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Great Southwest Travelogues

In an earlier post we listed the travelogues that we’ve enjoyed most. For this post we move from general travel writing, to writers who focus on the Southwest, especially the Four Corners area.  Our recommendations for great Southwest travelogues:

Death Comes for the Archbishop: Willa Cather (1873-1947)

Cather was born to a family of farmers in the back woods of Virginia. She was the oldest of seven children. When Cather was nine, the family relocated to Nebraska, in order to try farming in the newer state. That lasted for eighteen months before her father threw down the shovel, moved to Red Cloud, and opened a real estate and insurance company. Consequently, the frontier state of Nebraska influenced much of Cather’s later writings.

Cather began studying to be a medical doctor at the University of Nebraska but, when the Nebraska State Journal published her essay on Scottish satirist, Thomas Carlyle, she changed her major to English. In 1896, she moved to Pittsburgh to begin her writing career at the magazine Home Monthly. She also taught Latin, algebra, and English.

A decade later Cather became part of the editorial staff at McClure’s and moved to New York City. There, she wrote a biography of Mary Baker Eddy before starting to pen her ‘frontier’ trilogy, which included O Pioneers (1913), The Song of the Lark (1915) and My Antonia (1918). They were a critical and commercial success.

By the 1920s Cather’s style of ‘romantic’ writing was falling out of favor, though she continued to produce short stories, essays and novels until her death (from pneumonia) in 1947.

Death Comes for the Archbishop was published in 1927, and was an instant sensation. It can still be found on several ‘must read’ lists. Cather had spent several summers in New Mexico, where she heard the legend of Bishop Lamy. After twelve years and much research, she penned a narrative loosely based on his life.

In the novel, two French, Catholic priests, Latour (a.k.a. Lamy) and Vaillant, are sent from a parish in Ohio to the new territory of New Mexico, to establish a diocese. There, they encounter many legendary figures, including Kit Carson and Pope (the native chief), and live through the taming of the West. It is a changing time – the native tribes are re settled and the railroad expands to stretch from coast to coast – which is chronicled in Death Comes for the Archbishop.

Cather accurately captures the imagery of New Mexico:
‘This mesa plain had an appearance of great antiquity, and of incompleteness; as if, with all the materials for world making assembled, the Creator had desisted, gone away and left everything on the point of being brought together, on the eve of being arranged into mountain, plain, plateau. The country was still waiting to be made into a landscape.’

The two priests were quick to realize that the Mexicans in the area needed religion – they had been converted to Catholicism centuries before, when Coronado arrived. After the Spanish left, the Mexicans had no religious instruction or infrastructure.

As for the native tribes, the priests saw that they clung to their traditional spiritual ways. The priests abandoned the idea of forcing Catholicism upon them.

‘…Father Latour judged that, just as it was the white man’s way to assert himself in any landscape, to change it, make it over a little (at least to leave some mark of memorial of his sojourn), it was the Indian’s way to pass through a country without disturbing anything; to pass and leave no trace…’

This book should not be read as a biography or as a historically accurate account – several of the pueblos mentioned were long abandoned by the time the two priests entered the area. Cather simply captures the essence of a set place and time.

Notes: This was a quick, light read. It does mention the terrible treatment of the Native Americans, and the priests were empathetic to their plight, but that is not the book’s focus. The imagery Cather describes is vivid and makes this well worth the read.

No High Adobe: Dorothy L. Pillsbury

It is rare that I spend a day reading a book cover-to-cover and this wasn’t a good mystery or a mind-blowing drama. It was simply Santa Fe in the 1940s.

Not much is known of the reclusive author, Dorothy L. Pillsbury. She spent her younger days as a social worker in Los Angeles, before moving to Santa Fe in 1942. She settled into the Spanish-American neighborhood of Tenorio Flat. Here, she captured day-to-day activities and documented the minor dramas of the culture.

When her neighbor, Mrs. Apadoca, remarked that Pillsbury must miss the ocean, the author explains that she sees the ocean in Santa Fe’s high desert:

‘Cloud ships ply that overhead sea. Their white sails fill with all the winds as they skim on airy voyages.’

The writer’s days are absorbed by watching the neighborhood and her cat, Koshare, that

‘…I fear, has no literary sense whatever. In fact, I believe he reads the funnies. Typewriter keys are charming objects to grab when in motion…’

This is a book that you hope never ends. Thankfully, it’s the first of a four-part series. I didn’t realize how much I had enjoyed these neighbors, the small adobe that the author lived in, and the charm of a different time, until I decided to find out what happened to Tenorio Flat. I felt a slight pull in my chest. Don’t Google. Just read and smile.

Edward Abbey: Desert Solitaire

Abbey was born in small-town Pennsylvania and joined the military upon his graduation from high school. He wandered around the American Southwest, falling in love with the area, before attending college – primarily in Scotland. Once his education was complete, Abbey returned and found work as a park ranger in Arches.

Here, he recorded the park’s nature, landscape, and wildlife in Desert Solitaire, increasing both his popularity and acclaim as a ‘nature writer.’ (He had written three fictional works prior to this.) The memoir is coupled with Abbey’s views on the environment and man’s destruction of nature. Scattered throughout are his statements against encroachment on Native American land and the ridiculousness of American culture and commercialization.

Still, it is all presented as observations, leaving you to determine what he’s really stating.

Do you have a favorite Southwest author?

Lane & Juliet

The writing and photography team behind Southwest Compass, the travel blog for the American Southwest.


Jamie Salcedo

I read a part of Pilsbury’s book. A friend let me read it when we were both on a bus going west and I found her descriptions of Spanish-Americans to be great.

The Duo

I loved all four of her books. Thanks for stopping by!

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