Author: Bill Bryson
Title: The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America
Narrator: Kerry Shales
Publication Info: BBC Audio, 2005 [Originally published in 1989]
Previously Read By The Same Author:
Revisiting an old favorite of mine leads to wonder what I once saw in this book. The Lost Continent is the first of the many travel books that Bryson wrote and the first one that I read way back in 1993. I’ve included it on my Favorite Books of All Time lists but will have to reconsider that. Bryson’s schtick is that he’s often cranky but in this book he’s just downright nasty and describes everyone he encounters as dumb.
Bryson (who may be a distant relation since I have Bryson’s in my family tree) grew up in Iowa, but as a young adult emigrated to England. The premise of this book is his return to the United States and driving around the country to recreate the vacation travels of his childhood while looking for the amalgam of the American small town. He finds that most towns have been eclipsed by strip malls and highways. And he makes some good observations about why it is that some places can be made beautiful – Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Colonial Williamsburg – while the ordinary places are the drab and ugly right up to their edge.
I’ll have to review Bryson’s later books but I feel that he becomes less of a nasty misanthrope and more of a cuddly curmudgeon. More importantly, he also begins to research the history of places he visits, interview local experts, and incorporate that into his travelogue. At any rate, the last time I read this book was 2001, when I wrote a more positive review, so I will include that so you can see how my feelings have changed over time:
One of Bryson’s earliest travel books and maybe one of his best since at this point he’s writing from the perspective of an average person driving around America as opposed to the famous travel writer he’d later become. Bryson’s search for the perfect American small town is also very pointed in its satire and criticism. The view of an American expatriate has a special appeal to it.
Author: Tony Hortwitz
Title: Confederates in the Attic
Narrator: Arthur Addison
Publication Info: Newport Beach, CA : Books On Tape, 1999
Other Books Read by the Same Author:
Around 20 years ago, I read Confederates in the Attic and Tony Hortwitz immediately became my favorite history/travel writer. I had just moved back to New England after living seven years in Virginia, and I related to the experience of meeting people obsessed with the past of the lost Civil War. I laughed, of course, at the most eccentric characters, such as the woman who created a Cats of the Confederacy chapter or Robert Lee Hodge, the hardcore living history reenactor. Hodge, pictured on the cover, was the star of the book and so focused on authenticity that he eschewed Civil War battle reenactments for long marches and drilling in period attire.
Reading this book again in 2021, it feels less a reflection on a way of life that was slowly dying, and more of a warning to the future. Since this book was published the United States has seen an alarming reemergence of the undergirding ideology of the neo-confederate beliefs depicted in this book – white supremacy and Christian nationalism – and not just in the South. This has manifest itself in:
- the hyper-militarized response to the September 11th attacks, built on anti-Muslim discrimination, and the immediate questioning of the patriotism of anyone who challenged these notions.
- the perverse interpretation of the Second Amendment from an insurrectionist perspective that allowed access to firearms for countless mass murderers
- the increase in mass incarceration of Black and brown people, the militarization of police forces, and the ability of police and vigilantes to murder Black and brown people without consequences
- the rise of the Tea Party, numerous white supremacist gangs and organizations, and ultimately the Trump administration
- And, on the day I finished re-reading this book, all of these things coming together as armed insurrectionists of white supremacists and Christian nationalists invading the US Capitol, some bearing the Confederate battle flag.
Tony Horwitz is no longer with us to offer his perspective, but in retrospect, Confederates in the Attic is a chilling account of a menace within our midst. Horwitz’s great talent was his ability to meet strangers, talk with them, and form a bond, even when he considered their ideologies loathsome. Through his interviews and experiences in this book he offers a keen insight into the popular memory of the Civil War and its aftermath.
A lot has changed since Horwitz’s journey through the South in the 1990s, and despite my list above, some of it is for the better. It would’ve been hard to imagine the sculptures of Confederate generals would ultimately be removed from Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia at the time Horwitz wrote about the controversy about adding an Arthur Ashe statue. I was also fascinated that some of the people who he interviewed had more nuanced views on the Civil War than I recalled, some expressing anti-militant feelings. I also appreciate Horwitz debunking Civil War myths, such as the story of Wilmer McLean, who is said to have had the Civil War beginning and ending in house, but his true story is much more nuanced.
Confederates in the Attic remains one of my favorite books of all time and offers a lot of insight into America’s past and present, and possibly our future.
