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Two New Travel Books Depict the West from Distinct Vantages

The Most Beautiful Villages and Towns of the Southwest (Thames & Hudson, 208 pages, $40) is a welcome coffee table book to peruse in the middle of winter, with its large photos of sun-struck plazas, warm adobe villas, red rock cliffs, and the bright Victorian buildings of old mountain mining towns. If you’re from this region, there’s a good chance that you’ve visited a number of the picturesque places featured in the book (Breckenridge, Moab, Taos: check). Written by Joan Tapper, founding editor of National Geographic Traveler and photographed by Nik Wheeler, who has contributed to National Geographic, the book could serve as a fine souvenir for anyone who has traveled the region.

Tapper accompanies Wheeler’s vivid photos with lively commentaries that describe three-dozen towns in Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah, giving a brief history of how the towns sprang up, how they endured, and what tourists can expect on a visit. It’s a breezy read, intended for vacationers who’ve been charmed by these towns, not those concerned with thorny issues facing the West.

Although Tapper’s commentary is filled with interesting facts (such as: Sedona, Arizona, was named around 1900 after the wife of its first postmaster), Wheeler’s photos have the starring role, which is little wonder given how often Hollywood movies have been filmed in these locations. The book also includes essays on Route 66, the Southwest in film, ghost towns, and “exploring the native American southwest.”

Writer and photographer Ann Torrence takes the reader on a more off-the-beaten-path adventure in her new book U.S. Highway 89: The Scenic Route to Seven Western National Parks (Sagebrush Press, 160 pages, $29.95). Producing this book was clearly a labor of love for Torrence, who traveled over 15,000 miles on U.S. 89, documenting her adventures on a blog she’s written since 2003.

Torrence’s photos and essays do a convincing job of demonstrating why U.S. 89 deserves more respect. Torrence writes: “Route 66 has a song, the Lincoln Highway has a statue of the president himself at the Continental Divide. Over the years, the country’s east-west routes have monopolized the romance of the road. Lacking a trademark or slogan, Highway 89 has been overlooked and underappreciated by both tourists and locals, who tend to think of it as ‘their’ road to the next big town.”

Torrence took her time meandering and found plenty to enjoy along the road to national parks including Saguaro, Bryce Canyon, Grand Teton, and Yellowstone. She captures quirky roadside sites, such as the sculpture of a chicken with antlers that stands outside the Wisdom Café in Nogales, and a rainbow-colored sculpture of a dog made out of old farm implements in a field near Montpelier, Utah. Less whimsical are three haunting figures that stand near the highway on the margin of Wupatki National Monument, logs upended in the brush, painted with ghostly white faces.

Torrence conveys the life of towns along U.S. 89, such as in her account of the student showcase at the Tucson International Mariachi Conference: “Musicians in miniature charro suits stream backstage…Parents follow, staggering under stacks of black sombreros.” She includes a photo of a parade down State Street with the University of Utah’s marching band and beaming cheerleaders. Another Utah parade commemorates Peach Days in Bringham City, which the community has celebrated since 1904. There’s a photo of a dazzling float with beauties in sparkling gowns next to a gigantic pie, its filling created by shiny red Christmas tree garland. In another photo, Torrence captures teenage couples on prom night. One young man has a six-inch mohawk, and his aqua tie and pocket puff match his date’s dress. Torrence includes plenty of lovely pictures of National Parks, too, but those places have been photographed many times, and the images that will linger from this book are those of the Westerners who live and work near these parks.

U.S. Highway 89 makes for an enchanting journey, celebrating natural beauty alongside neon roadside kitsch. In the epilogue, Torrence writes, “When I began photographing the Highway 89 project, I thought my subject would be the exquisite beauty of its seven national parks. Gradually…I fell in love with the small towns in between my supposed destinations. I wasn’t interested in photographing a nostalgic West that no longer existed; I wanted to show how the people I met were reinventing their Western lifestyles to retain their heritage as change encroached on their communities.”

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