It’s important, first up, to state the subtitle (which didn’t fit in the title line above): Travels in Small-Town America. This was the last book I brought with me on vacation, and the book I snuck in under the wire to be completed in March. And not only is this the best March I’ve ever had with regards to number of books read in a single month, but March 2011 is the best month on record. Ever. So congratulations, March 2011, with your total of seven titles: you are awesome.
Anyway. Why I brought this book with me on vacation: my plan for vacation was to fly out to California, drive up to San Francisco*, stay with a friend for a couple of days, and then drive back to the airport I flew into over the course of four days by taking the Pacific Coast Highway, and spending the nights in cute towns in part to find out if I wanted to relocate to one of those towns someday. I stopped in Monterey (not really the nicest place to visit, interestingly enough), Morro Bay/San Luis Obispo (very pretty), the afore-mentioned Santa Barbara, and holy crap, Newport Beach. Oh, Newport Beach. I have not seen such a pretty town in my life. It’s just too bad that the day I flew out, a chunk of the Pacific Coast Highway fell into the ocean outside of Carmel, forcing me to skip the entire Big Sur part of the PCH.
Uh, right. The book. I brought it because I’ve heard Bill Bryson is funny (he is), and also, because I adore road trips. I totally plan on returning to California someday to pick up some of the pieces I missed, but also, one of my bucket list trips is to start the PCH at the border between Washington and Canada and drive it to Mexico. And I want to do the same thing with US Route 1: that one goes between Fort Kent, Maine, and Key West.
It took me half the book to figure out that it was written in 1988, so some of the references are a bit dated. But Bryson, who had relocated to Britain upon graduating college, returns to his hometown of Des Moines following his father’s death. And he decides to return to some of the places his father would take the family on vacation growing up, and what was supposed to be a mini trip turns into an epic that lasts more than a month and covers 38 of the lower 48 states.
He starts out in the Midwest and moves south to Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and then heads north through the Carolinas. He travels like me: in a zig-zag fashion across states, going back and forth, only staying one night and then moving on. What Bryson really enjoyed doing was going to these small towns to partake in whatever local claim to fame the town lays claim to.
One of my favorite things about the book was that he’s been to some of the same places I’ve been. Some, quite recently. Remember that asterisk up there, about driving to San Francisco?:
My plan was to drive up through the hidden heart of California, through the fertile San Joaquin Valley. Nobody ever goes there. There is a simple reason for this, as I was to discover. It is really boring. 
It’s actually not that boring. Of course, I was gawking like an idiot at the farmland and the rain and the oil pumps, and there wasn’t really any traffic to speak of, and I had the best CDs ever and it was a little rainy but I was flying at 80 miles, and it wasn’t the entire Interstate 5, and okay, yeah, maybe it was a little boring, but not as bad as how Bryson tells it.
He also visited Colonial Williamsburg. Now, I have gone on many vacations with my family, and like the Brysons, the Pattersons are also a frugal clan. So when we went to Colonial Williamsburg the first time, we experienced what Bryson went through:
I had lived in America long enough to know that if the only way into Williamsburg was to buy a ticket there would be an enormous sign on the wall saying, YOU MUST HAVE A TICKET. DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT TRYING TO GET IN WITHOUT ONE. But there wasn’t any such sign. I went outside, back out into the bright sunshine, and watched where the shuttle buses were going. They went down the driveway, joined a highway and disappeared around a bend. I crossed the highway, dodging the traffic, and followed a path through some woods. In a few seconds I was in the village. It was as simple as that. I didn’t have to pay a penny. Nearby the shuttle buses were unloading ticketholders. They had had a ride of roughly 200 yards and were about to discover that what their tickets entitled them to do was join long, ill-humored lines of other ticketholders standing outside each restored historic building, sweating in silence and shuffling forward at a rate of one step every three minutes. I don’t think I had ever seen quite so many people failing to enjoy themselves. 
