Bill Bryson — Profile of a Travel Writer

What? Bill Bryson stopped writing books? I had to find out through Goodreads that my first literary crush had decided to call it quits. Without so much as an apology, he just chose to up, put down his pen, close the lid, and stop entertaining his public?

Every once in a while a writer nails your shirt to the wall while you are wearing it, making you pay attention. All the better when it is to deliver you a philosophical point fresh from their own learnings, like Bryson does with this statement from his book,

“Take a moment from time to time to remember that you are alive. I know this sounds a trifle obvious, but it is amazing how little time we take to remark upon this singular and gratifying fact. By the most astounding stroke of luck, an infinitesimal portion of all the matter in the universe came together to create you, and for the tiniest moment in the great span of eternity you have the incomparable privilege to exist.” - Bill Bryson, Neither Here Nor There

Bryson was raised in Des Moines, Iowa, and grew up watching European movies. He was so tempted by the cobblestone, the mews, churches, hedges, and English accents that he quit college and went to travel around Europe with a childhood friend named Katz. He would come home and then return full of black and white epiphanies from all the movies he had seen. He knew he wanted to live in England. He got a job at The Times and just when things were going his way, he heard America calling him.

Perhaps it’s my natural pessimism, but it seems that an awfully large part of travel these days is to see things while you still can.” – Bill Bryson, Neither Here Nor There

Bryson decided he was going to drive America. He flew home, grabbed his mom's car keys, and drove most of the Eastern U.S. states before autumn set in. After the spring equinox, he returned, grabbed the car keys again, and drove most of America's Western states. Bryson traveled through 38 American states, he left much uncovered. If there was a history of America I wanted to read, Bryson was the author. (If I was going to read War & Peace, I wanted Bryson to edit it.)

The pleasant fact is that the British are not much good at violent crime except in fiction, which is of course as it should be. - Bill Bryson, Note from a Small Country

His book did what no other book had done before his, it made me laugh hard enough to squirt urine just turning the page. I had not experienced reading that made my insides hurt. His wordsmithing and frolicking accounts from checking into a motel or checking out the Battle of Gettysburg were gratifying in an almost sexual sense. He was more than often nonplussed with either his public dealings or the admission price. Whether he was describing people, traffic, or historical sites, it was impossible not to be there in the passenger's seat snickering. Bryson was the magic, the magician, and the trick, all in one.

With Bryson’s impetus, I dreamed of being as far away from home as my 1978 Toyota Corolla would get me. And I was stressed about Mom and Dad’s separation, and about a girlfriend who wanted to move in together. At 21 I wanted my freedom. I headed out to drive all 48 lower American states.

Bill Bryson is to travel what mice are to mousetraps. He lured me in and prompted me to visit an America that no longer existed. Back at the height of Los Angeles' freeway shootings, when Jeffrey Dahmer was stuffing young men into his Milwaukee fridge and George H. Bush was attacking Iraq in the first Gulf War, my friend Dave and I were driving around the states in a canary yellow car. Being in a car that looked floodlit we traveled 24,000 miles sticking out like sore thumbs. We had no itinerary, no plan, and no direction.

When Dave and I ran out of money a week after leaving home we partied in New Orleans until dawn with most of Dave’s last money. Then we spent the very last bit of cash we had, $12USD on some window washing equipment off an old Black man in what transpired like a drug deal in an industrial suburb. We swiped a bucket at a gas station and a pole at another, and continued to travel, stopping at every empty tank to solicit the nearest strip mall to wash its windows. At night we would pull into a rest area, drink cheap beer, and contemplate the following day.

When we were in Des Moines, I looked up Bill Bryson's mother in the phone book and called her. She gave me her son's phone number in Yorkshire, England but did not invite us over for tea and go through a stack of family photos. And I never called her son collect. He may have been waiting for this mysterious caller to manifest himself in a call all these 30+ years on.

Bill Bryson followed his success with a book on him taking a trip around Europe, loosely following a path he had done with Katz had 20 years before. Again, with the wit and the ability to find some merriment in the cheapest of jokes (“I stretched out on my bed and touched all four walls at the same time”). From northernmost Hammerfest, Oslo to Istanbul, Turkey – he dissects cultures and illuminates the places he visits almost daring fans to follow in his steps. Anything holding an inkling of humor worth writing got printed in Neither Here, Nor There. His writing simply made inspectors of travelers, hoping to capture any moment that could be considered hilarity while in truth Bill Bryson was usually locked out, not on the list, late for the tour, or short the currency.

Among travel writing, extremely few people are worthy of being called “the funniest writing I’ve seen.” But then Bill followed up with a walk along the 2200-mile (3540 kilometers) Appellation Trail, a bold adventure, in fact too bold, for he never completed it. However, A Walk In The Woods was not short on its anecdotal charm and characteristic wit that followed him, like black bears, as he heralded each mile as a successful finish line.

More than three hundred million people in the world speak English and the rest, it sometimes seems, tries to. – Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent

Bryson continued to churn out travel books, especially one right the way around England. He did so by walking nearly all the aquatic borders and everywhere in between. His writing gets more personal, deeply embedding his love for the adopted country and his fellow countryman with which he ends his life in Europe and returns to America. He seemingly visits every nook and cranny pub along the way to track down memories of a place he was inspired to move so hastily too.

That is the glory of foreign travel, as far as I am concerned. I don’t want to know what people are talking about. I can’t think of anything that excites a greater sense of childlike wonder than to be in a country where you are ignorant of almost everything. Suddenly you are five years old again. You can’t read anything, you have only the most rudimentary sense of how things work, and you can’t even reliably cross a street without endangering your life. Your whole existence becomes a series of interesting guesses.”Bill Bryson, Neither Here Nor There

I cannot accept that Bill Bryson has hung up his writer's apron and is fine petting his dog for the rest of his life. I cannot accept that he is making himself extinct on my watch. He has such a huge following that it would be like if Gary Larson was to quit doing The Far Side, if Seinfeld decided to stop filming, or if George Carlin was to die.

There is no way someone with that creative output, an almost nuclear amount, can just decide they are going to stop. When he drove America, he only drove 38 states. Of America's lore of the road and its writers, John Steinbeck drove 27 in Travels With Charlie, Jack Kerouac did a measly 17 American states in On The Road, and William Least Heat-Moon beat Bill completing 39 in Blue Highways.

I contend that Bill Bryson ought to pull up his Thunderbolt Kid underwear, grab mom's keys, and give his readership his opinions on the other ten states. It’s the least he could do for his countless fans before hanging up his pen.

OF RUSSIA: A Year Inside

Brent (Brant is the Russian version) Antonson has seen a Russia few foreigners have. Indeed, few Russians. This young Canadian ventured to Voronezh, eleven hours south of Moscow by train, to spend a year inside a country torn by strife, fresh into a new century, and struggling with the clash between history and future. Tasked with teaching English to students at one university, and then a second, his story is riddled with romance and deception and punctuated with near disaster and disappointment. Antonson's candor and insights set Russia on the edge of failure and achievement – much like the students, he educated, filled with a dash of hope and a lump of fear. His wit did as much to get him in trouble as it did to keep him out of it.

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