Travels In Small-Town America
By Bill Bryson
If one should visit this old Harper & Row publication the recommendation here is simply this:
Have a hanky handy!
As Bryson trips across the USA feeling the country’s pulse, there are times when our author gets a bit snotty!
But hey Little Lulu, hold on to the Kleenex! The majority of your tissues will be wiping Bryson induced tears—tears of snuffling, sobbing, raucous laughter.
At first blow what we have here is a latter- day version of Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie (1960). Like Steinbeck, Bryson (1989) puts in the old dip stick on his trip and checks our levels—people, food, politics, economics, geography, local radio and TV, technology, environment, change!
But sorry no Steinbeckian poodle pup or pickup with cozy camper here. Bryson (back from England) launches his sojourn from his childhood home in Des Moines, Iowa, and sees the USA in his mom’s old Chevrolet, aiming the Chevette at sights and scenes from his past—taking us back to a day when Father (especially his) didn’t really know best, landing us in the cheap motels and bug infested campgrounds of our childhood vacations. And there’s a great deal to chew on here (he eats local a lot and gripes about both food and service) —all wrapped neatly in both realistic and nostalgic snapshots of America.
Ah, for the day when we vacated with our parents and siblings in the Merry Oldsmobile spending the last hundred miles of the journey wondering if this camp ground would finally be the one with an indoor crapper.
Bryson: “…Usually we were forced to picnic by the side of the road. My father had an instinct for picking bad picnic sites—on the apron of a busy truck stop or in a little park that turned out to be in the heart of some seriously deprived ghetto, so that groups of children would come and stand silently by our table and watch us eating Hostess cupcakes and crinkle-cut potato chips—and it always became incredibly windy the moment we stopped, so that my mother spent the whole of lunchtime chasing paper plates over an area of about an acre.”
Nothing escapes the author’s acerbic wit in this tell-it-like-it-was (and is) journey. And one of the stars of this four to five gem work goes to Bryson for the aforementioned snotty tone. So should this—38 of 50 state “tour” de force—happen to offend a reader by jiggling the poundage of a few fatties at a K-Mart or by calling out a town or townie, well, let’s see. . .what would Bryson say?
How about! “Well, deal with it!”
The Lost Continent isn’t just a humorous writer tooting through and describing small town America. With Bryson we get a hell of a lot more. Through beautifully crafted, almost poetic passages, we feel the dank smog and fog of the lowlands, see the bright lights of the cities, inhale the crisp fresh air of a Midwestern country day, dabble our toes in the Atlantic and Pacific and visit national museums and parks (which he finds great but woefully mismanaged) while enjoying a fact filled, sometimes alarming US history, civics and or geography lesson along the way.
Driving through a Philadelphia ghetto he stops long enough to remind us (bummer) that neighborhoods in our cities brew death, that in World War II the odds of being killed were one in fifty and that in New York City alone there is (and this was the late 80s) one murder every four hours.
“This is a neighborhood (Philadelphia) where clearly you could be murdered for a pack of cigarettes—a fact that was not lost on me as I searched nervously for a way back onto the freeway. By the time I found it, I wasn’t whistling through my teeth so much as singing through my sphincter.
Pointing the little Chevette north to New England, checking the calendar, Bryson reflects on the fact that it’s Columbus Day.
“Columbus has always seemed to me an odd choice of hero for a country that celebrates success as America does because he was such a dismal failure. Consider the facts: he made four long voyages to the Americas, but never once realized that he wasn’t in Asia and never found anything worthwhile. Every other explorer was coming back with exciting new products like potatoes and tobacco and nylon stockings, all Columbus found to bring home were some puzzled-looking Indians—and he thought they were Japanese. (“Come on, you guys, let’s see a little sumo.”)
Upon entering the West he observes the populace change and then offers up one of those Brysonesque history lessons.
“The people in the towns along the way stop wearing baseball caps and shuffling along with that amiable dopiness characteristic of the Midwest and instead start wearing cowboy hats and cowboy boots, walking with a lope and looking vaguely suspicious and squinty, as if they think they might have to shoot you in a minute.
“People in the West like to shoot things. When they first got to the West they shot buffalo. Once there were 70 million buffalo on the plains and then the people of the West started blasting away at them. By 1895, there were only 800 buffalo left, mostly in zoos and touring Wild West shows. With no buffalo left to kill, Westerners started shooting Indians. Between 1850 and 1890 they reduced the number of Indians in America from two million to 90,000.
“Nowadays, thank goodness, both have made a recovery. Today there are 30,000 buffalo and 300,000 Indians, and of course you are not allowed to shoot either, so all Westerners have left to shoot at are road signs and each other, both of which they do rather a lot. There you have a capsule history of the West.”
At a local restaurant in Sundance, Utah, Bryson encounters a US subculture!
“The Shriners, if you are not familiar with them, are a social organization composed of middle-aged men of a certain disposition and mentality—the sort of men who like to give each other hotfoots and pinch the bottoms of passing waitresses. They seem to get drunk a lot and drop water balloons out of hotel windows. Their idea of advanced wit is to stick a cupped hand under their armpits and make farting noises. You can always tell a Shriner because he’s wearing a red fez and his socks don’t match. Ostensibly, Shriners get together to raise money for charities. This probably is what they tell their wives. However, here’s an interesting fact that may help you put this claim into perspective. In 1984, according to Harper’s Magazine, the amount of money raised by Shriners was$17.4 million; of this sum, the amount they donated to charities was $182,000. In short, what Shriners do is get together and be a******s.”
After a peek or two up the gigantic nostrils of our presidents at Mount Rushmore our host takes a look at the rest of South Dakota.
“I drove on and on across South Dakota. God, what a flat and empty state. You can’t believe how remote and lonely it feels out in the endless fields of yellow grass. It is like the world’s first drive-through a sensory deprivation chamber. The car started making choking noises, and the thought of breaking down out here filled me with disquiet. I was in part of the world where you could drive hundreds of miles in any direction before you found civilization, or at least met another person who didn’t like accordion music.”
Almost home now.
“It was wonderful to be back in the Midwest, with its rolling fields and rich black earth. . . I passed back into Iowa (his home). As if on cue, the sun emerged from the clouds. A swift band of golden light swept over the fields and made everything instantly warm and spring like. Every farm looked tidy and fruitful. Every little town looked clean and friendly. I drove spellbound, unable to get over how striking the landscape was. There was nothing much to it, just rolling fields, but the red barns, the chocolate soil. I felt as if I had never seen it before. I had no idea Iowa could be so beautiful.”
So along this acerbic highway of his there are times when a soft spot (for his native land) shines through. Here Bryson returns to his boyhood home and to the warmth of his mother’s kitchen. “I opened the back door, dropped my bags and called out those four most all-American words: “Hi, Mom, I’m Home!” he says, finishing the thought with—It was good to be home.
After turning the book’s last page (having made this trip myself a time or two) I wanted to cry out to my author, “Bill, this is exactly HOW I feel about this lost continent of ours. Nothing’s perfect, not even America. And if indeed we are the land of the free shouldn’t we feel free to enjoy a laugh or two at ourselves, knowing all the while that this USA of ours is a pretty damned fine place to call home.
For a copy of The lost Continent check your library, drop by your local independent bookseller, or purchase in used paperback at Amazon for less than the worst tip Bryson left the most annoying hash house waitress he encountered along his way. Simply click above on the book’s cover.