Books as Traveling Companions

Barbara Kingsolver is one of my favorite authors so when the time came to choose a traveling companion for a trip to Arizona, I chose her words. Her novel Animal Dreams takes place in Arizona and her descriptions became the perfect background music.

Arizona canyonsI read this description while on the plane and couldn’t wait to get out there:

“The canyon walls rose straight up on either side of us, ranging from sunset orange to deep rust, mottled with purple. The sandstone had been carved by ice ages and polished by desert eons of sandpaper winds.”

canyon wall

Once I finally stood near the canyon walls, I made sure to notice the colors threading their way through the rock and all the layers representing centuries of creation.

After hiking up a steep path, ancient cliff dwellings came into view. From down below, the dwellings couldn’t be seen at all. They blended in with the canyon to the point of invisibility. Everyone figured they built their homes that way for protection against potential enemies. Later, I read this passage and saw the cliff dwellings all over again but in a different way:

“The walls were shaped to face the curved hole in the cliff, and the building blocks were cut from the same red rock that served as their foundation. I thought of what Loyd had told me about Pueblo architecture, whose object was to build a structure the earth could embrace.”

cliff dwellings

Tucked away in a crevice between the cliffs where sunlight acted as a calendar, petroglyphs told their own tales. They spoke of the people who lived there high above the ground, of hunting parties, and of women with Princess Leia hairdos.



Kingsolver describes petroglyphs as a record of progress through the generations:

“There were antelope, snakes, and ducks in a line like a carnival shooting gallery. And humans: oddly turtle-shaped, with their arms out and fingers splayed as if in surrender or utter surprise. The petroglyphs added in recent centuries showed more svelte, self-assured men riding horses. The march of human progress seemed mainly a matter of getting over that initial shock of being here.”

Now that I’m back home, I can revisit the red rock canyons any time with a turn of the page.

(And the Twitter goat club will be happy to hear there’s a goat in Animal Dreams.)

Related Post:
Writer…Uninterrupted – during Vacation

Do you choose novels based on setting? Have you ever taken a favorite author along on vacation? 

52 thoughts on “Books as Traveling Companions

    • It is amazing what nature and time and lots of sand can do! It’s easy to picture ancient oceans and rivers flowing through areas like that while carving the rocks into magical shapes.

    • Thank you! I think you’d like Animal Dreams or The Bean Trees since you liked Flight Behavior. The Bean Trees is great for desert-type characters too.

  1. What beautiful photographs! Having her words to guide you was such a good idea, a wonderful traveling companion indeed. The petroglyphs are so fascinating. You must have spent so much time looking at them, captivated. I know I would be.

    There’s a goat in Animal Dreams? Well, all the more reason to read it!!

    • Thanks Letizia! I still can’t believe how many books have goats in them. There aren’t any goat dreams though – just dog and human dreams. It was fun looking at it all and imagining the people who lived there. There are so many stories everywhere (and so many to read too)!

  2. People who have never traveled to the desert often think it’s brown and lifeless. During my first visit to Arizona, I discovered quite the opposite. The desert is exploding with color and life. I can see how Kingsolver’s writing would be the perfect background. Thanks for sharing your beautiful photos, Sheila.

    • I was surprised by all the vegetation too. I thought it might be more like Utah (or Mars). The trees were just starting to bloom so there were all kinds of colors to enjoy. I’d recommend her writing as background music any time.

  3. Love those words…and your pictures to go with them. I’m in Moab, Utah right now enjoying those beautiful red sandstone cliffs on both the bike and my feet. I love the color country.

  4. Wow Sheila thats a great way to take a different look at the place you visited. Through someone else’s perspective and her writing is beautiful and makes me want to visit. I have been to Sedona and found the land so mesmerising. Your photos are stunning too. Thanks for sharing a passage from the book.

    • Thanks Kath! The photos are from the Sedona area so we probably saw some of the same sights. Kingsolver’s books will bring it all back for you. I was surprised that she even mentioned petroglyphs and cliff dwellings. The Bean Trees is another great one for desert descriptions and characters.

  5. What a great idea to read a novel with the setting of the place you’re about to visit. Don’t think I’ve ever done that, but I’ll now be more aware to in the future. Sounds like a beautiful place. I’m sure it was lovely to visit.

  6. I’ve wandered across the Southwest numerous times, Sheila, on foot, by bicycle and by raft as well as by car and van. Just recently I was down in the Sedona area. I have blogged several times about petroglyphs— and I am a fan of Kingsolver. It’s easy to return to memories of red rock canyons. –Curt

    • That’s great that you’re a Kingsolver fan too. I love her descriptions, not just of Arizona but of everything. These photos are from the Sedona area. That’s pretty funny that we were there around the same time – maybe we saw each other there and didn’t even know it. It’s the perfect time of year for hiking along those orange trails. I’ll have to take a look at your petroglyph posts.

