How Bill Bryson “Discovered an America”

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What is “home” to you? For many, our birthplace informs the way we understand ourselves.

Consider your own region or country. What are its myths? England favours the WWII story, especially its theme of national resolve. The myth of modern France is built on revolution. American national myths have created some of the most famous monuments in the world: the Statue of Liberty, the archetypal diner, and the cowboy – an icon of rugged individualism.

Whatever tale they tell, much of our identity comes from defining ourselves alongside or against these national stories. One of the challenges of national myths is that these stories give way to nostalgia, and sentimentalism all too often erases painful truths.

Nostalgia is not a word many would associate with Bill Bryson. The 69-year-old British-American travel writer, born in Des Moines, Iowa (because “somebody had to”), is famous for his cynical humor. However, a yearning for the past is introduced in the opening pages of The Lost Continent – published in 1989 and Bryson’s first book in the travel genre. Bryson begins by describing the road trips around small-town America taken with his family in childhood. Now grown up, Bryson seeks to complete this journey with a 13,978-mile tour of the US, beginning in the autumn of 1987 and terminating spring 1988.

I became quietly seized with that nostalgia that overcomes you when you have reached the middle of your life and your father has recently died and it dawns on you that when he went he took some of you with him.

Bill Bryson

What is he chasing? These childhood journeys maintain a mysticism the author wishes to recapture. “I wanted to travel around. I wanted to see America”, writes Bryson. “I wanted to come home”.

What Bryson finds on his tour is less than he had hoped for. As he begins his journey in Keokuk, Iowa, Bryson remarks on the area being designated a “scenic route”: “Compared with an afternoon in a darkened room, it wasn’t bad”. Though what he finds returning to the small-town communities is worse. Bryson’s ideal America is one of authenticity and community spirit. Instead, he finds one where Americans are “junked out” on commercialism. Exhibit A? Bryson buys a postcard at a downtown supermarket that reads: “‘We rode the escalator at Merle Hay Mall!’”.

Bryson writes of what a “nice place much of America could be if only people possessed the same instinct for preservation as they do in Europe”. He expects “nothing but maple trees and white churches” of New England, but instead observes “modern commercial squalor – shopping centres, gas stations, motels”. Idyllic and idealised landscapes are torn up for “parking lots and Pizza Huts”. This becomes the central conflict of the text. In contemporary America, Bryson sees a nation chasing progress for progress’ sake. In this forever uprooting of landscapes, Americans are left ungrounded and without community.

And before long there will be no more milk in bottles delivered to the doorstep or sleepy rural pubs, and the countryside will be mostly shopping centers and theme parks. Forgive me, I don’t mean to get upset. But you are taking my world away from me piece by little piece, and sometimes it just pisses me off.

Bill Bryson

Published nearly ten years after The Lost Continent, 1998’s A Walk in the Woods navigates a very different landscape. Bryson takes the reader on an 800-mile hike of the Appalachian Trail (AT). For Bryson, the natural world is a tonic for the frustrations of urban living. “200 gift shops” stationed at an entrance to the trail serve as a contrast to the “authentic” wilderness within.

National myths are crystallised during turbulent periods in a country’s history. During the 17th and 20th centuries, European Americans expanded across the American continent, pushing the frontier of the unexplored ever westwards. These individuals engaged in violence with indigenous populations and battled tough climates. The “frontier myth” or “the myth of the west” was born: rugged individuals and self-sufficient cowboys surviving wild landscapes.

Though he is disillusioned with his tour of the “lost continent”, Bryson finds a home in this American story. “The woods were full of peril – rattlesnakes and water moccasins and nests of copperheads; bobcats, bears, coyotes, wolves, and wild boar”, writes Bryson. The reader gets the impression that there is more to this description than just zoological cataloguing. Bryson writes of wanting “a little of that swagger that comes with being able to gaze at a far horizon through eyes of chipped granite and say with a slow, manly sniff, ‘Yeah, I’ve shit in the woods’”. After surviving much of the trail (treacherous snow, terrifying noises in the dark, grating companions – “I have long known that it is part of God’s plan for me to spend a little time with each of the most stupid people on earth”), Bryson finally connects with the ideal of frontier masculinity. “When guys in camouflage pants and hunting hats sat around in the Four Aces Diner talking about fearsome things done out-of-doors,” Bryson writes, “I would no longer have to feel like such a cupcake”.

Bryson looks through a book of nature photography, Bear Attacks, and ponders his mortality. “What on earth would I do if four bears came into my camp? Why, I would die, of course. Literally shit myself lifeless”. Bryson uses instances of humour like this to undermine his physicality, but crucially this only serves to reinforce the admired tropes of frontier masculinity. As Bryson concludes the Appalachian Trail, it is clear that the America he could not find in The Lost Continent is traded for this wilder landscape. “I discovered an America that millions of people scarcely know exists,” he writes. “I came home”.

Bryson’s writing joins a long tradition of American nature writing. Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) was famed for his journal-based descriptions of New England, which championed solitude and the transcendental beauty of nature. Bryson shares much of this vigour for the wild, though it is remarkable that the frontier mindset of this era remains unchallenged.

Bryson’s nostalgia for the “sleepy”, “rural” America of his childhood is rendered a fallacy in his first travel book. The author’s quick, cynical wit interrogates this mythical place and contrasts it with the commercialised landscape Americans now find themselves in. However, readers of Bryson would do well to carry over this interrogative impulse to A Walk in the Woods. Bryson “comes home” on the Appalachian Trail, though wild landscapes too often give way to neat myths.

Words by Jack Whitfield

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