Having visited four new states recently, it’s time to update my Visited States Map courtesy of the Gas, Food, No Lodging blog.
Here’s the key:
Red means I’ve just passed through, maybe seen a thing or two.
Amber means I’ve at least slept there and seen a few things. I have a first-hand idea of what the state is like.
Blue means I’ve spent a good amount of time in that state.
Green means I’ve spent a lot of time in that state, weeks at a time on multiple visits – or lived there.
States I’ve Visited in Chronological Order
New Jersey (home from 1973-1975)
Connecticut (home from 1975-1991)
Massachusetts (home from 1998-present)
District of Columbia
Virginia (home from 1991-1998)
Follow this link to see a full album of our photos from the seventh day of our travels.
We packed up our van at the Canyon Campground and headed out for our return journey to Salt Lake City. The Artists Paintpots was the one remaining attraction we hadn’t seen that was still on my wish list, so Susan graciously agreed to make a stop there on the way. I thought the Artists Paintpots was a roadside attraction like the other geysers, but upon arriving we learned there was a 1.2-mile hike for the round trip to the paintpots. Kay was not up for this, so Susan returned with her to wait in the van while Peter and I made the hike.
It was worth the trip. We’d seen geothermal features by Lake Yellowstone in West Thumb and in arid basins in the Old Faithful area, but this was the first time we saw them in a forest. The rising steam in the woods gave it a fairy tale feel. I did have the impression there would be more bubbling mud than we actually saw, but I guess it was the dry season. We returned to the van at the right time, because a wave of other tourists were just heading in. In fact we’d see a lot of inbound traffic heading into the park for the Labor Day weekend as we drove out. Not all the congestion was human-made, though, as we delighted in the awesome experience of seeing a large bison bull saunter down the road.
Leaving Yellowstone through the west gate, we arrived in the town of West Yellowstone, Montana. We stopped here to visit the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center, a small zoo for rescue animals that would give us the chance to see some of the wildlife we didn’t see in the parks, including grizzly bears, wolves, raptors, and otters! We arrived at the right time being the last family admitted for a noon entry group. Inside we saw the grizzly bear Nakina, and then the change over when the twin sister cubs Condi and Seeley enter the enclosure. One of the cubs climbed the tree to get a feeder left by the center’s staff, but had some trouble getting back down from the tree.
Susan spent a lot of time talking with the naturalist, learning facts about the bears and their behavior. She also got confirmation that she and Peter probably saw a glimpse of a bear several days earlier on the Moose-Wilson Road. I spent a lot of time watching the otters until dragged away by the children. We headed into Yellowstone and were able to get lunch from a 50s-style diner. Then it was on the road again for a long drive to Salt Lake City. The route back through Idaho was less scenic than on our drive to Grand Teton, but we did pass numerous locations for boating and tubing that were attracting Labor Day crowds. We arrived in Salt Lake City just after sunset, happy to check into a hotel room with comfy beds and a television.
Follow this link to see a full album of our photos from the sixth day of our travels.
We had a full day catching on many Yellowstone attractions we hadn’t seen yet. Since we didn’t make it to Old Faithful on our geyser day, we headed there first. We arrived in the confusing complex of parking, access roads, hotels, and support buildings wondering where the actual geyser was located. But it was Kay who pointed and said, “It’s right there, Dad!”
The next eruption was not expected for another hour so we went into the Old Faithful Lodge to pick up breakfast food from the cafeteria. We took it outside to eat on a bench under the eaves of the Lodge and watch the steam rise from Old Faithful in the distance. People were already gathering on the crescent of benches around Old Faithful, so after breakfast we claimed our own socially-distanced bench. Peter & I went for a walk on the trails around Old Faithful and saw some of the smaller geothermal features in the area.
On schedule, Old Faithful erupted as it always does. Kind of remarkable to think it has been doing so for hundreds probably thousands of years. Having fulfilled our Old Faithful obligation, we returned to the van and drove to the Midway Geyser Basin. It was also crowded and we ended up parking down the road along the Firehole River instead of the parking lot. This gave us a nice walk along the river before reaching the boardwalks around the Grand Prismatic Spring.
The Grand Prismatic Spring was lovely and the boardwalks were nowhere near as crowded as all the parked cars would indicate. I also began to notice that it was “Wear Lycra Leggings to Yellowstone Day” but we didn’t get the memo. So embarrassing. There is a path that leads to an overlook to see the Grand Prismatic Spring but we didn’t know where it was and after being in direct sunlight at both Old Faithful and Midway Geyser Basin, it was getting too hot to consider hiking up a hill.
