As a boy growing up among the farmlands of Iowa, travel always tugged at Bill Bryson’s heartstrings. Lucky for us, when the Midwesterner left his roots to see the world, he took us with him. From A Walk in the Woods along the Appalachian Trail to the wild and wonderful Australian outback In a Sunburned Country, and even through A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bryson has given audiences a passenger-seat view into the funny and factual accounts of his journeys around the globe and his pseudo-trips back in time. Now, the acclaimed travel author aims to make us fall in love with One Summer: America 1927—the ‘coming-of-age season’ of our nation.
Bryson is part of the 2013-2014 Maryville University St. Louis Speakers Series, and will appear at Powell Hall Oct. 29. LN recently spoke with the author via phone from his home in England, where he resides with his wife and children.
You have traveled throughout the world. How does St. Louis measure up?
I grew up in Des Moines, so we went to St. Louis a lot. My dad was a sports writer with the Des Moines Register, and we would often go to St. Louis for Cardinals games. We went to the All-Star game at Busch Stadium in 1964—that was the most memorable visit. I was about 12 at the time, and it was the peak of my infatuation with baseball. The Cardinals have had some of the best baseball teams in modern times. I grew up a big Cardinals fan.
What is it about travel that hooked you?
I grew up in the Midwest in the ’50s and ’60s, and I always had a powerful urge to see the world. Iowa wasn’t the most exciting place, and I was eager to see bigger cities and bright lights… where exciting things happened. So (at age 22), I hitchhiked through Europe one summer, and I essentially never came home—I found a job and met a girl I married. When you’re a foreigner living in another country, it gives you a new perspective. Because of doing that, I wanted to see more.
What was special about your time in Australia, detailed in your book, In a Sunburned Country?
I went there in the winter time, and I was expecting Australia just to be like Southern California—all beaches and sunshine. But it was not at all like Southern California in Melbourne. It rained and was miserable. I hadn’t expected any of it, so Australia was so much more interesting than I had imagined. There is so much more diversity there. It was really almost like falling in love. I was completely knocked out. It’s like nowhere on Earth. I’m happy in America and I’m happy in Britain, and it’s such a nice fusion of those two things. It has the friendliness and extroversion of America and the British sense of humor, and, of course, they drive on the left and their court and education systems are much more British.
What was the highlight of your Appalachian Trail journey, chronicled in your book, A Walk in the Woods?
Whenever we stopped. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I hated almost every minute of it. Looking back on it, I’m really glad I did it. I’ve been to mountaintops with views that can only be seen from them. But mostly I was miserable, tired, hot and sore all over, and carrying a 50-pound pack is just terrible. Every time I came off the trail—because you have to leave to buy fresh supplies every few days—and I was staying in a hotel and having a meal in a restaurant, I’ve never been happier in my life. You can’t imagine how good a shower feels when you’ve gone without one for days and been sleeping in the same clothes.
What would you say to travelers who are setting off on a big trip?
Keep an open mind. Don’t expect everything to be just like it is at home; if you want everything to be just like it is at home, you should stay at home. I think it is really interesting to go out and see the things that are better than at home and worse than at home. There are alternative ways people are doing the kinds of things we do every day of our lives.
Talk about the differences between living in England and America.
I like both countries very much, and I find it very easy to move back and forth. Since we speak the same language, it makes communication very easy. Whether you are Irish, American or English, it is easy to become intimate very quickly. It’s funny how we get confused about other people’s accents and everything. We think alike much more than other cultural groups.
Tell us about your new book, One Summer: America 1927.
It comes back to baseball, and also to the Spirit of St. Louis. I always was fascinated that these two things happened in the same summer: Babe Ruth set the home run standard (60) and Charles Lindbergh completed the first non-stop flight from New York to Paris with the Spirit of St. Louis. Then I started looking into it more, and I found that there were lots and lots of other things that also happened that summer. You could argue it was the most significant summer in the modern times of American history. There also was the Great Mississippi flood, and that same severe weather caused violent tornadoes; the first talking picture, which completely transformed popular entertainment; the television was introduced for the first time—it was one eventful thing after another the whole summer.
Why is it important to write about these historic events?
These things are pretty well forgotten these days. We were the richest, most powerful nation for quite some time. We grew rich from the first World War, and Europe was devastated from it. It’s hard to imagine now, but the U.S. didn’t have a lot of self-confidence in the ’20s. America routinely looked to Europe for culture. And Europe did everything intellectually important at the time. Then there was this outburst of self-confidence in America. Once we had it, we never looked back. And it was like we never doubted it for a minute.