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Essentials for a U.S. Road Trip

Highway 1 North road sign with deep blue sky studded with clouds.
Photo © Laura Martone.

There is a wide array of classic songs, from “Born to Be Wild” to “Life Is a Highway,” that inspire me to hit the road. Of course, music and guidebooks aren’t the only items needed for a road trip adventure. As I’ve written before, other helpful tools of the trade may include a countrywide atlas, state-specific atlases, relevant road maps, a laptop and wireless card, and a cellphone with GPS capability. A AAA membership doesn’t usually hurt either; with it, you can secure discounted hotel and attraction rates, complimentary maps and tour books, and, if necessary, emergency roadside assistance. While it might seem like overkill to bring so many navigational tools with you, you never know when they might come in handy. On several occasions, for instance, my husband, Dan, and I have relied on our GPS to guide us–only to be disappointed by poor cell phone reception. At such times, it’s been a godsend to have traditional maps along for the ride – not to mention a willingness to ask for directions.

Besides wireless Internet access and helpful navigational tools, road trips simply wouldn’t be as much fun without diversions like auto games, audiobooks, satellite radio, scintillating conversation, and unexpected side trips. As I wrote last month, some travelers can’t go anywhere without their books, magazines, MP3 players, and hand-held DVD players, and that’s fine, too.

Of course, that’s not all you’ll need. Whether you’re planning to drive your own vehicle or rent a car, you should make room for at least some of the following automotive essentials (most of which can be stored in an organized plastic bin):

  • alligator-clip test leads
  • automotive fluids (motor oil, transmission fluid, radiator coolant, antifreeze, brake fluid, windshield wiper fluid, etc.)
  • baling and copper wire
  • brake-adjusting tool
  • chisel
  • claw hammer
  • cleaning rags and supplies
  • cleaning tool for battery terminals
  • crowbar
  • drive pins
  • duct and electrical tape
  • fire extinguisher
  • flat-tire sealer
  • funnel
  • gallon of water
  • gas can and extra fuel
  • hacksaw
  • hammer
  • hand file
  • hex key set
  • ice scraper
  • jacks (appropriate for your vehicle)
  • jumper cables
  • lighter and extra fluid
  • nails, screws, nuts, and bolts
  • plastic ties
  • pliers (needle-nose, vise-grip, etc.)
  • putty knife scraper
  • red flag to signal motorists during an emergency
  • screwdriver set (with slotted and Phillips heads)
  • siphoning hose
  • spare parts (air/oil/gas filters, belts, clamps, fuses, hoses, spark plugs, wheel bearings, etc.)
  • spare set of keys
  • spare tire
  • spark plug tool
  • spray lubricant
  • steel wool
  • tire gauge
  • tire-inflating compressor
  • tool kit
  • tow cable, rope, nylon cord, and bungee cords
  • voltmeter and 12-volt test light
  • wind-up flashlight
  • wire cutters
  • wire stripping/crimping tool
  • wrench kits (lug, crescent, distributor, monkey, pipe, socket, etc.)

In addition, make sure to pack the appropriate automotive manuals, proper vehicle registration, automotive insurance, personal identification (including driver’s licenses and, for foreign travelers, official passports), and varied currency (cash, travelers checks, and credit cards). Personal items will, of course, depend on the person’s gender, needs, and interests. Some people, for instance, might require feminine hygiene products, prescription and over-the-counter medicine, fancy apparel, baby food and diapers, pet food and supplies, camping gear (such as canteens, tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, etc.), and recreational gear (such as canoes, kayaks, bicycles, golf clubs, fishing rods and tackle, and snorkeling and/or scuba-diving gear).

