Photo credit: Andrew Emmert
The year I graduated from high school, my writing teacher thwacked a finger on my 200 pages of essays and poems and said, “Maybe you’ll write the next On the Road
, but from a female perspective. Someone needs to do that.” As soon as he said that, I realized how many of the travel narratives I loved were written by and about men.
In graduate school, a teacher I didn’t adore said in connection to some books we’d read, “So it seems like chicks nest and guys quest.” Maybe I scowled. Maybe I wanted to punch his face off a little bit. Maybe he was just trying to stir the turd, so to speak, but I held it against him.
Years later, I have finally written my own book, a book that never wanted to be On the Road
, but does contain a fair share of physical and emotional wandering. In the pages of Driven
, I nest. I quest. I repeat. And what I have for you here is a list of the many women, both real and imagined, whose wandering ways have been a siren call of sorts to me — an awkward kid from small-town Indiana who wanted out more than she wanted anything, without ever knowing why.
Mattie Ross from True Grit by Charles Portis:
Mattie owned my heart entirely from the first page of this book. A 14-year-old girl in the Old West, setting off alone to avenge her father’s death? I was hooked. In my own small way, when I left home for boarding school at 14, coming from a family that rarely crossed state lines for any reason, I summoned my inner Mattie Ross. She offered a template for adventure where there had been none: I would be brave, I would be strong, I would not let naysayers stop me.
Sissy Hankshaw from Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins:
There are some books you love hard but can never return to. For me, this is one of them. It will never read to me the way it did when I first encountered it as a withdrawn 16-year-old who didn’t seem to want the right things, feel the right feelings, or look the right way. When a mom I babysat for gave me this book, cracking the pages felt as risqué as watching a David Lynch movie, and I fell fast and hard for Sissy Hankshaw and her oversize thumbs. She hit the road without apology, turning her abnormality into a golden ticket. It’s a lesson I’ve had to learn again and again: the more you embrace what makes you extraordinary, the brighter your light shines. (Who wants to be ordinary, anyway?)
Dalva from Dalva by Jim Harrison:
I read this book during my senior year of high school, while searching for the right college. Dalva inspired me to look west, where I eventually met one of the great loves of my life: Montana. Dalva is a tough Native American woman in her mid-40s who heads home to Nebraska to find her adopted child. Like Mattie and Sissy, she’s written by a man, if you can call Jim a man. He always felt to me like more of a trickster taking temporary form as a human. (Perhaps, that’s what we all are at our best and worst.) Like most Harrison novels, I remember the character more than the plot, and reading Dalva
gave me the sense that I could build a life that didn’t look like anyone else’s.
Lila in Lila by Marilynne Robinson:
Lila first appears in the novel Gilead
as the young wife of an aging reverend and the mother to their young son. In Lila
, we get the story of how this quiet stranger came to live in the reverend’s small Iowa town. Lila is a wanderer by circumstance, in the Grapes of Wrath
or Little Orphan Annie
way that severs roots. She feels unworthy and yet lives life with grace, somehow all alone even in the middle of her husband’s congregation. And the wisdom of these moments is that we’re all alone, whether we’re on the road or in our living rooms. As Jim Harrison said, “We are each the only world we are going to get.”
Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love:
Go on. Judge away. I did. I dismissed this book based on saccharine clips of a movie I never saw. I resented its commercial success. And I didn’t care for the cover, either. Then, last winter, when I found myself suddenly single and hurting, I picked up a copy at the library. And you know what? Elizabeth Gilbert is a true explorer of this planet, as well as of the interior wilderness we all must navigate. I skimmed some sections, sure, but the ones that hit home hit hard. Like this mantra that all travelers should hold close for those times when we have no comfort but what we can offer ourselves: I love you, I will take care of you, I will never leave you.
Maybe a man will never say that to me again. But that doesn’t much matter. I can say it to myself.
Bird in Bird by Noy Holland:
I’d never read a mother written this way, and I felt immediately understood as a human — not just
a mother — as I binge-read this lean novel. Bird sends one child off to school and stays home with the other, and spends the day thinking back to her unmarried, untethered days when she hitched rides and nursed a rotten tooth while traveling with Mickey, her old, wild love. Bird is a woman who spent the first act of her life questing, and now suffers the beauty and restlessness of the nest. The sharp sentences and visceral details swept me away, and gave voice to the longing that comes from living with clipped wings.
Maggie O’Farrell in I Am, I Am, I Am:
I dare you to pick up this book, read the first essay, and put it down. These 17 brushes with death, captured in 17 essays, arrested my attention like a grizzly bear in the woods. The voice is sure, grounded, and feral — a death cry and a heartbeat. Each essay is a journey of sorts: one happens in the woods, one happens in the ocean, some happen in faraway countries, some happen in hospitals. In all of them, O’Farrell is a riveting guide and adventurer, reckoning with death and fiercely alive.
Willie from This Property Is Condemned by Tennessee Williams:
Willie is not quite a woman or a wanderer (yet), but in her I see the seeds of both. She’s 13, and this one-act play from the collection 27 Wagons Full of Cotton
begins with her playing on the railroad tracks one winter morning, “thin as a beanpole and dressed in outrageous cast-off finery.” I see my own young self in Willie as she walks the tracks, befriends a stranger, repeating, "The sky sure is white today...white as a clean piece of paper." Because that’s how wanderlust takes root: when you’re too young to go but desperate to leave and you look down the road and think, I wonder where that goes
I’ve never stopped looking, never stopped wondering and wandering. It’s an impulse so core to my life that I don’t know who I’d be without it.
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earned her BA in English from the University of Montana and her MFA in fiction from Texas State University. Her writing has appeared in publications such as The Rumpus, The Washington Post, ZYZZYVA
, and Fourth Genre
is her first book. She lives in Missoula, Montana, with her two kids.