The American West is a rugged, legendary landscape, with colorful geology matched by equally colorful stories.
I’ve spent a total of about 13 years living in the West (not counting urban Southern California, where I live now), and I studied the region for my master’s degree. Which is to say, I’m passionate about the West and have had a taste of how powerful a place it can be. And so I think everyone ought to spend some time roaming the region’s national parks (Yellowstone, Zion, etc.), back country roads, ghost towns, and deserts.
But if you really want to understand the West, I recommend reading up on the unique cultural and environmental conditions there. And I can think of no better place to start than these three books:
The Sound of Mountain Water, by Wallace Stegner
Stegner has been called the “dean of western writers,” and won the Pulitzer Prize for his book Angle of Repose (which was a big part of my master’s thesis). Pretty much anything of his is worth reading, but The Sound of Mountain Water is an especially good introduction. It’s a collection of essays about the importance of wilderness, both as a physical place and as an idea in the collective American psyche. Here’s a quote:
We simply need that wild country available to us, even if we never do more than drive to its edge and look in. For it can be a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.
Desert Solitaire, by Edward Abbey
A sort of give-no-fucks Walden for the American West, Desert Solitaire chronicles Abbey’s time working as a park ranger at Arches and exploring the surrounding region. The book is the most stylistically aggressive of the three on this list, and touches on an array of topics including wildlife, tourism, mining, etc.
Abbey also writes quite a bit about the role people have in the West and wilderness.
If my decomposing carcass helps nourish the roots of a juniper tree or the wings of a vulture—that is immortality enough for me. And as much as anyone deserves.
Running After Antelope, by Scott Carrier
Carrier’s collection of essays isn’t strictly about the West; there are long and evocative chapters set in Asia and Mexico. Still, it does spend considerable time in the region and because Carrier is based in Salt Lake City he brings, I think, a westerner’s sensibility to his work.
The title refers to the recurring thread detailing Carrier’s quest to outrun pronghorn antelope — a widely distributed species in places like Utah and Wyoming. It’s an idea that allows Carrier to touch on human evolution, hunting, history, wildlife, and other topics.
The book also includes Carrier’s observations on, among many other things, getting around:
If I had not been hitchhiking, if I had driven the same stretch in my car, then I would never have seen the ice disk; I would not know that Eureka makes the most popular vacuum in central Idaho; and I would not have been shown this compassion from a woman who was looking at her kids and husband for maybe the last time — I would have seen the Sawtooth Mountains at sunset, but I would not have these memories to go with it.
— Jim Dalrymple II