Most travelers, though, will require the following personal items, especially if various weather conditions are possible along the way:

  • cold-weather clothing (such as jackets and sweaters)
  • hat and sunglasses
  • hiking boots and sneakers
  • insect repellent
  • pants (lightweight for warm weather, denim for colder temperatures)
  • rain gear (such as ponchos, umbrellas, and hooded raincoats)
  • sandals or flip-flops (for beaches and bathhouses)
  • shirts and shorts
  • soap and shampoo
  • sunscreen and lip balm
  • swimsuits
  • toiletries
  • towels and washcloths
  • underwear and shoes
  • water shoes

Other basic supplies might include:

  • batteries of all types
  • battery-powered radio
  • beverages (such as soda, juice, and, most critical, drinking water)
  • binoculars (for wildlife watching)
  • biodegradable soap
  • blankets and pillows
  • board games and playing cards
  • bottle/can opener
  • compass
  • extra condiments (salt, ketchup, etc.)
  • field guides
  • first-aid kit (for cuts, burns, abrasions, insect stings, etc.)
  • food-storage and garbage bags
  • ice chest or small cooler
  • lantern
  • laundry bag and detergent
  • mobile travel applications
  • moist towelettes
  • multitool device and/or pocketknife
  • plasticware
  • power inverter (for charging laptops, cell phones, and other devices)
  • scissors
  • snacks (such as nuts, crackers, raisins, dried apricots, hard candy, gum, etc.)
  • still camera and/or video camera (plus related gear, such as batteries, adapters, lens filters, flashes, memory cards, tape stock, tripod, etc.)
  • tape measure
  • tissue and paper towels
  • waterproof matches
  • weather-alert radio

Of course, whenever we travel, it’s imperative that Dan and I bring two more things along for the ride: patience and Ruby, our adaptable kitty. So, what about you? Did I cover everything, or are there any items that I’ve forgotten? If, on the other hand, these lists have overwhelmed you a bit and taken some of the spontaneity out of traveling, never fear. Many of the items mentioned here can easily be found on the road; 24-hour truck stops, for instance, provide a wonderful resource for most last-minute needs.

For a little more road trip inspiration, check out my recent list of 10 incredible road trip routes. You might also enjoy my recent recap of a long-ago RV journey along Interstate 40, between Tennessee and Arizona. Then, get out there and make an outstanding road trip memory of your own!

Related Travel Guide

Start reading A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block

Next month we are publishing A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block, the newest installment in the celebrated Matthew Scudder series. Start here with the prologue to the novel Booklist, in a starred review, called: “Genius…the prose, as always, is like the club soda Scudder sips in the opening pages: cool, fizzy, and completely refreshing.”


“I’ve often wondered,” Mick Ballou said, ” how it would all have gone if I’d taken a different turn.”

We were at Grogan’s Open House, the Hell’s Kitchen saloon he’s owned and operated for years. The gentrification of the neighborhood has had its effect on Grogan’s, although the bar hasn’t changed much inside or out. But the local hard cases have mostly died or moved on, and the crowd these days is a gentler and more refined bunch. There’s Guinness on draft, and a good selection of single-malt Scotches and other premium whiskeys. But it’s the joint’s raffish reputation that draws them. They get to point out the bullet holes in the walls, and tell stories about the notorious past of the bar’s owner. Some of the stories are true.

They were all gone now. The barman had closed up, and the chairs were on top of the tables so they’d be out of the way when the kid came in at daybreak to sweep up and mop the floor. The door was locked, and all the lights out but the leaded-glass fixture over the table where we sat with our Waterford tumblers. There was whiskey in Mick’s, club soda in mine. Continue reading “Start reading A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block”

Daniel Woodrell on Writing: Video

To conclude our ongoing celebration of the publication of The Bayou Trilogy, we have three never-before-seen videos of our panel in San Francisco. We’ve pulled out for you Daniel Woodrell’s commentary on the making of Winter’s Bone, on life in the Ozarks and how his family history has influenced his writing.

Woodrell on his role in the movie of Winter’s Bone.

Woodrell on the Ozarks.

Woodrell on how his life has affected his writing.

How has where you come from affected what you like to read, write or watch?

