The Epic Van’s road is paved with pages of text

  • Some of the books we've just finished, which will be handed out to people who cross our path.

Books. How could you live without them?

Tom and I both love to read, and life in The Epic Van is rich in hours spent with books.

Books loomed large in our transition from our Scottsdale house to The Epic Van. We had LOTS of books, shelves and shelves and shelves of them. We never missed a chance to buy books. Books for our vacation, books bought on vacation when we finished the books we brought, books for when we got back from vacation. Books for birthdays, books from college, books we read to our son Nate, books from wandering through bookstores with my stepfather, Richard, a librarian who devoured books.

So, when we decided to move into The Epic Van, we had to divest. We donated dozens of boxes of books to our local bookstore, Changing Hands, banking a hefty credit there. Still, there were those we couldn’t part with, and so there are several boxes of books in our storage unit.

How, we wondered, could we continue our reading on the road? There are no bookcases in The Epic Van, and our budget for book buying was, shall we say, heavily curtailed. What to do? I went to my local library, and discovered Overdrive, the digital app that enables Tom and I to check out and download books remotely.

Let the reading continue from sea to shining sea.

We read after breakfast, before bed, sitting in camp, and I read aloud to Tom as he cooks dinner or as we drive down the road. We started reading aloud to each other years ago, when we were running our own newspaper, overwhelmed with work and worry. In the few hours of leisure we had, we would lie on our futon, Tom would read Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, and I would howl with laughter.

Reading aloud has continued ever since. We love the sound of each other’s voices, absorbing the unraveling narrative differently than when we read the words ourselves. And we love the conversations the stories spark. (I have learned, however, that if we’re reading aloud before bed, Tom must be the reader, because the sound of my voice instantaneously puts him to sleep, a reaction I am glad to report doesn’t seem to happen when he’s driving.)

We each regularly have one or two books we’re reading individually and one or two we’re reading together.

Tom, a non-fiction lover who rarely cracked a novel during his newspaper years, is working his way through various lists of 100 great novels, including these: The Tin Drum (Gunter Grass), Wuthering Heights (Emily Bronte), Middlesex (Jeffrey Eugenides), Half of a Yellow Sun (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie) Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison), To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf), The Adventures of Augie March (Saul Bellow), A Mercy (Toni Morrison), All the King’s Men (Robert Penn Warren), My Antonia (Willa Cather), Catch-22 (Joseph Heller) and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark). He also recommends these non-fiction selections (he can’t quit entirely): The Empire of Cotton: A Global History (Sven Beckert) and The Gene: An Intimate History (Siddhartha Mukherjee).

We often pick up regional reads about our current location.

While visiting Palo Duro Canyon in Texas, we read Empire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwynne, the amazing story of Quanah Parker, the last Comanche chief and son of a white woman kidnapped by Native Americans in 1836. Quanah, a warrior who was never defeated, survived a brutal attack in Palo Duro, in which 2,000 of the tribe’s horses were slaughtered by U.S. Army soldiers shooting into the canyon from the rim.

In the panhandle of Oklahoma, we absorbed the horrors of the 1930s through Timothy Egan’s The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, a recommendation from my mother, and in a loop through Oregon and Washington, we read another of Egan’s, The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest.

In the Great Plains, we delved into geology with John McPhee’s Rising from the Plains, and tackled Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose.

While wandering around the Great Lakes, we found The Living Great Lakes: Searching for the Heart of the Inland Seas by Jerry Dennis, who weaves his childhood memories of the lakes with a six-week voyage as a crew member on a tall-masted schooner plying their waters.

And we loved The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring by Richard Preston. It detailed how Stephen Sillett started climbing the giant redwoods at Prairie Creek State Park, where we volunteered for three months, and how Sillett discovered the unique ecosystem in the canopy of the old growth. We also enjoyed Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire by Peter Stark.

Recently, in the gift shop at Grand Teton National Park, I picked up The Last Season, by Eric Blehm, which says on the cover, “Randy Morgenson was legendary for finding people missing in the High Sierra . . . Then one day he went missing himself.” I started reading it standing in the hallway waiting for the visitors center film to start, and barely set it down before finishing. It was a great read about backcountry rangers, their passion to protect our national lands, and the dangers they regularly face. It gave me an even greater respect for the rangers I meet along our route.

And we’ve just cracked Undaunted Courage, the story of Lewis and Clark’s expedition, a path we’ve intersected so many times.

It was a book, Blue Highways, by William Least-Heat Moon, that was part of the inspiration to hit the road permanently. We loved his exploration of the backroads of America, peppered with historic interjections, hysterical and heartfelt interactions with the people who live there and his witty and insightful observations.

This year, we picked up his book River Horse, about his trip across America in a boat, traveling navigable rivers from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It was a rollicking water-borne adventure that traversed many parts of the country we traveled by blacktop. Once again, he shared history, ruminations and funny interactions with people he met along the way. And Pilotus, his trusty sidekick, is pretty clever, too.

