Richard Grant is a freelance journalist based in Arizona and the author of Ghost Riders: Travels With American Nomads.
“I have a restless personality, a compulsion to keep travelling, and I’ve always enjoyed reading about people who made their lives into a perpetual journey. The literature of wandering and nomadism is also in part a literature of harsh, arid environments – deserts, steppes, tundra – where trees, agriculture and sedentary societies have found it difficult to take root.”
1. Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America by Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca
The extraordinary, mesmerising and true adventure of a Spanish conquistador shipwrecked off the coast of Texas in 1527. Naked and barefoot, with three companions, he walked all the way to the Pacific coast of Mexico, accruing a procession of thousands of Indians who hailed him as a god and a healer. This is the first book ever written about the North American interior and still one of the best.
2. The Songlines by Bruce Chatwin
A travel book about Australian Aborigines in which very little actually happens apart from Chatwin’s speculations on the human urge to wander. Aborigines won’t talk to him, he invents his main character, the book’s structure dissolves into a mosaic of notebook entries – and yet he writes so beautifully, and thinks such interesting thoughts, that none of these flaws matter.
3. Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy
McCarthy’s dark, gory masterpiece about a party of scalp hunters roaming the American West in the mid-19th century. Closely modelled on real characters and events, written in prose descended from Faulkner and the Old Testament, it depicts the American frontier as an environment that brutalised whites, Indians and Mexicans alike.
4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
Huck embodies the flipside of the American dream: burn down the house and light out of the territory. The bragging contest between Mississippi rivermen is my favourite exchange in American literature, and more than makes up for the doggerel at the end of the book, after the infuriating Tom Sawyer reappears.
5. Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger
A wayward, old-school English gentleman journeys by camel with the nomadic Bedouin across the Empty Quarter. Arduous travelling, keen anthropological observations and some of the finest writing about deserts I have ever read.
6. Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
Who says Americans don’t do irony? Abbey’s acerbic wit, anarchist philosophy and hearty enjoyment of sex, booze, cigars and strong language brings a new dimension to the pious discipline of nature writing. My second favourite writer on deserts.
7. Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas by Mari Sandoz
A wonderful biography, impeccably researched and written with a novelist’s eye for detail and plotting, about the great Sioux war chief, Custer’s nemesis, a man who saw no point in living unless he was free to roam the plains. Sandoz grew up hearing stories from ancient Sioux warriors who remembered Crazy Horse.
8. Across the Wide Missouri by Bernard DeVoto
DeVoto’s magisterial history of the Rocky Mountain fur trade, told through the adventures of William Drummond Stewart, a restless Scottish nobleman who rode, hunted and fought alongside the white fur trappers and nomadic horse Indians who occupied the American north-west in the early 19th century.
9. Desierto by Charles Bowden
Bowden is a roving journalist and author whose chosen beat is the dark side of the American south-west: the rootless killers, drug traffickers and low-lifes, and the relentless destruction of nature by property developers and the hungers of modern civilisation. He combines incredible feats of reporting with angry, muscular, lyrical prose.
10. Great Plains by Ian Frazier
From a region often derided for its flatness and provincial dullness, Frazier crafts a charming and unfailingly interesting travel book. His enthusiasm for the American steppes is infectious. After reading this book, I walked out of a London office and spent a summer driving around them.