No Invite? No Problem! The Best Ways to Explore London

Didn’t get your invitation to THE wedding in the mail? No problem—you don’t need a royal invite to hop a plane to Londontown. I first fell in love with London during a 2004 study-abroad tour. Bitten by the Britannia travel bug again, I returned last November and fell head over heels once more. Whatever your reasons for visiting England’s capital—whether Will and Kate’s royal love story is fueling your interest or you’re heading across the pond for non-tiara-related purposes—it never hurts to have some inside advice. Here are my personal top recommendations for discovering this world-renowned city on your own terms:

Hyde Park

It’s beautiful and vast. Be sure to check out Serpentine Lake, Princess Diana Fountain, Albert Memorial, Peter Pan statue, Speaker’s Corner (which is especially entertaining on Sundays), and the Rose Garden.

Kensington Palace

Make sure to at least take note of this beautiful home while you’re in Hyde Park, although I would recommend skipping the tour—its modern, over-the-top tour takes away from the splendor and history of the palace. I do, however, recommend stopping by the Orangery to have a spot of tea (hot chocolate in my case) and some scones and clotted cream.

Natural History Museum

Near the Victoria & Albert Museum, this museum houses jaw-dropping exhibits on everything from dinos to meteors.


Forget the overpriced clothing and gadgets, the food halls are where it’s at. Take the gaudy and spectacular Egyptian-themed escalator to get there; make sure to visit the Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed memorial at the bottom.

Buckingham Palace

As if you would—or could—miss this one!

Westminster Abbey

One word: amazing. So many famous graves (the English literature major in me swooned when I first laid eyes on Poet’s Corner), not to mention the upcoming wedding venue of my longtime royal crush. If only I had known that Prince William was into commoners….

House of Parliament Tour

Look up and stare at Big Ben (which is actually the name of the bell inside the clock)—and pinch yourself, because you’re in London! I didn’t have time to do the tour here, but I did watch some political debates at the House of Commons (they take place on Mondays and Thursdays; no reservation required; additional info here). While in the area, take note of the protestors and interesting signs they’re toting. You’ll know what I mean when you get there.

The National Gallery

Go! It’s free (like most museums in London), and it houses one of the greatest collections of Western European paintings in the world by Turner, van Gogh, and Rembrandt, to name just a few.

National Portrait Gallery

Make sure to set aside a good chunk of time to explore this museum, which is home to hundreds of portraits of famous British men and women from throughout the ages; I had to rush through it, and regret it.

Big Bus Tour

Admittedly an extremely touristy way to see London, but a great way to get oriented. The entire tour takes place on a double-decker bus, and the hop-on/hop-off tour packages makes getting around even easier (more info here). Some tours include a relaxing river cruise along the Thames.

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

Learn more about Shakespeare’s life or see his words come alive at the Elizabethan replica.

London Eye

This is a wonderful way to see London, and well worth the pounds. Go when the sun is setting so you can see London in both the daylight and at dusk.

The Tower of London

Fascinating and full of grim history—and the Crown Jewels are here, too. Next time I go, I plan to attend the Ceremony of the Keys, which requires a two-month advance reservation.

Tower Bridge Exhibition

From breathtaking views of London to a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes, the Tower Bridge Exhibition is just as cool as it sounds. Make sure to say hello to Geoff, the cute elderly man who works there. Note that the price of admission also gets you a ticket to London’s Monument, which commemorates the fire of 1666.

Millennium Bridge

I love this bridge, especially at sunset. Some say it’s wobbly, but don’t worry—as far as I could tell, it’s pretty stable! There’s something of interest on both ends: St. Paul’s Cathedral on one, and the Tate Modern on the other.

