyover states” not worth exploring or fighting for. The book is full of curiosity and insights about the places she sees and visits, feelings about her own experience of America, and gives the reader a taste of what she saw, encouraging us to explore more on our own.

cover of Real Queer America by Samantha Allen

Real Queer America: LGBT Stories from Red States by Samantha Allen

Allen, a trans reporter, traveled the country (in “red states”) in search of “something gay every day.” She went all over: Provo, Utah, the Deep South, the Bible Belt, and much more, all in search of LGBTQ+ communities, events, and people in these red states. Her love for this geographic area was a motivator, and she wanted to illustrate that there are queer people in these areas that many people so easily dismiss or ignore. The result is a book full of heartening stories and cultural change, and a road trip that might make you rethink your assumptions.

cover of The National Road

The National Road: Dispatches From a Changing America by Tom Zoellner

This book, first published in fall of 2020, is a collection of essays that explores the relationships between land in America and its people. What makes us Americans? How are we influenced by place, or impacted by it? How does place or location shape our views of others here? Zoellner combines history, geography, and travelogue to create a compelling look at a country that is evolving and changing, but perhaps there is also something that connects us.

cover of Buttermilk Graffiti

Buttermilk Graffiti: A Chef’s Journey to Discover America’s New Melting-Pot Cuisine by Edward Lee

Warning: don’t read this unless you have a full stomach, because you’re going to get very hungry! American food is not just one thing: it’s a mix of things, and Lee wanted to find out the stories behind the food. He spent two years driving around America, talking with people all around the country, trying their food, and listening to the stories they told — stories that were slightly familiar, completely unfamiliar, and mash-ups of everything in-between. It’s a deeply human, vividly written book that will take you alongside Lee on his travels. And don’t worry, there are 40 recipes that Lee has included, created by him, that reflect the dishes he heard about and tried on his travels.

Moby Dyke by Krista Burton book cover

Moby Dyke: An Obsessive Quest to Track Down the Last Remaining Lesbian Bars in America by Krista Burton (June 6th)

Burton, a former Rookie writer and the creator of the blog Effing Dykes, has written an engaging, entertaining, and insightful book about lesbian bars in America, and why so many have disappeared. It’s a cultural critique braided with a road trip to some of the last remaining lesbian bars — in 1987, there were 207 of them in America, and now there are a few dozen left. Why is this? What does it mean, culturally? Burton explores these questions, as well as reflects on her own life, including her trans husband — whose presence in the bars brings up other questions and conversations about who is welcome where. It’s a fun but thought-provoking book that’s a perfect read for the start of summer.

cover of Travels With George

Travels with George: In Search of Washington and His Legacy by Nathaniel Philbrick

Shortly after becoming President, Washington went to the ex-colonies to talk to people about the new government, and what it meant to be an American. In 2018, Philbrick decided to follow Washington’s path (along with his wife and their dog), and see what America had become. He talks with a variety of people from various political affiliations, visits historical landmarks, and observes reenactments. He weaves together 18th century America and 2018 America, showing the fractures in each, and yet also illustrating how Washington believed in unity and how that helped shape the nation. It’s a book that faces history head on, while also preserving hope for the present.

cover of South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry; image of framed piece of cotton

South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation by Imani Perry

While not your typical road trip book, I included it here because of the way it is structured, and also because it does cover geographical distance, while also exploring communities, people, and history — all common themes in the road trip books on this list. In order to understand America, Perry believes we need to understand the South and all its contradictions. She takes us on a journey down South, meeting people from all types of different communities and backgrounds, and combines this with her familial and personal history and the larger Southern history. It’s an eye-opening, vibrantly-written book that is more urgent than ever.

If you’re looking for more road trip books, check out this post on road trips and literature and this post on feel-good road trip reads. Planning your own bookish road trip? We have tips: A Bookish Coastal U.S. Road Trip: Pacific Coast Highway.