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“In stopping to take breath, I happened to glance up at the canyon wall…. Far up above me, a thousand feet or so, set in a great cavern in the face of the cliff, I saw a little city of stone, asleep. It was as still as sculpture—and something like that. It all hung together, seemed to have a kind of composition: pale little houses of stone nestling close to one another, perched on top of each other, with flat roofs, narrow windows, straight walls, and in the middle of the group, a round tower.”

Quietly compelling and beautifully written, The Professor’s House by Willa Cather is two stories in one. The first and third parts of the novel focus on Godfrey St. John, a middle-aged history professor in a midwestern university town in the early 1920s, who, despite his successes, is struggling with a deep disappointment with life.

The middle section, “Tom Outland’s Story,” detours to the southwest, centering on a young man who died in the Great War and whose memory looms over the professor and those of his wife and daughters. Before traveling north and meeting the St. John family, Tom Outland was a cattle herder in New Mexico, where he discovered and explored the “Blue Mesa,” an ancient cliff city.

The Blue Mesa in Cather’s tale is based on Mesa Verde National Park in southern Colorado. I spent four years traveling full-time around the United States, and Mesa Verde is one of the most spellbinding and surreal places in the country. Constructed by Ancestral Puebloans, or Anasazi, the adobe dwellings, which date from the 13th century, are perched on high peaks under overhanging rocks.

Cather first ventured to the Colorado park in 1915, spending a week there to conduct research. The next year she penned an article on the history of Mesa Verde for the The Denver Times, which compelled adventure-seekers, history-enthusiasts, and other tourists to visit the area. Cather’s descriptions in The Professor’s House of the cliff dwellings and the civilization that once thrived there are vivid and fascinating.

The Professor’s House is partly intriguing armchair travel—and perhaps inspiration to explore Mesa Verde in person someday.

“I still cherish the dream of returning for another revel in dear, dirty, delightful London, for I enjoyed myself there more than any where else,” wrote Louisa May Alcott in an 1868 letter to the friend who had shown her around Dickensian London.

Visiting the homes and haunts of famous writers is a time-honored tradition—one that intrigued some of the very authors whose own houses are now popular destinations for literary travelers.

After the publication of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women in 1868, fans of the book began trekking to Concord, Massachusetts, where the boldest ones knocked on the door of Orchard House, the Alcott family abode, looking for the author. Publicity-shy Louisa sometimes pretended to be a servant to deflect the attention, but she probably understood their curiosity. During a trip to London three years earlier, she visited sites featured in Charles Dickens’ tales. She revealed in her diary, “I felt as if I’d got into a novel while going about in the places I’d read so much of.”

Orchard House in Concord, Massachusetts, a destination for early literary travelers.

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After Agatha Christie tied the knot with archaeologist Max Mallowan at an Edinburgh cathedral in 1930, they set out on an adventuresome journey. “Max had planned the honeymoon entirely himself; it was going to be a surprise,” Christie penned in An Autobiography.

Romantic Venice was the first stop for the newly wed crime writer. Christie had passed through the Italian city previously while traveling on the Orient Express from London to the Middle East, where she met her future husband on an archaeological dig.

“I resolved…that if ever I am so fortunate I shall spend my honeymoon here!” Max Mallowan once vowed about Venice. And indeed he did.

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