St. Paul’s Cathedral

I revisited this iconic feature of the London skyline in December, and spent almost an entire day soaking in its vastness, history, and beauty. I also took the multimedia tour, which I highly recommend. Make sure to set aside some quality time to visit this place right: explore the American Memorial Chapel (try to spot George Washington’s image on the stained glass murals), the crypt, and Oculus. Try out the Whispering Gallery’s unique acoustics, and climb to the very top of the dome to reach the Golden Gallery, where you can enjoy breathtaking panoramic views of London. In all, it’s 530 steps to the top, but you won’t regret making the leg-burning climb.

Piccadilly Circus

Piccadilly/West End is London’s entertainment district, which centers around Leicester Square (pronounced Less-ter) and Covent Garden. I recommend seeing Les Misérables at the Queen’s Theatre or The Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre.

Covent Garden

A major tourist magnet to be sure, but also a fun shopping area. Stop in at Thorntons Chocolates and Ben’s Cookies for some sweet, unforgettable treats.

Trafalgar Square

Look up and you’ll see Lord Nelson; look down and you’ll see lions, pigeons, and locals, oh my!

The British Museum

It’s epic. Where else can you move so freely through Ancient Greece and Egypt?

London isn’t all that England has to offer. If you have time, take a day trip to Oxford, Cambridge, Windsor, Bath, or Salisbury. On my last visit, I went to Oxford (by bus) and Cambridge (by train), and both were incredible.

With all its charms—many of which I didn’t even list, like the Tube, decent weather, extended daylight hours, and a robust local tourist industry—London will have you wrapped around its little finger in no time.


Related Travel Guide

A Conversation with Daniel Woodrell: Part II

A continuation of yesterday’s conversation with Daniel Woodrell and our celebration of the publication of THE BAYOU TRILOGY. Missed Part I? Start at the beginning.

Now for you, Daniel. How much of your work is calculation? When you sat down to write this morning, how much of what went down on the screen or the paper did you have formed in your head? How much of the book do you know before you start at it?

DANIEL: I never know before I start a novel where it’s going for a fact. Novels are an accretion, and a moment of insight or imagination on page 37 can redirect the novel to its true path, and any amount of predetermined plotting will need to be shit canned because this path feels right, now that I’ve found it. I start with a character, always, and in the early phases the character evolves or morphs, and sometimes my intuition and invention were emotionally close, but way off in detail—Ree Dolly [from Winter’s Bone] was originally in her thirties with a husband who drove trucks, Wanda Bone Bouvier from Muscle (one of my fave characters, ever) started out as a male ex-con, and the first attempt at Woe To Live On was centered around a widow with too many kids and no clear sense of which direction to flee in order to escape the Civil War (or, as some prefer, The War of Northern Aggression). I have to remain alert to shifts in the wind and smells and be open to these characters or storylines deviating from whatever I may have originally sensed, so I try to remain available for a better route or conception to come into the party late and shift the mood. If it feels righteous, I can’t resent the intrusion.

I always do the old Hemingway thing and stop when I know where to start in the morning. I usually have a notion about what’s ahead for maybe the next three to fifteen pages, but seldom am certain of much beyond that. Winter’s Bone looked like it was going to a finish that I would consider much darker, equally plausible, but with no hope at all, and somewhere about the three-quarter mark, I began to have qualms about that finish, which was yet vague but sort of an assumed if unacknowledged target. I had to wrestle with it, but finally accepted that the ending it now has was the true ending for me. I also read every day from the beginning (again, thanks for the tip, Hem) to wherever I am now, which keeps me in close contact with the writing and pictures in my head, and I revise daily as I read along. Man, many times it is the one hundred and twelfth reading before I note that a certain word choice or sentence has a nice music to it, but doesn’t actually mean what I intend it to mean. Close, maybe, but no … Chandler, I think, said metaphors and similes are only to be used if they are on the nose—close won’t work, so better to cut.

New question: Are there forms of fiction or books that you have imagined yourself doing that you haven’t? Do you still hope to? Poetry? An Homage to Wisconsin?

