15 books every well-versed Westerner should read

A reading list for understanding the region.


These suggestions range from the 1700s to the present day. All are from Jeff Lee and Ann Martin, of the Rocky Mountain Land Library, unless otherwise noted.

Anza’s California Expeditions by Herbert Bolton (University of California Press, 1930). These five volumes describe the first settlers of California, in 1774-1776. My own ancestors were on this legendary expedition, which was led by Capt. Juan Bautista de Anza. 
–Al Tapia, reader

Mapping the Four Corners: Narrating the Hayden Survey of 1875 edited by Robert S. McPherson and Susan Rhoades Neel (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016), captures the long-unheard voices of survey members during the 1875 season, when they traveled through Hispanic settlements in Colorado and New Mexico, Mesa Verde, Hovenweep and the Hopi mesas.

Our Indian Summer in the Far West by Samuel Nugent Townshend (University of Oklahoma Press, 2016). The story of Townshend and photographer John George Hyde’s 1879 tour of the American West: two Englishmen making sense of a region undergoing rapid changes.

The Prairie Traveler: A Handbook for Overland Expeditions by Randolph B. Marcy (Skyhorse Publishing, 2014). Marcy, a captain in the U.S. Army, wrote this detailed guidebook in 1859 for Western pioneers, covering what to pack, which trails to take, cooking tips, and what Native American tribes travelers were likely to meet along the way. Marcy’s guide immerses you in history’s nitty-gritty details.

The Octopus by Frank Norris (Penguin, 1994). This novel, set in California and originally published in 1901, explains the role that railroads played in 1880, when opportunity turned to greed. Railroad laws still affect today’s laws and policies in the West.
–Kim Brown, reader

Diné Bahane’: The Navajo Creation Story by Paul Zolbrod (University of New Mexico, 1987). Zolbrod’s new translation renders the power and delicacy of the oral storytelling performance on the page through a poetic idiom appropriate to the Navajo oral tradition.
–Judy Perkins, reader

Ranch Life and the Hunting-Trail by Theodore Roosevelt (Bonanza Books, 1978). Roosevelt occupied his North Dakota ranch during that brief time of the real Old West, after the buffalo but before widespread fencing, when cowboys were widely employed to tend cattle and drive them to market. Remington’s illustrations, created especially for this book, bring the characters to vivid life.
–Crista Worthy, reader

We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher by E.C. Abbott & Helena Huntington Smith (Lakeside Press, 2012). Abbott, a cowboy during the boom cattle years between 1870 and 1890, was part of many a Lonesome Dove-like cattle drive from Texas to Montana. This wonderful 1955 book gives you a real feel for what life was like on the trail.

The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland by Robert Michael Pyle (Houghton-Mifflin, 1993). This beautifully written memoir could be subtitled “The Making of a Naturalist.” Pyle is one of the leading nature writers of today, but it was back in his childhood, along Denver’s Highline Canal, that the die was cast. The Thunder Tree has become a rallying cry for the importance of nature in a child’s life.

The Way it is: New and Selected Poems by William Stafford (Graywolf Press, 1999). There are many perceptive voices that celebrate the poetry of Western days and nights, but for us the poems of William Stafford (1914-1993) always come quickly to mind. His discerning eye ranges from Kansas to the Pacific Northwest. We’ll keep coming back to his simple words, packing so much emotion and clarity.

Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer (Anchor, 2004). One-quarter of Westerners are Mormons. This book describes how they ended up in the West, and the culture and influence they continue to have today.
–JoAnn Kalenak, HCN subscriptions marketer

Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1980) was first published in 1971, and it might just have radicalized anybody who read it 45 years ago. McPhee joins a rafting trip down the Colorado River that included David Brower, executive director of the Sierra Club, and Floyd Dominy, then chief of the federal Bureau of Reclamation. Dominy believed that almost every river would be better if tamed with a big fat dam, while Brower mourned Glen Canyon Dam, which created a stagnant Lake Powell.
–Betsy Marston, HCN Writers on the Range editor

Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape edited by Barry Lopez (Trinity University Press, 2006). Lopez and Debra Gwartney asked fellow writers to expand on common (and not so common) landscape terms, matching authors such as Barbara Kingsolver, Robert Hass and Luis Alberto Urrea with rich words like tidepool, midden, buffalo jump and kiss tank. The land comes alive in the pages of this one-of-a-kind book.

Grow: Stories from the Urban Food Movement by Stephen Grace (Bangtail Press, 2015). The urban agriculture movement has to be one of the most positive and exciting developments over the past years. Our absolute favorite is Grace’s generously written story about Denver’s urban farmers. It’s about food, yes, but community, too!

The Walk by William deBuys (Trinity University Press, 2007). Why does the Western landscape affect us so deeply? Writers from N. Scott Momaday to James Galvin have shared their personal geographies, but we find ourselves returning to this book — a northern New Mexico memoir of home, community and the small patch of land that deBuys keeps walking through.

Oil and Water by Stephen Grace (UCRA Publishing, 2016) and The Man Who Thought He Owned Water by Tershia d’Elgin (University Press of Colorado, 2016) remind us that we all need to pay attention to who is doing what with the Colorado River if we want to have a sustainable future.
–Patricia Rettig, reader


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