So we returned to the van for a nice, long air-conditioned ride through the scenery to the park entrance in the northwest corner. This included passing through a windy, mountain pass and into lower elevations than we had been to since arriving in the park (although still higher than most of the peaks in New Hampshire’s White Mountains!). We visited Roosevelt Arch, the formal gateway to Yellowstone dedicated in 1903 by President Theodore Roosevelt himself. We did some shopping at a Yellowstone gift shop – where Kay got a bison hoodie – and then ate lunch at a pizza place.
We reentered the park and made our next and final stop at Mammoth Hot Springs. These springs deposit minerals creating terraces of stone with remarkable patterns. Susan said it was like the inside of cave on the outside. We walked up and around the boardwalks increasingly noticing that we were feeling quite warm. The kids had enough so I took them to the van while Susan did some more climbing to an overlook. While in the van we checked the local weather and learned that it was 90°! I guess this is what people call a “dry heat.”
Follow this link to see a full album of our photos from the fifth day of our travels.
To lift our spirits after feeling tired and cranky the day before, we started off our fifth day by treating ourselves to a hot breakfast from the eatery at the Canyon Lodge. We ate at the picnic tables outside under the watchful eyes of the local ravens. Fueled by scrambled eggs and French toast, we spent the rest of the morning and early afternoon taking in the views of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
We started on the south rim stopping at Artists Point and Uncle Tom’s overlooks. Then we saw everything again from the north rim at Lookout Point and Inspiration Point. The Yellowstone River dropping over the Upper and Lower Falls never failed to please and we enjoyed the many colors of the canyon, including the stones of yellow. We also enjoyed watching the osprey soar over the canyon. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is very photogenic. Not that it stopped Kay from stealing our phones to take selfies and silly photos of her family.
After resting in the afternoon, we went to the Canyon Corral. Susan and the kids went horseback riding on an hour-long guided tour and saw elk from the saddle. Kay bonded with the wrangler Jonathan by talking about Star Wars. Meanwhile, I went for a drive through the Hayden Valley where I saw a small hide of bison (with very cute calves), a coyote, and many spectacular vistas.
Follow this link to see a full album of our photos from the fourth day of our travels.
We had trouble setting up the fold-out bed in our campervan the night before, so everyone was tired and cranky on our first full day in Yellowstone. Nevertheless, we headed out to attempt to visit the geysers and geothermal features along the Grand Loop Road, leading up to Old Faithful. We stopped first at Fountain Flat Drive where I got out to attempt some artsy photos of a hot pool draining into the Firehole River.
Turning around and returning to the van I spotted a bison walking right across the flat on the opposite side of the street. We saw him poop and then approach a small pine tree which he used as a backscratcher. We named him Itchy. Heading back to the main road we saw another bison sleeping by the side of the road. We named him Sleepy. Driving off, Susan was shocked to see in her rear view mirror that people were getting out of their cars to walk right up to Sleepy!
The next stop was the Lower Geyser Basin where Peter and I got out and saw the many geothermal features including the Fountain Paint Pots and the always-erupting Clepsydra Geyser. Then we drove down Firehole Lake Drive and saw many more pools and geysers. The White Cone Geyser is supposed to erupt every 20 to 40 minutes, so Susan got out to wait while the rest of us kept cool in the van. We waited and waited, but it never erupted.
We stopped next at Whisky Flats Picnic Area for a late lunch. By this time it was clear that everyone was too tired to go on. So we made the plan to go back to our campground for a nap and/or quiet time. By the time we were rested it was too late to head out again.
Follow this link to see a full album of our photos from the third day of our travels.
On our last day in Grand Teton National Park, blue skies returned, except for low clouds that hung out just below the peaks of each mountain in the range. We checked out of Colter Bay Village saying goodbye to the tent-cabin and its cozy woodstove. We drove to Jenny Lake where the parking lot was full of vehicles. We took the shuttle boat named for “Beaver Dick” Leigh across the lake, and then hiked up to Hidden Falls. Although a short, easy hike it does count as our first hike in Rocky Mountains.