And once a writer begins to gain some recognition for whatever they’ve already done, a sort of fence can spring up around the writer’s own consciousness and keep him/her from going down that beckoning path that is so plainly different from the known—do you sense that? Or is it merely an issue of will and want?

Continue reading “A Conversation with Daniel Woodrell: Part II”

A Conversation with Daniel Woodrell

Daniel Woodrell and I met about four or five years ago at the LA Times Festival of Books and I proceeded to act like a total gushing fanboy. My only consolation was that I got to witness several other writers, some quite prominent, do their own fanboy or fangirl meltdowns. That the man didn’t run screaming back to Missouri is testament to his gentlemanly manner. In the years since LA, Daniel and I have exchanged emails, but it wasn’t until Bouchercon San Francisco that we got to spend any time together.

Getting to know one’s heroes can be an iffy proposition at best. I needn’t have worried. Daniel turned out to be as fascinating and complex as his work. He’s incredibly well read, thoughtful, honest to a fault, and enjoys a drop of good bourbon. The man speaks nearly as lyrically as he writes, but I don’t suppose any of that really surprised me. The things that caught me off guard were his sly sense of humor and the lurking mischief in his eyes.

I considered doing some high-minded discussion of Daniel’s work in advance of the release of The Bayou Trilogy, but foundered when trying to hit upon the proper approach. What could I say about Daniel Woodrell’s writing that hasn’t already been said? Instead, I thought, an actual conversation—via email—between the two of us would provide a little insight into the man behind Winter’s Bone, Tomato Red, and The Death of Sweet Mister. Daniel was gracious enough to agree.


REED: Your work requires the reader to pay careful attention. Is that a conscious decision on your part or is that just how your style developed? Can you ever imagine yourself writing in some other way than you do to, let’s say, to be more “commercial”?

labyrinthianDANIEL: I did a couple of times try to write more like somebody else, thinking that might change my fortunes, but all those efforts were tossed. I have to hear it to write it. I work hard on my sentences and I want them all read, but my bargain with the reader is that I won’t go into any “labyrinthian digressions” that lead to an urge to skim, either. If I knew what commercial was it might cross my mind, but I clearly don’t, so … I often think about the old bards and their approach. I admire the thought of them and the challenges of their chosen task. Bards were great artists, but they also had to hold their audience: can’t have oafs snoozing in the front row or chieftains wandering away in the back, so the storytelling had to be swift, vivid and powerful, and what the bards thought was a good enough approach sits fine by me. I never have felt that there was some great gulf between literary fiction and storytelling.

And a question for you: Given that the east coast is the most written about, filmed, sung about and televised region of our nation, were you encouraged or intimidated by the thought of setting your fiction there? Or was there no real choice, it’s your homeland and that’s that?

REED: I studied poetry in college and had never really attempted any fiction. So when I decided, quite insanely, to quit my job to write crime novels, I figured the one element of fiction I was apt to have any command of at all was setting. I knew where I was from. More than that, I understood where I was from. From your work, I know that’s a distinction you get and play with. My first two novels sort of sound like a guy doing an impression of Raymond Chandler, but with a Brooklyn accent. What’s cool about writing about NYC is that it’s a place everyone thinks they know, but it’s really a thousand different places that almost no one knows. The Brooklyn I write about—the Coney Island/Brighton Beach/Sheepshead Bay area—for instance, is a different place than the Brooklyn Gabriel Cohen or Peter Blauner write about. The Manhattan Larry Block writes about is nothing like the Chinatown that SJ Rozan writes about or the Wall Street that Peter Spiegelman writes about. I really enjoy opening up people’s eyes to the truth of that and playing with the bizarre universal romance people have for Brooklyn.

Now, back to you. Early on in Under The Bright Lights, the character Suze says something that struck me very differently than the first time I read the novel because I’ve since seen Winter’s Bone and video of the Ozarks. Suze says, “You shouldn’t make fun of me. Everybody makes fun of me.” UTBLs isn’t set in the Ozarks, but Bayou folks get painted with the same brush as people from the Ozarks and the Appalachians. Was Suze speaking for them or am I reading way too much into it? Even if I am, do you understand why I’m asking?

