11 Western Locales That Inspired Iconic Literary Works
From Joan Didion’s California to Edward Abbey’s Southwestern desert, these landmarks and places will have you appreciating your favorite authors on a whole new level
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Bask in Jack London’s Sonoma Dream
“Across Sonoma Mountain wisps of sea fog are stealing. The afternoon sun smolders in the drowsy sky. I have everything to make me glad I am alive,” writes Jack London in the semi-autobiographical John Barleycorn. The Northern California landscape brought the writer and self-proclaimed farmer peace, so London dedicated the final decade of his life to building his home in Sonoma. Those 1,400 acres, now known as Jack London State Historic Park, stir the soul with its miles of trails; the House of Happy Walls museum, reopening in November 2018 after a big renovation; ruins of the Wolf House the author didn’t live to see completed; and the cottage where the first millionaire writer penned a bounty of work. Don’t leave without making the roughly four-mile hike up Sonoma Mountain.
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Get Creeped Out at The Stanley Hotel
As the story goes, Stephen King was so spooked by his stay at The Stanley that he devised the entire plot for The Shining in the time it took him to smoke a cigarette in the room’s balcony. The author and his family were the lone guests at the fabled property, which was closing for the season, when they got snowed in Estes Park on a fall trip to Rocky Mountain National Park. Chances are slim you’ll be the only person there today (The Stanley remains busy year-round these days), but you can still count on a spirited stay—especially when you sign up for the nightly ghost tour or sleep in King’s room. It’s number 217, if you dare.
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Cruise Through Hunter S. Thompson’s Vegas
Most of the locales from Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas no longer exist or they’ve morphed beyond recognition. But there are still plenty of trippy relics to be found in Sin City. The most brilliant array lies at the Neon Boneyard at The Neon Museum, which is stocked with big, flashy signs that would have lined The Strip when Thompson rolled through in the ‘70s. Curious to see more? Pop into Circus Circus, said to have been home to the carousel bar where Duke and Gonzo caught the fear.
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Read up a Storm in San Fran
Lose yourself in a host of literary sites in San Francisco—a city that breeds influential authors, inspires instant classics, and kickstarts genres. You’ll begin by ducking in and out of Chinatown’s alleys, like the temple-filled Waverly Place, notably featured in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club, and North Beach’s pedestrian-only Jack Kerouac Alley, the home of City Lights bookstore—arguably the birthplace of the Beat scene and publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Nearby, tip your hat to the Mark Twain frog sculpture at Transamerica Redwood Park, commemorating the author’s first literary success, “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County,” penned in the area. No matter where you are, it will behoove you to look at the city through the eyes of Southern writer, Maya Angelou, who saw “a state of beauty and a state of freedom.” Want more? The San Francisco Chronicle’s interactive map points to a legion of print-worthy spots.
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Be a Desert Solitaire in Moab
To better appreciate the beauty and urgency of Edward Abbey’s popular The Monkey Wrench Gang, retrace his steps to Arches National Park—the setting for Abbey’s earlier work Desert Solitaire, an autobiographical account of his time as a park ranger in Moab. Waking among prickly pear cacti and cottonwoods in Devil’s Garden, trekking along the Rio Grande, and watching the sun set over a fiery city of sand and rock at Delicate Arch (pictured), it’s easy to understand why Abbey—credited as an environmentalism pioneer—advocated so fiercely for the preservation of the American Southwest. “There are some places so beautiful they can make a grown man break down and weep,” he writes.
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Dive into Steinbeck’s Life Aquatic
John Steinbeck wasn’t coy about his native land’s influence. From the generous Salinas Valley views at Fremont Peak (as depicted in Travels with Charley) to the Lara-Soto Adobe (Steinbeck’s home when he wrote Cannery Row and The Pearl), you’ll see book after book come to life. Forced to choose one spot? Our money’s on the Pacific Biological Laboratories. As one of the last intact structures on Cannery Row, it’s easy to drum up images of Steinbeck and his muse, marine biologist and best friend Ed Ricketts (a.k.a. “Doc Ricketts”), studying starfish and philosophizing. Call ahead about scheduled tour dates.
