Today marks the final Tuesday of December, and with it my last Bill Bryson book review. I’m a bit sad to be done with my Bryson binge, but I’m also excited to start introducing new stories and authors that have captivated me in the past. There’s nothing like a good travel memoir to make you want to take off on your own.
Bryson’s The Lost Continent is a whammy of a book dedicated to the United States. In search of his idyllic representation of “Perfectville, USA” (my words, not his — he actually calls this imaginary town Amalgam), Bill takes off in his mother’s old Chevette, retracing routes that his father took the family on during various summer vacations.
Split up in two parts (East and West), The Lost Continent covers many popular tourist destinations, as well as little known towns and hamlets. Bill covers so much ground in this book that I actually had to go through it a second time just to remind myself where he went.
Both parts of his book begin in Des Moines, Iowa — Bill’s hometown and where his mother still resides (“I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.”) I had originally intended on mapping out every destination he visited in an effort to share with you his itinerary (plus I’m a geek and love maps), but then it occurred to me that maybe I should search the interweb to see if someone had already done this.
Turns out, I wasn’t the only one with this idea. I would never be able to reproduce a map that’s as nicely done as the one I found, so I decided to share it instead.
You can click here to see the original map produced by Chaotic Creations for the Folio Society (it even features a nice zoom-in option).
Looking at this map and reading through his stories from various parts of the country, I couldn’t help but be reminded of a similar trip I took back in 2009.
My friends, Jana and Mark, and I hopped in Jana’s Jeep and hauled ass across the USA. Starting in Toronto we drove through Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky and Ohio. We visited Mount Rushmore, saw Montezuma Castle, the hilly streets of San Francisco, the beautiful giants of Sequoia National Park, the Grand Canyon, New Orleans — we did and saw so much that I don’t think another road trip will ever be able to compare to this one.
That’s the beauty of an epic road trip, though — you’re free to go where you want, see what you want, and do it at your own pace. You’re not confined to a flight itinerary or railway lines. As long as there’s a road you can get there, and Bill proved this in his book (and I’d like to think Jana, Mark and myself as well).
Bill wrote The Lost Continent at the age of thirty-six — quite a few years before any of his other books I’ve shared. Dedicated to his father who had recently passed away at the time the book was written, it’s full of nostalgia from Bill’s childhood and loving memories of his Pops piloting the family station wagon. Similar to his stories in Neither Here Nor There, Bill flips back and forth between his experiences as a youth in a destination, and him renewing his memory by visiting again as an adult. By reliving the trips of his past, Bill is able to offer the reader a glimpse into how things were and how much has changed in the last thirty or so years.
By the end of his journey, Bill visited thirty-eight states and had driven a total of 13,978 miles. The old Chevette got him through the farmer’s fields of Iowa, the hillbilly filled hills of Georgia, the forests of Maine, the mountains of Montana, and the deserts of Nevada. He introduces us to idiosyncrasies of the South and the varied weather patterns of the West. He sees the Atlantic Ocean, some of the Great Lakes, and the Mighty Mississippi River. We, the reader, are shown the small towns of Anywhere, USA and the hard streets of some of the big cities.
Reading this book almost nullifies the need to go on a road trip yourself, but I’m sure that wasn’t Bill’s intention. Bill wanted to share the America he knew growing up and introduce us all to the country of his birth. Travelling through the States as an ex-pat probably made him appreciate his mother country much more, and seeing how he moved back from Britain only a few years afterwards I’d assume this trip had something to do with that.
If anything, reading this novel has renewed my desire to tackle yet another road trip of epic proportions. Maybe I’ll even visit Des Moines. Somebody has to.