Continue reading “A Conversation with Daniel Woodrell”

Black Lens: Part XIV

Story by Ken Bruen and Russell Ackerman

Ken Bruen is one of the most celebrated crime novelists of our time.

Black Lens is his most secret project.

Read on as the unveiling continues.

Every Wednesday on Mulholland Books.

With art by Jonathan Santlofer.

Fade in…

Read Part 1, Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12, and Part 13.

The Cop

He felt an ice chill down his spine, thought

‘Jesus, touchable.’

He’d been tracking the Cabal, obsessing over them, like some damn schmuck rookie, he’d never figured, they


Knew about him.

She saw his fear, said

‘Use it.’

Took him a moment then


She drained the glass, the gal could sure put the shit away, said

‘Creepy –crawl, Ransom’s term for instilling fear based on Ransom’s credo, ‘Do the unexpected, No sense makes sense, you won’t get caught if you don’t got thought in your head.’

And she smiled, that ravishing radiance, said

‘Sounds like Ransom’s utter crap but it persuaded those middle class all American girls to butcher a pregnant woman and those attendant.’

His mind was reeling, a black lens of evil potency, and he asked

Had to

‘Why are you warning me?’

Continue reading “Black Lens: Part XIV”

Casting Light On Shade: A Conversation with Daniel Woodrell, Part II

This week, we celebrate the release of The Bayou Trilogy by Daniel Woodrell. Here, we have the continuation of the conversation with award-winning journalist, editor and fiction writer Craig McDonald. Start with Part I if you missed yesterday’s post. Note: this interview was conducted in 2006.

I’ve never seen much put out there regarding your work habits, and perhaps that is purposeful on your part. I’m wondering if you’re a morning or an evening writer?

It’s evolved over the years. When we lived in California I didn’t start writing until two or three in the morning. Here, it’s the opposite. I get up and go early. At one time, it had to always be the afternoon. So it’s kind of flickered all over.

Do you write longhand or…?

I always have, but I have become comfortable now with the keyboard on the computer. I find I’m doing over half of it directly there, then more or less sketching things longhand. I still like being able to go off and sit somewhere with a note pad. But I’m no longer seeing the drawback to the keyboard.

Is there a typical proportion of the written to the kept?

Now, Winter’s Bone, there’s not much that got wasted there. When it’s happening right and feels right, I’m usually pretty close on the first draft, actually. And then I read everything from the beginning again, which is an old Hemingway trick that I learned early. I prune it as I read from the beginning. And, even when I get to a couple of hundred pages or something, I still will read almost every day from the beginning. So I’m really rewriting a little bit.

Kind of a constant state of revision that keeps everything of a piece?


Sell Alderman Some DrugsDo you have a sense any if your neighbors read your work?

Not most of them. I think a lot of people have learned what I do, for a living, but I don’t run into a lot of people who have read them, nor do I want them to feel required to give me their capsule reviews if they have read them.

It would be difficult if Katie wasn’t a writer, too. We can really have intense literary conversations and open that part of ourselves up and deal with it. If it wasn’t for that, it would probably be too difficult here.

Speaking of Hemingway, I always wondered if that was something that kind of messed him up, because the great work came in Paris and when he was moving among all those writers, and then he went to Cuba, and became his own island, so to speak…

Yeah, he may be someone who profited from that. I’ve lived at different times in situations where there were lots of writers around and I’m never sure which is more beneficial. Utter isolation, eventually, will get you. But other writers will get you, too. You feel like you have to be up on the new thing of the minute instead of hearing your own thing. It depends on who you are. I know plenty of writers who couldn’t stand the idea of isolation.

Continue reading “Casting Light On Shade: A Conversation with Daniel Woodrell, Part II”

Casting Light On Shade: A Conversation with Daniel Woodrell

This week, we celebrate the release of The Bayou Trilogy by Daniel Woodrell.