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Hike Like a Wild Woman on the Pacific Crest Trail
It takes more than physical preparation and fancy gear to tackle any significant portion of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail. As Cheryl Strayed exemplified in Wild, it also takes grit. (Although, to be clear, we don’t recommend you pull a Cheryl and just show up at the trailhead without any proper training—that’s dangerous. Tap into your willpower, yes, but also prepare). And, if you’re not ready to walk nearly as many miles, make your way to Sierra City, where Strayed gorged on spaghetti and a bath. It’s a solid spot to set up camp for lovely (but still strenuous) day hikes, such as Sierra Buttes Fire Tower, a trail on which the writer realized: “Perhaps being amidst the undesecrated beauty of the wilderness meant I too could be undesecrated.”
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Ride It as It Lays in L.A.
We won’t send you driving L.A.’s main freeways in search of meaning—that seems cruel in the present day, when L.A. traffic continues to rank as the worst nationwide. But, if like Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays protagonist, Maria, you find comfort on the blacktop, then make your way to one of the city’s many scenic routes that elicits the iconic novel. Mulholland Drive lives up to its legendary status as it winds through storied hillside neighborhoods revealing magical views of the valley—especially at night. Angeles Crest Highway (a.k.a. SR-2; pictured) is accessible minutes from downtown and leads up to the rugged San Gabriel Mountains and views of the Mojave Desert. And, for oceanside, craggy vistas, Palos Verdes Drive, around the Palos Verdes Peninsula, over-delivers.
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Sleep with the Greats in Taos
Taos’ legacy as an off-beat artsy town dates back to the 1800s, but it was Mabel Dodge Luhan who put it on the map. A century ago, the New York socialite, writer, and patron of the arts descended in Taos and built an art colony, where she hosted a bevy of America’s literati and artists (Thomas Wolfe, Edna Ferber, Georgia O’Keefe, Carl Jung). You, too, can sleep at Mabel Dodge Luhan House—and even take lit workshops. For the best stories, go straight to the source, herself: Mrs. Mabel wrote Winter in Taos, a memoir that captures the spirit of the house, which she describes as a “treasure that needs a key, and I am the only one who has it.''
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Discover Obama’s Oahu
In his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, Barack Obama writes that he is still stunned by the beauty of his native Oahu and the island’s “moss-covered cliffs,” the “North Shore’s thunderous waves,” and the “shadows of Pali’s Peak.” Bask in the hypnotic allure of the president’s birthplace—which he credits for shaping his worldview and values—on a hike to the 150-foot Manoa Falls “with its ginger blossoms,” “high canopies,” and “invisible birds.” Then, dive around Kailua Bay and imagine a young Barack learning to spearfish. Visit in December, and you might just run into the former First Family bodysurfing on Sandy Beach or grabbing shave ice at Island Snow. The Obamas have been known to return to Barack’s childhood home for the holidays.
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Step into Papa's Shoes in Sun Valley
Ernest Hemingway first visited central Idaho in the fall of 1939; he later bought a home in Ketchum and was living there when he passed away in 1961. You can spend the day exploring his stomping grounds. Start at The Community Library, which houses an extensive, unique Hemingway collection, including insightful oral history interviews with friends and family members. The building also contains The Sun Valley Museum of History, where you can check out the author's personal letters, a Royal typewriter he took to Havana, and artifacts from the Hemingway house, such as a manuscripts briefcase stamped with his initials. Then detour 30 miles south to Silver Creek Preserve, where Hemingway took his young sons in the 1930s. An audio tour of the site is narrated by Mariel Hemingway, actress, author, and granddaughter of Ernest. Back in Ketchum, pay your respects at the Ketchum Cemetery, where Hemingway is buried under three towering evergreen trees. For dinner, settle in at Michel’s Christiania Restaurant and Olympic Bar for classic French cuisine; the writer dined here so frequently he had his own table. Finally, check in at the Sun Valley Lodge (from $339; pictured), where he stayed in 1939 while writing For Whom the Bell Tolls. Up for a nightcap? Try one of his favorite on-site haunts, the Duchin Lounge. It’s since been modernized, but you can easily imagine the spirit of Papa Hemingway sauntering through the mountain-chic digs. -- Kerry Newberry