      • Didn’t get the chance to do that – we’ll have to go back! There were so many places to hike. These petroglyphs are from the Palatki Heritage Site near there. We also hiked to Devil’s Bridge and around Cathedral Rock, Bell Rock, and Snoopy Rock. I’d love to spend more time around there to try out all the hikes.

  7. I love Barbara Kingsolver and I love the Grand Canyon, so I loved this post! Your photos reminded me of my two hikes to the bottom. I would love to do it again. It is impossible to understand the awesome beauty until you are standing in the middle of it.

    • Thanks Audrey! It’s great finding people who love the same things. I’m impressed that you hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We made it a little more than halfway down and had to hike back up because there wasn’t enough time in the day to do the whole thing. The beauty of it all took my breath away (or maybe it was the hiking that did that)!

  8. Great post Sheila! I cannot leave the house without a book, or two, if traveling by car. When I traveled to France originally, I went by rail with a backpack. Preferring to travel light I would finish a book and leave it behind in whichever hostel I was staying in. On my way to Carcassonne I was reading Labyrinth by Kate Mosse and her detailed descriptions were spot on!

    • That sounds like a good one – I’ll have to give it a try. I can’t imagine traveling without books either. There are always waiting around times when the best thing to do is to sit and read.

  9. Awesome photos, and you have made the Goat Club very proud with the shout-out. I always say I’m going to do that with books, pick something based on a place I’m traveling to. Then my vacation creeps up on me so quickly that I usually just watch movies that take place there to get me pumped up.

    • Hahah and baahh to you! That’s a good idea to watch movies of wherever you’ll be going since they make every place look exciting. I’ll usually grab any book before a trip but had just read The Bean Trees so Arizona made me think of Kingsolver. The bonus was when her descriptions made me even more excited to get out there and investigate those canyons.

    • I’m nostalgic for it now too so I know how you feel. We can always revisit it through books and pictures, but it’s not the same as being out there in the middle of it all.

  10. Your photos are entrancing, I can only imagine (with jealousy) how awesome they must have been in person, geology and the creative human hand can be such great things. I love the princess leia reference, or is it perhaps a Gremlin? I love a film theme.

    • Hahah – I thought at first it was a monkey but the guide said the women wore their hair like Princess Leia so they’re guessing it’s a drawing of a woman. Or maybe Star Wars type characters visited them way back when. Some of the petroglyphs looked a bit like Chewbacca.

    • If you liked The Lacuna, you’ll love all of her books – especially The Poisonwood Bible. Her earlier books are shorter but her descriptions are always amazing.

  11. I love the way reading brought an extra dimension to your travels Sheila. If I’m going away somewhere I always try to choose appropriate books – travel writing or fiction that has a similar setting. When I recently went to the forest, I read a novel called Pollard, about a woman who builds and lives in a hut in the woods and Wild by Cheryl Strayed.

    • If I read something like Pollard, I’d be tempted to build a hut and stay there in the forest. Walden always makes me want to do that too. Another great forest read is A Walk in the Woods (that one might or might not make you want to hike the Appalachian trail).

      • You’d love Walden! You might like A Walk in the Woods too. It’s great in a different way because they end up having some funny adventures in the woods.

  12. I’ve struggled to start Barbara Kingsolver’s “Poisonwood Bible” and only got about 50 pages in before setting it aside even though we have a education mission in the Congo. Hearing your thoughts makes me want to give it a go again. Thank you.

    • I’m glad to hear that! It can be more of a challenging read than some of her others but it’s worth it, especially if you’d be going to the Congo. I’ve never been there and may never go, but it’s easy to imagine while reading The Poisonwood Bible.

  13. Oh, and when I went all the way down the Grand Canyon (stayed at Phantom Ranch the night) I was on mule back which meant I could keep my eyes up taking it all in the whole time. That was much better than when I hiked down the Kaibab and back up The Bright Angel in a day and spent so much time looking at where my feet were on the trail so much. Spectacular.

    • That must have been scary being on a mule while going down some of those steeper trails. I might end up looking at the ground more often out of complete fear. 🙂

  14. Thanks for the link back to my blog! I have never read this book, and I don’t know why. I enjoy Kingsolver’s work.

    It’s been a long time, but I went on a camping trip to the Grand Canyon. For a girl from New England, it is like stepping into another world.

    • Animal Dreams and The Bean Trees both describe Arizona so you might like either one. They’re quicker reads than some of her others too. It really is like another world – it’s amazing that we can visit there without having to use a space ship!

  15. I’ve never taken a book to match the setting, but that sounds like an awesome idea. Many times I bring a book to match the activity. Plane rides are stressful and tiring so I need an easy absorbing read. When I arrive at my destination, if I’m relaxing, I may want a deeper more literary read to make me think. 🙂

    • I’ll do that kind of a thing too. For plane rides especially, it can be hard to concentrate unless the book is a great one. But then the best books are the ones that make me think – I need all the thinking I can get.

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