Daniel Woodrell grew up in the Ozarks, far from any literary scene. The high school dropout lived a kind of gypsy existence for many years, drifting around the country and settling here and there for a year or two before moving on again.

At age 17, Woodrell (pronounced Wood-RELL) enlisted in the Marine Corps during the height of the Vietnam War. The Marines helped Daniel further his educational studies and put him on a path to an eventual college degree.

Fortunately, Woodrell was bounced out of the service before having to serve “in country,” and eventually found his way, like James Crumley before him, to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

He made the literary scene in 1986 with the publication of Under the Bright Lights, the first novel that he, to use his word, “completed.”

Under the Bright Lights introduced detective Rene Shade, an ex-boxer-turned-cop…a man “about sixty stitches past good-looking.” He polices in a town where “girls acquired insurmountable local reputations” and where mistake prone, working-class criminals fret, “I hope to god the FBI ain’t buggin’ this house, Emil. They’ll ridicule us in court.”

Muscle for the Wing (1988) followed loosely in its predecessor’s path — just enough there to assuage publishers pushing for a mystery series, but already showing the traits of Woodrell’s late-1990s-vintage standalones.

And in Wing, Woodrell’s inimitable narrative voice was already firming:

“Beaurain measured five foot seven standing on your neck.”

Or, as an elderly matriarch with ankle-length hair observes, “He’s been mean ever since pantyhose ruined finger fuckin’.”

The novel opens with a bang: “Wishing to avoid any hint of a snub at the Hushed Hill Country Club, the first thing Emil Jadick shoved through the door was double-barreled and loaded.”

In 1992, Woodrell rounded off the Shade cycle with The Ones You Do, a book focused on Rene’s pool-hustling old man, John X. Shade. The trilogy is now being published in one volume by Mulholland Books with the title The Bayou Trilogy.

Daniel Woodrell granted the following interview in mid-June 2006. It appears online here for the first time. In 2006, Woodrell was anticipating the arrival of a Sundance-awarded director who had optioned his latest novel, Winter’s Bone, and was coming to town to get a feel for the region that provides the novel’s setting. The subsequent, critically acclaimed film became a multiple Oscar contender.

Interviewer Craig McDonald, author of the internationally acclaimed Hector Lassiter series, is an award-winning journalist, editor and fiction writer. His writing has earned him nominations for the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity and Gumshoe awards. His current novel is the literary thriller One True Sentence.


Your first three books came bang-bang-bang in ’86, ’87 and ’88. Was your output that fast at the time, or more an effect of stockpiling, so to speak?

The first one had been done for a couple of years before it sold. And I had assumed it wouldn’t sell, and I had assumed I wouldn’t be doing anymore of those, so I started writing Woe to Live On. I was about in the middle of that when I found out the first one had sold. But it was a two-book deal and so forth.

Under the Bright Lights was your first published novel. Was it also the first you wrote?

No — no completed ones before that. That was one of the reasons I was so glad to have tried that book. I did complete it and I thought it was good enough at the time and that was an important psychological thing.

Thirty-three is an evocative age at which to publish your first novel. Can you remember your reaction at the time?

Oh yeah: I was thrilled. I didn’t know writers or anything growing up. I’m not from a writerly milieu. So the idea that somebody from New York’s gonna pay you money and print it, hey, I had no second questions about that. At the time, I was just jumpin’.

Not to say you might be jaded, but is there a vast difference between your anticipation of a book’s release then and now?

There are certain experiences you’ve already had now. I remember once, a long time ago, Elmore Leonard saying he didn’t want just another book, he wanted a book that did what he wanted it to do, or something to that effect. That’s more of what I’m feeling now. I’m excited about publishing books that I think are going to give me the opportunity to publish more…more that maybe range more widely afield than this one. I’ll never be very far from dramatic criminal things, probably. But there are so many ways of getting at it, that’s what’s exciting about this world — call it crime writing or whatever you want to call it. I just call it dramatic writing now, because, who knows? I don’t ever seem to come up with an idea that doesn’t at some point have a crime in it.