Shuttling back across the lake, we returned to our campervan and drove north toward Yellowstone. The view of the Teton mountains looked spectacular even in the rear view mirror. We stopped for a picnic lunch by Jackson Lake for one last view of the Teton Range while eating peanut butter & jelly sandwiches. As we continued north we passed through hauntingly beautiful burnt regions of the forest.
After checking into Yellowstone, and passing over the Continental Divide, we stopped at West Thumb Geyser Basin. Our first set of geothermal features was located right on the edge of Yellowstone Lake, providing a stunning background to the geyser activity. We continued along the Grand Loop Road (the long way around because of a road closure) to Canyon Campground where we’d be staying the next four nights. At dusk, we once again went out wildlife spotting and saw a grazing elk and sleeping buffalo.
Follow this link to see a full album of our photos from the second day of our travels.
On a cool, overcast day with sporadic rainfall, we did a driving tour of Grand Teton National Park. Despite the clouds, the views of the Teton Range from various pullouts on the Teton Road and Jenny Lake Scenic Drive were awe-inspiring and made Susan say “WOW!” We stopped for a walk around Menors Ferry Historical District where we saw the Chapel of the Transfiguration and various historic buildings from when Bill Menor ran a ferry across the Snake River from the 1890s to 1920s, allowing tourists to pick huckleberries.
Peter was cold so we returned to Jackson where we picked up a fleece pullover on sale at one of the outdoor stores. We also had a pub lunch at an outdoor table. We returned into the national park via the narrow and partially unpaved Moose-Wilson Road which Peter learned is a place with a good reputation for wildlife spotting. Peter and Susan may have got a glimpse of a bear and Liam briefly saw a mule deer, but despite all the promises we didn’t see any moose.
As the rain got heavier we went to historic Mormon Row. The kids didn’t want to leave the car so Liam went out alone to take photos of the famous T.A. Moulton barn. As the sun set, we drove along the Oxbow Bend of the Snake River where the NPS rangers had set up warning signs for bears. We saw no bears, but did see various birds and pretty reflections in the water. Nearby we saw a grazing mule deer and a glimpse of a herd of elk. We finished the evening at the Jackson Lake Dam where our van was surrounded by an unkindness of ravens, drastically increasing our corvid risk.
Follow this link to see a full album of our photos from the first day of our travels.
We finished off our very strange summer with a week-long vacation to two great National Parks: Grand Teton and Yellowstone. We began by flying in to Salt Lake City where we spent the night at a hotel near the airport. We woke up in the morning to a beautiful sunrise over the Wasatch Range of the Rocky Mountains. We called a Lyft to get a ride to to pick up our camper van, and our driver Chris gave us a tour of the highlights of Salt Lake City.
Chris dropped us off at Basecamper Vans where the staff member Jen met us to show us how to use our van with a fold down bed in the back and a pop-up tent up top. With this knowledge we headed off to the grocery store to stock up on food for the week. Peter described the grocery store experience with one-way aisles and the need to avoid other shoppers as like being in a Super Mario Bros. game. Stocked up on food, but our tummies rumbling we picked up lunch at Del Taco.
There was a long drive ahead of us, 311 miles, but it turned out to be fun. This was probably because of the novelty of traveling through three new states – Utah, Idaho, and Wyoming – and seeing the constantly-changing landscapes. The suburbs of Salt Lake City gradually turned into cattle ranches. After crossing the Idaho state line we left the flat basin behind and headed into rolling hills. We stopped for gas and refreshments at Lava Hot Springs, a local hotspot for camping and boating with its own water park. We passed by historic markers for the Oregon Trail and then phosphorus and gypsum mines before diving into the Caribou-Targhee National Forest.
At last we arrived in Wyoming and enjoyed the awe-inspiring views of the Snake River in the Bridger-Teton Forest. We stopped in the well-heeled vacation town of Jackson for supper, getting take out from Hand Fire Pizza. While waiting for our order to be ready we took a photo under the elk antler arches in the Town Square park and checked out the oddly out-of-place lifesize sculptures of figures ranging from Ben Franklin to Jeanne d’Arc to a bison. Kay was also able to find a keychain with her name on at it at one of the souvenir shops.
With our bellies full, we continued on to our destination – Grand Teton National Park – stopping to take many photos in front of the sign. As we continue deeper into the park we come upon a field where a whole herd of bison are grazing! Finally we arrive at our home for the next two nights, the Colter Bay Campground tent village, where we will stay in a tent cabin with a wood stove.