Once, while on summer break from college, I pulled this book off the shelf at the Orangeburg County Library. Coincidentally, I turned to the page where Bryson describes driving through South Carolina. He was bitter and complained about the billboards on I-26, the only road he traversed in our state. I got angry, shoved the book back on the shelf, and decided I didn’t need to read a travelogue by someone who clearly hated my home state.
Hasty, I know. I’ve picked it up several times since then, mostly because of the cover. Maps, a realistic coffee stain design, roadside signs. I love traveling, and I love small towns, and I love sarcasm. I therefore loved this book (even though I wished he would have spent more time in South Carolina, rather than just stopping in Beaufort and Charleston and high-tailing it to North Carolina).
Essentially, it’s a whole book about a long, solitary road trip. Essentially, it’s the book I want to write about undergoing such a journey (though I’d like to have at least one other person with me).
Bryson is in search of the perfect small town in America. He quickly realizes that it doesn’t exist; he decides instead to search for the qualities that should be in a perfect small town, a town which he refers to as “Amalgam.” The first part of the book, about his travels around the eastern half of the country, contains most of his searching for Amalgam. He details the hotels he stays in, the tourist traps he visits, the food he eats.
The second half contains his trip a few months later across the western part of the country. Because of the different geography, people, and culture, the second half of the book is quite different from the first. Not as many small towns, mostly long stretches of solitary road and lots of natural wonders.
Whereas in the first half of the book, Bryson is sarcastic and often complaining about the places he visits, his attitude has started to change by the second half. He begins to appreciate much more the people and places he encounters. His reaction to the Grand Canyon is beautiful:
“Nothing prepares you for the Grand Canyon. No matter how many times you read about it or see it pictured, it still takes your breath away. Your mind, unable to deal with anything on this scale, just shuts down and for many long moments you are a human vacuum, without speech or breath, but just a deep, inexpressible awe that anything on this earth could be so vast, so beautiful, so silent.”
Bryson is a magnificent writer. His tone is conversational; his humor is unparalleled (I’ve never laughed aloud–literally–so many times while reading a book). He’s sarcastic, and he weaves his discussion of travel with social commentary that is hilarious and truthful.
I finished this book last night. The whole time I’ve been reading, I’ve been aching to pack my bags and start driving to some unknown destination. As if my wanderlust isn’t already bad enough. 🙂
The best thing about this book, however, is his own transformation. He leaves his hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, disillusioned. He’s lived in England for so long and finds very little value in any aspect of America. He begins his search for the perfect small town knowing it’s pointless, yet he leaves anyway. In the end, he returns to Des Moines, and his arrival reveals his renewed appreciation for his state:
“I drove on into Des Moines and it looked very large and handsome in the afternoon sunshine. The golden dome of the state capitol building gleamed. Every yard was dark with trees. People were out cutting the grass or riding bikes. I could see why strangers came in off the interstate looking for hamburgers and gasoline and stayed forever. There was just something about it that looked friendly and decent and nice. I could live here, I thought, and turned the car for home. It was the strangest thing, but for the first time in a long time I almost felt serene.”
This is a book that I’ll definitely re-read. It’s glorious and hilarious and wonderful.