I see with great regret that the peerless travel writer Bill Bryson is closing up his inkwell for good.
In an age when cheap airfares and package tours — not to mention online “visits” through media such as Gurgle maps and InstaGram — could have made travel writing about as relevant as toenail clippings, Bryson’s refreshing, no-nonsense style has defied the trend.
I first encountered the man through his Lost Continent: Travels In Small-Town America. I found in Bryson a kindred soul because at the time, Longtime Buddy Trevor Romain and I were doing very much the same thing, albeit on a smaller scale: once a year we would take a long weekend off work, pick a part of the U.S. that we’d never visited before, and fly in (he from Austin and I, at that time, from Chicago). Then we’d rent a car and set off, destination unknown and only the return flight’s departure time as a deadline. The Golden Rule: No Interstate Highways. Even major U.S. roads with only two digits (e.g. U.S. 30 or Route 66) were treated with suspicion, and we’d get off into the back country roads with alacrity.
We were often asked why we did this — and we did it for nearly a decade — and our reply was simple. We did it to remind ourselves why we had both left our country of birth and settled in this new, this wonderful and this dauntingly-large and diverse land.
To say that we met interesting people would rank among the great understatements of the century: in New Orleans, Queer Tom and Opera Kate (an out-of-work opera singer working as a barmaid); the lady in a little town outside Portland who collected frogs of all descriptions (stuffed, porcelain, wooden, whatever) and displayed them all in her restaurant; the huge guy in New Hampshire who, when we asked him if he’d ever played football lisped: “Nope. I got weak kneeth”; and the slightly-batty breakfast diner owner in Rhode Island who wore the most eccentric earrings we’d ever seen, a different pair every single day; these, and many, many others were encountered in our travels, and gave us both dinner-party conversation topics and “Remember when?” reminiscences that survive to this day.
And during every single trip, Trevor and I fell in love with America all over again.
So when reading Bill Bryson’s books, it was like reading about one of our own “Blue Highways” trips (the name taken from the title of William Least Heat Moon’s book of the same ilk). And when Bryson settled in Britishland, it gave rise to works like the astonishing The Road To Little Dribbling and Notes From A Small Island — books which, because I’d been to the U.K. often myself, made me nod my head because I too had been to Little Dribbling, only it was called Upton-Under-Wold, Thirsk or Lesser Foldem.
I cannot recommend his work highly enough, because he is an extraordinary writer who sees everything through a pair of clear-sighted lenses and not rose-tinted ones. Never one to suffer fools or stupid things, he still talks about them with affection covered by incredulity. If you’re looking for a reading project for the winter, you could do a lot worse than read everything Bill Bryson has ever written.
And Bill: good for you. While I am distraught at your retirement, I am forever grateful to you and your wonderful works.
As to why he’s getting out:
“I would quite like to spend the part that is left to me doing all the things I’ve not been able to do. Like enjoying my family, I have masses of grandchildren and I would love to spend more time with them just down on the floor.”
I can think of no better reason. Give them each a hug from me.