Continue reading “Casting Light On Shade: A Conversation with Daniel Woodrell”

Parque Nacional Sierra de las Quijadas

View of red rock canyons dotted with green bushes.
Sunset at Parque Nacional Sierra de las Quijadas. Photo © Dave Lonsdale

Evoking the red sandstone ravines of Utah’s Bryce Canyon, Parque Nacional Sierra de las Quijadas is rich in scenery, fossils, and pre-Columbian archaeological sites. In Lower Cretaceous times, about 120 million years ago, pterosaurs and their contemporaries left tracks in a semiarid landscape that has since become a jumble of barren cliffs, cornices, terraces, and desiccated lakebeds. Far later, the Huarpe and their predecessors left evidence of their camps and settlements.

Comprising 74,000 hectares in northwestern San Luis Province, the park is the subject of ongoing paleontological research by Universidad Nacional de San Luis and New York’s Museum of Natural History as well as excavations of early Huarpe sites. Badly in need of its own interpretive center, it’s open all year, but the mild spring and autumn months are best for visits; in the suffocating summer, thunderstorms can cause dangerous flash floods. The provincial government has initiated a request for UNESCO World Heritage Site status as part of a paleontology circuit with <schigualasto (San Juan) and Talampaya (La Rioja).

Las Quijadas is about 120 kilometers northwest of San Luis via paved RN 147 and a signed six-kilometer westbound gravel lateral. Most of the enormous park, though, is accessible only on foot.

Flora and Fauna

When the pterosaurs roamed here, Las Quijadas was a mostly level marshland, but climate changes over 100 million years have left it a desert where summer temperatures often exceed 40°C, and plants and animals have adapted to this regime. Typical of the flora is the endemic chica, a small slow-growing tree whose hard, dense wood forms a twisted trunk. Truncated shrubs like the jarilla and several species of cacti are also typical.

The most notable mammals are the collared peccary, guanaco, puma, and red fox; the endangered Argentine land turtle is also present here. Peregrine falcons and other raptors dive for small prey, while the Andean condor soars in search of carrion.

Sights and Recreation

Las Quijadas’s most unforgettable sight is the natural amphitheater of Potrero de la Aguada, where the last 25 million years of runoff—from precipitation that now averages only 300 millimeters per annum—has eroded ancient sediments to expose bright sandstone beds and conglomerates to the west. An easy trail follows the Aguada’s rim toward the south for about half an hour, but hikers should refrain from descending into the intricate canyons without plenty of water, high-energy snacks, and an obligatory local guide.

Along the gravel road to Potrero de la Aguada, stop at the recently excavated Hornillos Huarpes, the ovens where the park’s pre-Columbian inhabitants prepared their meals and fired their ceramics. These have been carbon-14 dated at about a.d. 1000.


About one kilometer east of the Potrero de la Aguada overlook, there’s a free APN campground with clean flush toilets as well as a small grocery with snacks and cold drinks.

There’s still no formal visitors center, but rangers at the park entrance (who collect a US$7 admission for foreigners, US$2 for Argentine residents) provide maps and can answer questions. At the campground, local guides offer several reasonably priced (around US$7–10 pp) 3–4-hour hikes into the badlands, though none of them can manage English.

Spanish-speaking visitors to San Luis should look for the self-published guidebook El Parque Nacional Sierra de las Quijadas y Sus Recursos Naturales by English-speaking geologist David Rivarola (tel. 02652/15-54-3629,, who offers the most informative park tours, but because of time demands only does so for large groups and for foreigners in particular.

Buses between San Luis and San Juan can drop passengers on the access road just north of the hamlet of Hualtarán. Travel agencies in San Luis sometimes organize day tours.

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