And I continue my eclectic exploration of anything that strikes my fancy. I recently finished Truly, Madly, Guilty, a mindbender about parental responsibility, individual dreams, and tragedy that happens in an instant; My Sunshine Away, an adult’s remembrance of the summer his teenage crush was raped in their neighborhood; The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, about a girl who can taste the emotions of those who make her food; and The Persian Pickle Club, a lovely tale of women bonding in Depression-era Kansas that reminded me of my grandmother and her quilting sisters. And on the advice of several friends, I’ve just finished Nobody’s Fool, by Richard Russo, about a charming group of characters in a town called Bath, and dove right into the sequel Everybody’s Fool.

I chuckled through A Gentleman in Moscow, about a man under house arrest at an upscale hotel in 1920s Russia, and couldn’t put down my friend Laurie Notaro’s historical fiction, Crossing the Horizon, about the women racing to be the first to fly across the Atlantic.

In fact, I’m in awe of the many friends I have who are successful authors. In addition to Laurie, whose hilarious Idiot Girl books are bestsellers, my friend Amy Silverman, wrote an amazing book, My Heart Can’t Even Believe It, about raising her beautiful daughter, Sophie, who has Down syndrome. It touched my heart. Friend and former colleague Tom Zoellner has written several books, including Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World — From the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief, an intriguing and entertaining tour we devoured our first year on the road.

I gritted my teeth through Moby-Dick, one of the great books Tom was reading to me aloud. (I mean, who needs to know the intricacies of hunting and dismantling beautiful whales.) But we both were fascinated with Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, which detailed how many of our leisure pursuits inspired great technological innovation, a Christmas gift from my sister Nancy. We’re just finished the author, Steven Johnson’s, previous book, How We Got to Now: Six Innovations that Made the Modern World, which our son Nate loaned to us.

There is a small stack of actual books in one of the storage baskets in the van, gifts from our family, which has adopted a “Books for Christmas” plan. We love getting books we never would have picked out for ourselves, and holiday shopping is now one heavenly afternoon spent browsing the aisles at Changing Hands. Nirvana.

One of our greatest pleasures this year was This House of Sky: Landscapes of a Western Mind, by Ivan Doig, a gift from my nephew, David. It is a memoir of Doig’s life growing up in Montana, where his parents were sheepherders and his father raised him alone after his mother died. It is a mesmerizing read about the beauty and difficulty of the wide-open physical landscape and the interior heart of the author. I couldn’t believe I’d never heard of Doig. Now, I want to read every word he’s written.

Because there are no bookcases in The Epic Van, as we finish physical books, we sprinkle them in those tiny neighborhood book exchanges, or hand them out to friends, or other campers, even people we meet at the laundromat.

Books for all. From sea to shining sea. How could you live without them?


  1. Reply
    Judith aka Roving Granny September 8, 2017

    Just got into my rv after months and miles of hunting. I have a little more room than you, but knew a year ago space would be limited. I lost more than 500 books in the Louisiana floods last year, and began my online library. Book has been great fun. Books from free to maybe $4.99 at most in areas of interest you choose are delivered to your email daily. Have also found many classics available for free. Am enjoying rereading some I never liked first time around — like 50 years ago. I also like a book in hand, and love to pass them on in unexpected places. Left behind in a restaurant, laundromat, and until now in motels leaves me to imagine a total stranger finding and loving my treasures.
    So thanks for a great column. I’ll be adding some of yours to my reading list as I wander South for the winter. Love your blogs. Happy travels.

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols September 9, 2017

      Thanks so much Judith. So sorry to hear of your loss of books, but happy to hear that you’re rebuilding online. I love your idea of leaving books places for strangers to find. I haven’t tried bookbud, but will look it up. I’m with you on revisiting books we read decades ago. We’re so much wiser now. 🙂

  2. Reply
    Meredith September 9, 2017

    I love you guys! Fabulous reading about your reading ?

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols September 9, 2017

      Love you, too. Thanks for reading!!!

  3. Reply
    Nancy Warfield September 9, 2017

    thanks for all the suggestions!

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols September 13, 2017

      You’re welcome, Nancy

  4. Reply
    dstabler September 10, 2017

    So many books! I love your descriptions. Like Tom, I lean toward non-fiction, but love a good novel. Devoured “News of the World” by Paulette Jiles this summer, about an old guy who travels around the West after the Civli War, reading newspaper articles to folks who pay to listen. It was the only way people got their news. Complications ensue when he’s hired to return a white girl, captured and raised by Kiowa, to her white family. Great writing.

    • Reply
      Judy Nichols September 14, 2017

      That’s sooo mind meld. I’ve been waiting for this one for months on my Overdrive library app and it arrived today! Can’t wait to start it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.