Somehow Bill Bryson's early book The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America, published over thirty years ago, showed up on my Kindle, apparently unread. I'd read some of his other travel memoirs, like A Walk in the Woods, but I couldn't remember uploading this one and started reading it. Bryson, then long resident in Great Britain, recounts touring parts of the United States that he'd visited in his youth, traveling south from Iowa through states east of the Mississippi and then north through states on the Atlantic coast. His recollections of family trips with parents and siblings sparked vague memories in me, and eventually mention of specific sites made me recall my own travels in them as a teenager. Those memories ended up being more vivid than what I was reading,
I grew up near Niagara Falls. In the summer of 1955, my traveling salesman father and I drove through central New York and Pennsylvania bound for Washington, DC, the southern limit of his route for Lockport Mills. I wrote about those travels in a section of my family memoir, Happenstance, where episodes about my parents' divorce and its aftermath alternate with episodes about being a 13-year-old alone on the road with my father for a week. Our journey together was perhaps generated by someone thinking I needed either to get closer to him or get more distant from my home life. My memoir was published ten years ago; reading Bryson's account of his travels sent me back into my book and the memories recorded there.
My father wanted me to see monuments and historic sites in Washington and Philadelphia. I kept a travel journal of sorts, and later pasted many photographs, some postcards, and scribbles of identification in a cheap binder. We toured the White House and some of the Capitol. When we climbed the Washington Monument, I raced ahead up the staircase, occasionally waiting for Dad to catch up. We circled the tower, squeezed among tourists lining the railings, and in the distance saw the White House across the Ellipse, the Capitol past the Smithsonian, and the Lincoln Memorial off near the Potomac River. I thought the view inspiring. In the Smithsonian, gawking at Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis, the Wright Brothers' first plane, and objects from various presidents, I began to appreciate the preservation of historical objects. At both the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial, we stared at presidential statues and read some of the inscriptions on the walls.
We crossed the Potomac to visit Arlington National Cemetery and watched the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. At the Memorial Amphitheatre Dad took the only photo of me on the trip, sitting in a stone chair in a very Lincolnesque pose. Remembering John Wayne's film, Sands of Iwo Jima, I snapped a picture of the U. S. Marine Memorial statue of soldiers raising the American flag on Mt. Suribachi. My father wandered around the statue—he and his brother had both fought there during World War II. He didn't mention whether the memorial affected him, although he'd visited it before. Books and movies influenced my sense of history a lot back then. When we toured Gettsyburg on our way back north—I'd read The Red Badge of Courage and seen the movie with Audie Murphy—I thought again about Iwo Jima.
In Philadelphia, after visiting Independence Hall, site of the Declaration of Independence and the original Constitution, Dad took me to the restored home of American flag seamstress Betsy Ross, to whom he believed we were distantly related—his mother, born Delia Lathrop Ross, was always called Betsy. Then we wound our way into an affluent suburban neighborhood, where his cousin—son of an older brother of my grandfather—and his family lived, all of them lively and gracious. We spent the night, extending my awareness of my father's side of the family, which I rarely encountered, and I couldn't help comparing their lifestyle to my family's circumstances.
In the morning Dad drove through rows of brownstone row houses, pointing out the architecture, but soon moved into downtown Philly, through narrow, cramped, littered city streets in heavy traffic, unnervingly crowded with jaywalkers and a ghetto population. On one busy street corner, an old black man staggered to the curb and pissed into the gutter, people constantly bustling around him. I thought later that driving down that street might have been my father's way of broadening my awareness of the world, making me compare his cousin's prosperous community with the abundant urban squalor here. I doubt that he pointed out the differences, but the contrast stayed with me. Cultural history, family history, personal history. The past I enjoyed touring. The present I needed to recognize as where I really lived.
Notes: Bryson, Bill. The Lost Continent: Travels in Small-Town America. New York: Harper & Row, 1989.
Root, Robert. Happenstance. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2013.