Now, what happened to the Patterson family that did not happen to Bill, here, is that when we went, my sister and I were, what, 12 and 8 respectively? I think? Well, we were young. And young kids passing those lines of people waiting to get into those restored historic buildings but not allowed into those buildings because they don’t have a ticket? That’s heartbreaking. And we whined like crazy. Mom was then forced to buy us each quills and other completely useless trinkets to shut us up. (Mom also had to promise Dad that yes, we would be going to Busch Gardens and he could ride the Loch Ness Monster as many times as he wanted.)
But it’s true – if any of you ever want to go to Colonial Williamsburg, you can get practically the same amount of information for free as you can for paying what is most likely now a $40 admission fee. So remember, kids — always check for a way to sneak into things.
As you travel this great country of ours, there are certain truths we always encounter. First and foremost, nothing — nothing — is free. (Colonial Williamsburg, I’m sure, has since instilled at the very least, a parking fee.) Secondly, if you go to any science museum, public park, or aquarium — grr, the aquarium; curse you, Monterey Bay Aquarium — there will be kids running around everywhere, tripping you, cutting you off in pedestrian traffic so they can get a good view of that really large whale, and, worst of all, blocking your “arty” “photography” shots.
But, thirdly, there will also be old people.
The old people were noisy and excited, like schoolchildren, and pushed in front of me at the ticket booth, little realizing that I wouldn’t hesitate to give an old person a shove, especially a Baptist. Why is it, I wondered, that old people are always so self-centered and excitable? But I just smiled benignly and stood back, comforted by the thought that soon they would be dead. 
I ran into this a couple of times on the 101 in Central California: old-timey movie theaters.
Downtown movie houses are pretty much a thing of the past in America, alas, alas. 
The one in Salinas is closed, which made me sad. It gave me the thought that that could be something I’d want to do — y’know, when I get that bajillion dollars I keep talking about — buy an old-timey movie theater, renovate it, and tap into the nostalgia factor and get it to be popular. But the one in San Luis Obispo was still working, which made me happy. But it was showing Battle for L.A., which promptly made me sad again.
Another item that hit particularly close to home for me was this piece about the highways running through Boston:
Boston’s freeway system was insane. It was clearly designed by a person who had spent his childhood crashing toy trains. Every few hundred yards I would find my lane vanishing beneath me and other lanes merging with it from the right or left, or sometimes both. This wasn’t a road system, it was mobile hysteria. Everybody looked worried. I had never seen people working so hard to keep from crashing into each other. And this was a Saturday — God knows what it must be like on a weekday. 
Bill Bryson, I see your “what must it be like on a weekday” and raise you “driving through Boston during a blizzard while still hungover after your New Year’s party.”
Remember when I said that this book was written back in 1988? Well, doesn’t this seem eerie?:
I spent the night in Dearborn [MI] for two reasons. First, it would mean not having to spend the night in Detroit, the city with the highest murder rate in the country. In 1987, there were 635 homicides in Detroit, a rate of 58.2 per 100,000 people or eight times the national average. Just among children, there were 365 shootings in which both the victim and gunman were under sixteen (of whom 40 died). We are talking about a tough city — and yet it is still a rich one. What it will become like as the American car industry collapses in upon itself doesn’t bear thinking about. People will have to start carrying bazookas for protection. 
Before I leave you with my final thought, here are Bryson’s rules for eating on the road:
1. Never eat in a restaurant that displays photographs of the food it serves. (But if you do, never believe the photograph.)
2. Never eat in a restaurant attached to a bowling alley.
3. Never eat in a restaurant with flocked wallpaper.
4. Never eat in a restaurant where you can hear what they are saying in the kitchen.
5. Never eat in a restaurant that has live entertainers with any of the following words in their titles: Hank, Rhythm, Swinger, Trio, Combo, Hawaiian, Polka.
6. Never eat in a restaurant that has bloodstains on the walls.
Finally, here’s how Bryson describes Wyoming:
Wyoming is the most fiercely Western of all the Western states. It’s still a land of cowboys and horses and wide open spaces, a place where a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do… [272-273]
And when I read that, my head went to this, from the masterpiece Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog:
Grade for The Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America: 4 stars